Not long ago, there was a lot of value in playing a conservative style of defense in the NFL. Offenses ran the ball way too much—they still do, but it’s getting better—and there wasn’t nearly as much scoring as in today’s game. That meant the value of each possession wasn’t all that great. For so long, offenses actually viewed punting as a quality option (even though it’s really a turnover). As long as they didn’t throw an interception or fumble the ball, all was good.
Fast-forward to today and we have a rookie quarterback in Robert Griffin III who broke the NFL’s single-season record for passer rating against the blitz. Not for a rookie—for any player ever. Today’s offenses are so much more high-powered than they once were. How about this stat: of the top nine individual seasons in terms of passing yards, all but one (Dan Marino in 1984) has come since 2008. Seven of the nine have been in the past two seasons!
And it’s getting even better for offenses. The rules are set up for them to exploit, and a recent wave of offensive innovation—think Jim Harbaugh and Chip Kelly types—means we’re going to see offenses continue to grow almost exponentially.
That means that defenses must adapt by playing more aggressively. Since offenses are scoring more often, the value of each possession has increased quite a bit. That also means that giving up scores—even touchdowns—isn’t a backbreaker. With offenses able to overcome a 14-point deficit in the blink of an eye, there’s more incentive for defenses to try to make the big play—and get the ball back to their offense—than to sit back and let offenses continually beat them down the field.
That’s why the Cowboys need to be careful this season. Whether Monte Kiffin has them primarily in Cover 2 or Cover 3, the ‘Boys need to force the issue. Kiffin’s defenses have historically been able to do that by getting a decent pass rush with just four defenders, but the game has changed in the past few years. The Cowboys can’t simply sit back in their zones and wait for offenses to make mistakes. Unlike in past years, that isn’t going to happen much anymore.
If Dallas can get pressure with four rushers and still play aggressively in the back end, the new scheme could work wonders. The key is maintaining aggression. Otherwise, the league’s top offenses will methodically move right down the field.
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.