Remember those lectures in school when towards the end, the teacher would look up to ask if anyone had any questions, to which most students sat with drool on their chin? Most of the time, almost no one cared about the subject, or paid any attention to the material, and the other small percentage of those who kept up, had no clue what the teacher was talking about.
Whether it was algebra, or poetry, I was always that confused kid. I had no idea what the Pythagorean theorem was, or how to recognize iambic pentameter. Unfortunately, in my confusion, I was always afraid to ask the teacher for help because I was afraid of asking the dreaded “stupid question.”
When it comes to football knowledge, I’ve noticed that fandom can be a similar experience.
It’s a very “that’s a stupid question” atmosphere. Generally if you aren’t a former player or coach, or live and breathe football, you can be talked down to because of your knowledge (or lack thereof) of the Xs and Os.
I like to believe I have a decent, intermediate grasp of football concepts. I’ve never played in an organized game, but between my countless hours of studying the game, conversing with those who know more than I do, and various other methods, I’ve garnered quite a repository of information.
Throughout the next few months leading up to training camp, I’m going to do a massive deep dive into the Xs and Os of football, because I want to learn and understand more of the game. When someone says, “that was such a stupid play call” or, “I’m standing 3,000 miles away and even I could’ve told you that’s the play they were going to run,” or even, "I can't believe we just drafted him," I want to understand why.
Since I’m doing this deep dive, I figured it might be fun to share the knowledge I’ve gained in a way that would allow readers to come along on this journey with me, to get a better understanding of the game in real-time. It is my hope that when this series is done, I've given readers a much better understanding of the game, its fundamentals and concepts relating to the Cowboys' offensive and defensive schemes.
What I want you to remember is that this is a learning opportunity for everyone, including me. If I say something wrong in a lesson, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me on Twitter, or leave a comment noting the mistake so that we can correct it. I’d love to hear from you!
Given all of the attention that the defensive side of the ball got this draft season, I’m going to start there. I'll begin with the absolute basics, and work my way up.
So sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride!
Lesson 1: Gaps and Techniques
Throughout my research, I'm learning that at its core, run defense is simply a way to fill any holes that the running back can run through. This could be a hole produced by the center and guard, where they push their opposing defensive linemen out of the way to produce a running lane for the tailback. It could also be a lane on one side of the offensive line completely, where the quarterback tosses the ball laterally to the running back, who then simply runs as fast as he can around the line to gain as many yards as possible.
Regardless of where the offense is trying to create a running lane, the defense's job on any given run play is to rally to the ball carrier in an organized fashion in attempts to clog all possible holes the running back can take.
Let's Introduce a Most Fundamental Football Concept: Gaps.
The following image shows the basic gaps that every system is based around:
This should come off as a fairly simple image to digest. For each letter, there exists two gaps depending on which side of the offensive line you're on. I've come to learn that these gaps are the fundamental building blocks behind defensive plays, formations, and schemes.
As mentioned before, the defense's job on a run play is to clog each of these gaps, in an attempt to disallow the running back any space to break through the line of scrimmage.
Based on the defensive scheme that you run, you (as a defensive player) will have a certain pre-snap responsibility as to which gap you are responsible for filling. For example, say you are a defensive lineman who lines up in the A gap pre-snap. Your job on this run play is now to cover that gap, and restrict the running back's ability to run through that hole.
This Brings Me to My Next Concept: Techniques.
When you look at an offensive line, 99% of the time they line up in the same way. You'll have your left tackle, left guard, center, right guard, and right tackle. Any alignment from there by the offensive skill players is variable. Because this alignment by the offensive line is consistent, defensive schemes are based around positioning defensive players around the offensive linemen to ensure adequate gap penetration for the play.
In order to do that, defensive coordinators scheme their defensive line and linebackers to pre-snap determinations as to which gap they are responsible for, as noted earlier. To do this, defensive linemen are positioned in what's called "techniques," which can be thought of as a way to start the play in a position of strength, for the defensive lineman, to ease his gap responsibility.
