When the Dallas Cowboys hired 73 year old Monte Kiffin to replace fired defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, I was hoping they hired the Kiffin that was the architect of the highly successful Tampa-2 defense and not the Kiffin that presided over an inept defense at USC. I hoped the ineptness of the USC defense was based on the lack of quality athletes and not that the game had passed Kiffin by.
And when the Cowboys had great success against the Chip Kelly offense run by the Philadelphia Eagles, the same offensive scheme that tortured Kiffin when Kelly was at Oregon and he was at USC, I felt there was hope after all, despite how the Cowboys defense had already been torched in the passing game by several other teams prior to the Eagles game. As it turned out though the Eagles game was just a mirage, as evidenced by the wheels falling off of this defense against the New Orleans Saints.
Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones went on record this week saying that Kiffin was not going to fired (at least during the season anyway, as one reads between the lines). So, Kiffin is here for the time being and in still in charge of the defense, so where do the Cowboys go from here? Although it has been the subject of conversation after previous games and we have heard there will be more man coverage by the cornerbacks, we have still been seeing a lot of zone coverage and it was destroyed by the Saints.
Continuing to rely so heavily, or even at all, on zone coverage is where the problem lies. The Cowboys top cornerbacks were signed to play for this team because of their man coverage skills. When Kiffin was hired, I felt the transition from the 3-4 defense to the 4-3 would not be that difficult. It would certainly be easier to learn this simple 4-3 scheme than the complex 3-4 scheme employed by Ryan. What I didn’t take into account was how difficult it would be for these cover corners to learn to play zone. And in fact, I didn’t think they would be even forced into a zone scheme.
You see I thought they would plan on using the strengths of the players on this defense. You know, adjusting the scheme to fit the players, not making the players fit the scheme. But that’s exactly what Kiffin did, try to make the players fit the scheme and that was, and still is, a mistake. What I envisioned was the scheme run by Cowboys defensive line coach Rod Marinelli when he was the defensive coordinator for the Chicago Bears. He combined the defensive line pressure that is a prominent part of this defensive scheme with the bump and run man coverage that fit his cornerbacks.
What is missing for the Cowboys is that constant pressure on the quarterback due to the loss of key players on the Cowboys defensive line. We all know that the Cowboys thought they had it covered, even though they didn’t. It is what it is and nothing can be done about that for the time being, except for continuing to churn the roster with unknown players. It is that lack of pressure on the quarterback though that has exacerbated the problems with zone coverage, because the opposing quarterback has all day to pick apart the zone.
My point is that man bump and run coverage is not only better suited for the Cowboys corners, it will also help them to cover for the deficiencies of the pass rush. Not only is man coverage tighter than the zone, bumping the receivers during the first five yards also throws them off their route which causes the quarterback to have more difficulty finding the open receiver. If Kiffin will go exclusively with man coverage, the Cowboys will see better results.
As far as the future is concerned, it doesn’t take a genius to see that Marinelli is the defensive coordinator in waiting. We know that Kiffin was his mentor, but there had to be more to the decision to take a step down from defensive coordinator of the Bears to become defensive line coach for the Cowboys. That reason I believe is that Kiffin was going to coach a couple more years and then turn it over to Marinelli. I’m hoping that timeline is now being accelerated with Kiffin retiring and Marinelli moving up to coordinator next season, because a defense that looks like last years’ Bear defense is highly preferable to the one we are seeing from the Cowboys this year.