Last week, I proposed five different ways the Cowboys could improve their offense in 2013, headlined by finding Dez Bryant deep, benching Doug Free, and emphasizing DeMarco Murray in the running game.
Starting today, I’m going to analyze a few ways the Cowboys can improve the defense. They’ve already made a major defensive change in firing Rob Ryan and hiring Monte Kiffin—a move that will alter the manner in which each defensive player is utilized.
And the Cowboys do indeed have the personnel for the switch to the 4-3 because, well, the best defensive coordinators most appropriately utilize the talent they are given. Regardless of the scheme, the Cowboys have quality pieces on the defensive side of the ball. They could play well in a 4-3 or a 3-4, but only if the coordinator molds the scheme around the talent instead of finding very specific talent to fit into a rigid scheme.
A major part of Kiffin’s 4-3 defense is defensive tackle play. Kiffin’s defense in Tampa Bay thrived because Warren Sapp was able to eat up the middle of the field and put pressure on the quarterback from the inside. The Cowboys have two talented defensive tackles in Jay Ratliff and Jason Hatcher, but at least one is past his prime. That’s why the Cowboys must invoke a true rotation at defensive tackle in 2013.
Last year, I published an article predicting only 20 tackles and two sacks for Ratliff in 2012. He finished with 16 tackles and zero sacks. Many are predicting a rebound season for Ratliff, but this isn’t a defensive tackle in his mid-20s. Ratliff will be 32 years old when the season begins and his play has been deteriorating for years. I have a really strong feeling that the Cowboys are going to be disappointed with Ratliff’s play this year; you can’t just move a guy over a couple feet in a new scheme and think he’s all of a sudden going to revert to Pro Bowl form.
Further, the Cowboys should limit Hatcher’s reps as well. He was on the field for 784 snaps in 2012—twice that of any other defensive lineman. He’s the Cowboys’ top defensive tackle, but he’s entering the final year of his deal at age 31. In addition to an expected drop in efficiency, the Cowboys just need to see what they have in Sean Lissemore and Tyrone Crawford.
There will probably be somewhere in the neighborhood of 2,000 defensive tackle snaps to go around—1,000 for each starter. In giving Hatcher around 750 snaps and Ratliff about 500, the Cowboys could optimize their defensive tackle efficiency, leaving 750 total snaps to split up between Lissemore, Crawford, and perhaps even Ben Bass.
Jonathan Bales is the founder of The DC Times. He writes for DallasCowboys.com and the New York Times. He's also the author of Fantasy Football for Smart People: How to Dominate Your Draft.