The Dallas Cowboys defense is the biggest concern for the team, unless you are worried about an injury to Tony Romo. While it's anybody's guess as to the health of Romo for all 16 games this season since injuries are a pretty random event, there is evidence to go on about the Cowboys defense. The experts have made the case that the Cowboys defense will be what keeps them from being a quality contender this year, but are they seeing the whole picture? We've been trying to make the case here at BTB that the Cowboys defense is not nearly as bad as you've been led to believe.
In a truly excellent article that should be mandatory reading for many journalists, OCC laid out why the Cowboys defense has been unfairly maligned.
But before we walk through the individual stats above for the 2015 defense, let's first look at how the 2015 defense compared to the 2014 defense in its overall ranking:
Dallas Cowboys 2014 Defense 2015 Defense Aikman Efficiency Rating 69.6 67.0 NFL Rank 15th 17th
The gist of the article is that the 2014 and 2015 weren't all that different (except for turnovers), the main problem was that the offense had a horrible drop-off, and when that happens it tends to put undue pressure on the defense. We have documented many times that the Cowboys lack of turnovers in 2015 can partly be attributed to the fact that the offense was't putting opponents in a position to where they need to press for points. Because teams thought they could control the Cowboys offense, and for the most part they could, they rarely gambled on offense, indeed teams ran on the Cowboys at an alarming rate in 2015.
Besides OCC's reference to the Aikman Efficiency Ratings above, there is another number that represents the Cowboys defense as a middle-of-the-pack group rather than a bottom-of-the-barrel unit as many would have you believe. Their points against for the year was 23.4 per game, and that is exactly in the middle of the league, 16th overall. That was only one point more than the 2014 squad, and that 2014 squad was a serious contender.
It turns out, while the Cowboys 2015 was deficient in turnovers and sacks and many other categories people point to when they rate a defense, they were average in the most-important stat, points allowed, and they were actually among the better teams in one category, redzone defense.
The Dallas defense was 25th in defensive DVOA on the first 80 yards of the field, but the Cowboys improved to seventh inside the red zone.
That's an amazing dichotomy, a poor defense for most of the field, but a very good once teams entered the redzone. In terms of touchdowns allowed in the redzone, the Cowboys were ranked eighth in the league, allowing a TD roughly 51% of the time. Of course, improving their defense over the rest of the field would be good, that way there would be fewer redzone opportunities for opposing offenses, but still, they were a Top 10 defense once teams reached the redzone.
This isn't to say we wouldn't like to see improvement on the Cowboys defense, the lack of sacks and pressure on opposing quarterbacks is an unsettling trend. But, to say the Cowboys can't be a serious contender because of their defense overlooks the fact that a similar defense in 2014 was plenty good enough to keep the Cowboys in the hunt. What they benefited from was a powerhouse offense that controlled the clock, kept pressure on opposing offenses that in turn led to turnover opportunities
So when you hear the Cowboys can't contend with their current defense, don't believe it. Sure it would be easier if their defense was stronger, but you play with what you have. Plenty of teams would love to have the Cowboys offense, trade offs in the NFL are a fact of life. As long as the defense remains stingy in the redzone, the offense can take care of the rest.