The hire of Mike McCarthy as the new head coach of the Dallas Cowboys brings a new defensive coordinator as well. Will there be a change in the scheme too?
Last week began a change in the Dallas Cowboys organization that has been a decade in the making. After nine and a half years under one head coach, the Cowboys finally having a new lead voice.
Even though there have been a few defensive coordinators during that time span, the defense has largely been the baby of Rod Marinelli. Marinelli came to Dallas in 2013 as the defensive line coach under coordinator Monte Kiffin.
Kiffin, for multiple reasons, lasted just one year. From that point forward, Marinelli has been the defensive coordinator, be it nominally or in actuality.
Those days are now a thing of the past as well as McCarthy is bringing in Mike Nolan to run the Dallas Cowboys defense. Nolan has been around football his entire life and brings many interesting facets to the table.
Nolan’s resume speaks for itself. His defensive blueprint is generally aggressive with fairly consistent successes. Ten times, his defenses have finished in the top ten in takeaways. Six times, they have been in the top ten in points allowed. Another six times, they were top ten in yards allowed.
These feats have been accomplished almost exclusively using a 3-4 scheme. The Dallas Cowboys, meanwhile, have not been a 3-4 team since the pre-Marinelli days of Rob Ryan. This, of course, begs the question of whether or not massive changes to the scheme will change along with the coaching.
The easy answer is no. At least not immediately… The biggest reason you can expect a slow change, if any, to the entire scheme is personnel.
The biggest difference between a 3-4 defense and a 4-3 defense is in the role of the outside linebackers. In a 3-4, both outside linebackers need to be versatile pass rushers who can also drop into coverage.
Currently, the only player on the team who might be able to do that sort of double duty would be linebacker Jaylon Smith. In order for the Dallas Cowboys to make a sudden change, it would almost certainly require their first draft pick to be that type of player.
With bigger needs focusing on the interior of the defensive line and the secondary being priority, it is unlikely the change to a 3-4 takes place next year.
Another reason that a swift, sweeping change is unlikely is due to the way the game has changed in such a short time. Nolan’s last stint as a defensive coordinator ended in 2014. These days, defenses spend the majority of their time in nickel and dime packages.
Not only can Nolan run a 4-3 scheme, but he also will employ enough nickel and dime scenarios that there should not be much of an issue not playing his customary 3-4 alignments.
I believe that the biggest changes you will see won’t be related to the scheme but in the personnel. Look for the Dallas Cowboys to plug the interior of the defensive line with much bigger players than you have been accustomed to seeing.
Currently, the biggest man along the line is tackle Antwaun Woods at 6-foot-1 and 318 pounds. A bigger, run-stuffing tackle should be in play, either via free agency or the draft.
The Cowboys will also look to get bigger at the linebacker position. Currently, only one player on the roster weighs more than 250 pounds at this spot. At least one, if not two bigger linebackers could be coming to Dallas in 2020.
At the end of the day, the change in defensive coordinators should be looked upon as happily as the change at head coach. I feel quite confident that with a few tweaks in the personnel, the 2020 Dallas Cowboys defense will be much improved.
That, alone, could vault this team higher than it has been in over two decades. If things do not go as hoped, however, the defense may see a bigger change moving forward schematically.