There is no doubt that the Dallas Cowboys have a pair of great inside linebackers in Sean Lee and Bruce Carter. They are still early in their career so, even as good as they already are, there is still an upside to their game as they become more experienced. But there is also much anxiety over keeping them healthy and whether either one of them can go a whole season without injuries serious enough to keep them off the field of play.
Both players were draft day steals because they were coming off of major injuries incurred late in their college careers and one wonders if they will always be injury prone. The Cowboys have taken a big step in the right direction on this issue by changing from the 3-4 defense to the 4-3. With the 4-3 defense there is an additional body at the line of scrimmage to take the brunt of the blocks by the offensive linemen and insulate the linebackers from taking these shots. This alone should help mitigate some of the injury risk.
In the 4-3, these linebackers also have more freedom to flow to the ball and make the play. As a result, we should see some really crazy numbers next season when it comes to tackles made by these two players. Due to the new alignment, Lee will likely be the middle linebacker, with Carter manning the weak side. Yet to be determined is who will be the strong side linebacker, although it appears that Alex Albright, due to his size and versatility, is a strong candidate for the position.
Everyone has their opinion on whether the Cowboys currently have the personnel to excel in the 4-3 defense. This includes opinions about the linebackers currently on this team. Often heard is that the 3-4 requires big linebackers and that with the 4-3, smaller linebackers are required. Well I am here to tell you that these two linebackers can excel in either scheme. The reason smaller linebackers are desired for the 4-3 is speed, because they are covering more ground. Smaller guys are usually faster, but Lee and Carter are big linebackers that are also very fast. That’s the best of both worlds and it’s why they will do well in the 4-3.
The hiring of Monte Kiffin as defensive coordinator is the reason for the change in scheme, or perhaps more correctly, the decision by Jason Garrett and Jerry Jones to go to the 4-3 precipitated the hiring of Kiffin to implement it. Past and current linebackers coach, Matt Eberflus, must be a heck of a coach. How else would one explain that the same coach that taught linebackers in the 3-4 is now responsible for implementing the 4-3 with the Cowboys linebacker corps? Of course he has experience with both.
But I believe the reason Matt was a keeper is because injuries hit the Cowboys defense the hardest at the linebacker position. So, for those that complain that firing of Rob Ryan was not justified due to all of the injuries he had to overcome, one must look at the linebacker position. Was the fact that the Cowboys defense still hung in there after all of the injuries and how they were able to integrate new players quickly the result of Ryan’s coaching prowess, or was it the result of Eberflus being able to integrate new players into the scheme at linebacker, within a small window of time?
I think it was the latter. Many of the issues we saw with this defense, when so many new players were out there, was at the safety position. All things considered, linebacker play remained fairly steady. So, as we, and the Cowboys, prepare for the 2013 season, I feel secure with direction the team is headed on defense, and specifically, with the linebacker position.