Dallas Cowboys 4-3 Defense: The 5 Crucial Positions for “Tampa-2” Success


The biggest change this offseason is undoubtedly the firing of Rob Ryan and hiring of Monte Kiffin to signify the scheme change back to a 4-3 Defensive Scheme. The Dallas Cowboys haven’t run a 4-3 Defense since the 2004 season. The 2005 drafting of DeMarcus Ware and Marcus Spears signaled the switch to a 3-4 those many years ago. The Dallas Cowboys have enjoyed some success in the 3-4 but after the past 3 seasons have been serviceable at best, Jason Garrett and Jerry Jones decided a change in philosophy was needed, after all The Dallas Cowboys enjoyed their most success under the famed 4-3 scheme.

May 21, 2013; Irving, TX, USA; Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin works with linebacker Sean Lee (50) and the defense during organized team activities at Dallas Cowboys Headquarters. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Much like any scheme change there will be certain positions that are valued higher than others and that is precisely what will be delved into in this article. The 3-4 defensive schemes had put a significant importance on the outside linebackers and cornerbacks. What hasn’t been discussed as much as it should be is the fact that this particular scheme is not a typical 4-3 defense. It is widely known that the correct name for this Defense is the Tampa-2 Defense, or in this case Dallas-2 Defense. The Dallas-2 will be somewhat of a subsidiary of the 4-3 scheme. There will be some basic 4-3 formations but Monte Kiffin is the founding father of the “Tampa-2” and this will definitely be the foundation for this Dallas Cowboys Organization going forward.

Middle Linebacker (MIKE)

  • Projected Starter: Sean Lee

The most instinctual and intelligent of the linebackers, the MIKE needs to be as athletic as he is smart and be counted on to be the “quarterback of the defense”.  Kiffin’s “Tampa-2” requires the MIKE to have above-average speed and he has to be a great tackler much like the WILL. The MIKE is often to stop the run but at times of zone coverage, he will be asked to line-up over the fullback. The Linebacker’s impeccable instincts added with a sure confidence in reading a quarterback’s cadence at the offensive line and ability to alert the Secondary of the play are other requirements of his skill-set. The Middle Linebacker is often the biggest and strongest of the linebackers as well but in this “Tampa-2” Scheme the MIKE is not necessarily required to be as big as say a Brian Urlacher but more focus is shifted toward speed and reaction time of the defender. This is exactly what Sean Lee was created to do. He happens to be one of the most intelligent linebackers in the league and was considered a Captain at the end of his rookie season. Sean Lee has every intangible to succeed in this scheme and with the right guidance look for Lee to excel to a Pro-Bowl level.

Weak-Side Linebacker (WILL)

  • Projected Starter: Bruce Carter

The most important position in my mind has got to be the Weak-Side Linebacker or WILL, this position has got to be the quickest of all the linebackers because often times the WILL is called into coverage. The WILL is also usually chasing the ball carrier from behind so his speed has to be one of his major attributes. In the “Tampa-2” the object of the defense is to guide the ball carrier into the crosshairs of the WILL and the WILL is also required to be a tremendous tackler. The WILL is to line up opposite the Middle Linebacker and attack the side of the weak flat. The projected starter is Bruce Carter and his skill set is very comparable to what he is going to be asked to do. This Linebacking core bodes well for The Dallas Cowboys because paired with Sean Lee; Bruce Carter is set to make this Cowboys Linebacking core arguably one of the best in the NFL.

3-Tech Defensive Tackle

  • Projected Starter: Jay Ratliff
  • Primary Back-up: Jason Hatcher

The 3-Tech is going to line-up in this scheme on the outside shoulder of the Right Guard. His main objective is to shoot the gap and cause disruption by getting up the field into the Quarterback’s face. The 3-Tech is generally speaking faster than the 1-Tech (Nose-Tackle) and tends to have better pass rush moves that help him serves as the “motor” of the “Tampa-2” Defense. Jay Ratliff played as a Nose Tackle in the 3-4 Scheme and played remarkably well, earning himself 4 Pro-Bowl appearances. However at 32 years old and facing unfortunate injuries over the last season it is best for him to not take on double teams anymore. By placing him at the 3-Tech, it can add a few years to his career and allow him to do what he’s best at; rush the Quarterback. Hatcher has served as a pretty good pass rusher for The Cowboys in certain packages and I believe that having him primarily back-up Ratliff will keep him as a productive defensive lineman going forward.

Defensive End

  • Projected Starters: DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer
  • Primary Back-ups: Tyrone Crawford, Kyle Wilber

The Defensive Ends in this scheme are the smallest of the linemen because more emphasis is put on speed and pass rush ability. Their objectives are simple get to the quarterback and create pressure. Ideally, the Defensive Ends need to be strong enough to get around the Offensive Tackles but quick enough to chase down the Running-Back. The Defensive End that lines up across from the Left Tackle is typically the most athletic and skilled pass rusher; this would be DeMarcus Ware who is one of the premier pass rushers in the NFL. Anthony Spencer will line up on the Strong Side and often play the 2-Gap in case of a Tight End pinching on run plays. The 4-3 Ends are athletic and can often get into the backfield with incredible quickness. Spencer really came on strong last season and also has a knack to stop the run which makes him extra valuable to Monte Kiffin. DeMarcus Ware, who currently is recuperating from a shoulder surgery, should return back to the form that has him in the Pro-Bowl every year.

Free Safety

  • Projected Starter: Unknown
  • Roster includes: Will Allen, Matt Johnson, JJ Wilcox, Jakar Hamilton

 The Free Safety will be determined in a battle during Training Camp this year but the coaches have said many positive things about Matt Johnson. The Free Safety in the “Tampa-2” Scheme is the last line of defense frankly; he has to have tremendous instincts much like the Middle Linebacker. This position requires an agile and intelligent player capable of reading opposing offenses and assisting with coverage whether run or pass. The Free Safety needs to be a proven tackler and quick to react to the quarterback. The Strong Safety is important in covering the Tight End and middle of the field but the Free Safety is relied on heavily to create turnovers and make offenses pay for not respecting his ability. 

Obviously these positions do not cover the entire “Tampa-2” schematic picture but in my humble opinion these are the players that affect the outcome of the game most. This Defense is designed to be simpler to the defenders who play it and also focuses heavily on turnovers. The Dallas Cowboys have had issues in the past creating turnovers on this Defense but showed a little promise last year. Monte Kiffin has 2 very capable Cornerbacks with Press-Man Coverage ability and physicality that makes them very sneaky in the backfield. Kiffin has shown his ability in the past to be able to utilize each player to their best abilities and I believe Dallas will be no different. Even though the “Tampa-2” doesn’t necessarily require very physically gifted cornerbacks, look for Kiffin to use this as an extra weapon for opposing offenses. This Defense has some really gifted players in certain positions that can really bode well for this team. This summer will produce a very highly entertaining Training Camp for the open spots on this roster and should show the depth that this Cowboys team has created in recent memory.