In Part I of this mini-series, we took a look back at the offensive woes that caused this Cowboys' season to sink faster than the Titanic. Well, though it has been much improved, the defense still had some fatal flaws that contributed to their tumultuous downfall from their 12-4 heights of 2014. As they prepare to finish as strong as they can in the next three games, the team is looking at a top ten draft pick and an offseason of ridiculous wonderment. So, before we can move forward, we need to look back at this defense to gain perspective.
Oh How The Mighty Have Fallen?
The Cowboys' defense of a year ago wasn't great at many things, but one thing that had in the bag was being able to generate takeaways. The Rod Marinelli defense set precedents on how to create opportunities for the offense as they had 30+ takeaways last year and only trailed one team in that category (Texans). This season has been a complete 180 from then and the defense has not been as effective because of it. One of the most important aspects that Marinelli tries to instill in his players is the unrelenting focus on the ball, the ball, the *expletive* ball. Well, this season, the Cowboys are the single worst team at taking the ball away. They only have eight turnovers all year, that is beyond pathetic for a defense that is predicated upon it.
Turnover ratio is a very important statistic in football and usually one that has a distinct correlation with winning and losing. As a team, the Cowboys are an unsavory, foul-tasting -15 in turnover ratio. So, what you're telling me is that they love to turn it over on offense but don't like to get it back? Yes, now I see why this team is sitting at 4-9 though certainly other factors have contributed. They've had plenty of opportunities in games to make plays, they just haven't. Something I'm sure isn't sitting well with their defensive coordinator. Back to the film room you go little cowpokes. They must fix this in the offseason because, without turnovers, this defense doesn't work all that well.
Statistics Can Be Deceiving
Stats are a huge part of this game, but they can deceive you at times because they can be manipulated into whatever best suits the argument. Now, when discussing the above notion that the Cowboys are terrible at getting takeaways, that stat is unwavering. It's pure fact. However, did you know the Cowboys currently boast the league's fourth-ranked passing defense? Really, they do. Part of that has got to be because of how improved their defensive line has been from last season.
Well, diving deeper into the muck will show that they may not be giving up a ton of yards in the secondary, but they certainly give up quite the end result. According to PFF, every Dallas corner except for the recently departed Tyler Patmon (who's played far fewer snaps) gives up an average 104.5 passer rating to opposing quarterbacks. The key problem for the Cowboys secondary is that they don't tackle well. For the most part, that statement belongs to the safeties in this case. J.J. Wilcox is quickly becoming the scapegoat of 2015, but this guy has seriously shown no development in his game this year. That is a huge disappointment because he was my very own pet cat many moons ago.
In watching these games, we've seen everything from poor angles to straight up whiffs. In fact, people that are upset about the release of 26, look no further than his performance against Green Bay. He zeroed out having played 48 snaps. You mean to tell me that in all those snaps he didn't even get an assisted tackle? Surely, Patmon had to have at least bumped into someone? Nope, not to mention the extreme lack of effort on that Aaron Rodgers scramble. It's not all bad as both Brandon Carr and Byron Jones have received positive grades from PFF. Despite that, this team will have serious questions to answer in the secondary with the impending return of Orlando Scandrick. Of eight total turnovers, not one interception has come from these cornerbacks. As much as they liken themselves to the idea of what Seattle has built, they lack the true component of a shutdown corner. They may even lack any type of playmaker at corner, though the jury may still be out on that one.
Will they go that route for the second straight year and draft one? Will Brandon Carr stick around, or, perhaps they re-sign Morris Claiborne? Cornerback is a position in flux and luckily Byron Jones can play safety, but they still have to get deeper at both positions.
Treat Front Seven Like They Did Their Big Five
The Cowboys spent a lot of resources in the offseason in order to create a more formidable defensive line in the coming years. Has it worked? Well, we're not quite sure yet, they still only have 25 sacks on the season and could potentially finish with less than last season. Yet, the effort is definitely there and the talent is around them. Perhaps the not getting turnovers and having trouble tackling could have something to do with it. Either way, they must take the same approach as they did when building their offensive line. These things most assuredly take time and the Cowboys have practically just started. It's nice that they are getting early returns from DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory as it bodes well for the future. Still, at times this season, the defensive line has been Greg Hardy and a bunch of nobodies. They have to get better in run defense and figure out their defensive tackle positions.
Though it goes against conventional wisdom of Marinelli, it's time to get an upgrade at the one-tech position and build better depth at tackle. Tyrone Crawford is not going to be able to live up to the hype if the guy next to him can't figure out a way to help him get loose. They need to get more athletic, quicker, and simply better at the position.
As far as the linebackers are concerned, we have seen some good work out of Sean Lee and Rolando McClain this season. At times, they have even been flat-out dominant but they struggle with consistency and both have injury concerns. Todd McShay's first mock had the Cowboys taking Jaylen Smith, the highest-touted linebacker in the country right now, with the 6th overall pick. That could certainly help them out at a position that needs some more solid answers.
The defense has certainly improved over the last year, but they still haven't put it all together. Yes, they have been a top ten unit for most of the season and until last week were even top five. What they must do now is continue to improve in personnel and fix their inability to create turnovers. There are so many ways the Cowboys could go in the draft this year or free agency. At this point, the sooner they get more talent around, the better. It's been a tough season for Cowboys' fans that had such high hopes for 2015. The injuries and losses have taken a toll on all of us, but the Cowboys will be in prime position to make strides toward improvement in 2016. With everyone healthy, it's hard not to think they are at least a playoff team. Now, they must capitalize on what capital they will have to bounce back as a contender.