Mike McCarthy Reveals New Approach to Cowboys’ Defensive Scheme

Dallas Cowboys defense

Getty Dallas Cowboys defense

Rather than force square pegs into round holes, Mike McCarthy, like any good head coach, is tailoring the Dallas Cowboys defense to its personnel.

What a concept.

In last week’s sitdown interview with local media, McCarthy confirmed the hiring of new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan and explained the system he’ll run in 2020. Nolan has long been a proponent of a 3-4 scheme, whereas the Cowboys ran a 4-3 under ex-coordinator(s) Rod Marinelli and Kris Richard.

But titles don’t matter. The proper pieces do — above all else.

“Really, 3-4 and 4-3 defense is how you’re identifying the player profiles,” McCarthy said, per the team’s official website. “I feel like player acquisition and coaching instruction is a two-way street. I think if you have a system of defense where you need a certain player to fit your scheme, you’re limiting your personnel department.

“We know what a Dallas Cowboys football player looks like. The length, the athletic ability. Let’s get as many good football players as we possibly can. It’s our job as coaches to make sure our scheme boundaries are plenty wide enough to fit any excellent football player into our program. That’s always been a philosophy of mine on offense and that’ll continue to be so on defense.”

McCarthy, though he skirted around the topic, revealed Dallas will remain a four-man front, with DeMarcus Lawrence at defensive end and Robert Quinn (an impending free agent) or, perhaps, Michael Bennett bookending him. The tackles are question marks as incumbent starters Maliek Collins and Antwaun Woods, too, are heading to the open market.

McCarthy correctly noted, however, that the Cowboys will deploy nickel as the de facto base defense, same as most NFL teams do in today’s pass-happy, offensively-oriented sport. This means a lot of burn for linebackers Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch, provided he’s healthy.

“We’re a sub defense because we’ll play it 80-85 percent of the time,” he said, via The Athletic’s Jon Machota. “But we’re a four-man line defense.”

Regardless of how they line up, the Cowboys will need to improve on an underachieving unit that finished 11th in points allowed (20.1 per game) and against the run (103.5 yards per game) and 19th in sacks (39). No club recorded fewer interceptions (7) than Dallas, who also ranked 15th in forced fumbles (14). Game-changing plays were few and far in-between despite star power at each level.

“Me, personally, I dropped four [potential interceptions].  … We missed tackles. That Chicago game was terrible. You can’t blame that on Coach,” safety Xavier Woods recently said, exonerating since-fired head coach Jason Garrett. “That’s on the players.”

This will be Nolan’s eighth stint as a defensive play-caller, having held the position with the New York Giants (1993-96), Washington Redskins (1997-99), New York Jets (2000), Baltimore Ravens (2002-04), Denver Broncos (2009), Miami Dolphins (2010-11), and Atlanta Falcons (2012-14).

Following a 2015 one-and-done stint coaching the Chargers’ linebackers, Nolan landed in New Orleans in 2017, where he helped transform a once-laughable defense into an upper-echelon unit. In 2019, the Saints finished fourth against the run and totaled 51 sacks, third-most in the league.

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Cowboys’ Defensive Starter Sees Super Bowl Appearance

Although Woods believes Garrett was made the “scapegoat” for the Cowboys’ disappointing 8-8 record in 2019, he seems reinvigorated by the wholesale coaching changes. So excited, in fact, that he feels McCarthy will do in his first year with the club what his predecessor failed to deliver in a decade on the job: a Super Bowl appearance.

“We’ll be in the Super Bowl,” Woods said last week on FS1’s Undisputed, per the Cowboys’ official website. “I don’t know where it is [next year], but we’ll be there.”

Let’s help Woods out: Super Bowl 55 will take place at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla., on Sunday, Feb. 7, 2021. And it’s not entirely crazy to believe he’ll be taking part in that game.

The Cowboys have been given the fifth-best odds (16/1) to capture the Lombardi trophy next season, trailing only the Chiefs (7/1), Ravens (8/1), 49ers (8/1), Patriots (12/1) and Saints (14/1), according to BetOnline.ag.


READ NEXT: Dez Bryant Begs for Return to Cowboys After Garrett Firing, Witten News


Follow Zack Kelberman on Twitter: @KelbermanNFL


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