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Cowboys defensive struggles continue, but there were improvements in week five against the Giants

The All-22 tells a lot about the defense’s performance in week five.

NFL: New York Giants at Dallas Cowboys Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

After taking a look at the All-22 coaches film multiple times since the Cowboys week five victory over the Giants, the thing that continued to standout was the defense. It wasn’t all positive, and it wasn’t all negative, but it stood out, so I figured that’s what we would spend our time on today, highlighting the good and the bad.

Let’s get the bad out of the way first.

If you were hoping to see prime Everson Griffen against a defensive line with two below average offensive tackles, you’ll want to guess again. While Griffen did provide some pressure late in the game, and did finish with a half-a-sack, Griffen again showed his struggles in space, giving up a touchdown to TE Evan Engram on a toss-sweep in the first half. Griffen’s struggles in space have been a reoccurring concern this year, and it’s shown up against the run, and even in space rushing the passer as well. Let’s hope Griffen is still just a bit out of shape, and he’ll be getting back into consistent form as the mid-point of the season approaches.

To put it nicely, the interior defensive lineman for the Cowboys are all bad. They currently have three of the five worse lineman in the league according to ESPN Analytics in terms of run-stop win rate (Tyrone Crawford, Antwaun Woods, and Dontari Poe), and the lowest-rated defensive tackle in the NFL according to Pro Football Focus in Trysten Hill. In my evaluations through the first five weeks, Hill has been the best Cowboys defensive tackle (still not playing well), and now he is lost for the season due to a torn ACL. Rookie Neville Gallimore is getting on the field more now, and it’s been rough going for him as well to start his NFL career. With Hill now on IR, it’s very realistic to say that the Cowboys have the worst defensive tackle room in the NFL, and it’s really not even all that close. They are playing just like that too.

Gallimore, a 2020 third-round pick is still young so there is still plenty of hope left for him, but if he wants to get on, and stay on the field, he’s going to have to play with better pad-level and discipline within his gaps against the run. If you’re going to play with poor gap-discipline, at least be moving towards the football, but Gallimore gets moved over multiple gaps here, and get’s pushed backwards which is never a good thing.

Dontari Poe has been about as bad as you possible can be at nose tackle for the Cowboys, and again, that’s putting it nicely. For a 330+ pound man, Poe is consistently bullied by smaller interior offensive lineman getting moved in the running game, and offering nothing as a pass rusher. Once known for his above average athleticism and size, Poe is playing the position with little to no athleticism, strength, and power at the point of attack. It’s disappointing to see a veteran player struggle so much at playing a position that really just expects you to hold your ground, and not get washed out plays consistently.

Enough with the negative, let’s talk about the positive.

For all the bad on Sunday, there was plenty of good too, and that’s really the first time we’ve been able to say that this year. There was some pressure from the front-four, they forced a big-time turnover which resulted in a defensive touchdown (what are those!), and had some positives in coverage when they needed to as well. It wasn’t all great for Mike Nolan’s unit, but it was certainly a step in the right direction.

It’s been another slow start for DeMarcus Lawrence from a production standpoint to start the season, but he came up big for the Cowboys in week five. Lawrence finished the game with a sack, a forced fumble, and four pressures. Lawrence has been dealing with a knee-injury to start the year, so there’s hope that his production will continue to rise as he gets healthier and back into shape. Against the run, Lawrence is still one of the best in the NFL. With that being said, Tank doesn’t get paid $20 million per year to play the run, and he’ll need to pressure quarterbacks at a much higher rate if he wants to be talked about in the same conversation as some of his peers. Nice design here from Nolan to send Anthony Brown on the over-load blitz giving the left side of the offensive line a lot to think about, while Trysten Hill does a nice job of occupying the left guard giving Brown a window to the quarterback.

If the game ball had to be given to a defensive player on Sunday, Jaylon Smith would have gotten my vote. After a dreadful start to the season, Smith played a fantastic game against Jason Garrett’s New York Giants. Smith was active versus the run, pass, and even had some successful blitzes against Daniel Jones. Smith played with confidence, speed, and instincts, and that resulted in 14 tackles, half-a-sack, two pressures, and zero missed tackles. An overall awesome day for Jaylon Smith, a day he desperately needed.

The Cowboys defense gave up their fair-share of third down conversions on Sunday, but they also had plenty of good reps as well. When they needed to, they seemed to get off the field which was a result of good play-calling and good execution. While it won’t show up in the box score, DeMarcus Lawrence’s pressure helps gets the defense off the field, as Jones has his man open at the bottom of the screen for a first down, but the pressure from Lawrence forced Jones off of his spot and leads to an eventual throw-away. The coverage across the board was solid as well and should be credited to the secondary. Nice to see Mike Nolan sending extra-defenders on the blitz, which gives Jones more to think about.

One of the most encouraging developments from Sunday was the defenses ability to get pressure with the blitz, without giving up the big play. Mike Nolan dialed up multiple successful blitzes to create pressure on Daniel Jones and force incompletions and erratic throws. Nolan sent blitzes from the linebacker-spot, safety spot, and corner spot throughout the game. Nolan has been reluctant to send the blitz in the first few weeks of the year, but really showed some aggressiveness on Sunday, and it paid off big-time. More of this Mike, more of this.

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