Defensive? The Cowboys Used To Be

The hope amongst Cowboys fans is that a return to relative health will offset the losses of three major stars and allow the Dallas defense to be respectable in 2014. It wasn't too long ago that defensive effort was an afterthought for the franchise.

Well, if one of the young guys steps up in the middle, and Bruce Carter returns to 2012 form, and the rotation on the defensive line works out, and a safety emerges, and the corners are allowed to play more press coverage... they might have a chance.

That's generally the thought process for Cowboys fans evaluating the team's prospects for defensive adequacy in 2014. Oh, how the mighty have fallen.

The Cowboys collectively are now hoping for a couple things. One, the edict that it takes a second year for a squad to be fully immersed in a new scheme for it to take hold, holds true. Two, the switch from Monte Kiffin to Rod Marinelli will allow the "updated" version of the Tampa 2 principles to take effect after Kiffin's version was apparently solved league-wide.

For all the pomp and circumstance that surrounds the Cowboys offensive exploits over the years, the core of this franchise has always been their remarkable, multifaceted defenses. The edict that a good defense beats a good offense might suffer some hits to its reputation in today's NFL, but it was time tested. The Doomsday Defense roamed the Sunday turf for almost two decades under Tom Landry. Jimmy Johnson's eight man defensive line rotation was legendary. The team has transitioned to the 3-4 defense in recent years, and although the team hasn't been championship caliber, the unit has turned in some stellar seasons. before diving into the 'Best of the Best' of the defensive systems that have called Dallas home, let's take a look at the list of men behind the nightmares of opposing offensive coordinators.

Tom Landry: Head Coach, 1960-1988
Ernie Stautner: Defensive Coordinator 1975-1988
Jimmy Johnson: Head Coach, 1989 - 1993
Dave Wannstedt. Defensive Coordinator, 1989 - 1992
Butch Davis: Defensive Coordinator, 1993-1994
Dave Campo: Defensive Coordinator, 1995 - 1999, Head Coach 2000 - 2002
Mike Zimmer, Defensive Coordinator, 2000 - 2006
Bill Parcells: Head Coach, 2003 - 2006
Wade Phillips: Head Coach, 2007 - 2010
Rob Ryan: Defensive Coordinator, 2011 - 2012
Monte Kiffin: Defensive Coordinator, 2013
Rod Marinelli: Defensive Coordinator, Current

The Doomsday Defense (Landry and Stautner)

From Wikipedia:

Tom Landry invented the now-popular "4-3 Defense", while serving as Giants defensive coordinator... When Landry was hired by the Dallas Cowboys, he became concerned with then-Green Bay Packers Coach Vince Lombardi's "Run to Daylight" idea, where the running back went to an open space, rather than a specific assigned hole. Landry reasoned that the best counter was a defense that flowed to daylight and blotted it out. To do this, he refined the 4-3 defense by moving two of the four linemen off the line of scrimmage one yard and varied which linemen did this based on where the Cowboys thought the offense might run. This change was called "The Flex Defense," because it altered its alignment to counter what the offense might do. Thus, there were three such Flex Defenses — strong, weak, and "tackle" — where both defensive tackles were off the line of scrimmage. The idea with the flexed linemen was to improve pursuit angles to stop the Green Bay Sweep — a popular play of the 1960s. The Flex Defense was also innovative in that it was a kind of zone defense against the run. Each defender was responsible for a given gap area, and was told to stay in that area before they knew where the play was going.

Landry took the first few years of the franchise's infancy to evolve into the Flex Defense. His second year saw the addition of Bob Lilly, quite possibly the best player in the history of the franchise. By 1964, Landry commanded a top 5 defense. The unit wouldn't leave the top 10 for the next 15 consecutive years. Ernie Stautner took over the defensive play calling duties in 1973, something that Landry reportedly (and argued) wouldn't do for the offense. The defense remained top notch, although not elite, under Stautner until the team started to falter in the mid-80's.

Jimmy Johnson's 4-3 Over Defense (Johnson & Wannstedt, Butch Davis)


Johnson took over as the franchise's second head coach in 1989 and brought Dave Wannstedt with him from the University of Miami. Following in the tradition of his 'The U' defenses, Johnson molded the Cowboys defense on speed and quickness. Instead of being a read and react defense, all four lineman were charged with penetrating through the trench and getting into the offensive backfield.

