These are my thoughts on the cutting of Gerald Sensabaugh and placing the franchise tag on Anthony Spencer.
With the Dallas Cowboys making the decision to switch to the 4-3 defense, the biggest question on the educated Cowboys’ fan’s mind is who plays the under tackle position?
The Cowboys and Monte Kiffin have been reported to have told both Jason Hatcher and Jay Ratliff that they will have to opportunity to win the job.
With the hiring of Monte Kiffin, the Cowboys will transition from a Rob Ryan-led 3-4, to a Tampa 2 (4-3) defense. They have a full roster, but do they have players to fill the positions in a different defense? In 2012 we saw depth concerns at linebacker made prevalent by injury. In 2013, I expect to see the same depth issues at defensive line, even without injury.
Before taking a look at the defensive line, let’s start with the other positions first and move from there.
At cornerback you could say that Carr and Claiborne are “press corners,” which is not the style of play for the Tampa 2 (4-3 defense). While it is true that they are tremendous press corners, that should not take away from their ability to just flat out play the position. Scandrick will return at the nickel and they will have an audition for the 4th cornerback. Jenkins will likely go somewhere else, while other corners picked up off the street that showed some promise (Sterling Moore and Michael Coe) could stay with the team. I also expect the Cowboys to bring in some rookies via late draft picks or free agency to compete. This may be the most stable position in making the transition to the 4-3.
Safety could be easy, even if it will need work. The Tampa 2 requires a true ballhawking free safety and a strong safety that can hold his own in coverage but can also play the run well. In Rob Ryan’s defense, the two positions were interchangeable and you essentially had two strong safeties. A healthy Barry Church gets the lock at strong safety, and Gerald Sensabaugh will have the leg up at free safety, but he is not a good fit in this scheme. Sensabaugh has always fit the mold of a strong safety and lacks the coverage skills of an ideal Tampa 2 free safety. Matt Johnson was drafted in the 4th round last year and seems to be more in line with the need, a ballhawking safety with good size and better speed than Sensabaugh, and he is also highly thought of as a QB of the defense (which the Cowboys need). There is a lot to be seen from him though, as he was injured his entire rookie season. Danny McCray will hopefully be gone with Eric “Don’t-call-me-Peter” Frampton filling that spot and likely filling it better. Frampton played as well as McCray on special teams and better on defense. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a safety drafted also – I just hope it is one with good coverage skills and someone who can lead the defense like Darren Woodson – but I wouldn’t expect any immediate impact.
Moving down to the second level, linebacker may now become a position of strength. A lot depends on if they can resign Anthony Spencer. There are three linebacker positions: the middle “Mike” LB, the weak side “Will” LB, and the strong side “Sam” LB. Two of those positions are already taken with no question. Sean Lee will return as the Mike LB and Bruce Carter will slide to the Will because of his “range-y” speed and ability to get off blocks from the backside. If Spencer is re-signed, I expect him to play the Sam LB as he is so good at the point of attack, taking on blocks and stopping the run. He would be an even better run stopper with blockers not having a direct path to him.
Without Spencer, I expect that Dan Connor will likely play the Sam. He is a very good LB when it comes to playing the run, but Connor lacks the high-end speed to play the Will LB. Due to injuries at the LB position this year, we were able to see a lot of younger players get some quality snaps. Alex Albright showed a lot of promise, making smart plays and showed better than expected speed. He will most likely back up Lee at the Mike although his size is bigger than the typical 4-3 LB. At 6’5” 260 he is taller and heavier than the prototype, however, he has shown that he can be productive regardless. Victor Butler would be a good backup at either the Will or Sam LB but I think he is more likely to backup Carter at the Will LB due to his speed. Kyle Wilber and Caleb McSurdy factor into some backup roles and either would be nice fits at the Sam LB. I don’t expect the Cowboys to draft a LB switching to the 4-3.
