The D in Dallas doesn’t stand for “defense” in 2020.
While the Cowboys’ offense has, as expected, been hitting on all cylinders, their defense has been on the side of a milk carton, as in missing. That’s a big reason for the team’s 2-3 start to the season.
Dallas was developing a mean defensive unit last year, but it has fallen from top-10 status in 2019 to bottom of the barrel in 2020. New coordinator Mike Nolan has had his hands full with a group that is last in the league in scoring defense — 36.0 points per game — entering Monday’s games, including the Cowboys’ “Monday Night Football” matchup vs. the Cardinals (8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN). Dallas is on pace to shatter the franchise record for most points allowed in a season.
As always in football, there’s not a single, cut-and-dried answer for why the Cowboys’ defense is historically bad. Here are three (and more) of the biggest reasons:
It starts with who isn’t in Dallas. Offseason exits by several key players left the Cowboys needing to make a quick fix.
They let Byron Jones walk as a cap casualty; he took his talents to South Beach on a monster deal. Jones was tremendously underrated in Dallas; he was a key member of the secondary from the time he was drafted. Jones made All-Pro once and he displayed versatility by playing free safety his first three seasons with the team and cornerback his last two. For years, the Cowboys were a revolving door at cornerback, and Jones shifting over there in 2018 helped to stabilize the position.
Dallas also lost their top pass-rusher, Robert Quinn, who led the team with 11.5 sacks in 2019. He signed with the Bears in the offseason.
The Cowboys have tried to plug those holes with Dontari Poe, Gerald McCoy, Everson Griffen and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, but there have been . . . issues: A quad injury in training camp sidelined McCoy for the year, Clinton-Dix was released prior to the season and Poe and Griffen have underachieved.
An underperforming D-line
Dallas has some names you’d recognize, but they’ve been missing on Sundays.
The Cowboys rank 20th in the league with 2.0 sacks per game, down from 2.4 in 2019. All things considered, this year’s figure is solid, but here’s some context: Dallas’ D is built to get after the passer, and if it’s not accruing sacks at an above-average rate, then the unit is in for bad results on gameday.
DeMarcus Lawrence has been something of a no-show with just a single sack. Everson Griffen hasn’t exactly been an answer, either, accounting for 1.5 sacks through the team’s first five games.
Dallas’ inability to get consistent pressure on the quarterback has left their secondary, which is less than good, exposed, and that’s a big reason why the Cowboys are near the bottom of the league in most major pass defense categories. Considering that they have Lawrence, Griffen, Randy Gregory and Aldon Smith but still aren’t getting after opposing QBs, that’s not a tasty recipe for success.
Coaching, scheme changes
Several assistants weren’t retained after Mike McCarthy took over as head coach in the offseason. One of the results of that turnover was a scheme change for the defense, which, in turn, has led to, well, what you’ve been seeing on the field every week.
First, coordinator Rod Marinelli was not retained; he wound up in Las Vegas with the Raiders as their new defensive line coach. In a surprise move, defensive backs coach/assistant coordinator Kris Richard wasn’t kept on, either; many expected him to be Dallas’ next DC after he called plays for the unit in prior seasons. Richard was also a candidate for head coaching gigs in previous years.
Now Nolan is coaching up the Dallas D, and he hasn’t been a coordinator since 2014, when he was with the Falcons. Nolan’s background caused some to believe he would alter the Cowboys’ base defense from a 4-3 to a 3-4. Instead, Dallas has opted for multiple defensive fronts to make use of its roster pieces and to play a little to Nolan’s strengths.
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