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Could the Cowboys transition to a 4-3 defense? | The DC Times

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Could the Cowboys transition to a 4-3 defense?

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Jonathan Bales

When Wade Phillips was hired, a huge factor in the decision was his knowledge of the 3-4 defense.  It had been installed by Bill Parcells and the Cowboys were stocked with personnel who fit the scheme.

When Jerry Jones decides on a new head coach at the end of this season, it will be interesting to see if he is just as adamant now about retaining the 3-4 as he was back then.  See, there are a lot of coaching candidates who might be able to really help Dallas (Leslie Frazier, for example) who specialize in a 4-3 alignment.  What’s more important: finding a coach to fit your current personnel, or allowing the best coach to acquire the proper players?

Jerry Jones still believes this squad is ready to win in the near future, so I think you’ll see him place somewhat of an emphasis on keeping the 3-4 defense.  It might simply be too risky to switch to a 4-3 scheme and expect to be immediately competitive.

But how smooth would the transition be for the Cowboys’ current players?  I take a look below. Each player’s “new” 4-3 position is listed behind them, along with how a move to the defense would suit them.


  • Jay Ratliff (DT) – Stock Up

Ratliff is already a beast in a 3-4 defense, but his agility and quickness are really best-suited for a 4-3. That would be particularly true if a new 3-4 coordinator would want Ratliff to play two gaps, meaning he’s be more of an “anchor” than a penetrator.

  • Josh Brent (DT) – Stock Even

Brent is similar to Ratliff in that he’s extremely quick for his size. At 315, though, he’s a few cheeseburgers heavier than Ratliff. Brent looks good thus far in a 3-4, but I don’t think we’d see a dramatic drop-off (or increase in production) if he was in a 4-3.

  • Sean Lissemore (DT) – Stock Up

Lissemore is a Ratliff-clone: just three pounds heavier, the same height, and a very comparable skill set (albeit Ratliff is far more polished). The Cowboys have experimented with him at both nose tackle and defensive end in their system, but I think he’d thrive more inside in a 4-3.

Position Analysis: The move to a 4-3 defense really wouldn’t negatively affect the Cowboys’ nose tackles.  Ratliff would likely continue to excel, while Josh Brent (who has played well) may become a starter.


  • Stephen Bowen (DT) – Stock Up

I personally despise the manner in which the Cowboys use their defensive ends. Bowen, for example, doesn’t possess the athleticism to fly by the offensive tackles who are blocking him. There really isn’t a dramatic difference between a 3-4 defensive end and a 4-3 defensive tackle.

  • Jason Hatcher (DT) – Stock Up

See Stephen Bowen.

  • Igor Olshansky (DT) – Stock Up

At 315 pounds, Olshansky is too big to play defensive end in any scheme. It is a problem when your defensive end outweighs your nose tackle by 12 pounds.

  • Marcus Spears (DT) – Stock Up

See Igor Olshansky.

Position Analysis: Which of these players will be back in Dallas in 2011?  None of them could remain a defensive end in a 4-3, meaning the team would have a surplus of defensive tackles.


  • DeMarcus Ware (DE) – Stock Even

Ware would be a stud in any scheme.

  • Anthony Spencer (DE) – Stock Even

Spencer has the right combination of athleticism and power to excel in a 4-3.

  • Victor Butler (DE) – Stock Up

While Ware and Spencer are built for any scheme, Butler is better suited for a pass-rushing 4-3 defensive end. Of course, he might get overpowered in the running game in either defense.

Position Analysis: This one is difficult.  Ware and Spencer might benefit from rushing the passer on every play, but then again, sometimes their 3-4 coverage responsibility make the downs they do rush the quarterback easier for them.


  • Bradie James (MLB) – Stock Down

James is built entirely for a 3-4. He simply doesn’t have the quickness, agile hips, or sideline-to-sideline ability of a middle linebacker.

  • Keith Brooking (MLB) – Stock Down

Brooking is already struggling in space in a 3-4. He’s be asked to cover even more ground in a 4-3.

  • Sean Lee (MLB) – Stock Up

I’ve personally thought Lee was better-suited for a 4-3 scheme since he came out of Penn State.   He’s been overpowered thus far in his short career, but he has plenty of time to change that.