Now, the problem child – defensive line. We already saw depth issues up front last year, but now the ‘Boys will have one more line position to fill. The easiest fix to this is that DeMarcus Ware will be lining up at weak side defensive end. He will play the majority of the plays, only coming out for breathers occasionally. He is a bit light for a 4-3 DE, but I believe he is strong enough for that not to matter. I don’t see any of the other linebackers moving down because none of them have the size and pass rushing combination that Ware has. Butler is three inches shorter and ten pounds lighter. It could be argued that Dwight Freeney isn’t that big, but even he is 15 pounds heavier than Ware (25 more than Butler).
At defensive tackle, there are two types of players that fit, one is a large athletic man (which Jay Ratliff/Sean Lissemore fit nicely; both stand about 6’4” 300 pounds), and the other is an even bigger man that plugs holes. For this role Marcus Spears and Rob Calloway are the only current players that fit this spot. Spears is a solid player for this position with Calloway a yet-to-be-seen promising backup.
The typical 4-3 DE is between 6’3”- 6’7” and 265-285 pounds. Ware is 6’4” 255 but could add 5-10 pounds easily. I am aware that people play “out-of-position” based on size all the time (Freeney is too short for 4-3 DE, Ratliff undersized for 3-4 DT, etc.) but I contend that it is an easier transition if you have guys that fit the bill.
At the defensive end opposite of Ware, there is only one player that I see that could play that spot adequately: Tyrone Crawford. He fits the size at 6’4” 285, and showed that he can play late in the season. However, who backs up Ware? Who backs up Crawford? Or even starts at the other defensive end? The name glaringly left off this list is Jason Hatcher. Hatcher is a good height at 6’6”, but at 305 pounds, he is heavy. He played extremely well at defensive end in the 3-4 and may be the best returning lineman on next year’s team. He could play both tackle and end in the 4-3, however, he is not fast enough to consistently play the end in a 4-3 and not powerful enough for a tackle. I would love to be wrong about how he fits in the scheme, but I think he is a hybrid that could play both positions well but neither one exceptionally. He would be a great depth guy to backup two positions, but I don’t see that happening. In all likelihood, Hatcher probably gets the nod at tackle and the Cowboys try to make it work. The lineup will probably look like this:
*Spencer starts if he gets signed; if not, it’s Connor
**If Crawford shows he can play defensive end, then he starts and Hatcher plays tackle; if not, Hatcher gets DE and Spears up at DT
Backups look like this:
In my projections, the biggest hole is who plays defensive end opposite Ware, and who backs up either position. In today’s NFL, a defensive line rotation is not uncommon and is probably preferential to keep players fresh. Speaking of fresh, I have penciled in Ratliff as the starter, but at 33 years old he may be expendable, and that would be one less depth guy available. I expect DE/DT to be a top priority in this year’s draft and perhaps the Cowboys get a player that fills the need at DE and can step in as starter right away. If that happens, it will go a long way to providing depth; as it is, I see a lot of guys playing in positions that they may not be suited for along the line.
Much has been said about the Dallas Cowboys’ impending move to the 4-3 defensive front, although one could argue not much of it has been meaningful. The above picture heads this post because to hear local sports writers tell it, DeMarcus Ware’s body does not bend in such a way as to allow his hand to touch the ground in a pre-snap stance. Let’s put that much to bed now – Ware will play weak side defensive end, as or more effectively than he did weak side outside linebacker in the 3-4. He will again be thought of as one of the very best players in football next season. Most reasonable people would have come to that conclusion already, but could have concerns about the rest of the Cowboys’ personnel in the new scheme. We break down where that personnel fits below.
In molding the Cowboys’ 3-4 to a 4-3, the first thing we did is look at the most successful Tampa 2 in football, that of the Chicago Bears, in order to draw cues on how many players to keep at each position. Then, we went to the tape, as it is no secret that Rob Ryan was already lining up in four man fronts 35 to 40 percent of plays. We used the second Philadelphia game and the Saints game to help us draw our conclusions, and while Josh Brent did feature and play well in the game against the Eagles, he will not be apart of our projected roster for obvious reasons.
