Rob Ryan — Psycho Like a Fox?

Free Agent Update:  Ravens Insider Aaron Wilson tweets in the last few minutes that the Cowboys have expressed interest in RB Le’Ron McClain. (See our Twitter box.)  McClain is a big back, in the Marion Barber mold.  Wilson says ”nothing is moving fast yet,” but what does this say about Tashard Choice’s rehab?

Update II:  That mass exodus of former Cowboys to Miami, where Jeff Ireland and Tony Sparano run the shop?  The Dolphins folks have a name for them:  “CowPhins.”

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One of the pleasures of Cowboys camp is watching Rob Ryan install his version of the 3-4.  It’s a far more motion-based version, compared to Wade Phillips’.  Thus far, Ryan has stuck to the templates he established in Cleveland.  Look for base 3-4s on early downs.  When Ryan gets an offense into passing situations, or when he’s facing a spread offense that used three or more receivers as a base, look for Ryan to go ”psycho.”

And what’s the psycho?  It’s his name for his nickel sets, which use two and sometimes one down linemen and a gaggle of linebackers, who line up all over the place.

Thus far, Ryan has worked with two nickel personnel sets, a 2-4-5 that in many ways resembles the 4-2-5 Phillips ran, and a more exotic 1-5-5 that puts as many rush OLBs on the field at once, and which keeps them in constant motion.  It’s not unusual to look out and see Demarcus Ware, Anthony Spencer, Victor Butler and Brandon Williams on the field at once.  More, often, however, you’ll see three of the outside rushers and two inside backers.  Here’s one variant of the 1-5-5 from yesterday’s workout:

Against a three-receiver posse set, Ryan frequently played his secondary in man-underneath with two safeties over the top;  Mike Jenkins, Orlando Scandrick and Terence Newman pressing tight at the line, knowing they had a safety behind them.  On the line, Jay Ratliff moved around the center and guards, sometimes lining up as a 3-technique over a guard’s outside shoulder, but mostly shaded or head up on the center’s nose.  
The five linebackers do move, but they have definite roles.  Ware and Spencer always flop, with Ware on the weakside and Spencer on the strong.  What’s more, Spencer often puts his hand down and lines up as a 5-technique, where an end like Marcus Spears or Igor Olshansky would usually play.   
The crazy action is on the weakside, where Victor Butler and Ware lined up side-by-side.  Ryan has often rushed both off the weakside edge.  Since Butler often lines up inside of Ware, he draws the left tackle, leaving Ware alone on backs.  That’s not a fair fight and Ware has waved his way past the Cowboys backs for phantom sacks since day one.  
Ryan also uses subterfuge.  Butler and Ware have both scored pick-sixes in the 11-on-11 drills faking rushes off the blind side, then dropping into zones.  Ware yesterday made an amazing interception by dropping deep into the left flat and snagging a ball intended for Dez Bryant.  
My crude diagram does the package little justice.  It simply shows how the personnel line up some of the time.  Ryan brings them to the line this way, but he won’t keep them statoinary in this package.  Ratliff will move up and down the line.  He’s lined up over tight ends, guards and centers.  I’ve seen Ware in the spot Bradie James has in the diagram, hovering behind Ratliff until the snap, then slicing into an interior gap.   Ryan will blitz either corner, the slot corner Scandrick, and has sent the safeties from the deep middle on many plays.  Sean Lee and Spencer work on the tight end, but either, or both, could blitz from the strong-side. 

On one crazy down Saturday afternoon, Ware drifted over the the weakside and parked himself in a three-point stance over the center.  Ratliff stood up and dropped into the MLB spot while Bradie James and Butler cycled into the weakside backer-tandem spots.

It’s mix and match for the Cowboys front.  It’s crazy fun for the front six guys, but it’s all to drive opposing quarterbacks nuts.

Early Observations:

Sean Lee has the role played so well by Kevin Burnett under Bill Parcells and to a lesser extent by Bobby Carpenter under Wade Phillips.  He’s the coverage linebacker in this unit and never leaves the field, whether the Cowboys go 2-4-5 or 1-5-5.  Now he gets his share of blitzes (everything is relative in the psycho sets) but his primary job is smothering tight ends and backs.

— Don’t look for double digit sacks from Anthony Spencer.  He’s not being used in a way conducive to a 10-12 sack breakout.  He’s still playing on the strongside, over tight ends, in the base schemes.  That means fewer rushes for them than Demarcus Ware.  He’s playing to his strengths, holding the point of attack and coverage.

