The defense of the Dallas Cowboys took a huge step last season as they finished in the top seven in both points allowed and yardage given up for the first time in 15 years. With a bunch of young hungry playmakers on the squad, the unit finally had the talent to make a real splash last season and at many points in the year, they carried the team. That’s an odd thing to say considering how the defense has had it’s fair share of letdowns over the years. For example, in 2017, the Cowboys lost two games (Rams and Packers) when the offense scored 30+ points. But last year in the regular season, the Cowboys didn’t lose a single game (9-0) when the offense scored more than 17 points.
The Cowboys defense improved greatly last year, and with the second-best set of defensive triplets in the league, they should only get better. But as good as this group is, they aren’t mentioned with the league’s top defenses because they struggle in one department - takeaways. In the eight years under Jason Garrett, the Cowboys have finished inside the top 12 in takeaways only once (2014). They are the epitome of mediocre in this department as three times in that span they have finished 16th in takeaways, including each of the last two seasons. Can they improve?
There are some reasons to be hopeful for this unit to climb a little in this area; however, don’t get too excited about it. The Cowboys still have some things holding them back so a big jump here would be a surprise. Here are two reasons why they should improve, and one reason to expect more of the same from this defense.
More pressure on the quarterback equals more turnovers
The Cowboys are gradually improving in the sack department, and last week we examined three ways the team could catapult themselves into one of the top sack defenses in the league. With veteran defensive end Robert Quinn joining the team, the Cowboys now feature a formidable tandem on the edge with Quinn and DeMarcus Lawrence. With Trysten Hill added to the pass rushing defensive tackle arsenal of Maliek Collins and Tyrone Crawford, the team has some good push in the middle. And with Jaylon Smith finishing with the second-highest pass rushing grade of all linebackers, the Cowboys are equipped to attack the quarterback from all angles.
Just as the Cowboys were 16th in takeaways last year, they were also 16th in sacks. The team should improve in getting pressure on the quarterback and this should open the door for more turnovers.
Fun fact: Over the last three seasons, the team only has two defensive touchdowns. Both were generated by pressure from the defensive line (Byron Jones pick-six after ball was tipped at the line and Jaylon Smith fumble return after quarterback was stripped).
A better offense means more opportunities for takeaways
The Cowboys ability to take the ball away is so consistently middle of the road, that you can almost set your watch to it. In five of the last eight years, the team finished in the 13th to 19th range, and finished with an eight-year average of 17.75 ranking. It’s odd that in an eight year range where the defense has changed quite a bit over time, the team has been so incredibly tight with the numbers when it comes to creating turnovers. But what’s even more odd is how in a short stint of two years where not a lot of change occurred, the takeaways changed drastically - once for the better, and once for the worse. The reason for this - the offense.
In 2014, the Cowboys defense finished as the second-best team in the league in generating turnovers, yet in the following season - they were the absolute worst. The reason for this can be found in the amount of opportunities credited to their offense. When the Cowboys offense is scoring points and dominating the time of possession, their opponents played from behind and with a greater sense of urgency. These situations made their opponents more vulnerable to turning the ball over.
Conversely, when the Cowboys offense was completely inept in 2015, their opponents played a lot more conservatively and there just wasn’t a lot of opportunities to take the ball away.
Cornebacks are playing with their backs to the ball
One of the most impressive things about Kris Richard is that he places such an emphasis on his cornerbacks jamming the receivers and disrupting their routes. The techniques he’s managed to teach his players have created the most smothering group of corners in the league. The amount of times the ball was thrown into tight windows were incredibly high for the Cowboys trio as all three of them finished in the top five in this category.
That’s an astounding stat, and you’d think this would lead to a large number of interceptions, but it didn’t. The trio had a grand total of just two picks with Chidobe Awuzie and Anthony Brown each getting one, and All-Pro corner Byron Jones not recording a single interception.
The Cowboys cornerbacks are able to smother the receiver because they keep their eyes on him and are able to stay with him step for step. The trade off here is that they don’t get their head turned around in time to make a play on the ball. Theses types of plays were both impressive and frustrating for Cowboys fans to watch last year. We praised them for so many great last second pass break ups, but then cringed when receivers somehow managed to come away with the ball despite having the corner draped all over him. Awuzie in particularly was very unlucky when it came to passes that were completed despite outstanding coverage.
On one hand, it’s super fantastic the Cowboys corners are so efficient against the pass. All three of them had great seasons. But on the flip side, if they can’t get their head turned around early, there is no reason to think that they’ll be any better at picking off passes. The big question is - now that he’s done such an excellent job limiting separation, can he help them take the next step to where they have a fighting chance to make a play on the ball?