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Cowboys’ first-team defense shines in preseason, but which defenders will make the 53-man roster?

For 39 snaps, the Cowboys’ first-team defense showed who they are and what they are capable of.

NFL: Los Angeles Chargers at Dallas Cowboys Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

A few days ago, we looked at the preseason snap count for the first-team offense to get a feel for what it could mean for the 53-man roster. And to figure out just how many plays the first-team unit was on the field for, we simply used Dak Prescott’s snaps over the first two preseason games. After all, if Prescott was on the field, that also meant the first-team offense was on the field.

As we turn our attention to the first-team defense, is there an equivalent “anchor” player on defense whose presence on the field is indicative of the first-team unit? Under normal circumstances, Sean Lee is that player, but he was held to just 10 plays this preseason, so he’s not the anchor player we’re looking for.

A look at the detailed snap count numbers shows that this year’s anchor player is DeMarcus Lawrence. Lawrence was on the field for 39 snaps over the first three preseason games. Other core first-teamers were also on the field for almost those exact same snaps:

  • Tyrone Crawford played 38 snaps, all of them with Lawrence.
  • Jeff Heath played 41 snaps, 39 of which were with Lawrence.
  • Other players with a strong overlap on those 39 snaps, even though they played more snaps overall: Jaylon Smith (39/39), Chidobe Awuzie (39/39), Byron Jones (38/39), and Antwaun Woods (32/39).

The 39 plays also exactly match the early drives in each of the three preseason games:

Opponent Quarter Drive # Plays Yds Yds Pen Net yards 1st downs 3rd downs Result
SF 1 1 9 30 0 30 2 2/3 Punt
CIN 1 1 3 5 0 5 0 0/1 Punt
1 2 3 5 0 5 0 0/1 Punt
2 3 7 49 -5 44 2 1/2 Punt
ARI 1 1 3 -5 0 -5 0 0/1 Punt
1 2 6 14 0 14 1 1/2 Missed FG
1 3 5 22 0 22 1 1/2 Punt
2 4 3 1 0 1 0 0/1 Punt
Total 39 121 -5 116 6 5/13

The first-team defense racked up quite an impressive tally on those 39 snaps:

  • 0 points allowed.
  • Only one field goal attempt allowed, and even that was only possible because of a muffed punt by Dallas.
  • 63.0 defensive passer rating on 10/19 passing for 78 yards.
  • 2.2 yards per attempt allowed on the ground (17 attempts, 38 total yards).
  • 38% third-down conversion rate (5/13).

You can twist and turn the data all you want, but that is an impressive performance. Whether that performance translates into the regular season is an entirely different question of course.

So now let’s take a look at who else got snaps while Lawrence was on the field, the working assumption being that those other players would be likely considered first-teamers (or borderline first-teamers) and should see the bulk of the regular season action.

Of those 39 snaps, the Cowboys played 16 in their base defense and 23 in their nickel defense. Here’s a look at who was on the field for the base defense:

Some observations:

The Cowboys still like to move Tyrone Crawford around. Crawford is the nominal 3-technique, but he gets moved to right defensive end quite a lot, where he basically replaces Taco Charlton, while guys like Daniel Ross or Datone Jones move inside.

Randy Gregory is a pass rush specialist for now. The Cowboys deploy their base defense mostly on run downs (12 of the 16 plays were runs) and like to have either Taco Charlton or Tyrone Crawford set the edge on the right side against the run. Gregory basically only comes onto the field on passing downs in the nickel defense. So why did he get that one snap in the base defense? Because the Cowboys wanted to give him a start, so they played him on the first defensive down of the game - in their base defense.

Antwaun Woods is going to make the team at the 1-technique spot. Whodathunkit back when the Cowboys signed him on May 31st? Go back and read the comments under the post announcing his signing, it’s quite hilarious. I could do an entire Trolling the Nation post with just a selection of those comments.

Forget all that nonsense about moving Jaylon Smith to SAM. Smith has a death grip on the MLB spot, LVE notwithstanding. And look who won the battle at SAM, none other than Damien Wilson.

The battle for the sixth linebacker spot has been decided. Sean Lee, Jaylon Smith, Damien Wilson, Joe Thomas, and LVE are all roster locks. And the sixth guy looks to be Justin March-Lillard, who garnered some first-team snaps at WILL.

Of apples and oranges. A cursory glance at the image above might suggest there is a battle at one of the safety spots, where Xavier Woods has “only” 10 snaps, while Tyree Robinson has five. But that’s only because Woods sat out the Cardinals game with a hamstring injury. Other players whose injuries have resulted in missed snaps: Datone Jones (knee), Sean Lee (veteran with reduced snap count), Leighton Vander Esch (groin), Kavon Frazier (shoulder), Maliek Collins (foot), and David Irving (suspended). All these players figure to be in the mix for significant snaps this year, and their (partial) absence in first-team snaps may suggest more competition at a given spot than there actually will be.

On to the nickel defense:

The nickel defense confirms some of the things we already saw in the base defense:

Base or nickel, Tyrone will move around. Like in the base defense, the nickel defense sees Crawford playing snaps at both the 3-technique and RDE.

Randy Gregory is brought in on passing downs. The nickel defense (18 of the 23 plays were passes) is where Gregory can bring his strengths to play. For the Cowboys, that is his role for now, even though he was a formidable run-stopper in college in addition to being an outstanding pass rusher.

Antwaun Woods! 32 of 39 first-team snaps. What a find.

Other thoughts:

Looks like the slot CB job is Anthony Brown’s to lose. The Cowboys gave Brown every opportunity to show that he’s the guy for the job. Jourdan Lewis made some nice plays as the outside corner on the second and third teams, but was it enough to unseat Brown?

The WILL spot is Sean Lee’s, but it’s nice to have a competent backup. Again, go back and read the comments under the post announcing the Cowboys had signed Joe Thomas. Good times.

Much more to come at DT. As you wistfully look at the second tier of names at DT like Kony Ealy, Datone Jones, Daniel Ross, or Jihad Ward, keep in mind that Maliek Collins and David Irving are expected to return at some point this season and will likely push lesser players from the roster.

Where’s LVE? Leighton Vander Esch sat out the last two preseason games with a groin injury. He did play 32 snaps in the first game against the 49ers, but none in the first drive of that game. The team will figure out over the course of the season were he fits in, but it’s looking like the 2018 first-round pick will start the season as a backup.

Looking at all 39 snaps, here’s who got the most snaps at each position.

Cowboys first-team snaps, 2018 preseason
DeMarcus Lawrence (39) Tyrone Crawford (38) Jaylon Smith (39) Chidobe Awuzie (39) Jeff Heath (39)
Randy Gregory (14) Antwaun Woods (32) Joe Thomas (23) Byron Jones (38) Xavier Woods (22)
Taco Charlton (9) Datone Jones (9) Damien Wilson (16) Anthony Brown (23) Tyree Robinson (10)
Daniel Ross (6) Sea Lee (10) Jourdan Lewis (1) Kavon Frazier (7)
Kony Ealy (6) Justin March-Lillard (6)
Jihad Ward (1)

Notable absences include rookies Leighton Vander Esch (injury) and Dorance Armstrong (down the depth chart), veterans Maliek Collins (injury), David Irving (suspended), Charles Tapper (depth chart) and Brian Price (depth chart), along with recent acquisition Caraun Reid (depth chart).

Lots of things to ponder as roster cuts are looming.

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