Can Rod Marinelli Fix the Cowboys Defense?

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Can Rod Marinelli Fix the Cowboys Defense?
Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

One year after the Dallas Cowboys surprised the football world by replacing defensive coordinator Rob Ryan with Monte Kiffin, simultaneously ditching an aggressive 3-4 defense for the Tampa 2, the Cowboys have once again shaken things up from a coaching and schematic standpoint on the defensive side of the ball. 

Kiffin has been demoted in favor of Rod Marinelli, who is a former disciple of Kiffin's from their time together in Tampa. Marinelli has been a defensive line coach for the vast majority of his 40-year coaching career. He'll be 65 before the 2014 season starts, but his defenses performed extremely well in Chicago between 2010 and 2012, and the 'Boys have little to lose. 

After all, this is a D that gave up the third-highest yardage total in NFL history in 2013, and Dallas is one of only five teams that have given up 26 or more points per game since the start of 2012. Once a pass-rushing juggernaut, they're one of nine teams with fewer than 70 total sacks during that span, and they're one of six teams that have surrendered more than 4.6 yards per rush in the same time frame. 

Most yards allowed, NFL history
Team Year Yards allowed Record
New Orleans Saints 2012 7042 7-9
Baltimore Colts 1981 6793 2-14
Dallas Cowboys 2013 6645 8-8
Green Bay Packers 2011 6585 15-1

Pro Football Reference

Basically, they've sucked. Injuries haven't helped, but at some point you have to look at a D with as much talent as this one and wonder if the coaching has done more harm than good. 

That was the case with Kiffin. The game has passed the 74-year-old by. His once extremely popular scheme has been deserted by most of the league, and it felt as though he was helpless in terms of his ability to make adjustments in 2013. 

It's a testament to the kind of coach Marinelli is that the defensive line was somehow the strongest facet of the Dallas D last year, because the aging DeMarcus Ware wasn't himself, while preseason starters Anthony Spencer and Jay Ratliff missed most or all of the season. Regardless of who Marinelli plugged in, the line held it together.

They used a league-high 20 defensive linemen over the course of the season. To put that in perspective, no other NFL team used more than 32 defensive players in total. Yet under Marinelli's direction, journeymen like George SelvieJarius Wynn and Nick Hayden looked half decent. 

That's encouraging, as is Marinelli's track record as a defensive coach. He's only been an NFL defensive coordinator once, but in those three years with the Bears, between 2010 and 2012, Chicago finished in the top five in takeaways all three times while twice ranking in the top four in points allowed.

Chicago's defense under Rod Marinelli
Rank Yards allowed Points allowed Takeaways
2010 9th 4th 3rd
2011 17th 14th 5th
2012 3rd 3rd 1st

Pro Football Reference

That was a talented unit in Chicago. But again, so is this one. Ware, Spencer and Jason Hatcher all could be gone, but Sean Lee, Bruce Carter, Morris Claiborne, Brandon Carr and Barry Church can ball. Plus, it's likely they get at least one of those defensive linemen back. 

The potential problem, of course, is that Marinelli could be a mini Kiffin. Why should we expect Marinelli to turn Claiborne, Carr, and the aging Ware and Hatcher into Charles Tillman, Tim Jennings, Julius Peppers and Henry Melton if Kiffin couldn't turn them into Ronde Barber, Brian Kelly, Simeon Rice and Warren Sapp?

If that's going to happen this year, it'll be about overall coaching ability more so than the scheme, because not a lot should be expected to change. 

One thing we all associate with the Tampa 2 is a lack of blitzing. And neither Marinelli nor Kiffin send more than four or five rushers very often. However, when a coordinator is calling a game, scheme sometimes takes a back seat to gut instinct and feel. 

There's some evidence that Marinelli is willing to take more chances than Kiffin. 

In 2012 with the Bears, linebackers Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs and Nick Roach all blitzed exactly 12 percent of the time, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). Your average 4-3 linebacker blitzes about 25 percent more often than that. 

Jamie Squire/Getty Images
Sean Lee might have a chance to be more aggressive in 2014.

