Cowboys Preview: Difference Is the D
Image aside, Tony Romo is good enough to carry this team. A reshaped D might finally get it over the hump
The Cowboys enter 2013 under familiar circumstances. They’re coming off an underachieving season that ended in disappointment. They’re talented on both sides of the ball, but the talk is that their window is closing. It’s not really closing; but Jerry Jones thinks it is. Which is why coach Jason Garrett’s seat might be warm for a third straight year. His play-calling duties have been handed to assistant Bill Callahan.
Garrett had been conducting the offense since 2007, the same year Tony Romo became the full-time starting quarterback. Romo is coming off a season in which he threw for more than 4,900 yards but had 19 interceptions, including a costly one late in the fourth quarter of a Week 17 loss at Washington. This, plus a new contract worth $55 million in guarantees, only augmented football fans’ polarized opinions of him.
For all the sameness in Big D, there is one noteworthy change: The Cowboys are switching to a 4-3 defensive scheme after spending the last 10 years in a 3-4 (four under Bill Parcells, four under Wade Phillips and two under Rob Ryan). The hope is that a simpler zone-based scheme will allow this group’s talented young stars to play more instinctively and generate turnovers.
To orchestrate this, Jones replaced defensive coordinator Rob Ryan and his complex man-based scheme with Monte Kiffin, one of the godfathers of modern zone defense. Many view Kiffin’s hiring with incredulity. At 73 he’s now more like a zone defense grandfather who seemed to have lost his fastball during a disappointing three-year stint at USC.
What kind of scheme will he run? If he goes with the traditional Tampa 2 on which he built his legacy, he could ultimately go down as one of Jones’ worst all-time hires. If he adopts a more contemporary approach, he could help the Cowboys become legit contenders in the NFC.
In the late ’90s and early '00s, defenses that had a dynamic front four and fast linebackers could dominate in a Tampa 2. But today many of the offensive spread concepts that have become ubiquitous in the NFL inherently nullify front speed and exploit Tampa 2’s holes outside and down the seams (see graphic). There is still room for the Tampa 2 in today’s game, but mostly in obvious passing situations.
The few teams that still regularly use Tampa 2 like it in part because it does not require much from the cornerbacks. But it also does not allow cornerbacks to dictate the action. The Cowboys have built their defense around cornerbacks. Last year they invested $25.5 million guaranteed in Brandon Carr and traded a boatload to move up eight spots and draft Morris Claiborne sixth overall. Putting these two press-man artists in a vanilla zone scheme would be a spectacular waste of resources.
Kiffin, who actually ran a lot more single-high coverage than Tampa 2 at USC, presumably understands this. One of the first things he did upon taking the Cowboys job was to instruct Carr and Claiborne to study Seahawks film during the offseason.
The Seahawks employ a uniquely aggressive Cover 3 scheme in which everyone plays zone except the outside corners, who often play press-man. Seemingly every 4-3 defensive coach would love to play this way, but they don’t have corners like Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner. Kiffin might. Carr is not as physical as Sherman or Browner, but he’s well-sized and a very gifted mirror-press defender. Claiborne had some growing pains as a rookie, but assuming he hones his technique, there’s no reason to think he can’t be an upper-tier press-corner.
Inside, Orlando Scandrick, though somewhat prone to penalties, has evolved into a very good man-to-man nickel slot. (He is also an excellent blitzer, for what it’s worth.) Behind him, fourth-round rookie B.W. Webb has the speedy footwork to blossom into a serviceable man-defender.
While Kiffin may have the resources at cornerback, he lacks such resources at safety. Matt Johnson, who sat out as a fourth-round rookie last year with recurring hamstring problems, is unlikely to have the range of Seattle’s Earl Thomas. Versatile third-year pro Barry Church does not have the size and ferocity of the Seahawks’ Kam Chancellor. It’s possible the Cowboys could at some point give serious snaps to backups like veteran free agent pickup Will Allen, mistake-prone Danny McCray or, more likely, third-round rookie J.J. Wilcox. Generally, the strong safety serves as an eighth man in the box, though with linebackers like Sean Lee and Bruce Carter, extra run support may not be as necessary.
The Cowboys had Lee and Carter in mind when they decided to go with a zone scheme. They want these two burgeoning stars in position to create turnovers. In Ryan’s system, the inside linebackers often had intricate, assignment-based responsibilities. In Kiffin’s system, they’ll be able to drop back, see more of the field and rely on instinct and chase speed. Lee, the slightly headier player, will operate from the Mike linebacker spot. Carter, the slightly more athletic one, will be the Will.