Defensive tackle seems to be a hard position to fill in making the transition, since the position doesn’t exist in the 3-4. Luckily, we have good tape of the current crop of interior linemen playing the head-up 2 position they will most likely play in the 4-3.The 2 technique refers to where the defensive player lines up. Directly over the center is 0, in between the center and guard is 1, directly over the guard is a 2 technique, on the guards outside shoulder is a 3.
Jason Hatcher is the standout in this group. He gets off blocks, gets good pressure, and although he plays well in the 3-4 dictated 5 technique, he seems to thrive both against the run and the pass in the 2 technique. I expect him to take a leap forward in the new defense.
Jay Ratliff seems well-suited to the 2 technique, as it would move him off the nose where he is undersized. However, his production and his paycheck will differ a great deal to start next season, and despite what Jerry and Stephen Jones have said in the past few weeks, I don’t expect him back.
Marcus Spears is another Cowboy that people think is on the chopping block. He fits well into the 4-3 though, taking on and shedding blocks from a head up 2 technique. While he doesn’t make many big plays, he would be invaluable as a run stopper with this group. Also, his 29 seems much more appealing than Ratliff’s 33.
Sean Lissemore was a revelation this season. Simply put, he was twice the player we have seen in previous seasons. He was able to take on and shed blocks, he rushed the passer a bit and his speed will fit nicely in this scheme. It has been mentioned that he was more suited to the end position in the new defense, but I could not disagree more. He was the Cowboys’ second best player in the 2 technique late in the season and should be given a lot of snaps there next season as well. One worry with Lissemore is that he could get washed down in double teams from time to time, so he should be played mainly on the weak side of the defense.
Tyrone Crawford turned into a good player late in the season. His size is a bit of a worry at the 2, but he should see rotational time there and at the strong side end.
Defensive end is a bit more plug-and-play. Dallas had two premiere pass rushers last season, and if it is at all possible under their difficult cap situation, they should have them return again.
Ware is a no brainer at weak side end.
Spencer is a more difficult target; can you sign him? It’s hard to tell, but Dallas should move Heaven and Earth in their attempt. Even if that means cutting Ratliff, Free, and more painfully Miles Austin to make it happen, Spencer’s 95 tackles, 11 sacks and 2 forced fumbles is too much to replace. Not to mention the ability to zone blitz that his talents would allow. If the Cowboys don’t resign Spencer, they’d need to spend a 1st or 2nd round pick on a strong side defensive end, and that’s almost unacceptable considering the Cowboys’ other needs.
Both Hatcher and Crawford can play the end position effectively for cover, with Crawford being the key. If Crawford is a tackle, you take an early pick in the second day of the draft, if he’s an end, you target a tackle in the second day. This will be a question Kiffin has to ask and answer before draft day.
Linebacker is one of the reasons you made this move. The speed you have at the position is paramount to making this scheme work. Sean Lee is cut from the same cloth as Derrick Brooks and Brian Urlacher. A tackling machine, his sideline-to-sideline speed and ability to cover will shine in this defense. If healthy, he may be put in the position to have a Defensive Player of the Year type season.
Bruce Carter has every quality to be a great 4-3 weak side linebacker. He has amazing speed and the ability to get around blocks. He can cover and his explosiveness should serve him well in double a gap blitzes. I see a great year for Carter next season.
Sam linebacker (the linebacker that plays on the strong side of the formation) brings up some big questions. Do you put Dan Connor there? He seemed competent at times, and the types of things you would be asking him to do in this defense seem to fit his skill set. But he certainly would not match the speed of his counterparts and would not fit perfectly with the identity you are trying to establish. Alex Albright is another candidate, and played well at times last season. The speed is there, but can you trust him to be an every-down player?
Safety is relatively easy, despite the thoughts of Larry Lacewell. Sensabaugh plays alongside Barry Church.
