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The recent firing of defensive coordinator Rob Ryan has given the Cowboys a good start towards improving on the defensive side of the ball. In spite of this, there remains to be controversy over whether or not Monte Kiffin is the right man for the job. There is certainly no questioning that Kiffin was a great and influential defensive coordinator with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers when he helped to revolutionize the “Tampa 2″ defense, but his age has led many to question if he is capable of replicating his past success. To be optimistic, while still having regards for some realism, it can be inferred that if Kiffin is even able to be half as good of a play caller as he once was, he will at the very least be an improvement over Rob Ryan.
However, much of this will be contingent upon whether the current personnel on the Dallas defense will be compatible with Kiffin’s scheme. As mentioned before, Monte Kiffin is fond of the “Tampa 2″ scheme, so we should expect to see him convert the team to a 4-3 defense. Transitioning a team between a 3-4 to any type of 4-3 can be difficult as it is, but converting to a “Tampa 2″ requires even more specified personnel.
To reiterate, the “Tampa 2″ is a cover 2 variant in which the MLB will cover the seam between the two deep safeties. As a cover 2 variant, it is essential that a team has two physical cornerbacks (CBs) that are capable of bump and run coverage. The reason being that when both CBs have reliable safety help, there is much less risk in pressing the opposing receivers. In the Cowboys’ case, Brandon Carr is more than capable of being a physical corner, but Morris Claiborne raises some concerns in that area. One of the main gripes that people had against Claiborne going into the draft was that he wasn’t physical enough. This issue also seemed to carry over into the NFL this past season, so CBs could be a slight weakness for the Cowboys when trying to run Kiffin’s scheme.
An additional requirement for a “Tampa 2″ defense is a weakside linebacker (LB) that is a sure tackler and capable of covering a lot of ground. With the MLB focusing on the seam between the safeties, the weakside linebacker assumes a greater responsibility against the run. Prototypical weakside linebackers in this scheme have been Derrick Brooks of Kiffin’s Buccaneers back in the day, Lance Briggs of the Bears, and Chad Greenway of the Vikings. These are LBs that are not only quick enough to play the weakside but are also better tacklers than your typical weakside linebacker. Luckily for the Cowboys, Sean Lee is the perfect fit for a “Tampa 2″ scheme. As an up and coming LB, Sean Lee has spent time playing weak inside LB in Rob Ryan’s 3-4 defense, where he has been notably great at chasing runs from the backside. There is no reason to suggest that he wouldn’t be an ideal weakside LB in a “Tampa 2″ defense.
Although the Cowboys seem to be set at weakside LBs, middle LBs could be a problem. For obvious reasons, there is more emphasis on pass coverage for a MLB in a Tampa 2 scheme than any other scheme. However, the Cowboys are stocked with ILBs that are best utilized in a 3-4 defense. In other words, linebackers such as Dan Connor and Bruce Carter have too much size in order to be able to cover the seam between the safeties.
Lastly, a “Tampa 2″ scheme is typically dependent on having a good pass rush from its front four. While this may seem like an obvious necessity for any scheme, it is more crucial in a Tampa 2 scheme than any other. Since both safeties will be deep for a majority of the game, there will be fewer opportunities to blitz, which puts extra importance on the defensive line being able to get pressure on the quarterback. Although DeMarcus Ware is best suited as a 3-4 outside LB, there is no question that he is also capable of rushing the passer with his hand in the dirt as well. In addition, Jason Hatcher should be right at home as a 3-technique tackle given his ability to penetrate in both the running game and the passing game.
Overall, the Cowboys should at least be adequate enough personnel wise in order to transition to Kiffin’s defense. In spite of this, there are certainly some voids that need to be addressed either in the draft or during free agency. Skepticism can also arise from Monte Kiffin’s age, as well as the lack of overall talent on the roster as of now. For these reasons, Cowboys fans should not take for granted that Rob Ryan’s firing will drastically improve the defense.