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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