Soon after Monte Kiffin accepted his current coaching position as Defensive Coordinator of the Dallas Cowboys, he began thoroughly studying his inherited defensive players.
Following the evaluation period, Kiffin openly expressed to the media he felt the players needed to fit his 4-3 defense and excel right away were already in Dallas.
Only 5 games into the season, fans are publicly wondering where was the disconnect? Why is the Dallas defense under-performing so embarrassingly?
Below are some of the main defensive categories and the Cowboys’ NFL ranking.
22nd in avg. points allowed (27.2)
28th in avg. total yards allowed (409.2)
4th in avg. rush yards allowed (82.8 ; opponents’ passing success led to only 109 rushing attempts)
31st in avg. pass yards allowed (326.4)
Allowed 16 TD’s in 5 games (avg. of 3.2 TD’s per game)
The answer to why Kiffin’s expectations are not matching the defense’s production is clear as night and day. This is not remotely the same defense he placed lofty expectations upon before the 2013 season began.
REALITY CHECK: SHREDDED BY INJURIES
The Tampa 2 Defense relies heavily on pressuring the QB with the front 7 players of the defense. Specifically rushing the 4 down defensive linemen, with occasional LB pressure mixed in.
It’s an attacking style of play demanded from those 7 players, which requires explosive, powerful, fast players. Before training camp, Kiffin studied his players and saw every bit of that in them.
The defensive line is required to penetrate the backfield and force opposing QB’s to take the sack, or release the ball quickly and eventually make mistakes. The secondary is then asked to only allow shorter underneath catches limiting big plays.
Once the shorter catches are made the defenders attack the ball carrier aggressively. They apply hard hits and attempt to strip the ball away causing a fumble.
Along with that the defensive backs are also positioned to take advantage of the mistakes made by the hurried QB and intercept bad throws.
Moving on to the problem. Keep in mind, the defensive line depth chart (minus Anthony Spencer) was cleared to begin training camp healthy.
As were the starting 3 linebackers. Spencer was expected to join the other 6 starters in the front 7 no later then a few weeks into the season.
Below is the initial depth chart for the crucial part of the defensive attack, the front 4 DL. Monte Kiffin rightfully made his decisions assuming at least the majority of these guys would be available.
DeMarcus Ware (DE – Starter)
Anthony Spencer (DE – Starter)
Jay Ratliff – (DT – Starter)
Jason Hatcher (DT – Starter)
Tyrone Crawford (DT/DE)
Nick Hayden (DT)
Ben Bass (DE/DT)
Now take notice of the players in bold. Those are the ones who have been available from the initial depth chart.
Only 3 of 7 linemen have contributed to the effort, with the best (Ware) noticeably weakened by nagging injuries.
With 3 of the top 5 DL on the shelf and unavailable, it’s highly unreasonable to expect Kiffin’s severely depleted front line to function anywhere near what he predicted.
Journeymen DE George Selvie and DT Nick Hayden have filled in admirably, yet these guys don’t bring 3/4 of the game-changing ability Anthony Spencer and Jay Ratliff do when healthy.
I doubt it’s even necessary to compare the extreme talent regression in the back-ups caused by Tyrone Crawford and Ben Bass missing the season. Most fans can’t even name the current back-up DT’s on this team.
Now that the QB pressure is lacking, the guys in coverage are left out to dry having to cover much more ground and for longer time periods than they ever would have with the original depth chart relatively intact.
Throw on top of that CB Morris Claiborne fighting through a shoulder dislocation injury, OLB Justin Durant due to miss his 2nd game this week, and a rookie taking over one of the starting safety spots in Week 3.
This isn’t the Monte Kiffin defense anyone, much less the coaches, had in mind. Not even close.
REALITY CHECK: ADJUSTMENTS NEEDED
So the defense is littered with injuries and are unable to operate the Tampa 2 Defense effectively with the current starters. Cry me a river.
This is the NFL, injuries happen constantly across the entire league. There is no room for excuses in this intense profession.
The ‘next man up’ mantra is not repeated for comforting purposes. Owners, coaches, and fans expect it to produce results once activated.
It’s time the Dallas coaches re-evaluated their defensive scheme and the players they have available to operate it.
The current defensive line can’t apply the constant pressure needed to help the secondary fulfill their responsibilities.
This is when good coaches make adjustments to their scheme to fit the players and their abilities. Kiffin should explore tweaked, expanded coverage packages.
When facing offenses like San Diego and Denver, talented multi-receiver sets with reduced running threat, a dime package needs to be introduced.
OLB Bruce Carter is not built to cover speedster (4.38 40-yard) RB Danny Woodhead 30 yards downfield with the QB having all day to analyze the route, and he shouldn’t be expected to.
Even worse, DE George Selvie got beat in down field coverage by the Denver RB last week. When a 270 lbs. DE is man covering a 200 lbs. RB down field past a 5-yard zone area, there’s is simply something insanely wrong with that particular scheme.
I’m not about to buy into the fact that highly talented players like Sean Lee, Bruce Carter, and Morris Claiborne have suddenly become inferior coverage players.
The coverage guys would be performing much better if the front 4 pressure was being applied as it was intended before the wave of injuries to several key rushers.
Excuses of injury depletion won’t lead to wins. Monte Kiffin and his staff must get together and form an alternate method of applying their coverage on known passing downs.
Coverage responsibilities have changed since the front 4 is no longer a viable consistent option of applying the QB pressure needed.
It’s time the coaches changed along with them and made the necessary scheme and player adjustments to fulfill the new, expanded coverage roles.
With the Cowboys’ offense heating up, simply upgrading the defense enough to hold opponents under 24 points may turn out to be the magic number to win the NFC East.
All that would require from the defense is a jump from 28th to 17th ranked in points allowed. Surely a legendary coach like Monte Kiffin can take what he now has to work with and find a way to get there. A great place to start is a simple reality check.