Notes on the 4-3 Over Defense: (from

In the Over front, Weak End will align in a 5-technique, that is outside shoulder of the Offensive Tackle. The Strong End will align in a 9-technique, outside shade of the Tight End. The weak Defensive Tackle (we call him the Nose) aligns in a Weak Shade, or shaded weak on the Center. The strong Defensive Tackle will align in a strong 3-technique, outside shade of the Guard. In our base defense, these defenders are gap-responsible. The 3-technique handles B-gap strong, while the Nose takes A-gap weak. The ends are responsible for C gap weak and D gap strong. We do NOT use the Ends for contain! They are spill players in our aggressive style of defense.

I strongly recommend reading the article if you want more insight into the 4-3 Over

The Parcells 3-4 (Parcells and Zimmer)

Bill Parcells was the coaching coup that owner Jerry Jones had been searching for. Defensively, Parcells has carried his system with him everywhere since his Giants days. The Cowboys weren't able to get the proper personnel to run Parcells defense, however, and that forced Parcells to spend a year within Mike Zimmer's 4-3 defense. The combination of the two's philosophies was magic, leading the Cowboys to a second place ranking in points allowed and a first place in yardage. The following year though, Parcells 3-4 would make it's way into the Cowboys realm.


Notes on the Parcells 3-4 (from

The defensive line will line up in a pure 2-gap alignment here. The Nose tackle will line up in a 0-technique directly over the center and the defensive ends will line up directly over the offensive tackles in identical 5-techniques. The Middle Linebackers will be lining up directly across from the offensive guards and the OLB's will line up across from the TE and where the TE would be in a balanced 2-TE set. The CB's line up in the traditional spot across from the WR's and the FS is in the traditional spot 10 yards bck from the line of scrimmage across from the weak-side OT. The SS is lined up 8 yards back from the strongside OT.

The strongside DE is responsible for the B and C gaps on the strong side in the run game and controlling the OT in the passing game. The weakside DE is responsible for the B and C gaps on the weak side and controlling the OT on his side in the passing game. The Nose Tackle is responsible for controlling the center of the formation and both A gaps, while trying to draw double teams in both the run and the pass game.

The Weakside OLB is there to generate the most pass rush. In the run they are only responsible for outside the OT on their side, making their job simpler than the rest of the linebackers. The Inside Linebackers play almost identical roles in the run game both covering the A and B gaps on their sides. The SILB in the pass game however will be blitzing more than the WILB. The WILB is more of a traditional coverage MLB and will drop and cover the middle of the field. The SOLB is similar to the role of a 2-gap SOLB in the 4-3. They will be in charge of the TE most times in the passing game and in the running game has to cover the C-gap and outside of the TE on their side.

Although Parcells 3-4 defense wasn't top 10 caliber, the philosophy behind it so impressed Jerry Jones that he has aligned himself with the scheme for the foreseeable future.

The Wade Phillips Defense(Wade Phillips)

As Jerry Jones looked for someone to continue in the 3-4 tradition (some would argue return to the days of a subservient head coach), Wade Phillips was brought on board. Up until the total team collapse of 2010, Phillips defenses were continuously top 10 in yardage allowed. In 2009, the team ranked second in points allowed. Although Phillips' defenses have always been considered amongst the league's best, the stats from stops prior to Dallas show mediocre results. In retrospect, the knowledgeable Cowboys fan can look at the defense's failing to make critical stops as the reason this recent incarnation hasn't done more damage. Phillips' teams do not rank with the three schemes listed above, but with the huge fall from grace the last few years, deserves to be mentioned in a positive light.

Notes on the Phillips 3-4 (from


The Bum Phillips basic 3-4 is a one gap 3-4 defense and relies on quickness more than other 3-4 defenses.

The Defensive line lines up in a natural one gap alignment. The Nose Tackle is in the strongside "A"-gap. The strongside DE is in a 6-tech on the strongside "C"-gap. The weakside DE is in a 5-tech role lined up across from the Tackle. The Middle Linebackers are shaded to the strong side a bit with the WILB or "Mike" lined up in the weakside "A"-gap and the SILB or "Ted" lined up in the strongside "B"-gap.

The Cowboys of 2014 have a long way to go to be mentioned with any of the top franchise defenses, much less the Wade Phillips era. Rob Ryan appeared to have things worked out in his second year, 2012, before the injury bug ravaged the defensive locker room for the first of two consecutive seasons.

There's no doubt, based on his history in Chicago, that Rod Marinelli is capable of coordinating a top defense in today's NFL.

In 2012, Chicago led the NFL in defensive DVOA%, a Football Outsiders metric that measures how well above the average defense you perform in each individual game situation. They were fourth in both 2011 and 2010. He ascended to DC after being their defensive line coach in 2009 and ranking 21st in DVOA.

Let's do it again, Rod.

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