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The issue at the core of the Dallas Cowboys’ defense

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The Dallas Cowboys’ defense has been the worst in the league through the first quarter of the season. They have given up an average of 36.5 points per game, giving up 39, 38, and 49 points respectively in the last three weeks. This leaves a lot of fans wondering what the problem is. Teams with (supposedly) less talent on defense aren’t putting up numbers even close to as bad. That might point to a coaching issue. At the same time, one can point to any number of players as severely underperforming, either from lack of effort or a simple lack of talent. That could point to a personnel problem.

So what’s the deal? Why does the Cowboys’ defense consistently make every offense they play look like the best in the league?

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Scheme change

One of the 2019 Cowboys’ greatest criticism was that they were essentially an open book on defense. There is an infamous story from a former Cowboys safety where he tried do disguise a certain coverage in practice. He was reprimanded by then passing-game coordinator Kris Richard. “We’re a Cover 3 defense” said Richard. “That’s how we play.” “Oh, so you want them to know what we’re doing?” was the reply.

This is a microcosm of the issues so many fans and analysts had with the defense at the time, and with Jason Garrett’s tenure as a whole. Everyone in the league knew what the Cowboys wanted to do. On offense, they’d let their offensive line control the game. On defense, they’d play a vanilla defense meant to limit big plays, yet which rarely generated big plays for the defense (i.e turnovers). It was a “bend but don’t break” style that drew criticisms for being too plain, too predictable, and too easy to exploit.

“Bend, don’t break” no more

Now? The defense is just plain broken. Mike Nolan was brought in as the new defensive coordinator, which meant a new and more complex scheme. If anyone expected the defense to pick this up on the fly with no offseason, they were kidding themselves. But no one expected their performance to be a putrid as it has. Blown assignments in the secondary are commonplace. Take a look at this breakdown from a play against the Seahawks in Week 3:

There was some kind of miscommunication in the secondary on this play. D.K Metcalf runs literally right through the middle of the entire secondary, and yet ends up completely open down the middle of the field. This is the kind of play that Richard’s defense limited, and now it seems to happen at least once a game, if not more.

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Losing the turnover battle

And of course, blown coverages should be expected when you change from a simple defensive scheme to a more complex one. There are going to be miscommunications from time to time. However, the benefit of such a switch is that it should theoretically create big plays for the defense. More disguised coverages should mean more confusion for the quarterback, leading to interceptions and potentially more sacks as well.

This hasn’t been the case for the Cowboys this year. According to the Football Database, the Cowboys are at an abysmal -7 turnover differential through just four games, which is good for worst in the league. They have one interception and one fumble recovery, compared to three interceptions and six fumbles lost on offense. Does the offense need to do better at limiting turnovers? Absolutely. But the Dallas Cowboys’ defense has been just as bad at generating turnovers as the offense has been at giving the ball away.

“Star” players

After the 2018 season, the Dallas Cowboys’ defense was supposed to be on the rise. They had a top 5 young linebacker duo in Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch, a top pass rusher in Demarcus Lawrence, and some exciting young pieces in the secondary in Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis, and Xavier Woods.

What remains of this exciting young core? None of these players are making an impact. Jaylon Smith has not looked like his 2018 version in any game since. Joe Thomas has outplayed him so far in 2020 by a good margin. Vander Esch has fought through multiple injuries, and is on a trajectory to probably never play 16 full games in a season again. The young pieces in the secondary have not developed, and in fact look worse every year.

And where, may you ask, has Demarcus Lawrence been? I certainly can’t tell you. He has posted just 2.5 sacks in the last 16 games. He’s currently on a $105,000,000 contract. That’s inexcusable. There have been rumblings that Lawrence is playing through a knee injury, which would obviously explain some of his struggles. And to his credit, he still makes good plays against the run multiple times a game.

Regardless, you don’t pay a defensive end over $100 million to stop the run. You pay for sacks. Sacking the quarterback is his job. Every other top-paid defensive end gets sacks. The last full sack recorded by Lawrence came on November 4th, 2019. There’s a distinct chance he goes a full calendar year without a full sack. What are the Cowboys paying for at that point? For a decoy to draw double teams? That hasn’t worked this year at all, because outside of Aldon Smith, no Cowboys have more than one sack through four games. Smith has four, with three of those coming against the Seahawks who currently field one of the worst lines in the league.

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Nice rant, but what’s the main issue?

So what’s the core problem with the Dallas Cowboys’ defense? The scheme? The players? The coaches?

None of the above. Because while all those are problems with the defense, they are not the problem of the defense. The real problem: they’re just not a well-constructed team. They don’t have as much talent as they thought they did.

At the end of 2016, the Cowboys had their QB, RB, and O-line of the future locked up for at least four years. Their receiver room, while going through some rough patches, has been pretty consistently good and is now probably the strongest aspect on the team. One would imagine that with the offense relatively set, the team could focus their energy on putting together a defense that can make the team into a real playoff contender.

Draft woes

So far, that hasn’t happened. Drafting as been a huge part of the problem. In 2017, their biggest draft need was DB and D-line. 2018, their biggest draft need was LB. In 2019, their biggest draft needs were D-line and safety. In 2020, their biggest needs were CB and safety.

Their biggest 2021 draft needs so far? LB. CB. Safety. D-line.

There’s a clear pattern. The Cowboys have been abysmal at drafting defensive players that actually make the team better. All their highly touted picks have fizzled out in a few years time. 2016 Second-round pick Jaylon Smith is no longer playing well. 2017 first round pick Taco Charlton was terrible when he was here, and is now a decent rotation player for the Chiefs. 2017 second and third round picks Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis have not played well. 2018 first round pick Vander Esch is injury-prone, and didn’t look great in 2019. 2019 second-round pick (their first pick in that draft) Trysten Hill is one of the lowest graded interior lineman in the league, according to PFF.

It’s hard to stock a defense with talent when your premium draft picks go to bad players. Despite these failures, there have been some draft successes. Byron Jones became one of the best cornerbacks in the league after moving from safety. The Cowboys elected to let him walk and instead pay Demarcus Lawrence and Jaylon Smith.

It’s not just the draft, either. The Cowboys routinely miss on their defensive free agent signings. Everson Griffen, who was supposed to be a key addition to the team, has recorded one sack this year. Safety Haha Clinton-Dix was released before the season even began. Dontari Poe is right there with Trysten Hill as one of the worst interior defenders in the league. Their best free agent signing, and probably their best defensive player this year (Aldon Smith), hadn’t played a snap since 2015.

All of this is to say: the Dallas front office, which has built a great offense over the years, has absolutely blown it on the defensive side of the ball. Their free agent signings never work out, they pay the wrong players and let the wrong players walk, and they seem unable to draft a consistently good player on the defensive side of the ball. There are maybe two or three players that they should want on the defense in 2021 and beyond. Outside of that, it might be time to blow it up and start from scratch.

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