Defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin
So much for the idea that Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin is all washed up following three lackluster seasons at University of Southern California. The 73-year-old assistant head coach only needed the 2013 NFL preseason to show some serious promise for a Dallas defense that has become historically bad in the now-scrapped 3-4 scheme. The 2013 regular season, so far, has cemented that promise.
Former Cowboys head coach and defensive guru Bill Parcells, author of the 3-4 in Dallas, couldn't accomplish this. Successor Wade Phillips, another 3-4 scholar, also couldn't get much done. There's no need to mention 2011-12 defensive coordinator Rob Ryan in this discussion, is there?
No, the 3-4 defense in Dallas was never built very well with a tiny nose guard “plugging” the middle in Jay Ratliff. Kansas City offered a recent example of why you want a big, strong run stuffer who weighs well over 300 pounds anchoring your three-man defensive line last Sunday against the Cowboys.
Second-year defensive lineman Dontari Poe weighs over 340 pounds and helped hold Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray to a meager 2.5 yards per carry against the Chiefs. Poe added a couple of sacks of quarterback Tony Romo to his tally.
But let's forget the 3-4 once and for all (after I mention that Dallas could have had Poe in the first round of the 2012 NFL draft after trading up for cornerback Morris Claiborne with the sixth overall selection). Poe was chosen just five picks later. As ESPN's Dan Patrick might say, “the whiff."
No, I'm not playing Monday morning quarterback, either.
Back to Kiffin now.
What this ageless coordinator has done so far is pretty exceptional, and this goes beyond the six turnovers his unit forced against the 0-2 New York Giants. The lack of any turnovers against the Chiefs on Sunday changes absolutely nothing; this was a function of an average-at-best Dallas offense that never forced the Chiefs out of their pedestrian and conservative offensive approach.
It's true that the Cowboys were torched by Giants quarterback Eli Manning for 450 yards and four touchdowns in Week 1. Those six turnovers committed by a team that's just not looking very good rendered those gaudy numbers put up by the Giants offense completely useless.
Most impressive against the Giants was the fact that no New York running back had more than seven carries. Also, no runner tallied more than 23 yards. The tipping point was obviously the two fumbles forced on second-year running back David Wilson.
But don't let rushing yards allowed in Kansas City to fool you, because the devil is in the details.
A quick glance at Dallas' Week 2 box score would lead you to believe that Chiefs tailback Jamaal Charles had a pretty good day against a defensive line still missing defensive tackle Jay Ratliff—and one that will not have defensive end Tyrone Crawford at all this year. Pro Bowl defensive end Anthony Spencer was just suiting up for football for the first time in 2013 at Arrowhead Stadium.
A closer look indicates that Charles wasn't much of a factor in this contest at all. In fact, his average per carry heading into the second quarter was exactly zero yards—by halftime it was wasn't much better with his four carries for eight yards.
Now, Charles would finish the day with 55 yards on 16 carries, but check this out: Exactly 54 of those rushing yards were gained after the Chiefs took the ball for the last time with 3:50 remaining!
Yes, Charles was effectively shut out in this game and only a Dallas rushing attack that was somehow worse than his output is why Kansas City ever had a shot at being competitive in this game.
The biggest mistake for Kiffin's unit at Arrowhead was probably allowing quarterback Alex Smith to run wild on the first possession of the game. This led his tepid offense to a touchdown. Smith, not Charles, would lead his offense in rushing with 57 yards on eight carries, but 40 of those yards came on five carries in that opening possession.
I said going into this game that, as far as matchups go, Kansas City had a huge advantage in the coaching department with Andy Reid going up against the novice Jason Garrett. This is why Reid was able to patiently hang in there against a superior team, talent-wise, and win a race with a mule that was up against a dinged up thoroughbred.
But don't even think of placing blame on Kiffin. Without his unit's performance in both games this season, Dallas is clearly 0-2 as opposed to being a point away from 2-0. If the former was true, then the noose around Garrett's neck—whether it's really there or not—would already be turning his face just as red as his hair.
Some food for thought: Without Smith's rushing day against the Cowboys last weekend, Dallas would have only given up a meager 107 yards rushing in two games. In this event, Kiffin would have the third-ranked run defense in the NFL behind Kansas City's 108 and league-leader Denver's ridiculous 81 yards.
Let's keep everything in proper perspective. Kiffin's defense hasn't exactly reached the level or capability that “Doomsday” of the 1970s did. His unit hasn't accomplished the level of dominance that the “How 'Bout Them Cowboys?” defenses of the 1990s certainly did.
However, I can't help but point to the fact that those defenses of glory years past all had something in common with the Cowboys' biggest strength right now: the 4-3 alignment.
Great defenses start by stopping the run, period. This is exactly what positioned those '90s Cowboys to emerge as a championship defense once pass-rusher Charles Haley arrived just prior to the 1992 regular season—and Dallas' third Super Bowl championship.
Kiffin has his Haley in defensive end DeMarcus Ware. Linebackers Sean Lee and Bruce Carter are better than any counterparts to wear the blue star during the last championship runs, which began over twenty years ago. Kiffin also has a defense that, despite not forcing any against the Chiefs, still ranks third in the league in turnover differential with a mark of plus-3.
If the Dallas offense emerges as a strength, along with its defense, the playoffs are a virtual certainty given that the entire NFC East is .500 or below at this point.