Could the Cowboys transition to a 4-3 defense?
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
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.