Reinventing the Pass Rush: Dallas Cowboys Learn the LEO


As many know, The Dallas Cowboys are installing a defense much like the defense Pete Carroll is running in Seattle. Known as the Single High Safety, Seattle employs an aggressive Front 8 (Defensive Line, LB’s, and the SS) along with one deep Free Safety and two outside Cornerbacks.  Of course there will be a Tampa 2 element along with a Cover 2 element (Note: They are not the same). There will be both man and zone coverage, and at times, a combination of man and zone. But what we are looking at now is the Single High Safety and specifically the Front 8 and the alignments used in Seattle.

If you’re wondering why we would look at Seattle and not the 2002 Tampa Bay defense then read this Jason Garrett quote,

"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."

May 10, 2013; Irving, TX, USA; Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin talks with reporters after the rookie minicamp at Dallas Cowboys Headquarters in Irving, TX. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

I keep coming back to this quote because we all know the Cowboys will be running the Tampa 2 defense. While everyone and their brother (even I’m guilty) has discussed the Tampa 2 defense to a nauseating extent, very little has been said of the Seattle Single High. In part one, The Dallas Defensive Transformation, written earlier this week, we discussed the relationship Kiffin and Seattle coach, Pete Carroll have.

We discussed their similarities and the expectations Cowboy fans should have for 2013.

Today, we will look at some of Seattle’s main defensive packages they run under the single high style of coverage. We will look at players, positions and assignments, and see if and how they translate to the Dallas Cowboys. Some of this may surprise you…

The Leo

Dec 16, 2012; Arlington, TX, USA; Dallas Cowboys linebacker DeMarcus Ware (94) in action against Pittsburgh Steelers tackle Max Starks (78) at Cowboys Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

The first things you notice when studying the Seattle defense is the speed and aggressiveness. Players swarm to the ball. Sometimes susceptible to playaction or playfake they are always top speed and calculated in their assignments.

The next thing you’ll notice is a player known as the LEO. The Leo position is the key to defense. He stands out on film because he is a lineman who lines up in a wide technique to rush the passer. On the Seahawks the Leo was Chris Clemons and then Bruce Irvin.

On the Cowboys the Leo will be DeMarcus Ware (and at times Anthony Spencer).

The Leo typically lines up wide on the weakside of the formation. Calling it a 5-technique or even 7-technique would be an understatement. Think of Jason Babin when he was with the Eagles. He lined up in what Philadelphia called, The Wide Nine. Babin lined up far beyond the outside of the tackle box and rushed from a very wide angle.

By taking that extremely wide technique the pass-rusher  gains an advantage in angles and spacing to better apply pass rush moves. Unless the tackle is very fleet of foot, it is exceedingly difficult for him to effectively pass protect. An athletic tackle who is able to stay in front of a wide technique pass-rusher, is now susceptible to a full speed bull rush, an inside move, or even a double move. It is very clear pass-rushing from a wide-techniqued (or Leo) position allows a huge advantage in the pass rush.

You may be asking, “If lining up wide is such an advantage why did Philadelphia struggle so much in their wide 9?” This is an excellent question to which Pete Carroll found an answer.

First think back. If you remember 2011, Philly did great in the wide 9 from a pass rushing perspective. Babin alone finished with 18 sacks – by far a career best. The problem is when you line up wide you are very vulnerable against the run. Philly was absolutely gashed in 2011 as a result. Pete Carroll’s defense has a solution for this: Use safety help for run support on the weakside.

Sept 1, 2011; Miami, FL, USA; Miami Dolphins running back Daniel Thomas (33) is tackled by Dallas Cowboys defensive back Barry Church (42) during the first quarter at Sun Life Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Safety Support

In Seattle’s Over and Under formations only one player will line up as the Leo. The remaining 3 defensive linemen will line up more traditionally and hold varying assignments.  Many times, two of the other down linemen would have 2 gap responsibilities (usually the 1 technique tackle and the Strong Side DE) while the 4th lineman is the famous 3 technique “Warren Sapp” DT with a penetrating 1 gap responsibility.