The wild card here is Matt Johnson. If he’s the ball hawk the Cowboys thought he’d be when they drafted him, he could be the perfect fit in the Tampa 2 and supplant Sensabaugh. But since he hasn’t played a down in the NFL due to injury, we will have to see.
Eric Frampton should be a mid-season signing that Dallas holds on to. He is more competent than Danny McCray in coverage, and made several special teams plays in the second half of the season. McCray’s time in Dallas is done.
Corner is the simplest of all the positions to translate, as you already have a pair of excellent ones. Carr and Claiborne start. Scandrick returns as your nickel corner, and Moore is another mid-season guy returning as a fourth corner.
All-in-all, Dallas has the personnel to make the switch. They could spend draft picks at tackle, strong side linebacker, defensive end, and safety. They should resign Spencer, keep Marcus Spears at tackle, and draft a SAM linebacker in the first 3 rounds.
(Photo by Tim Sharp, Caller.com)
Rob Ryan has overstayed his welcome in Dallas, and Jerry Jones’ promise of big changes has landed not only at the feet of Skip Peete. I was a fan of Rob when he was hired, and I don’t know that I’m not a fan of him today. I think he will be successful in future stops. I like his schemes. I think he gets a little too exotic at times, and I have no idea how he so often put out 9, 10, or 12 men on the field. I love his charisma, I love his attitude, and to be honest, I think I would have loved to play for him.
I don’t think he was hired by Jason Garrett – I think Rob Ryan is all Jerry. I think that the two personalities clashed more than once. Garrett asked him to tone down the tough talk in year one, and asked him to tone down the blitzing in year two. At full strength this season his defense was difficult to score on, but couldn’t get a turnover to save their lives. Late in the year, although injured, they were pitiful, needing Romo and the offense to score 30 to have a chance in most games. Getting run over the way they did against Washington proved to be inexcusable, whether or not they were missing 5 starters and a backup.
On a positive note, this move may allow the Cowboys to go back to a 4-3 defense, and really with the history of this club that’s what they should be. The move would not only be about history, but also about getting the most out of the personnel currently at Valley Ranch. Imagine a world were DeMarcus Ware and the sure-to-be-resigned Anthony Spencer never drop back in coverage. Imagine Sean Lissemore, Tyrone Crawford, Jason Hatcher, and Marcus Spears as traditional defensive tackles. All of a sudden the loss of Jay Ratliff and Josh Brent are no longer so crippling. There is less need to find a giant nose tackle early in the draft. Dan Connor could even be an option as a strong side linebacker. This team has the parts to build a Jimmy Johnson era 4-3 built on sideline-to-sideline speed.
The decisions on the replacements of Skip Peete and Rob Ryan need to be made now - and by Jason Garrett. You have to know which defense you are plugging players into before you go into the draft, even before you start your evaluations for the draft. And I am really hoping the 4-3 is the direction that they take into the future.
The real question with a 4-3 is this: can Sean Lee and Bruce Carter play as well with 600 pounds in front of them as they did with 900 pounds in front of them. I think the answer is truly yes. While neither player is big on taking on blocks, both have the quickness and instincts to get around blocks and make plays. Also, they both seem to be perfect fits for a Cover 2 style base defense that drops linebackers in deep zones to make plays in the passing game. I also really like the idea of Sean Lee being responsible for picking up backs out of the backfield as opposed to DeMarcus Ware pulling out of his rush, making the read and chasing someone half his size down the sideline.
4-3 or 3-4 is not the most important question in this debate though. The most important question is who is doing the hiring. Now is Jason Garretts’ time, and guessing by the rolling heads at Valley Ranch, that time is running short. It is imperative for the future of the Dallas Cowboys that Garrett make these calls. He needs to be given a real chance to succeed, with a running backs coach that doesn’t undermine him and a defensive coordinator that falls in line behind him. Guys that he doesn’t have to wonder if they are more interested in building their resume then helping him win. Guys that can mimic his message, and share his vision in building a football team.
His guys; not Jerrys’.