Why the 2013 Dallas Cowboy Defense May Surprise You.


For the past few months we’ve been digging into new Defensive Coordinator Monte Kiffin’s past (particularly Kiffin’s Tampa Bay years from 1996 to 2008) to better predict what the 2013 Dallas defense will look like. We are frantically plugging current Cowboy’s players into the roles and positions made famous by those Tampa Bay Buccaneers of yesteryear.  But before getting too confident in what we expect, we should probably take notice of what Jason Garrett said at his February press conference,

"Anybody who’s ever played in a Tampa 2 style defense also has to be able to play in a single high style of defense. And certainly some of the things that Seattle has done from a front standpoint – playing some of their 8-man fronts, some of their pressures are similar to what Monte has done in the past and I think what they’ve tried to do, which was fit their scheme to what their personnel is and I think we’ll try to do the same."

Feb 22, 2013; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Dallas Cowboys coach Jason Garrett speaks at a press conference during the 2013 NFL Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

That’s a pretty telling quote. It sounds as though Jason Garrett is modeling the Seattle defense. But what about defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin? After all, he’s the man in charge on the defensive side of the ball. What was Kiffin instructing his players to study? Was it the old Tampa Bay defense that Cowboys fans have been frantically digesting over the past 3 months? Nope. Was it the Chicago Bears defense which employs the best current example of the Tampa 2, Cover 2, and Cover 3? Nope – Not them either.

According to Brandon Carr it’s the Seattle defense Kiffin assigned for homework,

"I kind of asked him what our philosophy and what the look of our defense was going to be, and as a prime example he said, ‘Go see Seattle film and you’ll probably learn a lot from those guys and just watch how they move on the field.’ That’s some homework for me to do for the next couple of weeks.” explained Carr"

When later asked about those early instructions he gave his players, Monte Kiffin seemed to backtrack a little. Presumably because he didn’t want people thinking he was going to run a duplicate or copycat defense. He explained Pete Carroll and he have long shared the same defensive philosophy and they frequently exchange notes and ideas.

"“They (Seattle) do play some single high safety. They have some corners who can play bump and run. We play Cover 2. They play Cover 2. But we’re also very much Buccaneers and Chicago Bears without a doubt.” hedged Kiffin."

By now virtually every Dallas Cowboy site has written novels on the famed Tampa 2 from Tampa Bay. While there’s no question elements of the Tampa 2 will be used in Dallas it’s quite possible the best example of what to expect in Dallas resides in the Pacific Northwest.

The Seattle Defense

The Seattle defense was built by defensive coordinator Gus Bradley (now the Jacksonville Jaguars head coach) and current Seattle head coach Pete Carroll. The Seattle defense is nothing exotic or new but rather it is an evolution of what Monte Kiffin has always run: A two-part defense in which both parts act independently in order to fulfill a common objective. All eleven are responsible to stop the run but in passing situations the assignments begin to separate.

Jan 13, 2013; Atlanta, GA, USA; Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll reacts during the second half of the NFC divisional playoff game against the Atlanta Falcons at the Georgia Dome. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Liles-USA TODAY Sports

Similar to Kiffin’s past defenses, Carroll’s front 4 (down lineman) pass rush while the back 7 (LB’s and DB’s) provide coverage. The front 4 do not drop into coverage nor does the back 7 regularly pass rush. While the back 7 won’t pass rush very often, it’s not uncommon to still play 8 in the box. This dedicates majority of the defensive power to the line of scrimmage. But this brand of football is only possible if the defense has an extremely reliable safety and 2 strong if not dominant cornerbacks

– all of which Seattle has.

Just like in Kiffin’s defense, coverages are generally mixed zone and man and then disguised in order to confuse opposing QB’s and WR’s. The deep safety is a key component in allowing CB’s to play aggressively while LB’s rely on speed and agility to execute assignments.

Aug 18, 2012; San Diego, CA, USA; Dallas Cowboys cornerback Brandon Carr (39) is congratulated by safety Barry Church (42) after intercepting a pass in the second quarter against the San Diego Chargers at Qualcomm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee/Image of Sport-USA TODAY Sports

Both Garrett and Kiffin suggested the Cowboys will be playing a lot of single high safety like they do in Seattle. Remember, playing the single high safety is only possible with strong corners and a great safety. The corners need to have the ability to play bump and run. Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne certainly fit that bill. But the safety is still unknown. With Barry Church the only marginally proven safety on the roster, the Cowboys may need to look to the draft to help mitigate risks in “centerfield”.

Understanding the scheme may even provide some insight into the upcoming NFL Draft. Do you thinks it’s a coincidence Jason Garrett attended the LSU pro day to study star safety Eric Reid? It’s possible Barry Church steps up into that centerfield role but he may prove to be better suited as an “in-the-box” safety. Eric Reid is projected to go between pick 25-45 and he appears the perfect fit for a Seattle-style defense. But before we get too far ahead of ourselves we need to first look at what Pete Carroll has done in Seattle.

So, next up we will take a look at this Seattle defense which Monte Kiffin himself instructed players to study. We will look how it differs from the coverages we discussed here in, Understanding the Coverage and the assignments and techniques Kiffin’s linemen traditionally had here in, The Starting Defensive Line. We will see how the Dallas Cowboy personnel translates to Carroll’s defense and in the end we should see a much better example of what to expect in Dallas this season. The answer may be surprising.

Next up – Part 2: Understanding Seattle’s Defensive Line