The image below shows these numeric techniques:
You may have heard phrases such as "1-technique" or "3-technique;" this is where those terms come from.
You also may have heard of a "nose tackle;" this is derived from the fact that this player lines up nose-to-nose with the center. So in the case of determining his technique, he would be a 0-technique.
The 4-3 defense loosely utilizes three different types of these techniques: the 1, 3, and 5 technique. Depending on the type of 4-3 formation or offensive personnel, there are certainly variations. But we'll save that for later.
Combine Gaps & Techniques for the Foundation of the 4-3 Defense.
If you count the number of gaps in the first figure above, you'll notice that there are eight total, four on each side of the center. In the 4-3 defense, you'll have four defensive linemen and three linebackers. These seven players are each responsible for filling a single gap in the course of the play. In the first image above, you would likely see a safety "cheat" down to the line of scrimmage to cover that eighth gap.
Generally, each player is given a particular gap responsibility before the play starts. For example, the 1-technique is responsible for the A gap that he is positioned in, while the 3-technique has to maintain his B gap. So how does the 3-technique's A gap get filled? This is where the linebacker's job comes in.
The middle linebacker in this case would be responsible for filling this gap. The following picture shows this in action:
Don't get hung up on the formation as I just want you to note that each player is given a gap assignment. We'll cover this formation (4-3 under) in a future post.
This type of gap scheme is called a "1-gap" concept, because each player is responsible for a single gap over the course of the play. Conversely, the 3-4 defense is known as a 2-gap scheme. There are 4-3 defensive formations where, depending on the side of the line you play, you have either a 1-gap or 2-gap assignment. But we'll stick to the basics of the 4-3, 1-gap concept for now.
Combining this gap concept with the technique alignments provides the fundamental building blocks for any defensive formation and play. From here, we can scheme up blitz packages, coverage schemes, etc... to try to force confusion and quick decision-making from the offense.
In my next post, I'll review the "base 4-3 over" formation, how it uses gaps and techniques to align players pre-snap, and how it chokes run plays to allow as few yards as possible.
I hope you've enjoyed reviewing these ideas with me as much as I've enjoyed writing them up. As I mentioned at the start of this article, I'll continue to push these out as my knowledge expands from the various lessons I learn.
Should Cowboys Reunite Shea McClellin With Rod Marinelli?
Since becoming the defensive coordinator for the Dallas Cowboys, Rod Marinelli hasn't had too many of his former players follow him to Dallas. In fact, I can only think of one… Henry Melton, and we all know how that turned out.
I don't know about you, but I found that a little strange. It's pretty common for coaches to try to bring some of their players with them when they accept a new job. Familiarity goes a long way in the NFL and former players can also help make the transition easier for everyone.
Strangely enough, Rod Marinelli hasn't really been afforded that luxury, whether it was his doing or not. But, there is a free agent who played under Marinelli's tutelage in Chicago who might make sense for the Dallas Cowboys, linebacker Shea McClellin.
Rod Marinelli was the defensive coordinator in Chicago when the Bears decided to draft Shea McClellin 19th overall in the 2012 NFL Draft. Marinelli likely had a big say in that decision, and if he still feels the same, a reunion could be in order.
Shea McClellin started his career in the NFL as a 4-3 left side defensive end playing opposite Julius Peppers, but was also viewed as a potential Brian Urlacher replacement. He showed flashes of becoming a solid defensive end his first few years in the league, but was eventually moved to linebacker, where he seemed to find a home for himself.
After his contract expired with the Bears, the New England Patriots decided to bring him aboard to help with their linebacker depth. He only ended up starting four games for them in 2016, but made some memorable plays to help the Patriots become the Super Bowl champions.
Unfortunately, the 2017 season wasn't very kind to him. His entire year was wiped out due to a concussion, which probably had a lot to do with why they recently released him.
