The Cowboys defense was historically bad in 2013. They ranked 26th in scoring, giving up 27 points per game and dead last in yards allowed per game with 415. In 2014, the defense showed great improvement. They were 15th in points allowed, giving up only 22 per game and 19th in yards allowed per game with 355. With more improvements on the way, the 2015 squad should be even better. The question is - how much better? What should we expect from the Cowboys defense this season?
How about moving up to third in those categories? Would you be okay with that?
That kind of expectation seems like someone might be taking in the blue kool aid intravenously and is just shouting out nonsensical gibberish. Certainly an expectation like that is quite a stretch, but would you believe that the teams who finished 15th in points allowed and 19th in yards allowed in 2013 both finished 3rd in their respective categories last season?
In 2013, the Detroit Lions were 15th in points allowed with 23.5 points/game. In 2014, they were 3rd with 17.6 points/game.
In 2013, the Denver Broncos were 19th in yards allowed with 356. In 2014, they were 3rd with 305.
The jumps are possible.
So what did they do to improve?
The Lions needed to get to the QB more. In 2013, they were ranked 28th in sacks. Sound familiar? That is exactly where the Cowboys ranked in 2014. Detroit had a great front four, yet they struggled getting sacks.
"I thought we had good pressure. We got quite a few, you know, pressures and hits on the quarterbacks. Didn't' always get there to close the deal." -- Lions GM, Martin Mayhew
The same thing could be said about the Cowboys "close, but no cigar" pass rush in 2014.
So what did they do to beef up their defensive line? Nothing.
Instead, they looked to strengthen up their secondary by just getting better play from the guys they had. The Lions good DBs, Rashean Mathis and Glover Quinn, played well in 2013, but played even better last season. And guys like Darius Slay and Bill Bentley graded out in the negative in 2013, but showed good improvements in 2014. One guy didn't make the difference. It was an across the board improvement from the entire secondary. This improvement helped the Lions get 42 sacks in 2014.
The Broncos also got improved play from their secondary, but they took a different approach. They loaded up on free agent stars by adding cornerback, Aqib Talib from the Patriots and safety, T.J. Ward from the Browns. Both helped strengthen their secondary, but it was big improvement they got from undrafted free agent, Chris Harris that stood out the most. In his fourth season with Denver he broke out and had a Pro Bowl season and graded out (PFF) as the best coverage corner in the league.
The Cowboys didn't go after any big name defensive back free agents, but they do have a lot of guys who have an opportunity to show some improvement in 2014. Brandon Carr hasn't played well during his tenure in Dallas, but was effective in Kansas City. The Cowboys still believe in him. While all the Carr talk seems to revolve around a possible pay cut, one thing seems certain - he's not being cut. If the team is willing to pay out his $8 million base salary for 2015 that is a strong indication that the coaches still see something good in him. To his credit, Carr did play well down the stretch last season. It could be a matter of finding the right compromise between the defensive scheme and Carr's strengths that can enable him to be effective. Carr took on Calvin Johnson and Jordy Nelson in the playoffs last year and neither of these WRs hurt Dallas in the post season. There is still hope that he is able to show flashes of his Kansas City days and make a strong contribution to this team.
The addition of Corey White is intriguing. He was so bad last year that even the dreaded Saints defense wanted no part of him anymore. While he got torched in New Orleans last season, he graded out well in 2013. The Cowboys won't ask him to be the #2 CB like he was with the Saints. He could be a guy that proves to be effective when he's got solid contribution from the people around him. And if he ends up logging some snaps at the free safety position, it could add some better pass coverage ability to that position.
Tyler Patmon went from not hearing his name called on draft day to being part of the nickel package for the Cowboys defense in 2014. He played in five games where he logged 18 or more snaps, including one where he picked off a Carson Palmer pass and ran it back for a touchown. Patmon was the only Cowboys DB to have a pick six last season. He sprained his MCL in the London game against the Jacksonville Jaguars causing him to miss the next four games. Patmon is a guy who feels he belongs in this league. A hungry guy with a healthier knee that will have another training camp worth of development behind him, make for a solid depth option.
But the biggest reason for hope in the secondary is the excitement surrounding this year's first-round draft choice, Byron Jones, and what he brings to the defense. While it is not known where exactly he'll be playing, he should be able to provide quality snaps for the Cowboys.
Another contributing factor to the improved defense from both teams was the exceptional play of a linebacker that they didn't get the previous season. For the Lions, it was DeAndre Levy. He had 155 tackles last season. For the Broncos, it was Brandon Marshall. Denver moved him to weak side linebacker in 2014 and that decision proved to be a good one, accumulating 119 tackles over 13 games.
Sean Lee returns. And he's being moved to weak side linebacker. There is certainly an opportunity for Dallas to get some exceptional play from a linebacker that they didn't have last season.
The Broncos did add a pass rushing free agent last season. Maybe you've heard of him. DeMarcus something-rather. Even with the addition of Ware, Denver didn't improve upon their 2013 sack total. But they still had 41 sacks. They were good before and adding Ware helped them remain good.
The Cowboys added a pass rushing free agent of their own in the form of Greg Hardy. This addition alone should make a big difference for the defensive line, but there are other components that are expected to add strength to this unit. Tyrone Crawford and DeMarcus Lawrence are just getting started. Another year of Marinelli should mean greater production. And then there's their new draft pick, Randy Gregory. All these pass rushers should provide contribution above what they had last season.
In order to make a big jump in improvement of the defense it's going to take contribution from several position areas, but the Cowboys are poised to do just that. They added an elite pass rusher, they added a first-round cornerback, and their star linebacker returns to the field. They also have several defenders that continue to improve. While such a drastic change may be an unreasonable expectation, the Cowboys should be able to make enough plays on defense to keep them moving up the ranks.