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The Cowboys Defense: What Worked?

2013 promised the return of the 4-3 for the Cowboys defense, as an antidote to Rob Ryan’s broken 3-4. That plan fizzled because the team saw the spine of its unit hobbled by game ten. The defensive tackle, middle linebacker and safety units, among others, were handled by third and sometimes fourth stringers.

The Cowboys’ two best performances came against the Philadelphia Eagles, a team many doomsayers claimed would over-run Monte Kiffin’s chargers. The skeptics pointed out that Kiffin’s USC defenses had been embarrassed by new Eagles coach Chip Kelly’s Oregon offenses. Their final college matchup saw the Ducks rip Kiffin’s Trojans for 61 points. Similar results were anticipated in the pros.

Kiffin instead stymied Kelly’s high-octane offense, in great part by straying far from his Tampa-2 roots. The Cowboys defense rode wall-to-wall press coverage and rare good health to long stretches of touchdown free, three-and-out football.

Dallas faces similar defensive challenges this year, but it starts the year with a healthy secondary, and most of the pieces that made this game plan work. The Eagles’ approach likely gives the Cowboys defense their best chance to be competitive again this year. Let’s parse its components.

Three Down Nickel Personnel

Kiffin entered the Eagles game on a cold streak.  His defense had surrendered 97 points in its previous three games, 30 in a loss to San Diego and 51 in a shootout loss to the Broncos.  His base 4-3, which had been effective against the Chiefs and Rams, had regressed when DeMarcus Ware injured an elbow in week three.  His was the latest in a rash of injuries that had decimated the ends position.  Dallas started the week with Kyle Wilber as the starting right end, opposite George Selvie, the team’s fourth option at strong side end, after Anthony Spencer, Tyrone Crawford and Ben Bass.

The team was also unsettled at linebacker.  Projected weakside ‘backer Bruce Carter had been benched after the Chargers had exposed his coverage.  The Cowboys were also making changes on the fly at safety.  Will Allen, the season starter at free safety, had been released, in favor of rookie J.J. Wilcox.

When he looked at the Eagles, Kiffin saw an offense that had topped 30 points in four of its first six games.  Kiffin had one plus lineman in Jason Hatcher, his two best linebackers in Carter and Sean Lee, and a secondary with five healthy starters, the corner trio of Brandon Carr, Orlando Scandrick and Morris Claiborne.  The team’s two best safeties, Barry Church and Wilcox, were also available.  Kiffin decided to lean heavily on his back seven and use tight coverage to buy time for his line.

The Eagles use a three-receiver, one back spread set as their base set, so Kiffin matched up with their extra passing fire power.  Out went strong-side backer Justin Durant and in came Claiborne, whose game one shoulder injury made him the third corner off the bench.  This put Dallas in a 4-2-5 package, though on early downs, the Cowboys would deploy in a stock 4-3 look, with Church as the weakside linebacker.  You can see him at the bottom of the frame, behind the weakside DE Wilber (51):

eagles press 4


The package kept seven men in the box, giving Dallas a man advantage against the six blockers the Eagles had for RBs LeSean McCoy and Bryce Brown. McCoy entered the game as the league’s leading rusher and Kiffin was not going to let him get off to a fast start on simple handoffs.  Having a numerical advantage at the line was key to this strategy.

Consequently, this “light” 4-3, similar to packages Dave Campo used with Darren Woodson in the Church role.  Kiffin used this personnel grouping roughly 90% of the time that afternoon.

With more teams using 11 sets as base packages, this look will probably see the field a lot more in 2014.

Next:  How Dallas matches up in the secondary, and how it built a pass rush “from the back.”

Rafael Vela is Cowboys Nation’s senior analyst.

Rafael Vela
Started covering Dallas Cowboys @ in '95 and '96. Two more stops along the way and here I am. Senior Analyst for
Rafael Vela

  • Michael

    As the main naysayer when this game rolled around, I was surprised that Kiffin rolled out the press coverage. I was even more surprised that the Cowboys held McCoy to so few yards. I also liked the Church at Will wrinkle and I hope we see it that package (along with a real dime package) more often this season. Grudgingly, I give Kiffin credit for this game plan as it was smart and well executed. Though, they did only play Foles for three quarters and he was missing wide open receivers throughout the game.

    • Prince Of Heck

      As the last game of the season showed, Foles is not yet comfortable as the focus of the offense. Slow down the running game, and Foles will feel under duress when dropping back.

      • Michael

        With more receiving weapons (the Eagles were thin last year) and a full offseason as the starter, Foles might take a jump in effectiveness. I was really surprised that Kelly was able to get as much out of Foles as he did last season, but I do wonder if he won’t go in a different direction given the chance.

        It seems to me like Wilson, Kap or Manziel might be more his style. That first game last season against Washington with Vick under center was the craziest NFL game I have ever seen.

        • Prince Of Heck

          I think that the Eagles were fine at WR last year; 4 players logged in more than 500 receiving yards. They’ll have more depth this year, but they’ll need to replace Jackson’s 1300+ yards. Ultimately, Foles will have to grow and learn from his experience.
          Kelly’s frenzied playcalling is just a temporary fad that defenses will neutralize. He’ll have settle for a more conventional approach — hence Foles.