Cause for concern over the Cowboys' new defense?

3/26/13 in NFL   |   Matthew_Shovlin   |   735 respect

After a disappointing 2012 season, the Dallas Cowboys fired defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. The team has since brought in Monte Kiffin as a replacement, but the coaching change doesn't just mean there will be a new face on the sidelines - Kiffin is bringing an entirely new scheme to Dallas.

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.
Dec 16, 2012; Arlington, TX, USA; Dallas Cowboys linebacker DeMarcus Ware (94) in action against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Cowboys Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports
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.
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