Position Analysis: This is where the Cowboys would struggle mightily.  Sean Lee might be able to play in a 4-3, but both James and Brooking do not fit the defense whatsoever.  The Cowboys’ linebacker corps would be absolutely decimated by the transition; so much so that it couldn’t be fixed (or even really patched up) within a single season.


Although there are minor alterations in the secondary based on the scheme, the basic principle of playing cornerback/safety remain unchanged.  3-4 defenses tend to play more man coverage than 4-3 schemes, but that’s about it.

Projected 4-3 defense starting front seven

DT: Jay Ratliff, Josh Brent

DE: DeMarcus Ware, Anthony Spencer

MLB: Bradie James

OLB: Sean Lee, Unknown

Overall Analysis

There are some beneficial aspects to the Cowboys moving back to a 4-3 defense.  Their defensive line would be stacked and all four starters could likely make smooth transitions.

The problem would come at all of the linebacker spots.  None of the Cowboys’ current outside linebackers are capable of remaining at that position in a 4-3.  Jason Williams was probably better-suited for the defense, but he’s long gone.  With no potential building blocks in place in the middle of the Cowboys’ defense, I simply don’t envision them straying away from the 3-4 in the near future.

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10 Responses to Could the Cowboys transition to a 4-3 defense?

  1. craig says:

    This is a great article, but I have to think that both spencer and ware would see a dropoff moving back to end. I think ware is the best olb not DE.

    If we did put them on the line, we would see a better front four but we would see a decline in our linebacker core in my opinion

  2. Oh yeah..no doubt the LB corps would suffer..probably to the point that there wouldn’t be any starting-quality players at any of the three LB spots.

  3. I was wondering if Anthony Spencer wouldn’t be a great OLB in 4-3? In that case Butler and Ware would play DE.

    Just a Danish thought.

  4. No. Spencer is way too big and stiff-hipped to play OLB in a 4-3. 4-3 OLBs are expected to drop into coverage wayyy more than Spencer does right now, and he simply doesn’t have the skill set to do that.

  5. That makes sense. Thanks for the quick answer :)

  6. moses says:

    I hope Sean Lee gets his legs under him a little more. There are times when he is blocked where he doesn’t hold his ground and plays with poor leverage.

    Dallas needs ILB support. James and Brookings are getting a little old

  7. You’ll be happy to know Lee had a much better game today.

  8. Vince Grey says:

    Fine article. I’ve made no effort to hide my desire to go back to a 4-3 (As long as it’s an attacking 4-3, and not a bend-but-don’t-break 4-3. They usually break anyway, so what’s the point?) and I think we have the parts to make the front four a dominant unit. As for LB, while an upgrade would likely be in order sooner than later, I think Lee and someone else could do an ok/decent job at the Mike and Sam spots, but the Will spot would definitely have to be modified with a new guy ASAP.

    I believe Ratliff, in particular, would benefit from the change, especially if we had a big run-stuffer at the other DT spot. He could be a real force-disruptor inside. Ware, I’m sure, would be awesome at RDE.

  9. johncoleman says:

    I’ve pondered the possibilities myself and think we have the personnel to do it . The way I see it we will have to draft an ILB in either defense. There are also some good DE prospects in this years draft that are ideal size/weight for the 4-3 or 3-4. I would prefer for us to stay with the 3-4 as our base defense. However, to be able to line up in a 4-3 for a few plays or series during a game would be a huge monkey wrench for an opponent to deal with. Based on free agency and team needs we are going to need DE/DT guys and ILB depth at best. I would really like to see us get a big NT like Phil Taylor or Kenrick Ellis or both. Then resign one of the FA DE’s and cut Olshansky. No matter what we want as fans I just don’t see us drafting a oline prospect early. So barring a Dez falling to us I expect a defensive pick in the 1st and likely the 2nd as well. Why not draft with versatility in mind?

  10. Yeah…the problem are those Sam and Will spots…I don’t think the ‘Boys could adequately fill BOTH spots in one year.

    JC–love the idea of adding versatile players. You always want guys to fit in your scheme, but the scheme can bend around players with unusual qualities (like a Percy Harvin, Reggie Bush, Troy Polamalu, etc).

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