To ensure fewer hiccups in the defensive front seven’s transition to more zone, the Cowboys signed free agent linebacker Justin Durant, who has spent his career playing in Cover 2 schemes with the Lions and Jaguars. They also kept former Lion and Colt Ernie Sims around. He and rising undrafted third-year pro Alex Albright give this corps solid depth.
Shortly after being hired, Kiffin coaxed old friend and longtime Tampa 2 acolyte Rod Marinelli, the NFL’s preeminent instructor of one-gap front play, to come aboard as the defensive line coach. Much has been made about Marinelli’s top weapon, DeMarcus Ware, moving from outside linebacker to defensive end. In reality, almost nothing will change for the seven-time All-Pro. Ware’s new weak defensive end position carries virtually the same responsibilities as his old weak outside linebacker job.
The guy who will be making an adjustment is Anthony Spencer. He has been an excellent playside run-defender from the strong outside linebacker spot over the years. Now, as a strongside defensive end, Spencer will often have to take on blocks much earlier in the down. If the 250-pounder does not have enough strength for that, the Cowboys could be in trouble. The top backup, 2012 third-round pick Tyrone Crawford, is out for the season (Achilles), and the remaining depth looks iffy at best.
But let’s not over-think Spencer’s new role. It’s not like he’s being asked to line up directly over the offensive tackle and mind two gaps. Kiffin and Marinelli preach immediate gap-penetration across the entire defensive line. So maybe the real question is, Can Spencer generate a good initial burst from a three-point stance?
Up front inside, the popular opinion is that Jay Ratliff will thrive now that he’s able to shoot gaps instead of play the nose. This is technically true, but understand that the four-time Pro Bowler played a lot of one-gap techniques in the previous 3-4 schemes. Plus, he’ll primarily play the one-technique now, which means shading over the center and still dealing with double-teams. The defensive tackle making the biggest adjustment is actually Jason Hatcher, who is moving into a three-technique role after frequently being an edge anchor over the years.
The funny thing about Tony Romo is that his reputation for not performing in big games began with a botched field goal hold, which has nothing to do with quarterbacking. Had he gained another yard or two after scooping up the ball on that freak play in the 2006 wild-card game, Dallas would have gotten either a first down or touchdown and probably gone on to beat Seattle. Romo would have been hailed for his "moxie" and whatever other words people use to describe "winners."
To be fair, Romo has since done a few unfortunate things to advance the narrative over the years. Headlining America’s Team, those things get magnified, skewing Romo’s reputation. Would you have guessed that this supposed choker actually has a better fourth-quarter passer rating (100.4) than every active quarterback except Aaron Rodgers (102.4)? In the last two years Romo’s passer rating in the fourth quarter when the score is within seven points has been 97.7.
Of course, stats, like public perception, can misrepresent reality. If Romo were the most clutch quarterback in football, the Cowboys would probably have more than just one playoff win during his tenure. There is still too much evidence of poor discipline in his game. He will miss an occasional pre-snap read; once in a while his dropback timing will not be in sync with his receivers’ routes; too often he gyrates in the pocket or flees before the pass rush actually arrives. These are mistakes a 33-year-old QB shouldn’t be making.
Much has been made about the news that this season Romo will participate in the coaches’ game-plan meetings early in the week. That’s not uncommon for a veteran quarterback. In those meetings, Romo would be wise to push for a thinner playbook. One problem with the Cowboys is that they tend to install a high volume of hot new plays each week at the expense of honing their staple plays.
This may be part of the reason why Dallas’ wide receivers have had so many issues with running improper routes. The leading culprit has been the electrifying but wildly inconsistent Dez Bryant. The fourth-year pro had 1,382 yards and 12 touchdowns on 92 catches last season, but what these stats don’t reflect are the numerous problems his mental gaffes caused for the rest of the offense. Opposite Bryant is Miles Austin, a strong, fluid target with some game-breaking ability. Largely as a result of injuries, over the past two years Austin has averaged just 60.8 yards per game after tallying 94.4 over the two years before that.
During this time, the Cowboys have been mostly unable to find a viable No. 3 receiver. That could soon change. Dwayne Harris showed potential late last season. Having good explosiveness and body control, Harris can create his own space after the catch. There’s also third-round rookie Terrance Williams, a 6-2, 200-pounder from Baylor who is built to play on the outside, which would allow Austin to play the slot, where he’s most effective.
