clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Grading The Dallas Cowboys Defense

Taking a look at how the defense performed, both as a unit and individually, in the opening game.

If you buy something from an SB Nation link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

Jeremy Mincey - one player who showed up for the Dallas D.
Jeremy Mincey - one player who showed up for the Dallas D.
Christian Petersen

The Dallas Cowboys had a terrible game against the San Francisco 49ers, but the horribleness was largely concentrated in a handful of plays. The four offensive turnovers, of course, were the biggest problem. There were also a few defensive breakdowns that let the 49ers convert third downs or score far too easily.

Correcting those issues is the big challenge facing the Cowboys. Offensively, it appears that getting Tony Romo to play better will solve the biggest issues, and some improvement in situational coaching should take care of most of the rest.

Of course, no one expected the offense to be the main issue for Dallas this season. Hopefully, the first game was an aberration for them and things will get back on track. The defense was the big worry. After the initial game, it did look like things are in better shape than they were at the end of the 2013 season.

To try and get something a little more quantitative on that, I am taking a look at the Pro Football Focus scores for the game. The PFF grades are something some people swear by, and others just swear at, but they do make an attempt to grade all players in all NFL games using as consistent a methodology as the site authors can devise. It can be helpful in figuring out who is doing well on the Cowboys, and how they and the team as a whole are doing relative to the league.

This week, I'm going to start my look with the worst news first.


Just like the offense was expected to be the strength of the team, the secondary was thought by many to be the strongest part of the defense coming into the season. Instead, things were frequently ugly for the defensive backs. Part of this is believed to be attributable to the decision to use the cornerbacks in zone rather than man coverage in an attempt to limit Colin Kaepernick as a rusher. That mission was accomplished, with Kaepernick only getting 11 yards on five carries - but the cost may have been the multiple big passing plays the team gave up. Or, it may have just been bad play.

Player Position Snaps PFF Grade Pass Coverage
Brandon Carr LCB 57 -4.0 -3.8
Morris Claiborne RCB 47 -2.7 -2.4
J.J. Wilcox SS 58 -2.6 -2.5
Barry Church FS 51 1.2 1.4
Sterling Moore SS 39 -0.3 -0.3

(Jeff Heath played seven snaps with a 0.1 overall score as a strong safety, but was not included due to small sample size. All positions here and in the other charts are as designated by PFF, which may not reflect the way players would be listed in the scheme Dallas uses.)

The numbers make several things pretty clear. Using the PFF criteria, Barry Church was head and shoulders better than the other defensive backs that were on the field with him. And the cornerbacks largely suck. There is no way to sugarcoat it. Brandon Carr ranked 98 out of 99 cornerbacks in the league, and as such, has to be the worst value for what he is paid in the NFL.

I included the pass coverage component of the grade just to hammer home the point of where the issue really lies. Unless the players perform better or the coaches figure out a better way to utilize them, Dallas is going to get ripped up by opposing quarterbacks. Repeatedly. The team needs Orlando Scandrick badly, so keep you fingers crossed that the NFL decides to shorten the suspension. Hope, however, does not constitute an effective plan, so the team needs to figure out something. Fast.


Here, the news is certainly better. While not totally good, it is not nearly as grim as the in the secondary.

Player Position Snaps PFF Grade
Justin Durant SLB 47 0.2
Rolando McClain MLB 44 2.7
Bruce Carter WLB 48 -1.6

(Kyle Wilber had four snaps and Anthony Hitchens five.)

Before anyone says anything, I cannot explain the SAM and WILL designations, that is just how PFF had them.

McClain has been getting a lot of praise for his work at MIKE, and his PFF grades obviously support that. He was the number two inside linebacker in the league on Sunday, behind only Luke Kuechly. Carter did not have nearly as good a day, but his negative score is entirely due to his poor pass coverage score of -1.7. He made up for that to some extent by getting the only sack of the game.

Durant is going to be out for some weeks now. But the Cowboys may not have to worry all that much about his replacement, at least right now.

Of course, that means more pressure on the secondary, so THOSE issues are still of great concern.

The linebacking looks to be in decent shape. Not fantastic, but the MIKE, at least, is good.

Defensive line

The Rushmen were far and away the biggest question defensively for Dallas this season.

Player Position Snaps PFF Grade
Tyrone Crawford DLE 33 -2.6
Nick Hayden DLT 33 0.7
Davon Coleman DRT 33 -1.2
Jeremy Mincey DRE 43 3.0
George Selvie DRE 27 -1.6
Henry Melton DRT 26 0.9
Ken Bishop DRT 21 -1.2
Lavar Edwards DRE 15 -0.2

While there are not a lot of plus grades, there are some encouraging things in this table. First, of course, Mincey was very good, plus he had more snaps than anyone else in the group (an indication that someone on the staff was paying attention). He wound up with the fourth highest PFF grade for all 4-3 defensive ends. Another starter, Hayden, had a very good grade compared to what he had last year. He was one of the absolute worst defensive tackles in PFF's grades in 2013. After one week, he is 23rd out of 60 - a marked improvement however you look at things. And Henry Melton is in the 22nd spot. This is more impressive for Melton, because the PFF system adds plays together, and it is easier to get high (or low) scores when you play more snaps. In other words, Melton's score would have probably been higher if he had played another 10 or 12 downs. He is expected to be the starter against the Tennessee Titans, so that is good news.

The only real disappointments are Crawford and Selvie. Both are still working their way back from injury. Crawford may never become what we had hoped after missing a year. For Selvie, his recent shoulder problem may be part of the issue, but the Cowboys really need to see some of what he brought to the line last season.


Last season, the Cowboys defense was, as we heard incessantly, historically bad. It is largely conceded that the D must improve for the team to have any real chance of contending this season.

After one game, marred by that handful of awful plays, the cumulative PFF defensive score for Dallas puts it 21st out of the 32 teams in the league. That is exactly what many said the team needed. There are still players coming to improve things, like Scandrick, DeMarcus Lawrence, Terrell McClain, and Anthony Spencer. Based on the first week, it is quite possible that Dallas will have a truly average NFL defense this season.

Given the myriad predictions that this edition was supposed to be even worse than the 2013 one, that would be a major accomplishment.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for the Blogging The Boys Daily Roundup newsletter!

A daily roundup of all your Dallas Cowboys news from Blogging The Boys