(Editor's Note: The DallasCowboys.com team welcomes Bucky Brooks to the staff. Bucky brings a wealth of experience, not only as a former NFL player of five seasons, but also as a scout and on the pro personnel side for two teams. In the last decade, Brooks has worked in the media, including the NFL Network. Bucky will provide his own analysis and opinions of the Cowboys but also the entire NFL. Today, he breaks down one of the new free-agent signings in defensive end Aldon Smith.)
Since Mike McCarthy named Mike Nolan as his defensive coordinator, the focus has been on which scheme would the veteran coach employ with the Cowboys. Although Nolan has been a long-time proponent of the 3-4, the Cowboys are expected to remain a 4-3 team but the coach has stated that the "players will determine what we do".
Looking at the Cowboys' defensive line and the changes that have taken place throughout the offseason, I would expect to see Nolan use a hybrid scheme with some 3-4 tactics sprinkled into the game plan. After studying the All-22 coaches' footage of the Cowboys' defensive line personnel, here are three reasons why mixing in the 3-4 makes sense:
The additions Gerald McCoy and Dontari Poe give the Cowboys more size on the inside.
It's not a coincidence that the Cowboys' opening moves in free agency included a pair of big-bodied defensive tackles with the size, strength, and power to play as one-gap or two-gap defenders. Poe, in particular, can play straight up over the center and control both A gaps (hole between the center and guard). The 6-3, 346-pounder has the capacity to play as a 0-technique (head up over the center) in a 3-4 scheme or he can play as a shade in a four-man front.
McCoy is a classic 3-technique with the first-step quickness and burst to shoot through gaps as a disruptive penetrator. Although he's lost some of his mojo at this stage of his career, the former All-Pro still flashes some playmaking ability at the point of attack. With a 20-plus pound weight loss in the offseason, McCoy could re-emerge as a difference-maker in a scheme that puts him in the B gap and lets him create chaos at the line.
Cowboys have perfect interchangeable EDGE defenders in a hybrid scheme
The outside linebackers/defensive ends are the most important players in a scheme that morphs from a 4-3 to 3-4. The edge defenders are expected to be triple threats with the capacity to build a wall against the run while also harassing quarterbacks as pass rushers or coverage players from stand up positions. The multi-faceted position requires athletic playmakers to fill the roles, particularly in a 3-4 scheme designed to create confusion and chaos with the edge defenders attacking from various angles on blitzes, stunts, and games.
DeMarcus Lawrence, Aldon Smith, and Randy Gregory have displayed the athleticism and disruptive skills to occupy multi-faceted roles in a defense that could move in and out of three- and four-man fronts to exploit favorable match-ups. In a 3-4, in particular, Nolan can create some one-on-one opportunities against tight ends and running backs for his top pass rushers by using disguise and deception at the line of scrimmage to disrupt the opponent's pass protection plan.
With seven defenders in the box, including four linebackers operating from stand-up positions, the Cowboys can combine some exotic pre-snap disguises with overload pressures to get Lawrence, Smith, or Gregory isolated on an overmatched running back or linebackers. These favorable one-on-one battles should lead to more sacks, pressures and QB hits in the pocket. Most importantly, the constant disruption results in more turnovers on strip-sacks, batted passes, and errant throws.
Tyrone Crawford is the wild card of the defensive front
The veteran defensive end has experience playing on the edges or inside for the Cowboys. Those reps could come in hand if the Cowboys kick him inside to the 5-technique position in some of their three-man fronts. By aligning Crawford on the edge of the tackle to the tight end's side (beside Poe at nose tackle and McCoy aligned on the others side as the 3-technique), the Cowboys can play some five-man fronts with Smith or Gregory playing opposite Lawrence. This "Under" front is designed to neutralize the run by plugging gaps with big bodies to enable speedy linebackers to run unobstructed to the ball.
In addition, the Cowboys could move into a "Bear" front with Poe positioned in a 0-technique with McCoy and Crawford aligned in 3-techniques on their respective sides. The old school Double Eagle alignment snuffs out the run while giving Nolan a number of blitz options with Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch shooting gaps from various alignments.
Considering Crawford's size (6-foot-4, 290 pounds), athleticism, and versatility as an inside-outside defender, Nolan could employ a number of different personnel packages and schemes to make the Cowboys' defense a headache for opponents in 2020.