The Cowboys defense isn't very good. We get it. Fans will beat this drum, dance to it, and some will cover their ears in hopes that it will just go away. As much as we try, the cold reality is that the Cowboys defense remains a weak spot on this team.
But before we throw our hands up and concede to such awfulness, let’s try to get a good feel for the actuality of the situation. The defense has flaws, but let’s be careful and not group them with the historically bad unit that took the field a few years ago. This team has worked hard to distance themselves from that train wreck. Furthermore, the defense continues to show gradual improvement year after year. Some people desire the front office to make bigger moves like drafting Jalen Ramsey or signing a proven free agent edge rusher, but it didn’t happen and that’s just fine. The team is slowly and surely getting better. That’s what Jason Garrett preaches and that’s what is going on.
The Cool One recently wrote an article that showed how the defense isn’t as bad as some people think. He goes on to describe how the Aikman Efficiency Ratings uses some of the more important key metrics to determine the overall performance of the defense. There is some great supporting evidence to suggest that the Cowboys defense is right in the middle of the pack. There are a lot of specific parts that come into play and I recommend checking it out. Keeping things simple, the Cowboys average yards allowed rankings over the last three seasons are as follows:
There are two things that stand out. First, the Cowboys record seems to correlate more with the production of the offense. A middle of the road offense gets you a middle of the road record. The offense has experienced some erratic production in this span as they have felt the gains of a well-established running game as well as the pain of losing their franchise quarterback. As goes the offense, goes the Cowboys. Now, if it was as simple as that, fans would have reasons to feel optimistic about the 2016 season because it has the making of something special on offense. The addition of college star running back Ezekiel Elliott could propel the Cowboys offense to new heights.
But this isn’t about the offense. If you look at the defense, the Cowboys are showing improvement each year.
I read a nice write up from Ben Grimaldi from Cowboys Nation, who made some key points about how the current state of the defense is better than they were in 2014 during the Cowboys 12-4 season. Some of the differences are obvious. For example, the 2016 version is much younger. But it goes farther than that. They are healthier and are a more athletic group than the players that took the field a couple years ago. Let’s break each position group down.
The biggest concern defensively is the team’s inability to generate pressure on the opposing quarterback. This is a song we’ve all heard before in 2014 after the team released DeMarcus Ware. Fans were pleasantly surprised with what Rod Marinelli was able to piece together with some aging options on the edge. Here is what the 2014 defensive end group looked like:
This was cause for alarm in the beginning of 2014, but as we learned – it wasn’t that bad. This group performed admirably. The 2016 group is different. They are young and they are plentiful.
While your guess is as good as mine as to who will step up, it isn’t hard to believe that Marinelli will get something from this group.
Opponents took a more conservative approach against the Cowboys defense last season and ran the ball a lot more. As a result, the team gave up 120 rushing yards a game compared to the 103 ypg in 2014. While the yards per carry numbers were identical, the overall totals were higher because the teams were able to run more. So while it's not as pressing of an issue as it may have seemed like, the Cowboys are still churning the roster to beef up the interior line. They’ve added free agent run stopper Cedric Thornton and third-round draft pick Maliek Collins. Not only do they have a better starting unit, but they're deeper. Watching Nick Hayden, Josh Brent, and Ken Bishop log a lot of snaps in the NFC playoff loss to the Green Bay Packers was excruciating. Those days are over.
If Rolando McClain wasn’t suspended, it would be easy to make a case for how this group will be better than 2014. But while McClain is unavailable for at least the first 10 games, the team will have Sean Lee who is coming off his first Pro Bowl season. And the team with Lee is always better than without. They will still be trying to sift through some reliable patrons to help aide in stopping ball carriers, but with the Cowboys in the nickel quite a bit – it’s not imperative that they have an extensive list of contributors. Having a healthy Lee will be the most critical determining factor of the performance of this position group.
Not much has changed when it comes to this position in comparison to 2014 as the team has many of the usual suspects. Brandon Carr, Orlando Scandrick, and Morris Claiborne. While the team continues to be in the bottom third when it comes to passing yards per play, they are showing gradual improvement. Claiborne had the best season of his career and has something promising to build off of.
My most vivid memory of the heartbreaking playoff loss to Green Bay a couple years ago wasn’t the catch/no-catch by Dez Bryant. I accepted that early and moved on. The thing that bothered me the most was the incompetence of J.J. Wilcox. The defense might as well been playing with 10 guys because Wilcox looked lost out there as if he was playing with heavy feet.
That’s really not what the team is hoping for from their safety. Byron Jones holds down the free safety position now and he will be in his second year. He’s a much better option than Wilcox.
The Cowboys defense is still a work-in-progress, but they don't resemble anything of the doormat defense people watched a few years ago. The question will be – can they be good enough to hold off other teams while the offense does their thing? If the defense continues the trend of improving slightly and the offense returns to form, it will set the stage for another playoff run in 2016.