It wasn’t pretty. The Cowboys are finished with their third preseason game after taking a 27-3 drubbing from the Arizona Cardinals. What’s usually supposed to be a dress rehearsal game was anything but, at least offensively, as Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, and the three best offensive linemen all sat out. The final preseason game figures to see even fewer expected starters, as it’ll mostly be players trying to earn a roster spot.
That said, the defensive first-stringers saw plenty of action Sunday night. And while the Cardinals put up a lot of points, the first team defense looked solid; Arizona’s first two scores were on a muffed punt and a pick-six. So now that we’ve likely gotten the complete look at this defense, what can fans reasonably expect out of this unit in 2018?
Well, for starters, the defense has been simply amazing so far. Through these three preseason games, the first team defense has played 39 snaps. During that brief time, the unit allowed a 63.0 passer rating, with opposing quarterbacks going 10/19 for 78 yards, running backs getting just 38 yards on 17 carries, and offenses only converting five of their 13 third downs. The best part? Not a single score has been surrendered.
Also, Byron Jones has recovered a fumble, while Joe Thomas and Chidobe Awuzie have tallied interceptions. And don’t forget how spectacular Chido’s pick was:
The most important thing to note about the first team defense’s hot streak is that a vast majority of it has been without Sean Lee, as the defensive leader sits out most of the preseason games to avoid any potential injuries. Drafting Leighton Vander Esch in the first round was supposedly the answer to the question of “Who steps up if/when Lee gets hurt?” Instead, free agent signee Thomas has essentially stolen the show in preseason. Just check out this highlight from the Cardinals game, which also stars Randy Gregory:
And speaking of Gregory, the potential-laden defensive end put on a clinic Sunday night. Cardinals left tackle DJ Humphries isn’t exactly an All Pro, but he’s better than what Gregory made him look like. Even when running back Chase Edmonds goes to help Humphries with blocking Gregory, the pass rusher beats them both with a spin that leads to a sack. The preseason has shown us that all the talent Gregory had in college is still very much there.
In fact, this whole defensive line has looked pretty good in the preseason. The Cowboys tend to use a pretty deep rotation in the trenches, so some of the players listed as second string will end up getting quality snaps in the regular season, too, such as Taco Charlton. The first-round pick from last year has shown lots of improvement, and recorded a sack against the Bengals. It seems as though Antwaun Woods is pushing for playing time at the 1-technique position over Jihad Ward, but it’ll be interesting to see what happens when Maliek Collins starts playing. Additionally, Tyrone Crawford got extensive work at the 3-technique spot Sunday and will likely man the position plenty until David Irving returns. And Crawford looked very good there, specifically on this play:
Between the stout defensive line and the emergence of Joe Thomas, it’s easy to forget about Jaylon Smith and the secondary. A lot was said in the offseason about Smith looking better without his brace, and he’s backed up all the hype in these preseason games. He’s looked explosive and fluid and should be a force to be reckoned with, even if his decision-making still needs fine tuning sometimes. And the cornerbacks, specifically Chido, have looked impressive. Jourdan Lewis seemed to outplay Anthony Brown in the Cardinals game, so it’ll be interesting to see who starts at the nickel corner spot. Xavier Woods might miss the season opener with an injury, but Kavon Frazier looked good before injury. Still, the free safety position is undoubtedly the biggest question mark heading into the regular season.
So what can fans expect? Certainly the Cowboys won’t be pitching shutouts frequently, especially given the offensive firepower in their own division. But it’s reasonable to expect this unit will be hard to score against. The pass rushing duo of Randy Gregory and DeMarcus Lawrence alone will disrupt offenses, especially against Week 1 opponent Carolina, what with their offensive line woes.
A secondary anchored by Awuzie and Jones, utilizing their natural skills to execute Kris Richard’s Legion of Boom style of coverage, should also make it hard for quarterbacks to complete easy passes. And a linebacker corps of Sean Lee, Joe Thomas, and Jaylon Smith (and maybe, eventually LVE) doesn’t allow for much in the running game.
From a statistical standpoint, Lawrence finished last year with 14.5 sacks. His numbers dropped later in the year as he saw more double teams, but with Gregory and Charlton in the mix, Lawrence should get more opportunities in 2018. The Tank should be able to replicate double-digit sacks again and Gregory could possibly get there, or at least close, with regular playing time
It’s near impossible to predict how many games Lee is able to play in, but expect him to lead the team in tackles for the games he does appear. Smith should be able to finish second in tackles, or higher, and they should both be able to make at least some contributions in sacks, interceptions, and fumbles.
The secondary is where it’ll get interesting. Chido and Byron have displayed some great coverage skills so far in the preseason, and throwing against them should be no easy task. Due to the tight coverage they’ll be playing expect a lot of deflections or pass breakups. Additionally, Awuzie and Jones should be able to combine for at least seven interceptions. It remains to be seen who the starting nickel corner is, and Jeff Heath is always good for a couple game-sealing interceptions.
As a whole, this defense should perform better than they did last year. In 2017, the Cowboys defense finished eighth overall in total defense, eighth in run defense, and 11th in pass defense. Another top ten finish should be the bare minimum expectation, but a top five unit should be the goal. Expect the pass defense to get better, but perhaps the run defense takes a bit of a dip in production.
Nevertheless, the Cowboys look to be on the path towards having a dominant defense in 2018. A lot of things can and will happen before the regular season starts, but what do you expect from this defense?
What do you expect from the Dallas defense in 2018?
This poll is closed
Top 5 defense
Top 10 defense
Middle of the pack, but good enough
They’ll fall apart and cost us games
Other (explain in the comments)