The Over and Under formations are stacked on the strong side making running to that side very difficult. The vulnerability is designed to be only on the Leo (weak) side. And that plays right into Pete Carroll’s hand.

If teams attempt to exploit this weakness they will met by the Strong Safety (presumably Barry Church). Because in the single high safety defense the Free Safety plays back in centerfield while the strong safety plays in the box and has specific gap responsibilities to cover the vulnerably left by the attacking Leo.

Instead of playing with 2 deep safeties, like some of Monte Kiffin’s coverage packages call for, Carroll typically plays with only 1 deep safety. The SS plays in the box serving as an extra LB.

The in-the-box safety presence allows the SS and the 3 LB’s to each be responsible for only one gap. Without having 2 gap responsibility the LB’s only need to read run or pass before fully committing. 1 gap responsibility improves reaction time and makes a huge difference in run support. Without the additional safety in the box this would not be possible and the Cowboys would be vulnerable to the run on the Leo side of the formation.

One of the more difficult roles to fill in Kiffin’s past defenses was the roles of the safety. The two deep safeties needed to be both reliable tacklers and ballhawks. Cowboy fans know all too well this combination is very hard to find.

Carroll’s defense asks for a disciplined but play-making deep safety to prevent the big play and a separate safety who excels in tackling rather than coverage. One-dimensional safeties are much easier to find than a complete run/pass safety like Ed Reed.

The Rushmen

Something we continue to hear about is how the entire line will be boldly attacking the backfield. They are now all to be known as “Rushmen”. Seattle typical plays with their share of both large bodied and smaller faster players. The Cowboys seem to be solely interested in speed. The single high safety can support a speed-based D-line like the Cowboys and Kiffin seems to be pretty confident about it. Look at the leaked Draft Board of the Dallas Cowboys and you’ll see the Cowboys were not interested in the larger DT’s that would fit a 2-gap 1 technique NT style. The Cowboys were only looking for speed. This is where Dallas will deviate from Seattle. Where Seattle used their big bodies, Dallas will use more speed.

 Multiple LEO’s

Dec 23, 2012; Arlington, TX, USA; Dallas Cowboys linebacker Anthony Spencer (93) looks into the backfield of the New Orleans Saints at Cowboys Stadium. The Saints beat the Cowboys 34-31 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

No formation within the Single High will be more aggressive than the Bear Formation. The Bear formation is a defense which employs two Leo pass rushers (Ware and Spencer) on both sides instead of just one Leo on the weakside. Just like the Wide 9 this is very effective in pass rushing but equally as susceptible vs the run. That’s why this is only recommended on obvious passing downs.

The Bear looks very similar to Wade Phillips’ 3-4 pass rush. In the Bear, the Leo can rush from a standing 2-point stance or a traditional 3-point stance. If Ware thinks he can rush better from the Leo in a 2-point stance Kiffin will encourage it. Same goes for Anthony Spencer. With Spencer and Ware as the Leo’s attacking from the outside the 3 down linemen (maybe Crawford, Hatcher, and Wilber) will attack from the middle. The extra lineman will replace the SAM (the SAM also subs out in nickel situations for a third CB) on the field.

Kiffin told his players to study the Seattle defense for a reason. The personnel doesn’t offer a perfect fit but with a little creativity this will come together successfully. If anything it’s easy to see how Spencer and Ware can succeed as pass rushers and how the safety dilemma isn’t quite as dire as once thought. This places a gigantic amount of pressure on the CB’s but the Cowboys seem to be confident Carr and Claiborne are up to the challenge. Combining the Single High in Seattle with Kiffin’s Cover 2, Cover 3, and Tampa 2 should provide ample opportunity for the Dallas players to become playmakers and play to their strengths rather than to just fit a scheme. That’s something to look forward to.

If you have any questions you can email me at If your question gets selected I will use it next week in the Monthly Mailbag. Please include your name so I can give you credit for the question. Thanks for reading.

Here are other great Dallas Cowboy articles:

Matt Johnson: A Perspective

Cowboys “New” Offensive Scheme: The Erhardt-Perkins System

The Cowboys New Defense: Breaking Down the Tampa 2