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.
Is Kavon Frazier Fighting a Losing Battle With the Dallas Cowboys?
Dallas Cowboys Safety Kavon Frazier has one year remaining on his rookie contract, but may not see the end of it with the same team who drafted him. In fact, it really looks as if he is already fighting a losing battle in Dallas.
The Dallas Cowboys signed Free Agent George Iloka and drafted Donavan Wilson out of Texas A&M in the sixth-round of the 2019 NFL Draft in the hopes of upgrading the safety position. That doesn't bode well for Kavon Frazier, especially after seeing his defensive snaps take hit in 2018.
After the arrival of Defensive Backs Coach and Passing Game Coordinator Kris Richard, Frazier saw his playing time on defense go from 21.24% in 2017 to 18.07% in 2018. It's not a huge difference, but it's pretty obvious the Cowboys value his special-teams ability, not his defensive play.
The way I see things, Kavon Frazier is a longshot to make the Cowboys final 53-man roster this year. At best, I have him fifth or sixth on the depth chart right now. Since Dallas typically only carries four safeties on the roster, it's looking as if Frazier could inevitably be the odd man out.
I personally have Xavier Woods, Jeff Heath, and George Iloka ahead of Kavon Frazier right now on the depth chart. That means he's competing with Darian Thompson, who is also playing on a one-year deal, and rookie Donovan Wilson for that fourth and final roster spot at the safety position. Unfortunately for Frazier, it looks as if the odds are against him.
Donovan Wilson has already had to step into Frazier's shoes while he was out in OTA's after having his knee scoped, and has been pretty impressive doing so. He has supposedly picked up the defensive scheme pretty quickly and is becoming a vocal leader on the backend. Being a younger, cheaper option, Wilson has a better chance of sticking around on the final 53-man roster over Frazier.
As you can see, Kavon Frazier is fighting an uphill battle with the Dallas Cowboys. It of course is nothing new for him. He's had to fight his way onto the roster ever since he joined the Cowboys, but this year just seems a little different in my opinion. It just looks as if the odds are more against him this time around.
I have no doubts Frazier will continue to fight with every ounce of his being, but if I'm being completely honest I think he's fighting a losing battle. It's going to be really interesting to see how this roster battle at the safety position plays out in training camp and preseason.
Do you think Kavon Frazier is fighting a losing battle with the Dallas Cowboys?
Dallas Cowboys: The Case For Regression In 2019
It's been a few years since things around the Dallas Cowboys felt this good prior to a season. Coming off a 10-6 year in which Dallas won both the NFC East and a home playoff game before losing a one possession road game to the future NFC champions, Cowboys Nation is expecting some big things in 2019.
After all, the Cowboys went out and improved their roster in multiple ways this offseason and brought in some new blood on their offensive coaching staff. Spirits are high among Cowboys Nation, and just about everyone is anticipating a two team race for the NFC East.
But some numbers indicate we should be thinking "not so fast."
The details of the 2018 season are not as pretty as the total picture. Rarely are they ever, of course, but these particular details point towards possible regression for the Cowboys in 2019.
Basically, their point differential a year ago spells out impending doom. (That was dramatic, but let's discuss).
The Cowboys were +15 in 2018, and by pythagorean wins expectation, they were about as strong as an 8-8 team (8.53 wins to be exact). This means they won nearly 2 more games (1.47) than would be expected, fourth most in the entire NFL.
This point is furthered when looking at their record in one possession games. Dallas went 8-2 when the game was decided by 7 points or less, winning close games at a rate that is simply not sustainable year to year.
These numbers make the Cowboys a prime candidate for regression in 2019, as they were in 2017.
Back in 2016, the Cowboys outperformed their pythagorean expectation by a whole 2 wins. The following season? Dallas finished the year 9-7. The model also indicated that the 7-9 Eagles performed 2 wins under expectations in 2016, meaning they would get back on track in 2017. As we know, they ended up winning 13 games and the Super Bowl the following season.
Of course, this isn't set-in-stone, and the Cowboys very well could outperform these expectations and avoid regression. This would mainly hinge on their coaching staff and quarterback performing at an elite level, carrying them through close games and winning more games by greater than one possession.
Newly Acquired DE Robert Quinn Brings High Expectations
Winning games in the NFL typically comes down to accomplishing two goals. One, being successful when passing on offense. And, two, stopping the opposing team's passing game.
The Cowboys set out to accomplish that second goal this offseason, re-signing defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence, and trading for veteran pass rusher Robert Quinn. Quinn, who tallied 6.5 sacks last season for the Miami Dolphins, is one of the leagues more feared rushers when at his best. The former All Pro has multiple 10+ sack seasons under his belt, including a whopping 19 in 2013.
And, as expected, the Cowboys coaching staff is ecstatic to have such a respected pass rushing specialist on their roster.
“He’s got that first step. He’s an established pass rusher in this league, so he’s going to bring some good stuff for us.” - Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli.
The Cowboys acquired Robert Quinn for a 2020 6th round pick, which could end up being the steal of the offseason. Quinn has played with some top-notch pass rushers in the past, and each time they have brought out the best in his own game.
Back with the Rams in 2017, when Aaron Donald was on the same defensive line, Quinn got to the quarterback 8.5 times. And, last season, he remained consistent in his sack totals playing alongside Cameron Wake. Now he joins a DeMarcus Lawrence who has 25 sacks over the last 2 seasons.
"I think it was kind of one of those where I get to have fun, pin my ears back and just disrupt the backfield, which is what they want us to do." - Robert Quinn told NFL.com.
Quinn and the always dominant Lawrence will form an impressive defensive end duo on passing downs, with the potential to be one of the best in all of football. Dallas is also hoping to add Randy Gregory into this mix, a piece which could prove vital late in football games if he is able to return from his current indefinite suspension.
Whether or not Gregory finds his way back onto the field, though, this defensive front will be in good hands. The edge combo of Quinn and Lawrence, combined with a plethora of skilled interior rushers such as Maliek Collins, gives the Cowboys a fearsome defensive line which should keep quarterbacks uncomfortable every Sunday.
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