COMMENTARY| When the Dallas Cowboys made the switch during the offseason from the 3-4 to the 4-3 defense, the focus was on how outside linebackers Demarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer would make the transition to defensive end. Former defensive end Jason Hatcher has moved to defensive tackle and through three games is playing the best football of his career.
The Cowboys moved from the 3-4 to Monte Kiffin's version for the 4-3 for the 2013 season. Hatcher moved from the defensive end where he played a 3-technique to defensive tackle. In Kiffin's 4-3 scheme they have a defensive tackle who plays a 3-technique and one that plays a 1-technique.
The 1-technique plays on the left shoulder of the center. With Jay Ratliff out with an injury, Hatcher has been flipping back and forth between the 3-technique and the 1-technique.
The 3-technique in Kiffin's defense is the "under-tackle" or the tackle that plays away from the tight end side. This is in order to create a one-on-one matchup between the defensive tackle and an offensive lineman. Ideally this will lead to more pass-rushing opportunities and sacks for the 3-technique.
Through three games, Hatcher has registered 10 tackles and three sacks from his defensive tackle position. Hatcher's previous high for sacks in a season was 4.5 sacks in 2011. If he can stay healthy for all 16 games, he should easily surpass that number.
Ratliff has been to the Pro Bowl multiple times and is one of the best interior defensive linemen in the NFL. Hatcher has raised his level of play to where the Cowboys have no experienced any drop off on defense with Ratliff's absence.
Hatcher has been an integral part of a defense that has registered 13 sacks through three games, and is only allowing opponents to convert on 30 percent of their third-down attempts. The Cowboys are allowing an average of 18 points per game compared to 25 points allowed in 2012.
Generating a pass rush is essential for the success of any defense. Hatcher has been so disruptive on the interior that it has allowed the Cowboys to generate pressure with their front four defensive linemen.
This allows Kiffin and the defensive coaches to keep the linebackers back in coverage and limits the chance of a big play on an obvious passing down. Hatcher will begin to draw more attention from offensive coaches which should free up the defensive ends to make more plays.
It will be hard for any offensive line to blocker Hatcher when he is lined up in a 3-technique with Ware on the outside of him. That is a fortuitous pass-rushing combination that the Cowboys could not have expected to have when the season started.
Despite the injuries to Tyrone Crawford and Ratliff, Hatcher's improved play has made the defensive line the strength of the Cowboys' defense. It should get even better when Anthony Spencer comes back to full strength.
This is the final year of Hatcher's three-year $6-million contract. If Hatcher continues to play at this level, then the Cowboys will have an interesting decision in whether they want to re-sign the 32-year old defensive tackle to a long-term contract.
For now, Hatcher will continue to try to make plays on the field and help lead the Cowboys to the playoffs for the first time since 2010.
Michael Taglienti lives in Dallas and has been covering all levels of football for five years. His articles have been featured on CNN and numerous other websites.
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