The title of this article flies in the face of conventional wisdom. To say “Cowboys defense as responsible for Amari Cooper trade as anything” seems a little absurd on the face. To be sure, if the Cowboys offense wasn’t so abysmal, especially on the road, then Dallas wouldn’t have considered trading for Cooper. And it’s also true that the Cowboys want to have a fair and full evaluation of Dak Prescott, and without a weapon to complement Cole Beasley in the passing game, a consistent weapon, they probably felt they really couldn’t do that. So we can say, without hesitation, that the Cowboys offense was a big part of the reason the trade went through.
So how does the defense play into this equation? Well, the Cowboys would have been unlikely to part with a first-round pick now unless they thought they were still a viable factor in the 2018 playoffs. They would have played out the string, saved that first-round pick and tried to build something in 2019 for Dak Prescott and take their chances. Instead, they went all in. And they went all in because they have a defense that is among the top units in the league, at least in some categories, and they are keeping this team in the playoff hunt. If the Cowboys can just muster up a decent offense, they have a future in the 2018 season. All of that is possible through the play of this defense.
Whether you are a believer in conventional stats, volume stats, or advanced stats, when it comes to defense there is one number that reigns supreme. That is points allowed. The Cowboys are almost halfway through the season and they are second in the league in points allowed at 17.6 points per game. If your defense is keeping opposing offenses under 18 points a game, any offense of even average ability should make you competitive and a playoff contender. Only four offenses in the league score under 18 points per game, and surprisingly Dallas is not one of them. The 40-point explosion against Jacksonville moved them to 20 points scored per game, good for 26th in the league.
The Cowboys defense isn’t a creator of big splash plays. They only have six turnovers on the year (two interceptions and four fumble recoveries) and that is tied for 24th in the league. So they don’t exactly win on turnovers, and that is one area that actually hurts the offense because they aren’t providing short fields. They are a very average defense on third downs, ranking 16th in the NFL with an allowed rate of 39.4%. They do a good job of making defenses earn those first downs on third down though, because while they are average on third down overall, they are third in the league by only allowing an average of 17.6 first downs per game.
What they are very good at is limiting overall yardage (third in the league with 313.7 yards per game), yards per play (fourth in the league at 5.1 yards per play), and they really excel in the redzone. Dallas is second in the NFL by allowing touchdowns in the redzone at a rate of 36.84%, only behind their next opponent, Tennessee. Over their last three games, they have allowed redzone touchdowns at an astonishingly low 12.5% rate.
The Cowboys defense is really limiting what offenses can accomplish against them. They could be even better by improving in some areas. They could help the offense, as mentioned above, by creating more turnovers. Along with that, their sack rate is slowing. They are still tied for eighth in the league with 19, but it hasn’t been as big a part of their game in recent weeks. They only have five sacks over the last three games. Incredibly, they are achieving all of this on defense while still allowing high passer ratings for opposing quarterbacks (26th in the league).
There are things the Cowboys defense does very well, and things they need to improve on. With their front seven as healthy as it’s been in a long time, and Chidobe Awuzie recovering from his ankle issues, the unit as a whole might just be getting started. A healthy and in-football-shape David Irving should help enormously.
The defense has kept the Cowboys season alive. They are the reason they are even in contention in a very average NFC East. There is still over half a season to be played and there is no doubt that the Cowboys still have a shot. Now they have added a weapon on offense in Amari Cooper, and the reason they did is because their defense has kept them alive.