Back to School

The Dallas Cowboys are going back to school this summer as the team prepares to learn the 3-4 defense, and defensive coorindator Mike Zimmer finds himself in the unusual situation of having to learn, just like his players.

This summer will be be like going to summer school for the Dallas defense. That's not to say that the defense is being punished, per sé. Instead, the Dallas defenders are going to school to master the 3-4 defense, which is a direct about-face from the 4-3 that the team has run essentially since the franchise has been in existence.

The student who needs a grade of "A"? Mike Zimmer.

The Cowboys' defensive coordinator is considered one of the top defensive minds in the game, but his experience lies almost exclusively in the 4-3. When the Dallas front office spent the offseason acquiring new defensive personnel -- with the sole intent of switching defensive formations -- that meant that Zimmer had to learn the new scheme as well … and to teach it to his players, he needs to perfect it.

He understands the defense, of course. But he needs to make sure he has a grip on the intricacies and nuances of the system in order for it to run at its optimal level.

The obvious difference, of course, is that there now will be three down linemen instead of four. In the 3-4, down linemen need to be more patient than in the 4-3. Where as 4-3 linemen basically charge straight ahead, filling gaps and trying to make plays in the backfield, 3-4 linemen need to be more patient, seeing an offensive play unfold in front of them and then reacting.

"That's the big thing," Zimmer said after Sunday's morning workout. "In the old system, you have four guys down and rushing the passer, and in this system, you have three."

That doesn't mean, however, that the Cowboys will send fewer pass rushers after opposing quarterbacks.

"What it means," Zimmer said, "is that we just have to figure out where to bring a fourth rusher from. We can bring a linebacker, we can bring a safety -- we have some choices."

Despite all the headlines afforded to the team's new front-seven players -- DT Jason Ferguson, DE/OLB Demarcus Ware, DE Marcus Spears, etc. -- brought in specifically to boost the transition into the 3-4, Zimmer said those players are not likely to be the keys to the system's success. Instead, he said it is the performance of the secondary that will be vital to the transition of the Dallas defense.

"We're not changing much in the secondary," he said. "There are some different coverages we'll use, but basically we're going to run a lot of the same things: Cover 2, two-deep (zone) … If the corners are real good, we might even go man-to-man."

To that end, it might turn out that the acquisitions of CBs Anthony Henry and Aaron Glenn might be as important as the additions of Ware, Spears and Ferguson up front. If they can shut down (or at least contain) opposing receivers, Zimmer and his defensive staff will have more options with various schemes and stunts up front.

If there's an individual defensive player who might thrive under the shift in philosophy, it could be … SS Roy Williams. The top playmaker in the Dallas secondary made far fewer plays last year than he did prior to the 2004 season after the injury suffered by veteran FS Darren Woodson forced Williams to switch from strong safety to free safety. In doing so, he was dropped off the line of scrimmage, taking him away from the area of the field where he creates the most havoc. If the Cowboys can identify a suitable free safety, thereby allowing Williams to creep back closer to the line of scrimmage, he might end up being the blitz weapon Zimmer employs from different angles to cause headaches -- and bruises -- for opposing QBs.

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