Last season, according to Football Outsiders, the Cowboys spent 53.2% of their snaps in three-receiver sets, fifth highest in the league. Those figures may decrease in 2013 as Jones has directed his staff to use more dual-tight end sets. The Cowboys had great success with these formations last December, with then-sixth-round rookie James Hanna being the flexible weapon opposite Jason Witten. Hanna shows promise, but the Cowboys don’t seem willing to wait. They used the 47th pick in this year’s draft on San Diego State’s Gavin Escobar. He isn’t thought to have enormous upside, but he’s a natural pass-catcher cut in the mold of a modern hybrid tight end. He’ll get every chance to start right away.
Whoever is the No. 2 tight end will be taking a backseat to Witten. The six-time All-Pro is like an old Jeep that keeps running well. As dangerous as Bryant is, Witten, 31, remains the guy around whom many defenses still focus their coverage.
Over his career, Witten has evolved into one of the better all-around run-blockers at his position. But neither Hanna nor Escobar is much of a blocker at this point, which is why a two-tight end base offense could have adverse effects on Dallas’s run game. To make room for Hanna and Escobar, the Cowboys cut fullback Lawrence Vickers, one of the game’s best lead blockers.
Vickers’ departure could have unforeseen negative repercussions given that running back DeMarco Murray, with his upright, downhill style and decent-but-far-from-great lateral agility, is probably best suited to run behind a lead blocker. (Murray’s numbers agree; according to Outsiders, in 2011, when he was fully healthy and Dallas’ offensive line was not a mess, Murray averaged almost a full yard more per attempt on 1st-and-10 carries out of two-back sets than he did on 1st-and-10 carries out of one-back sets.) Of course, none of the run designs for Murray are relevant if he can’t stay healthy.
The Cowboys, who saw their run game fall to 31st amid Murray’s foot injuries last year, don’t have many other options in the backfield. Phillip Tanner has shown some juice, but his struggles in pass protection jeopardize his coaches’ faith. With the oft-injured Felix Jones not re-signed, the only other options in the backfield are fifth-round rookie Joseph Randle and undrafted second-year man Lance Dunbar.
Just about everything that has been said about Dallas’ offense so far becomes moot if the front five doesn’t get better. A lot of Romo’s woes have been connected to an understandable—though sometimes excessive—distrust in his protection. The main weak link has been right tackle Doug Free. Since signing a lucrative contract in 2011, Free has been flagged for a league-high 15 offensive penalties and unable to keep even the meekest of bull-rushers at bay. Many expected the Cowboys to part ways with the 29-year-old this past offseason. But unable to stomach the idea of Jermey Parnell starting at right tackle, and unable find a viable veteran on the open market, the Cowboys instead chose to take their chances and force Free into a 50% pay reduction.
Opposite Free, 2011 first-round pick Tyron Smith has been inconsistent, though that’s attributed largely to youth. Smith’s light feet give him a chance to be an upper-echelon left tackle one day. He must first get better against powerful pass rushers.
The same can be said about the interior of Dallas’ line, which was badly exposed once center Phil Costa was lost to a foot injury last season. Costa had flashed occasional dominance as a run-blocker. But as he returns, he could find himself cast with the second string, as first-round pick Travis Frederick is slated to start at center. It’s possible Costa and Frederick could both wind up starting, with one of them moving to guard and replacing the iffy Mackenzy Bernadeau on the right side. On the left side is the unremarkable Nate Livings, assuming his bum knee eventually gets right. They Cowboys have been scrambling to find fallback options at this position. They agreed to a deal with Brandon Moore earlier this offseason for that very reason, but Moore surprisingly decided to retire shortly after.
Kicker Dan Bailey has good power and accuracy. Last season he was successful on 93.5% of his field goal attempts, which tied for second best in the league. Chris Jones won the punting job last season but suffered a partially torn ACL in October. He briefly played through it before winding up on injured reserve. The Cowboys expect him to bounce back. In the return game, Dwayne Harris can be electrifying enough to make coaches feel okay about keeping more valuable assets (like Dez Bryant) out of these duties. Harris averaged just 19.1 yards on kickoffs last year but an impressive 16.1 yards on punts, which ranked second in the league.
The talent is here, and the “choker” rep of the quarterback (and, consequently, the team) is overblown. If the defense stays healthy and takes to the new scheme, the Cowboys will contend in the NFC.