One of the more enduring storylines for the Cowboys this offseason was how the offense will change under new offensive coordinator Kellen Moore, and additionally how the hiring of quarterbacks coach Jon Kitna would help Dak Prescott grow as a passer. They’ll get their first opportunity to show the results of that change on Sunday against a Giants defense that has been far below average in recent years.
Led by defensive coordinator James Bettcher, the Giants run a 3-4 scheme in name only. While they line up with three down linemen and four linebackers in base formations, Bettcher’s playbook contains a plethora of different fronts that he employs with high frequency. It’s part of what made him so successful as the defensive coordinator for the Cardinals, during which he had a top-ten defense every year.
Another big part of Bettcher’s success has been his exotic blitz packages, and the high rate at which he uses them. In his first two years running the defense in Arizona, Bettcher blitzed over 40% of the time. In his final season, 2017, that percentage dropped to 37%, which was still the fifth-highest in the NFL at the time. Last year, which was Bettcher’s first with the Giants, a blitz was called only 26.3% of the time, ranking 22nd in the league.
That ranking correlated to the defense’s other rankings: 24th in yards allowed, 23rd in points allowed, 23rd in pass defense, 20th in run defense, and 24th in DVOA. Bettcher, a longtime linebackers coach, places the foundation of his defense on getting creative with the way his front seven lines up. Of course, that requires a talented front seven - in Arizona, he had Chandler Jones, Calais Campbell, Daryl Washington, Deone Bucannon, and a whole host of effective role players - and Bettcher did not have that in 2018, forcing him to alter his scheme.
Prior to last year, Bettcher had become known as a high IQ defensive schemer, leading Andy Benoit of Sports Illustrated to dub him the defensive coordinator version of Sean McVay:
Ironically, it’s the success of two of Bettcher’s NFC West division rivals that could catapult him onto some head-coaching search lists in 2017. In Los Angeles, 31-year-old Sean McVay has brought the Rams offense from the bottom to the top. In San Francisco, 36-year-old Kyle Shanahan has gone 5-0 since installing Jimmy Garoppolo, whom the 49ers traded for in October, as his starter. Besides youth, what Bettcher has in common with McVay and Shanahan is he’s intensely details-oriented and scheme-driven. He sees football as an intellectual endeavor.
As such, Bettcher likes to trick offenses as to what he’s doing with pre-snap looks that disguise what is actually being done; in many ways, it’s the same as what Moore is trying to do with the offense in Dallas. But Bettcher has gained some more players to work with heading into 2019. Their sack leader, Olivier Vernon, was shipped off in the Odell Beckham trade, but the three other sack leaders after Vernon all return.
Lorenzo Carter put up four sacks in his rookie year, logging two of them over the final month of the regular season. Inside linebacker Tae Davis, an undrafted rookie from Chattanooga, added two sacks in limited playing time. And defensive lineman BJ Hill, another rookie in 2018, notched five and a half sacks. All three of these players figure to see significantly more playing time in their second year, and could serve as the young nucleus of this rebuilding defense.
Carter, in particular, might be relied upon to be the primary edge rusher going forward. Kareem Martin, who had one and a half sacks last year, returns on the opposite side of Carter and will likely rotate with Markus Golden, another former Cardinals rusher who was signed in the offseason. Golden had 12.5 sacks in 2016, the last time he played a full season in Bettcher’s defense. Old Dominion rookie pass rusher Oshane Ximines should also get a few opportunities here and there.
Along the defensive line, Hill is the most productive pass rushing presence, but he’ll be accompanied by two other noise-makers. Defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson is a run-stuffing presence who led his position group in tackles last year, while first--round nose tackle Dexter Lawrence will try to fill the void left by Damon Harrison.
All in all, these players offer some potential, but the player to really watch out for in this front seven is inside linebacker Alec Ogletree. The seven-year veteran and former first-round pick was second in tackles last year for New York and led the defense in picks with five, two of which he returned for touchdowns. As the quarterback of the defense, he flows to the ball and is almost always involved in making a play.
The back end of the defense is the Achilles heel for now. Janoris Jenkins is the headliner, and he’s a tough cornerback to bear in press man coverage, which Bettcher dials up a lot of. Opposite Jenkins, though, it’s a mystery; Bettcher has said he expects to rotate between corners for the number two spot. That rotation consists of three rookies, a second-year player, and another who has yet to take a snap on defense in his four year career.
The safety spots will be filled by two newcomers as well. Veteran Antoine Bethea reunites with Bettcher from their Arizona days, while Jabrill Peppers will likely be utilized as a gadget defender in a similar fashion to how Bettcher used Tyrann Mathieu in Arizona. Either way, that’s a lot of inexperience coming together in the secondary, and it doesn’t seem like there’s enough of a pass rush yet to counteract that.
It’s hard not to think the Cowboys offense could have a big day against this unit. But even with a pretty lopsided talent mismatch, the Giants will likely throw some pretty confusing looks at Dak Prescott, so this defense can’t be overlooked.