Cause for concern over the Cowboys' new defense?
With a defense that ranked 24th in scoring, there isn't much motivation to stick with the same scheme and personnel. Therefore, Kiffin's 4-3 Tampa 2 defense makes about as much sense as employing another 3-4 defense, as the Cowboys did last season. However, there are some concerns based on the players the Cowboys currently have on their roster.
The biggest potential issue with Kiffin's new scheme is the defensive line. Moving to a four-man front will require DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spender - two exceptional 3-4 outside linebackers - to play defensive end with their hands in the dirt. While I do not doubt that these players could still be effective rushing the passer, Ware and Spencer are by far the league's lightest defensive end duo. The average 4-3 defensive end is 273.6 pounds, while Ware is 254 and Spencer is 250.
The issue with these players moving to defensive end is that it is a much more physical position. As soon as the ball is snapped, a massive 330-pound tackle is in your face trying to take you out of the play. At outside linebacker, the player has a little more room to operate and rely more on speed and quickness to make plays. Ware and Spencer moving to defensive end could be bad news for a run defense that was already ranked 27th in yards per carry last season.
The other issue on the defensive line is Jay Ratliff, who will move from nose tackle to either the one- or three-technique. Ratliff is a great player when healthy (was limited to six games in 2012), but he is only 287 pounds. When Kiffin successfully employed his scheme in Tampa Bay (back in the Warren Sapp/Derrick Brooks days), he had two 300+ pound defensive tackles in Sapp and Anthony McFarland. With defensive ends that rely so much on speed and quickness, it would be ideal to have some more beef in the middle.
Kiffin's Cover 2 based defense also requires solid safety play. Remember, Kiffin's Super Bowl champion defense (2002) featured perennial Pro Bowler John Lynch and Super Bowl MVP Dexter Jackson. Unfortunately, safety is one of the Cowboys' weakest areas. Former Cowboys scouting director Jerry Lacewell agrees, saying, "The one position I don't have clear in my head for (the Cowboys) is the goddamn safety... I don't know who the hell it is."
Among the Cowboys' top safeties are Barry Church, Matt Johnson, and Danny McCray. Church is coming off a torn achilles, Johnson missed all of 2012 with recurring hamstring injuries, and McCray is best suited for special teams. The Cowboys severely lack a reliable playmaker at either safety position, which leaves Texas safety Kenny Vacarro as a very realistic option for the Cowboys' 18th overall pick in the draft. If they don't improve the position, the defense may struggle mightily defending the deep ball.
Not all hope is lost for Dallas' defense, however - but if they want to be a strong unit, two position groups will need to step up in a big way.
First, we have the linebackers. The Cowboys just signed Justin Durant, formerly of the Lions, to round out their three starting linebackers. After racking up 103 tackles in 2012, Durant is penciled in on the strong side. He's not a great player, but ranked a solid 18th among 4-3 outside linebackers last season, according to Pro Football Focus.
On the weak side the Cowboys will have the promising Bruce Carter, who was having an outstanding season before an elbow injury sent him to the injured reserve in 2012. He had 70 tackles in 11 games before his injury last year, which means he was on pace for 100+ tackles. His speed makes him a great fit in the 4-3 and has people comparing him to Derrick Brooks.
Now we have the man in the middle, Sean Lee. A Pro Bowl caliber player, Lee was limited to six games due to a toe injury in 2012, but his impact was felt in the games he was able to play. In the five games that Lee started and finished, the Cowboys held their opponents under a hundred rushing yards four times. In the ten games that Lee didn't play, the Cowboys gave up 100+ rushing yards eight times. Lee was arguably the league's best inside linebacker before his injury, and his presence made a big difference against the run.
If the linebackers can play to their full potential, they can partially offset the lack of size on the defensive line. The linemen, however, have to make sure they are able to eat up blockers and give the linebackers some room to make plays.
The other players that needs to step up are the cornerbacks. The Cowboys gave Brandon Carr a hefty contract to come to Dallas last season, and traded a first- and second-round pick to move up and draft Morris Claiborne. Carr had a strong debut season in Dallas, and Claiborne, though he tailed off towards the end of the season, showed flashes of why he was worth a 6th overall draft pick. Claiborne is also expected to focus on getting physically stronger this offseason, which should help him improve his play.
Although some people suggest that Kiffin's Tampa 2 scheme makes the Cowboys' corners less significant, I don't believe that is the case. Although they focus largely on covering the flat, their press coverage will be crucial to the pass defense - both Carr and Claiborne play great press coverage. On passing downs, the combination of Ware and Spencer rushing the passer while Carr and Claiborne are jamming the receivers could force quarterbacks to get rid of the ball before long routes have a chance to develop. As a result, the Cowboys could mask some of the weaknesses on the back end of their defense.
I'd still like to see the Cowboys address the safety position (with a free agent like Michael Huff or a player in the draft), but if the cornerbacks can give receivers some serious problems getting off the line of scrimmage, Ware and Spencer should make it hard for opponents to take advantage of the defense's biggest weakness.
The Cowboys could really be a boom or bust defense next season. They definitely have some significant weaknesses, but if the linebackers and cornerbacks can be exceptional (which they have to potential to be), they could field a strong unit on the defensive side of the ball.