This of course could be good news for the Dallas Cowboys. They currently need some depth at the linebacker position and Shea McClellin could provide that, if he's healthy. The healthy bit here is key, because he has had problems with concussions in the past.
If McClellin is indeed healthy, he could bring a versatile skill set to the Cowboys defense. His best spot is probably at strong side LB (SAM), but I think he could play middle linebacker (MIKE) as well. He also could provide depth at defensive end, the position he played to start his NFL career.
With the LB depth a concern, Shea McClellin makes quite a bit of sense for the Dallas Cowboys. Of course, his past history with concussions is a red flag, but it also drives down his asking price. I think he would definitely fall into that "bargain shopping" mentality the Cowboys have been using these last few offseasons.
He probably wouldn't be viewed as a very important signing, but you still need these types of players on your team in order to succeed in the NFL. Let's see if the Dallas Cowboys agree.
Do you think a Rod Marinelli and Shea McClellin reunion is in order?
Redskins Have Not Had Success With Former Cowboys
Now that he's signed with the Washington Redskins, cornerback Orlando Scandrick joins a lackluster list of former Cowboys players and coaches who have gone from Dallas to its historic rival. The history of these moves is ugly for Washington, going back over 40 years, and can't have their fans too excited anytime they sign an ex-Cowboy.
The most recent example was just last year with defensive tackle Terrell McClain. After a strong season as a 15-game starter in Dallas, McClain got a four-year, $21 million deal to join the Redskins. He missed four games with injuries and was only credited with two starts; hardly what the team wanted given the money they paid.
Before him it was Jason Hatcher, whose 11-sack season for the Cowboys in 2013 got him a four-year, $27.5 million deal from Washington. Hatcher would battle knee injuries for two season, getting only 7.5 sacks from 2014-2015. His early retirement in 2016 brought an abrupt end to a disappointing tenure.
Continuing the legacy of defensive linemen was Stephen Bowen, who Washington paid a shocking amount of money ($27.5 million over five years) to in 2011 to pick up in free agency. Bowen had a great first year for the Redskins with six sacks and 16 starts, but injuries would soon cost him 14 games from 2013-2014. He was eventually released after only one standout season in four with the team.
Going back even further, DT Brandon Noble joined Washington in 2003 after being a full-time starter for Dallas for over two seasons. He would miss all of 2003 with a knee injury, have an unimpressive year in 2004, and then missed all of 2005 with more health issues. He retired after being released by the Redskins in 2006.
Orlando Scandrick won't be the first cornerback to go from Dallas to Washington, or the best. At age 32, Deion Sanders was released in 2000 by the Cowboys and then got a huge seven-year, $56 million deal from the Redskins. This came less than a year after Daniel Snyder bought the franchise and was desperate to get them relevant again.
The Sanders move backfired horribly. Even after a solid season by his lofty standards, Primetime was disgruntled with both the coaching staff and his increasing struggles as an aging player. He suddenly retired after just one season of the seven-year contract.
Washington also tried to tap into the Cowboys' glory days when they signed receiver Alvin Harper in 1997. Harper had left Dallas in 1995 and spent two years with Tampa Bay, but had not carried over the same success he enjoyed playing in the Dallas offense.
The Redskins hoped that reuniting him with Norv Turner, who had been Harper's offensive coordinator and was now their head coach, would help Alvin get back to form. But between ongoing injuries and the absence of Troy Aikman, Michael Irvin, and Emmitt Smith as teammates, Alvin Harper was never the same guy as when he won two Super Bowls in Dallas.
The failed poaching attempts go back many more decades, another one being running back Calvin Hill. The fourth-leading rusher in Cowboys history and a four-time Pro Bowler while in Dallas, Hill joined Washington in 1976. He served as a backup only, averaging only 3.8 yards-per-carry as he played behind the likes of Mike Thomas and John Riggins.
The bad history doesn't stop with players. The aforementioned Norv Turner, who was one of the hottest assistant coaches in history after the Cowboys first two Super Bowl wins in the 90s, was hired as the Redskins' head coach in 1994.
