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The Importance of a Defensive Spine, Pt. 1

In previous forecasts for the 2014 defense, I’ve argued that a modest improvement in points per game by the Dallas Cowboys, from last year’s abysmal 27.4 points per contest to 22.5 could provide that missing win or two that could get the Cowboys into the post-season.

To show how attainable 22.5 could be, consider that in thirteen of last year’s games, the Cowboys allowed an average of 22.1 points per game, and went 8-5 when allowing that total.  That 22.1 included four games where Dallas allowed 30 or more points.

The issue was the three losses against Denver, New Orleans and Chicago, where the Cowboys surrendered 145 points, a ghastly 48.3 per contest.  We talk about scheme a lot here at Cowboys Nation, but those games were a testament to a scheme’s limits.  Against those high-powered offenses, Dallas’ defense was simply over-matched.

The main issue, as we’ll see in a few cut-ups from the Saints defeat, was the Cowboys’ lack of a capable defensive spine.  That was also an issue in 2012.  That year the Cowboys safeties, both inside linebackers (Sean Lee and Bruce Carter) and nose tackles Josh Brent and Jay Ratliff were lost for a variety of reasons.  The team hoped it was bad luck and counted on a scheme change in 2013.  The injury bug bit again, taking away safety J.J. Wilcox and Lee for extended periods of time.

Injuries were not the only reason for the defense’s fade.   The Cowboys went the bargain route in free agency, counting on players like Nick Hayden and Justin Durant, but they failed to provide consistent, quality play.  Here’s one example of how the lack of a spine crippled the Cowboys’ hopes.

The Situation

1st quarter, 1st and 10 Saints.  Here, New Orleans’ head coach Sean Payton deployed a look that was very effective against the Cowboys base.  He went to a straight I from the 22 personnel package, and put Ben Watson (82) as his Y-back on the right side and put Jimmy Graham in the left slot.  The Cowboys stayed in their base 4-3 and chose not to matchup , as they did against the Eagles.  Instead, they slid their formation towards the slot look.  Notice left corner Brandon Carr (39) is where the strong-side outside linebacker would be, flanking Watson.  Regular strong-side ‘backer Justin Durant (52) has slid into the middle linebacker spot and Carter (54) is out of frame to the right.  He’s the shallow cover man on Graham, with a safety playing behind him.

saints slide 2

The call is a simple isolation run to the weakside, with running back Pierre Thomas (23) following fullback Jed Collins (45) at Lee (50).

The action on this play is right over center.  Notice in still one that the Cowboys’ 1-technique, Nick Hayden (96) is on the center’s left shoulder.  He’s starting on the call side, and Hayden’s job is to hold his A-gap.  Note that in still two, the center Brian De La Puente (60) got off his snap decisively.  He’s immediately “across the face” of Hayden and in position to wall Hayden off from the play.

Saints slide 3


When Hayden tries to recover and get his helmet and body back to the call side, De La Puente turns Hayden and runs the off-balance DT towards the wide side of the field:

Saints slide 4

Had Hayden been able to slide with De La Puente and hold his gap, he would have stood in the middle of the wide running lane that Thomas sees.  Instead, Hayden is shoulder to shoulder with right end Demarcus Ware.

Saints slide 5


The distance between the hash marks is eighteen feet and six inches, or 6.2 yards.  Hayden was driven six yards laterally.  What’s worse, he was not double-teammed.  The center got into Hayden’s body at the snap and simply overpowered him.

Thomas had a running start into the secondary and gained eight yards on the play.  Were this a one-off, it would not deserve comment.  But this play happened all too frequently last year to Hayden and the other Cowboys’ 1-techniques.  It’s a big reason why players like Drake Nevis are no longer on the roster.  It’s also why the Cowboys obtained Terrell McClain in free agency and may consider giving Josh Brent a second look at some point in the future.

If the issue was only poor 1-technique play, fans might be more optimistic.  But match-up problems plagued all the Cowboys interior positions.  Note that Lee was still active on this series.  He left the game minutes later.  The linebacker issues the Cowboys faced after Lee went down mushroomed, as I’ll show in the next two parts of this series.

Lee is gone again in 2014.  Finding a way to keep the defensive spine strong will be a major challenge for the coaches this year.


Rafael Vela is the senior analyst for

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

  • Jon B.

    Jimmy Johnson a football life was well done and worth watching.

    He actually said Jerry wasn’t all to blame he wanted out himself. Something I have heard Raf say over the years.

    Sad to hear aikman and Irvin speculate on what could have been. It was unfinished.

