There is no doubt the season-ending injury to Sean Lee has torn the heart out of Cowboys faithful this week. For those in the know, the vicious blow is no less demoralizing than losing Tony Romo 6 games into the 20010-11 season. Make no mistake, Sean Lee is the quarterback and heart and soul of this Dallas defense.
Both Lee and DeMarcus Ware are the two mega-stars on the unit, but Lee’s actions strongly effect and influence the vast majority of snaps run against the defense. Ware’s effectiveness can be limited simply by the offensive play heading in the opposite direction. DeMarcus is invaluable, yet Lee roams sideline to sideline making opposing offenses pay on a more consistent basis.
NEXT IN LINE: DAN CONNOR
The bad news is replacement Dan Connor does not bring 1/4 of what Sean Lee brings to the table. While Connor has played decent as a Cowboy, he’s also shown many shortcomings. His reaction time lags against both the run and pass, he’s not particularly strong when taking on blocks, and also has an even harder time shedding them once engaged well.
The absolute worst aspect to his game is his pass coverage skills, or lack thereof. Time and again Connor’s feet become buried in concrete as an oncoming receiving option approaches.
Of all the Dallas inside linebackers, Dan Connor is the only one to grade out negatively in both defending the run and pass coverage categories. In his prior two years with significant snaps in Carolina, Connor graded out negatively in pass coverage in both. He was targeted 21 times over those two seasons and allowed 18 receptions.
Late in the hotly contested battle in Carolina last week, the Panthers sent 5’9, 245 lbs. running back Mike Tolbert on a pass route around the end to test Connor in the open field. As Tolbert approached the frozen Dan Connor, he made one move left and Connor bit hard in that direction.
Tolbert then cut it back to his right by design and streaked across the field nearly five yards separated from Connor. Cam Newton was already locked in on this route before the move was made to create the wide open target. Fortunately for Connor and Dallas, Newton threw a horrible pass that was nowhere near his ridiculously open bowling ball of a running back.
At a crucial time late in the game, success on that play would have changed things dramatically in Carolina’s favor with a minimum 20 yard gain and critical first down. Instead, Carolina ended up punting and all was forgotten.
The bad news is the offensive coordinator undoubtedly called this play solely to exploit Connor in the open field. Cam Newton was watching that specific match-up the entire way, waiting for the opening to appear…and it did right on schedule.
Since offensive coordinators are obviously well aware of Connor’s glaring deficiencies in one-on-one coverage, opposing offenses will now create more opportunities with far more dangerous receiving backs in the NFC East. If Rob Ryan can’t somehow patch this weakness abruptly, Dallas is in real trouble.
Ryan may be able to do this in known passing situations, but in the Dallas 3-4 base defense he will keep Connor in on early downs to play the snaps with a higher run probability. Which means Connor will be on the field and open to exposure by the exact type of play Carolina attempted.
Expecting the Cowboys to successfully compete against strong offenses with Connor in full-time for Lee will surely result in disaster. Just as Keith Brooking was exposed in pass coverage almost immediately when he replaced Lee late last season.
NO LEE? BRING ON THE 4-3
Okay now that the gloom and doom aspect is well documented, it’s time for the good news. There is a somewhat solid way out of this awful dilemma. And Rob Ryan already has this alignment in the Dallas defensive repertoire.
The Cowboys can’t even approach replacing the effectiveness of Sean Lee with other players at the same position. What they can do is replace the entire position with a different base defense. The 4-3 defense is exactly where the Cowboys need to venture, and the only realistic way they can cover this great loss and still play at very high level without major, crippling chinks in their armor.
- Remove An Inside Linebacker – Dan Connor
In essence, from a personnel standpoint all the base switch from the 3-4 defense to 4-3 defense does is remove an inside linebacker and replace it with a defensive tackle. In the 4-3 you have 2 defensive ends as usual, 2 defensive tackles (instead of 1 in the 3-4), and 3 linebackers (instead of 4 in the 3-4). By removing the second inside linebacker, you move Bruce Carter to the sole middle linebacker spot. The small shift from 3-4 inside LB to 4-3 middle LB is not an overly encompassing adjustment in responsibilities.
