Much of the criticism that has revolved around the Dallas Cowboys over the last several years point to their predictability on both the offensive and defensive side of the ball. The philosophy was to keep things simple to allow the players to play fast without thinking.
Unfortunately, though, that simplicity led to predictability in their offensive and defensive concepts. Kellen Moore was elevated to offensive coordinator the last offseason to help the offense, and this offseason the Cowboys defensive scheme will get an overhaul under new Defensive Coordinator Mike Nolan.
Like the offense, the defense grew stale and needed to change.
Cowboys S Xavier Woods said the biggest difference from 2019 scheme is “a lot more defenses to be honest.” More variance in coverages. More pre-snap disguising. It was pretty clear last year what coverage Cowboys were in before each snap.
In the modern NFL, as much of the game is played between the ears as it is between the lines. The Dallas Cowboys rarely worked to disguise their coverages or rush packages. The Cowboys predictability became a big talking point after the Cowboys loss to the Los Angeles Rams during the 2018 playoffs. The Rams offense mentioned the Cowboys defensive line tipped their stunts based on how they lined up.
Under Jason Garrett, and by extension, the coordinators that worked under Garrett, the Dallas Cowboys relied on the “beat your man” philosophy. At times and in different areas of the game, it worked. But often, the Cowboys just weren't good enough to overcome the schematic advantages their opponents employed in-game.
Take that 2018 playoff loss to the Rams. The Cowboys were undoubtedly a good enough defense in 2018, even if they weren't a great defense. That week, Todd Gurley and C.J. Anderson, with help from Sean McVay's game planning, ran roughshod over the Dallas Cowboys defense. Their plan focused on getting the offensive line to the second level quickly to negate the athletic abilities of Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch.
Last season, opposing offensive coordinators double and triple-teamed DeMarcus Lawrence and Robert Quinn and forced the Cowboys to win up the middle. Because Rod Marinelli and Kris Richard focused on winning with four rushers, it was all too easy at times to block up the Cowboys rush package. Players can only cover for so long before they eventually get beat.
The “beat your man” philosophy works great if your talent is superior to your opponent, as we saw in 2019. But when the opposition is on equal footing, that's when scheme, game-planning, and adjustments can put you over the top. They don't want the offense to be able to get a read on what they're doing week to week.
S Xavier Woods says Cowboys have "a lot more defenses, to be honest," under Mike Nolan. More than just Cover 3, man to man. More pre-snap disguises.
The Cowboys have worked all offseason to bring in players that can help them become a team that can show opposing offenses multiple looks. From the addition of a true nose tackle in Dontari Poe to adding a 3-4 linebacker in Aldon Smith, the Cowboys have a front seven that can line up in a multitude of formations, which will keep teams guessing at what they're doing. Throw in a player like Jaylon Smith, who is an outstanding blitzing linebacker, and the Cowboys will have a variety of players they can send to the quarterback.
Much like an offense uses pre-snap motion to keep defenses off-balance, a defense will attempt to disguise what they're doing pre-snap as well.
If everything Xavier Woods says comes to pass, the Dallas Cowboys won't be completely reliant on their talent to win games, and they'll look to use their scheme to keep offenses off-balance as well. Their versatility and unpredictability will be an asset for a team that is still trying to figure out the makeup of their secondary and from where they'll get pressure on the quarterback.