WITH A sad-sack 16 takeaways in 2012, the Cowboys were one of the least opportunistic teams in the NFL. (Only three had fewer.) In hiring Monte Kiffin to coordinate an underachieving defense, owner Jerry Jones hoped that a hail of turnovers would follow. And so it came to pass during Dallas's 12--7 exhibition loss to Arizona on Aug. 17—though not in the way that Jones had in mind. Cowboys fans watching that game saw seven turnovers. Alas, six of them were by Dallas. On the bright side, the defense, running Kiffin's 4--3 base, did not allow a TD off those six giveaways, four of which occurred on the Cowboys' side of the field.
While Kiffin's unit hasn't been particularly sticky-fingered in the preseason, the Boys got stingy when backed up to their own goal line; the starters didn't allow a red zone TD in four games. For a club that gave up 25 points per game in 2012, that's a promising development.
Along with the usual questions—can Tony Romo earn the money Jones is paying him? Is this the year Dez Bryant (page 58) blows up?—there is this one: How much does the 73-year-old Kiffin have left in the tank? Plenty, would be the reply of anyone who saw the grinning septuagenarian bounding from drill to drill at the Cowboys' training camp in Oxnard, Calif. "Quick feet, quick feet—now get ball!" he blasted at linebackers during one afternoon practice. "Turn the corner. C'mon—Speed, man! Tempo!"
Kiffin clearly still loves this game. But has it passed him by? Can his Greatest-Hits-of-the-'90s Tampa Two system get it done in a conference that features RG3, a freakishly gifted pure sprinter running the read-option? How will his defensive staff fare against a coach, the Eagles' Chip Kelly, whose hurry-up juggernaut hung 62 points on the last defense Kiffin coordinated?
In fairness, Kiffin has shown a willingness to evolve. While the Tampa Two tag has long denoted cornerbacks hovering cautiously in zone coverage, Kiffin has promised his corners, Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne, both highly gifted man-to-man defenders, that they'll spend plenty of time "playing press-man, in your face."
Kiffin also blended coverages in his previous job. It didn't end well, in large part because of his defense's struggles against read-option attacks. Despite his cozy relationship with USC's coach—Lane Kiffin is his son—Monte had little recourse but to resign after the Trojans finished last season 60th in total defense, having surrendered 730 yards of offense in the aforementioned loss to Kelly's Ducks.
But the Cowboys had issues of their own, finishing 8--8 and failing to make the postseason for the third straight year. So Jones fired coordinator Rob Ryan—he of perhaps too many schemes—in favor of Kiffin and his more straightforward, streamlined attack.
Under Kiffin, dueling sackmeisters Anthony Spencer and DeMarcus Ware must now devolve from stand-up outside linebackers into turf-pawing ends who will start most snaps in a three-point stance. It helps that each played end, one hand on the ground, in college. In a way the move uncomplicates their lives: They don't have to worry about running stride for stride with slot receivers, or rerouting wideouts on drag routes across the middle. Ware describes his new duties thusly: "Hand on the ground. Play the run. Rush the passer. Very simple."
Ware has bulked up by roughly five pounds, to 258, in order to better cope with the tackles that he'll now be taking on directly. For his part, erstwhile 3--4 inside linebacker Sean Lee dropped 10 pounds for his move to the Mike (middle) 'backer spot in the 4--3. There he'll call defenses, stuff the run, cover tight ends and otherwise attempt to mirror what Brian Urlacher did in Chicago.
Lee often gets compared to the former Bears All-Pro, and he cringes a little every time. "He's one of the best of all time," says the fourth-year guy out of Penn State. "I've [started 21] games, and I'm coming off an injured season." Regardless, with down linemen eating more blocks for him in Kiffin's system, he will have a career season if he can stay on the field.
After that 12--7 loss to the Cardinals, Lee wasn't in the mood to accept congratulations for some stout play in the red zone, lamenting, "We have to find a way to get more turnovers." The system is new, the goal is not. Take it away, Boys.
THE CASE FOR...
Defensive tackle Jason Hatcher
One of the subplots of the Cowboys' switch to Monte Kiffin's 4--3 could well be titled, How Low Can Jason Hatcher Go? Hatcher excelled as a defensive end in Dallas's 3--4 scheme last season, his first as a full-time starter, racking up 51 tackles, four sacks and 25 pressures. Now, with Kiffin's arrival, the eighth-year player has been bumped inside to tackle, where his height—he goes 6' 6", 299 pounds—is not an advantage. Lining up as a three-technique (shaded to the outside shoulder of the guard opposite him), he must stay as low as possible to get under the pads of the man trying to block him. Can the Cowboys' tallest defensive player stay low enough to make the transition? In camp, the answer was a resounding yes, with Hatcher whipping linemen, drawing frequent praise from coach Jason Garrett for his superlative "knee bend" and "position flex." Position flex? That's another way of saying Hatcher is versatile: He can play end, the three-technique, or nosetackle (between guard and center), which is where he's likely to move upon the return of Jay Ratliff, who missed most of the preseason. The Cowboys are high on Hatcher, who, it turns out, has no problem getting low.
SINCE YOU'VE BEEN GONE
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DE DEMARCUS WARE
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