    Oh well. There is an interview where jimmy says he doesn’t respect Jerry’s football iq. Jerry was in oil for thirty years while jj was in football that whole time. That pretty much summed up our problem. Jerry wasn’t content just making all the money ans winning Super Bowls. He wanted to be the architect and get all the credit. Jimmy talks about the Casillas trade and jerry makes an announcement that he made the deal. It was jjs deal. Jerry just couldn’t not be involved. That involvement increases whenever Jimmy left and when Parcells left. He has great football guYs and they burn out working with him. The product minus those football guys has not been very good.

    Good that Jimmy has found peace down there in the keys and fishing everyday. Heck wish I could catch mahi everyday.

    • McShrek

      I don’t believe one word from Jimmy on him wanting out in 1993 but for one thing….Jerry’s meddling in his business despite having it in the contract that he was the final say on all things football ….same thing with Big Bill in early 2007…. Both of these guys live for seeing their efforts bring fruit on the field….no one mentions that it took BP a whole month of agonizing before he decided working for Jerry for three more years was not worth his time….. We were legit contenders and would have been for years….Romo under BP is another Montana in the making

      • Jon b

        I don’t think Jimmy would say he wanted out if he didn’t. Jerry influence that decision heck yeah. Just like he forced TO on BP. Parcells wants to buy the groceries before he cooked the meals. Remember the TO overdose suicide scare. You could tell BP did not want to deliver that presser. Jimmy and Jerry was a short lived volatile marriage that produced three Super Bowls from the triplets. The what ifs if he had stayed. Man oh man.

        Jerry is having fun though. Winning evidently isn’t part of his fun.

        • McShrek

          It was the politically correct thing to say to the press/world (Jimmy knew that Jerry was becoming very influential on all things NFL and he turned out to be 100% right on that call) ; if you have ever seen the video of the presser the tension in the room, and on Jimmy’s face was palpable…if memory serves it had started when Jones at some home game, brought down an Arabic sheik onto the sidelines before the game had yet to be completed….why would any coach leave possibly the greatest collection of talent since the 70s Steelers?

  • Michael

    Well, Stephen Jones did say that the Cowboys think they can find NTs later in the draft with this scheme. It obviously is not a position of importance to the brain trust- the Jones boys down to the DC – or Hayden would be out of the league now.
    The irony of this photo series is that the Saints running game had been going nowhere until the Cowboys game. Hayden breathed new life into Ingram’s career with play like this.
    If anyone thinks this series is bad, just wait until the 49ers roll through this defense. They make their living off power runs.

    • McShrek

      Except that Parcells left the building in 2007…….the Ratliffs of the world are hard to come by……Gore and Lattimore will not only inflict heavy yardage on the ground, but that o-line is liable to knock out some of our recent signings out for the year…..our D will feel like its been run over by an 18 wheeler

    • Jon B.

      Where did jimmy draft tackles? Russel Maryland was a 1 and Casillas was a trade for a bunch of picks. He did find the big cat in what t,he third round? Traded for Haley due to the fact that he couldn’t find a pass rush in the draft.

      I am not sure there were awesome interior guys in higher rounds this year but I would bet that third round pick jerry gave up could have been a pretty good DT.

  • SmartThinking

    This Dallas offense is certainly powerful enough to score all the points it wants to in every game it plays. And with a renewed emphasis on a running game, there are now additional ways to drive the ball and score.

    I’ve maintained for some time that the offense, with all it’s speed and power, isn’t the problem on this Jeckyll & Hyde team. It’s the defense, or lack of same, that was the direct downfall of at least four games last season. And, in truth, nothing much has changed for the better with this current group of defensive players, even without the injuries to key players.

    I believe that this current Dallas team is going to have to score in the thirties every game this season if it wants to win. The Dallas defense is going to give all the points back to opposing offenses because they’re too weak to hold a lead. So, if Dallas is to win games, it’ll just have to beat the opposing defenses and it’s own defense as well by out scoring them all.

    It’s a crazy game when you have to beat the opposition and your own guys just to win. But such is the case when the Dallas braintrust has placed such a heavy emphasis on offense and let the defense, for all intents and purposes, dig through the garbage to find its players.

    • McShrek

      Wise words from Smart……….its been this way since 2010 and deteriorated every year since…….the 2009 draft (or lack thereof) was instrumental in gutting an already declining defense…….but heck Valley Ranch knew better than most, giving up premium picks in every draft but 2013……a formula for bankrupting your talent base

      PS and then Romo is blamed for not being able to overcome such talent disparities

      • Prince Of Heck

        Are you saying Romo isn’t expected to play DT, LB, and Safety? How preposterous!