But under Kiffin last season, Sean Lee blitzed only eight percent of the time, which was the second-lowest qualifying rate at that position. And Bruce Carter rushed the quarterback only 11 percent of the time, which was the fourth-lowest rate among 4-3 outside linebackers. Justin Durant and Ernie Sims didn't play enough snaps to qualify; neither rushed on more than eight percent of their snaps. 

As far as defensive backs go, Marinelli at least sent Major Wright after the quarterback 18 times in 2012. Playing a similar role in Dallas, Barry Church blitzed 12 times. Kiffin had Orlando Scandrick come off the corner 25 times (or on 3.8 percent of his snaps), but that was about it. Marinelli had Jennings, Tillman, D.J. Moore and Kelvin Hayden perform 38 corner blitzes. 

So this Dallas D might not be as aggressive as it was under Rob Ryan, who sent Lee after the quarterback more than 20 percent of the time in 2011 and 2012, but Marinelli might dial it up and take more chances than his former mentor did. 

That's encouraging. Remember: Dallas did at least increase its takeaway total from 16 in 2012 to 28 in 2013, which is probably a major reason why Kiffin is still employed. Imagine if Marinelli can find a way to create more pressure while also maintaining that turnover rate.

That could be a game changer, because Carr and Claiborne really struggled adapting to the zone-oriented scheme. But it didn't help that the defensive front had a sack rate of just 5.2 percent, which ranked tied for last in the NFL. Now that said transition to zone principles is less of an issue, more support up front could give the corners a chance to start earning their pay and living up to hefty expectations.

There's also some evidence Marinelli might be less stubborn than Kiffin regarding their shared scheme. Bleacher Report's Matt Bowen (then with the National Football Post and the Chicago Tribune) touched on Marinelli's and Lovie Smith's scheme flexibility when breaking the Bears down on 670 The Score in Chicago in 2011. 

What Lovie and Rod Marinelli are doing is using a good mix of scheme. When you use a good mix of scheme, the offense has to play honest. They can’t just drill Cover 2. They have to adjust their routes. Pro wide receivers, if they’re running a route that’s designed to beat Cover 2 and they see Cover 1, they have to adjust their route on the fly. The quarterback then has to be on the same page. It could cause them some confusion in that offensive game plan.

Still, don't expect Marinelli to ditch the zone or Cover 2 very often. And while that might frustrate Carr, Claiborne and even guys like Carter, Church and J.J. Wilcox, the reality is that it might be better for a team that has to face guys like DeSean Jackson, Victor Cruz, Larry Fitzgerald, Andre Johnson and Alshon Jeffery (or Brandon Marshall, pick your poison). Defending those guys will have more to do with giving struggling corners help earlier than Kiffin did against guys like Marshall and Calvin Johnson in 2013. That's not schematic, it's common sense. Or at least it should be. 

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And then there's the psychological perspective. Last year, it felt as though guys just weren't buying what Kiffin was selling. It's entirely possible he was out of touch, and it was a lot to take in all at once, especially from the league's oldest position coach. 

Marinelli is selling essentially the same product, but Kiffin might have already softened them up. He's a decade younger than Kiffin and commands respect with that military background

We dug up a quote from Marinelli in Chicago in 2011 that might give Cowboys fans reason to be optimistic. Essentially, he's conceding that there's a lot more to coaching up a defense than implementing and applying a scheme. 

From ESPN.com's Michael C. Wright

You want to build a really good foundation of fundamentals—bone-on-bone football[with] how we tackle, how we force, how we break on the ball. When that's in place, I think progress will be made. Without that, then I think you become a gimmick defense. When that foundation is set, then we can take off. But when you build a house of strawif you're doing too much [schematically]you might be winning by scheme, you don't want to do that in my opinion.

It could also help that head coach Jason Garrett will actually shift some of his focus to the defense. Say what you will about Garrett's play calls or his football mind, but an injury-plagued team has played its heart out for that guy in back-to-back seasons. The players seem to truly buy into Garrett, which could be beneficial now that he's going to be more involved on that side of the ball. 

If Marinelli can team up with Garrett to instill a new attitude within a talented unit, and if that defense can actually have something other than terrible luck with injuries, there might be some hope for this D in 2014, regardless of who winds up on the line. 

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