So now your 3 linebackers in the base front of the 4-3 are Anthony Spencer, Bruce Carter, and DeMarcus Ware. The second change is to slide the defensive tackle (Jay Ratliff) over to one side of the interior line, and add a second DT on the other side of the line. This move only works if you have a second capable defensive tackle.
- Add A Defensive Tackle – Josh Brent
Fortunately for the Cowboys, I’ve heard nothing but high praise for Josh Brent all season. In the absence of Jay Ratliff, Brent has taken the majority of starting snaps at nose tackle/defensive tackle, and several more as a back-up once Ratliff returned.
Dallas has trusted Josh to take 169 snaps this season, almost double the 88 logged by the injury plagued season of Ratliff. Surprisingly, Josh Brent has graded out positively in every single game of the season. Even with a healthy Ratliff back starting in Carolina, Josh Brent took 35% of the starting snaps at NT/DT.
It was Brent who put intense pressure on Cam Newton in the pocket forcing him to toss up an awful pass which Morris Claiborne snagged in the Dallas endzone and converted into his first NFL interception. The pressure and INT took crucial points off the board for Carolina.
"Thank God the D-line got there and put a little pressure on the quarterback and made him do some things he didn’t want to do. — Morris Claiborne on his first NFL interception"
Dallas has already trusted Josh Brent to start in the absence of Ratliff, it’s now time to start him alongside Jay Ratliff. I have little concern Bruce Carter can man the middle effectively. With the base defense switch to the 4-3, Dallas once again fields a formidable front seven with no excessive vulnerabilities to exploit.
- Continue to Alternate Defensive Alignments
There are some drawbacks with the Cowboys personnel in the 4-3 base alignment. In this defense, the pass rush responsibilities fall much more consistently on the shoulders of the defensive ends in lieu of the outside linebackers. It’s never wise to remove DeMarcus Ware from the pocket pressure picture. Ryan would need to play Ware as a 4-3 defensive end often on more likely passing downs and bring in a substitute OLB to replace him.
It still remains very important to alternate from the 4-3 base defense to the 3-4 alignment, nickel package, and other pass coverage packages in longer down and distance situations (passing downs). Even when back in the 3-4 defense there are coverage tweaks that can be made to replace Connor with a safety, etc.
In no way am I suggesting Dallas should replace the 3-4 entirely, merely the 4-3 should become the base defense in which they make alterations to according to down and distance situations. This once again gives Rob Ryan a sturdy base front to begin with, and then adjust schemes and players as game situations dictate.
To keep the 3-4 defense as the base front and rely on Dan Connor and other back-up caliber inside linebackers to fill the huge Sean Lee void, is nothing less than affording the opponent an open wound to constantly stab at it until it bleeds the Cowboys out.
Rob Ryan is known for creatively masking personnel deficiencies by alternating into multiple defensive schemes when required. He’s done a masterful job already this season covering up the vulnerable safety position voided by Barry Church.
That being said, with a solid, aggressive cornerback on both sides of the field and an effective pass rush, masking a limited safety is not an overly daunting challenge. Covering up the absence of one of the top 5 inside linebackers in the entire NFL is a highly difficult endeavor, especially in Dallas’ 3-4 base defense.
Ryan and the Cowboys must proactively apply the 4-3 base defense as the initial preventative tourniquet. Waiting to stop the bleeding after the dangerous Giants consistently gash the exposed wound will be a recipe for defeat. No doubt a recipe that will be repeated by all opponents until the Cowboys change the ingredients.
GIANTS 34, COWBOYS 27
The Cowboys will take their lumps in the fiery rematch. Blind faith in a limited Dan Connor and a maximum payback effort from New York will even the season series at 1-1. The Giants undefeated streak at Cowboys Stadium stretches to 4 straight.