Nov 24, 2011; Arlington, TX, USA; Dallas Cowboys linebacker Anthony Spencer (93) rushes the passer against Miami Dolphins tackle Jake Long (77) on Thanksgiving day at Cowboys Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

The 2013 Dallas Cowboys Starting Defensive Line is…

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The four down linemen in Monte Kiffin’s defense are perhaps the biggest mystery for the Cowboys entering the 2013 season. Not just who will be playing what position, but also, what are the demands of each position. Back in Kiffin’s Tampa days it was simple. He used pass rusher Simeon Rice and Warren Sapp to get pressure on the QB and Booger McFarland clogged the middle dominating two blockers while Greg Spires set the edge occasionally playing 2-gap and taking on multiple blockers.

To see what positions are best suited for the current Cowboy’s roster it makes perfect sense to reference that same 2002 Tampa Bay roster. 2002 was the year the Buccaneers defense was clicking on all cylinders, earning the NFL’s #1 defensive ranking, and eventually winning the Super Bowl. By no means do I expect the Cowboys to be running the exact same defense as that 2002 team, but it does provide a reasonable blueprint to start from.

Dec 2, 2012; Arlington, TX, USA; Dallas Cowboys linebacker DeMarcus Ware (94) in action during the game against the Philadelphia Eagles at Cowboys Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Weakside Defensive End

2002 Tampa Bay Starter: Simeon Rice

2013 Dallas Cowboys Expected Starter: DeMarcus Ware

It’s been clear from the start DeMarcus Ware will be occupying the weakside defensive end position. DeMarcus Ware is perhaps the best pure pass-rusher in the NFL. The demands of the weakside defensive end in most of Kiffin’s schemes are limited to one crucial objective: Get to the QB.

In Tampa, Simeon Rice resurrected his career by leaving the Cardinals and playing weakside DE for Kiffin who only demanded he rush the passer. Exceptions exist but the point is the weakside DE in Kiffin’s defense rushes the passer more often than most 4-3’s and considerably more than the 3-4 defenses Ware has been playing in Dallas.

Strongside Defensive End

2002 Tampa Bay Starter: Greg Spires

2013 Dallas Cowboys Expected Starter: Anthony Spencer

When Monte Kiffin was initially hired and it was said the Cowboys would be moving from the 3-4 to the 4-3, it seemed pretty clear Anthony Spencer was on his way out of Dallas. Spencer ranked as one of the very best OLB’s in the 3-4 and would be demanding a contract that matched his superb OLB performance. To retain him the Cowboys would have to pay him like a top OLB and pray he plays up to the contract in the strong-side defensive end position. That would be a very big gamble for a team already backed up against the salary cap.

Low and behold the Cowboys were willing to do just that when they franchised Spencer, paying him like the top OLB in the league in 2013 but playing him at the unknown SDE. Tyrone Crawford and Jason Hatcher projected nicely into the SDE but with the amount of money Spencer will be making, combined with his lack of versatility at any other position available in Kiffin’s defense, it’s clear the SDE postion belongs to Anthony Spencer.

Note: Lack of versatility shouldn’t be seen as an insult, he’s just not fast enough to play coverage as a Kiffin LB and too small to play anything other than DE on the line. We already established Ware will be playing the WDE so that only leaves the SDE for Spencer.

Ideally the SDE would be larger than the 6-3 250 lb player Anthony Spencer is, but considering Greg Spires was only 6-1 and 265, Spencer isn’t that far off. In most of Kiffin’s sets, the main objective of the SDE isn’t rushing the passer but rather setting the edge against a scramble and protecting the screen pass. Those are two elements Spencer absolutely excels in. In 2002 Greg Spires only logged 3.5 sacks compared to Rice’s 15.5 and Sapp’s 7.5 sacks. With that in mind, Spencer is perfectly capable of succeeding in the SDE role. What remains to be seen how he handles the occasional double team and 2 gap assignments.

Dec 23, 2012; Arlington, TX, USA; New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) fights off a sack by Dallas Cowboys defensive tackle Jason hatcher (97) at Cowboys Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

3-Technique Tackle

2002 Tampa Bay Starter: Warren Sapp

2013 Dallas Cowboys Expected Starter: Jason Hatcher/Jay Ratliff/Tyrone Crawford

The Cowboys certainly have their WDE in DeMarcus Ware and the big money says Anthony Spencer is the SDE but the inside tackle positions aren’t so clear.

A quick look at the roster says they don’t have anything close to a Warren Sapp on this team. Three years ago Jay Ratliff could have done an excellent job in Sapp’s 3 technique role but injures and age have raised questions as to how effective Rat will be in 2013. Jason Hatcher is the favorite to land this position but almost by default. Hatcher isn’t ideally built for a 3-technique undertackle at 6-6 305 lbs. While he may be a little top-heavy he does have the quickness needed to overcome. The past 2 seasons he has been the undisputed best lineman on the Dallas Cowboys so he needs to start somewhere. The remaining 1 technique/2 gap tackle spot would probably waste his talents so the only logical remaining starting position for Hatcher is the 3-technique tackle.

While not a perfect fit, Hatcher seems like the most reasonable choice here. And chances are no one even close to Warren Sapp will be walking through that door anytime soon either. Sheldon Richardson and Kawann Short hold potential for being good 3-technique undertackles in Kiffin’s system but let’s be honest, Playmaking DT’s are a rare bird in this league. Most DT’s are run stuffers, not backfield playmakers. So the question is, if one can’t be found will this defensive line be a failure? Remember, the pass rush in Kiffin’s defense is generated by the WDE and the 3-technique tackle (NOT the SDE).

Tyrone Crawford will also see time here as the Cowboys look for a spot for their promising second year man. Crawford has the build (6-4 275 lbs.) and athleticism to spell both Hatcher on the inside and Spencer on the end and he will be a valuable rotational player for the Cowboys in 2013.

This position is clearly what to watch for in the draft, training camp, and the preseason.

Dec 16, 2012; Arlington, TX, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey (53) blocks for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (7) against Dallas Cowboys defensive tackle Sean Lissemore (95) at Cowboys Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

1-Technique Tackle

2002 Tampa Bay Starter: Booger McFarland

2013 Dallas Cowboy’s Expected Starter: Jay Ratliff/Sean Lissemore

The Cowboys are lucky to have two players who are athletic overachievers with relentless motors. Jay Ratliff could still see time at the 3-technique but with Hatcher most likely limited to that role expect to see Rat primarily at the 1-technique.

The Cowboys lack the ideal player to man Booger’s role as a 2-gap player. Booger was a slenderly listed 300 lbs. but at 6’0” he was stoutly built and very effective at the 1-technique. Rat is 6-4 287 lbs. and Lissemore is 6-3 305 lbs. so neither are particularly stout but previous success at NT (which usually has 2-gap and double-team responsibilities also) says they should be able to effectively execute the 1-technique in Kiffin’s defense.

The NFL Draft will certainly impact the defensive depth chart and rotations but as the roster appears now, this seems like the most logical breakdown. As Kiffin reminded us in January, he is not looking to rebuild the Tampa Bay Buccaneers but rather create an all new defense using new and old defensive philosophies. We’ve spent considerable time looking at some of Monte Kiffin’s old defenses in Understanding the Coverage, next week we will start looking at some of the new defenses.

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