If all you knew about the Dallas Cowboys defense was what you saw this past Sunday against the Denver Broncos, you’d think the next sentence is ludicrous. The Cowboys defense is not as bad as they have led you to believe. You might say, didn’t they just get annihilated by a Denver offense (led by seventh-round pick Trevor Siemian) that is supposed to be the weakness of that team? Yes, that happened, but one game is a tiny sample size. And there were mitigating circumstances to boot. So before the media and the rest of the NFL’s fans decide to bury the Cowboys defense, they might want to take a look at a few things.
Let’s look at a brief history, going back to the Cowboys 2016 season. Did you know the best run defense in yards allowed per game for the season was the Cowboys defense? Of course, teams threw the ball pretty well against the Cowboys and didn’t run it as often as they did against some other teams. Still, you don’t lead the league in a category like that without some talent and skills. Overall, the Cowboys were 14th in yards per game allowed in 2016. Also, let’s talk about perhaps the most important stat for a defense, points allowed per game. The Cowboys 2016 defense? They ranked fifth in the league at 19.1 per game. Yes, their grind-it-out, ball-control clock-eating offense helped that out, but once again you have to have some skill to rank fifth in the league.
Another oddity that not many people think about outside of Dallas. For all the venom spent calling the Cowboys pass rush the worst thing on earth, they managed to rank 13th in sacks last season. That was one better than the vaunted New York Giants defense, which cost a heck of a lot more.
But as the wise one OCC says, just quoting statistics without some context is basically cherry-picking to win an argument. So let’s get some context. The Cowboys defense is built to keep everything in front of them, then make the tackle. This kind of defense may not always look pretty on the stat sheet, but it can be very effective. Our own OCC noted in July of this year:
A defense built to defend the big play will not always look good on the stat sheet. The defense will give up a lot of underneath yardage (In 2016, the Cowboys allowed 254 pass completions of eight yards or less, more than any other team in the league), will give up a lot of passing yards (26th in the league), and will have a lot more stats that don't look great in fantasy football. But by forcing the opponent to dink-and-dunk the ball up the field, this defense achieves its ultimate goal, preventing the other team from scoring. And in the end, that's all that counts.
Just how effective have the Cowboys defense been in defending the big play over the last few years? OCC once again has that ready for us. Over the last three seasons, the Cowboys have ranked 8th, 10th and 9th in the league in limiting big plays in the passing game (defined as passes over 16 yards).
For all their limitations in getting takeaways the last two seasons, the Cowboys have been a borderline top 10 defense the last three years against the big play.
And defending the big play with such consistency over the last three years is not the result of a powerful offense (where did that go in 2015?). It is the result of scheme, it the result of coaching, it is the result of quality.
The Cowboys defense plays a certain brand of football, it’s not flashy and doesn’t put up big stats all the time, but it has been effective.
Yes, that was all last year (or the previous couple of years). This year, we have the disaster in Denver. But we also have the first week, when they only gave up three points to the Giants. Okay, so the Giants offense is a mess right now, but they at least scored 10 points on the Lions on Monday, and that was with Odell Beckham, Jr. doing very little.
Even with the meltdown on Sunday, the Cowboys defense is still middle of the pack in yards allowed (13th) and 21st in points allowed. They are also 14th in sacks (thanks DeMarcus Lawrence!).
We always hate to hear excuses, but let’s look at some of the mitigating circumstances surrounding that game in Denver. They played the majority of the game without three of their top four cornerbacks. They were forced to play a rookie for much of the game on the outside at corner. That rookie hadn’t played a snap in the NFL before the game (even in the preseason). They had to play a sixth-round rookie safety for many plays as the slot corner.
Additionally, their offense gave them no help. They left them on the field for far too long in the thin air of Mile High. And for some reason that no one can quite figure out yet, Sean Lee played one of the worst games of his career. The Cowboys defense hadn’t allowed a 100-yard rusher prior to Sunday since the final game of the 2015 season. The Cowboys missed tackles all day long. Still, the two Cowboys’ touchdowns in the game were set up by the defense, a strip-sack fumble recovery and an interception. The defense was bad, but the offense was even worse.
I’m not here to say that the Cowboys are a Top-10 defense, that they are elite or any other nonsense. They definitely have issues that they need to fix. The missed tackles on Sunday were very uncharacteristic, but if they become characteristic, the whole thing will fall apart.
The Cowboys identity is built on offense, there is no doubt about that. But the next time someone says the Cowboys defense is awful, is trash, or anything else that indicates they are at the bottom of the league - don’t believe it. It’s just another thing they get wrong about the Cowboys.