This week, the Detroit Lions will be facing off against a surprising 2-7 Dallas Cowboys team. The last few years, the Cowboys defense was coached and coordinated by their head coach Wade Philips, but since he was fired two weeks ago, Paul Pasqualoni has taken over. Pasqualoni was the Dolphins defensive coordinator for the last two seasons, so he is an experienced play caller and is quite qualified for the position. Where Wade Philips and Paul Pasqualoni differ is their demeanor. While Philips was known for being the “player’s coach”, Pasqualoni is known for being tough on his players and preaching discipline. Last week, a lot of Pasqualoni’s style of coaching showed up on the field as the Dallas defense held the Giants 6th ranked offense to just 20 points.
Schematically, nothing has changed between Pasqualoni’s defense that the Lions are going to face and Wade Phillips’ defense. The Dallas Cowboys will regularly be in a 3-4 defensive set, but they play a ton of 4-3 and 5-2 sets also (probably the most in the league). While you could call the Dallas defense a zone blitz defense, I think the best way to describe what the Cowboys do defensively would be to call it a Tampa-2 version of the 3-4 defense. In the regular Tampa 2, which is run out of a 4-3 set, the middle linebacker is almost like a midfielder in soccer as he almost always drops back to shallower depths than middle linebackers normally would and tries to take away the middle of the field.
In Dallas’s defensive scheme, Brady James and Keith Brooking almost always play that role as they will often drop back into coverage. This is really why I call Dallas’s defense the Tampa 2 version of the 3-4. Other defenses around the NFL like the Steelers and Jets do things that are similar, but you can expect all four linebackers of both of those teams to blitz at some point. On the other hand, DeMarcus Ware will almost always (if not all the time) rush the passer, even though he is an outside linebacker. The only guy that will consistently drop back into pass coverage and rush the passer is Anthony Spencer. In addition to that, the corners and safeties play a zone coverage scheme most of the time.
I’m pretty sure anyone reading this post has one big question in their mind: how does a defense that was so good the last few seasons have a huge dropoff like they have this season? The answer of course varies on who you ask. Personally, I think there are a bunch of reasons as to why this defense has had the type of fall off it has had. I think it starts with the poor safety play and the lack of talent at the safety positions. While Gerald Sensabaugh and Alan Ball are solid players, they are by no means the elite safety(ies) you need in a 3-4 scheme. Safeties (and secondary players in general) in a 3-4 scheme are often times overshadowed by the big sack guys up front, but it is really the safeties that allow 34 defenses to be as aggressive as they are. Look at the successful 3-4 defense in the NFL today: Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and the New York Jets. Two of the teams have marquee safeties in Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu and the Jets have Darrelle Revis and Anotonio Cromartie who are great cover guys. In years past, Dallas had Pro Bowl safeties in the likes of Roy Williams and Ken Hamlin back there. With those guys gone, Dallas’s defense has become more and more prone to deep play over the years.
Another big reason for the drop off in their defense is the play of their linebackers (their actual linebackers): Brady James and Keith Brooking. Both players have been pretty awful in coverage this year. I think the guys of Playbook on NFL Network can give the best examples of what I mean:
Now for some numbers. Believe it or not, but the Dallas Cowboys defense is giving up 28 points per game, which is tied for 30th in the league (Lions give up 22.4 and are ranked 20th). The Cowboys are equally bad against the pass as they are against the run. They rank 21st against the pass and 23rd against the run. They are currently 20th in the league in sacks with 17 even though DeMacus Ware has eight himself, which means that rest of the team has nine sacks combined. Overall, I think if the Lions can do a decent job of blocking Ware and don’t try to run the ball too much like they did last week against the Bills, then the Dallas defense shouldn’t be the reason they lose the game Sunday. I like our tight ends against the Cowboy’s linebackers and safeties, I like our wide receivers against the Dallas corners. The big question is whether or not the Lions offensive line, which has been great in pass protection can continue to be great against All Pros like Ware and Jay Ratliff.