IRVING, Texas – The “Tampa 2” defense prides itself on an ability to eliminate big plays, while also creating turnovers at a high rate.
Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan prided his 3-4 defense on the former, while failing to come through on the latter. In fact, Ryan stopped preaching “turnovers” and changed the name strictly to “takeovers” with the hope that some sort of alteration would spark an ability to get the ball back to the offense more proficiently.
The Cowboys struggled to create any turnovers – or takeovers – all year, even when healthy (though, surprisingly, they actually got marginally better after the name change).
Numerous questions surround the hiring of Monte Kiffin and whether or not he’s an upgrade after being out of the league and in the collegiate ranks since 2009. How will the Cowboys defense adjust from a 3-4 to a 4-3? Will Kiffin tweak his “Tampa 2” defense to better fit the strengths of the personnel in Dallas? Will Kiffin’s defense look more like it did in Tampa Bay, or USC?
While every coordinator will be judged on his defense’s ability to stop opponents from driving and scoring, there’s another aspect of the game Kiffin needs to improve with this particular defense before he can be evaluated completely, and that’s in creating turnovers.
If Kiffin can enter the Cowboys organization and use his style of defense to force turnovers, frustrate opponents and halt offenses the same way he did while he coached in Tampa Bay, then the Cowboys’ new hire can be deemed a success.
Dallas finished No. 14 in total defense in 2011 and No. 19 in total defense in 2012, while ending the year in the bottom half of the league in total takeaways in both of Ryan’s two seasons as defensive coordinator. The defense ranked No. 17 in interceptions in 2011 and No. 31 in 2012. With only seven interceptions and nine forced fumbles this year, the Cowboys finished 29th in the league in takeaways.
Ryan said he was more concerned with stopping teams from driving the length of the field than figuring out why the turnovers weren’t coming in bulk. The Cowboys managed to stay among the league’s best in total defense early in the year while they were healthy, but wins didn’t always follow.
As the Cowboys found out against the Bears and Seahawks, turnovers can be devastating. Kiffin’s best defenses in Tampa Bay disrupted teams in a similar fashion to what Chicago and Seattle did to Dallas within the first four weeks of this season.
Between the 2000 season and Kiffin’s final year in 2008, the Buccaneers defense finished outside the top 10 in total defense just once, in 2006. Kiffin’s defense immediately improved to No. 2 in total defense in 2007.
In the same timeframe since 2000, Kiffin’s defenses in Tampa Bay ranked in the top 10 in interceptions and total takeaways six times. The Bucs ranked in the top three in interceptions from 2000-02, as well as in 2008.
Kiffin didn’t sacrifice turnover totals while leading one of the top-ranked total defenses, nor did he sacrifice yards and points to get takeaways.
It remains to be seen if he can channel similar results with a new defense in a new location five years later. Until that becomes evident, critiquing or applauding his hiring seems fruitless.