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.
Back to School
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