Note: The off-season is the perfect time to dig deep into the X’s & O’s and the mechanics of the game we all love. This article is an excerpt from, “Nuts & Bolts: A Guide To The 2015 Cowboys” an upcoming E-Book I will be publishing in Mid-July. “Nuts & Bolts” will be your go-to guide to the Cowboys’ offensive, and defensive schemes, the strategies behind them, and how they will put the player in position to succeed. Stay tuned to CowboysHQ for more excerpts, and to be the FIRST to know when the full version comes available.
Despite the fact that the NFL has increasingly become a passing league, it is still true that the game is won in the trenches. That being said, it is important to first understand the alignments of the front-seven players in Rod Marinelli’s base 4-3 defense. The base group features four down linemen, three linebackers, and for defensive backs. The linemen and line backers make up the front-seven, and they will show two primary alignments when the offense is in a standard formation. As we cover their alignments we will also get an understanding of the positions in the front-seven, what their primary focus should be, and who we can expect to play these positions in base situations for the Cowboys in 2015. In terms of assignments, there will be various responsibilities, but we can get a general idea of their post-snap responsibilities with the rules I’ve outlined below.
The two base fronts in this defense are the “Under” front, and the “Over” front. The Under/Over designation specifically tells the defensive tackles which side they should line up on, which infers the alignments for the remaining members of the front-seven. First we will examine the Under Front.
Here’s an example of the Cowboys playing the under look in 2014.
RE: (Right Defensive End) – Also known as the “Open” end, this player lines up to the Open (weak) side, whether that is on the right or left side of the formation. This is your best pass rusher, in the Under front, he will play a Seven or Nine-Technique, and his primary role is to get up-field quickly, penetrate into the opponent’s back field, past the Left Offensive Tackle, and disrupt both running and passing plays. The first guy up in the rotation at this position, once he returns, will be Greg Hardy (76).
UT: (Under Tackle) – This player is commonly known as the “Three-Technique”, due to his alignment on the outside shoulder of the offensive guard. He is the smaller of the two defensive tackles, and his job is to penetrate the gap between the guard and the tackle, and create immediate chaos in the opponent’s back field. In the Under front this player aligns to the open, (weak) side of the offensive formation. Tyrone Crawford (98) will be the lead dog at the under tackle position.
NT: (Nose Tackle) – The nose tackle in this defense rarely plays “heads-up” on the center, and is often called a “One-Technique”, a “Shade”, or a “Cocked Nose” due to his off-center alignment. In the under front, he will align himself to the closed (strong) side of the offensive formation, on the shoulder of the center, often positioning himself at an angle. Because of his alignment he often faces double teams from the center and strong-side guard and because of that he is usually the larger of the two defensive tackles, although still not the classic fat-guy nose tackle some defenses employ. His ultimate goal is to split the possible double team and generate interior push, but often just holding his ground and occupying two blockers (especially against the run) is considered a success. Nick Hayden (96) is the pre-season front runner at the Nose for the Cowboys.
LE: (Left Defensive End) – The left end is usually the slightly larger, and more powerful of the two defensive ends, as most teams will run to their right (defenses left), where he is aligned. This player will align to the Closed (strong) side, whether to the right or the left. In the under front he plays a four or five-technique either heads-up, or on the outside shoulder of the offensive tackle. His goal is to penetrate off his opponent’s outside shoulder. The first defensive line will likely feature Demarcus Lawrence (90) at this position.
W: (Will Linebacker) – The Will linebacker, has long been called the weak side linebacker, because in the past he lined up on the offenses open (weak) side regardless of the front. However, in this defense that’s no longer the case (as we will see when we review the Over front). The Will, traditionally the biggest play-maker among the linebackers, lines up stacked behind the Under Tackle at a depth of about 5 yards from the line of scrimmage. His job against the run is to fill the weak side A-gap (between the guard and center) on runs to his side, and to flow to the ball on runs away from him, while maintaining his leverage to keep the runner from cutting back. His responsibility against the pass will vary based on the coverage call, as we will study later. This is the spot that Sean Lee (50) will transition to in 2015.
M: (Mike Linebacker) – The Mike, or Middle linebacker, is another vital player in this defensive system. In the Under front he aligns to the outside shoulder of the Nose Tackle at a depth of about 5 yards, with the primary responsibility of filling the strong side B-Gap (between the guard and tackle), against runs to the strong side, and to flow to the ball on runs away from him, while maintaining his leverage to keep the runner from cutting back. His responsibility against the pass will vary based on the coverage call, as we will study later. Often times he will be the player who takes on a lead block from an opponents’ full back in the hole in an attempt to stuff the play, and give the Will the chance to flow and make the tackle on the runner. Rolando McClain (55) will likely be the starter at the Mike.
S: (Sam Linebacker) – The Sam linebacker, has long been called the strong side linebacker, because in the past he lined up on the offenses closed (strong) side regardless of the front. However, in this defense that’s no longer the case (as we will see when we review the Over front). In the Under front he aligns heads-up or to the outside shoulder of the Tight End, at the line of scrimmage, with the primary responsibility of spilling strong side runs towards the sideline where the “force” player, either a safety or cornerback depending on the coverage, can fill to make the tackle. On back side runs, the Sam will pursue down the line from the backside to close down any cut back lanes, while keeping an eye out for the tight end or full back releasing out to his side to indicate play action. His responsibility against the pass will vary based on the coverage call, as we will study later. Traditionally this is a player with more length and size to help him hold up at the point of attack, however, in an effort to get their best three linebackers on the field, the Cowboys will likely start Anthony Hitchens (59) at this spot in 2015, despite the fact that he doesn’t fit the traditional profile for this position.