What’s more, when Ryan rolls out the one-lineman psycho package, Spencer is often lining up as the strong side defensive end.  He’s putting his hand down and run-stropping or rushing from the spot Marcus Spears played for Wade Phillips.  Do you see Anthony Spencer abusing right tackles for lots of sacks?  He’s a very flexible player and he’s very important to the nickel schemes, but nobody should rip him to shreds because he’s not Demarcus Ware’s clone.  They play very different roles in this scheme.

— If there’s one guy who could have a breakout season pressure wise, I’d give my vote to Victor Butler.  He’s still the backup strongside backer to Spencer and takes on tight ends in that package, but in the 1-5-5 he gets the luxury of rushing side-by-side from the weakside with Ware.  He’s not getting as many overall nickel reps as Lee, but he’s getting a lot, and he’s making plays, just as he has his entire cameo-filled Cowboys career.

This afternoon:  Position by position snap impressions

Rafael Vela

Rafael Vela

Started covering Dallas Cowboys @ in '95 and '96. Two more stops along the way and here I am. Senior Analyst for

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  • Kevin

    In the early 90’s Jimmy Johnson’s defenses were defined by waves of defensive linemen causing havoc.  Perhaps Ryan’s defenses will be defined by waves of linebackers causing havoc.

    • Becho

      Ryan has plenty of D linemen as well. Spears, Hatcher, Igor, Coleman, Brent, Ratlif, Lissemore, he may have plans for a thing or two from them as well. Its exciting anticipating an improvement to this defense. It would be awesome to see something good on that side of the ball this year. Lets hope it materializes

  • AustonianAggie

    Dallas has backed off it’s Oline template and is now aiming at more athletic players rather than amazingly sized players.

    Similar is this 1-5-5 defense; could this be a trend towards fielding more sub 300 lbs athletes?

  • AustonianAggie

    Victor Butler has the speed and flexibilty to be a good pass rushing OLB I believe.

    I know this is ridiculous but when I play Madden, I often switch Spencer to be the 5tech and he lights it up. Maybe this will work in reality too. If he played in a 4-3 he’d be a very respectable strongside DE

  • oskieoskie

    Thanks for doing what you do, Raf.

    Best off-season acquisition: Rob Ryan.

  • Ridgelake

    It will be interesting to see how our 2nd rounder will fit into this scheme.  He seems to have the versatile skill set to fill a lot of roles.

    • AustonianAggie

      Oh yeah he could be great. He’s still healing up though

    • Brandon Worley13

      It’s amazing…picking a LB that is perfect for your system….

  • Sidarc

    This is refreshing. I was concerned that we hadn’t acquired a DE with any pass rushing prowess after losing Bowen, but if Ryans nickel package is this unconventional, doesn’t bother me as much. Sounds like he’s only going to use the big uglies for early down run stoppage anyway, and let his LB’s eat on passing downs.

  • Brandon Worley13

    Watching other defenses across the NFL, especially the more creative defenses that seemed to always give Romo fits, I was always frustrated when the Cowboys would consistently — without fail — use the same blitz packages over and over again.

    Hearing about Ware dropping back in coverage, about disguising the actual rush and blitz, wreaking havoc in the middle of the field with a lot of linebackers….that’s the stuff dreams are made of.

    Raf…does Sean Lee look like he’s progressing to become an elite LB in this system? I always felt he could be the type of LB that could put up 130+ tackles a season.

  • AustonianAggie

    I always like Laron Mclain. He wants to be a pure RB, one reason he’s wanted to leave the Ravens, but he’s also one heck of a full back

  • fivetwos

    Great, great stuff…(from both you and Ryan that is.)

    -Interesting that Lee is excelling in the nickel role less than a calendar year after Wade said that he couldn’t play it in his system.

    -I’m not sure why it was ever necessary to entertain the idea of bringing in a pass-rushing five-tech like Cullen Jenkins into this scheme. They could have been trying to drive up his price, but that money seems best allocated elsewhere considering what you’re saying here.

    -I’m interested to see more of how Spencer is used in this system, since Ryan did mention he’d be “awesome” in it. Maybe Ryan can get the most out of him. Hey–it’s August–we’re all allowed hope.

  • DannyWhite

    Raf –

    These exotic defensive packages sound great, but it seems like it’d be pretty easy to gash them with a dive play up the middle for 5-6 yards or longer, no? Wouldn’t that limit their practical applications to 3rd and long?

  • joey2zs

    Hmmm… how is the LB depth chart?  I worry about James’ cement feet in this scheme, and the notion that Keith (Drew Bledsoe) Brooking may be moving around a lot before the snap is amusing.  I can picture him still getting into his pre-snap position after the tackle is already made.

  • Jim Vance

    The Cow-Phins eh? I think I’ll call them the Doll-Boys.