The Dallas Cowboys Defense prepares for a return to league average

After year’s of competitive play and NFC East relevance under Jason Garrett, the wheels completely fell off last season for a lowly 6-10 finish in Mike McCarthy’s first year in Dallas. Most observers will blame this on the week 5 injury of Star Quarterback Dak Prescott.

The problem is that the team was 2-3 when Prescott was injured. This is not to blame Prescott or the offense, run by Kellen Moore, who averaged 32.8 points per game (1st in the league). The blame falls almost entirely on the opposite side of the ball to Mike Nolan’s defense that gave up 36.0 points per game (worst in NFL history) over that same span. The Cowboys haven’t been know for their defensive prowess for a number of years, but they also haven’t been a the worst in NFL history. This season the Cowboys look to get back on track, but before we look ahead let’s take a look at how we got here.

A look back at 2020

Prior to last season, the Cowboys were routinely between the 9th and 15th best defense in football. Under Rod Marinelli, the Cowboys ran a base four man front cover three defense. The scheme lacked a lot in variety and instead focused on keeping assignments simple to allow the players to play fast. Here’s a quick comparison of how the defense finished in this scheme vs last year.

Holy cow! What in the world went wrong? It all starts with the hiring of Nolan. I don’t blame Nolan as much as I blame the team for believing this would be a good fit. As a stark contrast to Marinelli and Richard, Nolan runs one of the more complicated schemes in the league with varying fronts and coverages. Very often Nolan’s scheme requires complex assignments. For a team with personnel that had spent years in one of the league’s simplest systems, transitioning to one of the most complex seemed to a disaster waiting to happen.

Speaking of disaster, enter Covid-19 into the equation. The global pandemic greatly reduced the amount of in-person practice time that the team was able to get in the offseason. Meaning the team needed to adapt its plan to learn an ultra-complex scheme, and probably simplify it a bit to make it easier. Problem is… They didn’t do that.

Looking Ahead

After what I can only describe as an unmitigated disaster in 2020, why do I, and more importantly why should you have any hope this team can return from historically bad to mediocrity? What changed? Almost everything.

Mike Nolan was relieved of duty and in his place the team hired former Atlanta head coach and architect of the Legion of Boom, Dan Quinn. Quinn’s scheme features very heavy cover three usage with simplistic assignments that allow players to play fast. Sound familiar?

What Quinn’s system does require is size and physicality. To meet those needs the Cowboys drafted eight defensive players, including Micah Parsons who could be the best overall defensive player in tbe draft and is an absolute hammer.

The additions to the defense, should help mitigate the historically bad rushing defense. The change back to a simpler scheme looks to bring players like LB Jaylon Smith back to 2018 form as opposed to the player we saw last season that looked like he had no idea which gap he was supposed to play.

Here’s why this matters, with a league-average defense and a healthy Dak Prescott, the Dallas Cowboys are 40-24. If they can return to form the team could easily run away with the NFC East. The team is preparing to do just that.

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