Turner's run started with a whimper, drafting quarterback Heath Shuler third overall in that first year. Shuler would go down as one of the biggest QB busts in NFL history
Norv's Redskins never seemed to recover from that blunder. He only had two winning seasons and one playoff appearance from 1994-1999, and was fired midway through the 2000 season.
Far more recently, Cowboys offensive line coach Bill Callahan left the team in 2015 and took the same job in Washington. He didn't get to bring the offensive line or DeMarco Murray with him, though. As such, the Redskins have remained one of the league's worst rushing teams for the last three seasons. They fell to a new low of 28th in the NFL in 2017.
~ ~ ~
Of course, none of this means that Orlando Scandrick won't have success in Washington. But with the Redskins generally the most mismanaged team in the NFC East, all of the Dallas players and coaches who've gone there have not walked into good situations. For all that Cowboys fans love to complain about Jerry Jones, he handles the owner and GM roles better than any pair Washington's had in almost 30 years.
Given the nature of the rivalries, we naturally can't wish success for Scandrick or anyone else who leaves Dallas for a division opponent. With the track record we just discussed for Washington, it's not something I'll be losing any sleep over.
Xavier Woods, the Real Reason Cowboys Didn’t Pursue Tyrann Mathieu?
It's not uncommon for Dallas Cowboys fans to zero in on certain free agents in hopes that they will bring their talents to America's Team. In fact, just about any "big name" player to hit the open market is often linked to the Cowboys in some way or another. That was the case when the Arizona Cardinals decided to move on from Tyrann Mathieu.
Once Tyrann Mathieu became available, Cowboys fans immediately wanted to see him with a star on his helmet. But, despite the fans petitioning, the Cowboys brass seemed to show almost zero interest in the former Cardinal.
The decision to not pursue Tyrann Mathieu certainly didn't sit well with a lot of Cowboys Nation, but I think it was the right decision.
Despite Mathieu's perceived talents and youth (he's just 25), the Cowboys weren't interested in paying the price to bring him to Dallas, especially since they already have a similar player on their roster.
It may sound crazy, but I think the real reason the Dallas Cowboys didn't show much interest in Tyrann Mathieu is because of Xavier Woods.
I honestly believe Xavier Woods and Tyrann Mathieu have a similar skill set. Both players are little undersized to be a full-time safety in the NFL, but each of them have the versatility to play several different roles in the secondary.
Mathieu may have been listed as a safety on the Arizona Cardinals roster, and now the Houston Texans, but the truth is he played mostly out of the nickel/slot in his professional and collegiate career. That is where he is at his best, and the same can be said about Xavier Woods.
As a rookie, Xavier Woods showed his versatility with the Dallas Cowboys by playing a variety of different roles in the secondary. His versatility was one of the reasons the Cowboys decided to trade up in last year's draft to acquire his services.
His name might not carry the same kind of weight as Tyrann Mathieu right now around the league or amongst NFL fans, but I don't think Xavier Woods is that much of a drop off talent wise.
Personally, I believe Mathieu is starting to decline a little as a player. I think injuries are starting to take a toll on his play, although it may be minimal. I actually prefer Xavier Woods' upside, especially when you take into account the difference in salaries between the two.
Surprisingly enough, Xavier Woods might just have been more productive in 2017 then Mathieu. Woods started just four games and finished the season with 42 tackles, three passes defensed, and one interception. Mathieu on the other hand started all 16 games and accumulated 78 tackles, one quarterback sack, one forced fumble, and two interceptions.
As you can see, Xavier Woods was almost just as productive as Mathieu in nearly a third of the playing time. What's even more impressive about this is that Woods accomplish this as a rookie.
Of course, all of this is speculation, but I for one am not all that upset the Dallas Cowboys missed out on Tyrann Mathieu. I'm willing to bet on Xavier Woods being able to do everything Mathieu can and at a fraction of the cost.
Were the Cowboys right not to pursue Tyrann Mathieu?
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