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.