Mickey Spagnola says the key to any defense is 3rd down, when teams go into their nickel formation, bringing in an extra defensive back for a linebacker. That’s where the Cowboys D fell apart down the stretch last year and new coach Wade Phillips seems to have some ideas for fixing it.
A great third-down defense will give up first downs just less than 30 percent of the time. If your third-down efficiency is in the 30-35-percent range, you are doing well. But once your efficiency percentage starts climbing into the 40 range, your nickel is pretty wooden.
And last year, the Cowboys struggled on third down, and that’s being polite. They finished with a 43.9-percent third-down efficiency. Only Cleveland, Indianapolis, St. Louis and San Francisco finished with a higher percentage. In fact, the Cowboys finished five points higher than the league average (38.9).
That’s not good, and a reason why new head coach Wade Phillips, along with his new defensive coordinator Brian Stewart, plan on shaking up the personnel when the Cowboys trot out their nickel squad in 2007. The biggest switch might be moving safety Roy Williams up into a nickel linebacker spot, if he can handle the responsibilities there.
There also likely will be a shakeup on the four-man defensive line, Phillips doing all he can to put his four best pass rushers up front, and if that’s the case, then three of them should be DeMarcus Ware, Greg Ellis and first-round draft choice Anthony Spencer. And don’t be surprised if the other linebacker changes, too, since the Cowboys have some athletic guys in Kevin Burnett and Bobby Carpenter to choose from if a lighter Bradie James isn’t the continued answer in the middle.
While moving a Pro Bowl strong safety to linebacker seems like heresy, it really makes sense. Williams’ weakness, as everyone knows by now, is in coverage. Since linebackers are mostly rushing the passer on 3rd down, why not move him up to do just that, while bringing in a coverage specialist?
The only problem I see with that is that linebacker seems to be the Cowboys’ strength. They’ve already got Marcus Ware, Greg Ellis, Bobby Carpenter, Anthony Spencer, and a bevy of talented others at the position.
Here’s how Spags sees the lineup progressing, assuming there are no injuries or other surprises in training camp (which starts Tuesday):
Terence Newman (Slot) — Will continue to man the toughest position on the nickel, taking the slot receiver.
Aaron Glenn (CB) — Still coming in for Newman to take his spot at left cornerback.
Anthony Henry (CB) — His aggressive play at right corner will be a huge asset if the pass-rush pressure increases.
Ken Hamlin (S) — Must become the take-charge guy back there and make sure everything stays in front of him.
Pat Watkins (S) — Will play with more confidence his second season, and is penciled in as the nickel safety.
Roy Williams (LB) — Moving up from safety to linebacker does not absolve him from coverage responsibilities. He can’t blitz all the time.
Bradie James (LB) — Has dropped 20 pounds in the off-season, which should help him in coverage.
DeMarcus Ware (DE) — Led team last year with 11Â½ sacks, and might total even more this year with a legitimate, 16-game threat on the other side.
Anthony Spencer (DE) — If he does nothing else as a rookie, he must become a pass-rushing threat at defensive end on this unit.
Greg Ellis (DT) — The thought of rushing from inside on third down doesn’t thrill Ellis, but he’s such a team player he will warm to the idea.
Jay Ratliff (DT — Ended up tied for third on the team with four sacks and tied for the lead in QB pressures with seven, all mostly recorded when playing inside on the nickel.
Keith Davis (LB) – Has been working behind Roy Williams at the nickel linebacker spot.
Kevin Burnett (LB) – Don’t be surprised if he mounts a serious challenge to grab a nickel linebacker spot.
Nate Jones (CB) – Don’t forget the Cowboys utilized him as a cover guy in the slot toward the end of last season, playing the opposite side from Newman.
Bobby Carpenter (LB) – Will be the nickel utility man, able to play one of the linebacker spots but might line up as a pass-rush defensive end at times, too.
Jason Hatcher (DE/DT) – Can play either spot, and might be able to push Ratliff for playing time in the middle.
Junior Glymph (DE) – His pass-rush skills might earn him some snaps on the nickel if someone needs a rest.
The Cowboys have stockpiled perhaps too much talent up front for a salary cap league. Spending three consecutive first round picks at linebacker and several other high picks on the defensive line leaves the team a little weak elsewhere, notably the offensive line. And it wouldn’t hurt to have some wide receivers in their 20s, either.
Still, this defense is so loaded, it’s scary. They’ve underachieved the last two years. We’ll see if Phillips can get them playing to potential.
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