This Cowboys offense was built to destroy any defense they might face. Dak Prescott had a bevvy of weapons in Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, CeeDee Lamb, Cedrick Wilson, and Blake Jarwin, as well as having both Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard in the running game, and it was all operating behind one of the most talented offensive lines in the league.
Five games in and that’s all changed. The offensive line has suffered injuries, with both Tyron Smith and La’el Collins out for the year, and Joe Looney’s prolonged absence has thrust rookie Tyler Biadasz into the starting lineup. Jarwin tore his ACL in the first game, pushing Dalton Schultz into a receiving role, while the ground game has been spotty this year. And to top it all off, Prescott is out for the year now, with Andy Dalton taking over going forward.
So this week, more than ever, it’s important to have an understanding of the defense they’re going to face. And what a confusing jigsaw puzzle it is. Defensive coordinator Vance Joseph, formerly head coach of the Broncos, is in his second year with the team. The defense has some big names - Patrick Peterson, Budda Baker, Jordan Hicks, last year’s first round pick Byron Murphy - but they have yet to put everything together and become a good team defense. Of course, the biggest name is Chandler Jones, who is undoubtedly the best edge rusher that nobody talks about, but Jones was just placed on the injured reserve.
That’s a huge break for this Dallas offensive line. While Brandon Knight has looked good at left tackle and Terence Steele has mostly held his own on the other side, both got cooked by Myles Garrett against Cleveland. Jones is better than Garrett, so you can imagine how badly he would’ve beaten these inexperienced tackles and ruined Dalton’s day.
The bad news, though, is that the Cardinals still have some good pass rushers elsewhere. Joseph’s scheme is predicated on creating pressure, and as such he dials up the blitzes quite often. Last year, Joseph’s defense blitzed on nearly 40% of plays, good for third most in the league. So far this year, he’s sending an extra pass rusher on almost 37% of plays, the sixth highest rate. Nine different defenders have recorded at least one sack - by comparison, Dallas has 10 total sacks - and five of those defenders each have two sacks.
Joseph’s defense has been described as an attacking 3-4, and it’s a fairly accurate way to describe it, but he also utilizes his players in creative ways. Baker, listed as a safety, has the ability to play all over the field, and Joseph took advantage of that last year. Arizona also drafted Isaiah Simmons, a linebacker who can also play safety and rush the passer, in the first round, adding another dimension to the defense.
Budda Baker's career snaps by position:— PFF (@PFF) August 25, 2020
Edge - 186
LB - 460
Slot CB - 882
FS - 708 pic.twitter.com/NRi3t7QMNx
All of this versatility and blitzing is meant to try and discourage teams from throwing the ball, and with the quarterback change for Dallas, some people have floated the idea of raising Scott Linehan from the dead and running their offense completely around Zeke.
But this would be a terrible idea. Never mind the analytics saying teams should be throwing more, but the Cardinals are an especially good run defense. Their -15.5% run defense DVOA only ranks 15th in the league, but that’s more a reflection of the top five teams in run defense efficiency being unrealistically stout; for instance, Baltimore and Pittsburgh are both at the top with -42.4% and -45.2% respectively.
Still, Arizona’s front seven has been tough to run against. Their defensive line, headlined by Corey Peters and Jordan Phillips, have helped create a lot of space for the linebackers, many of whom slice through the gaps on blitz calls. Five different linebackers, as well as Baker, have at least two tackles for loss on the season largely because of this.
It’s the secondary where this defense struggles. While they have Peterson, who has long been one of the NFL’s very best corners, things aren’t so tight back there. Joseph likes to pair his blitzes with a ton of press man coverage, often leaving just one safety over the top to help out, if at all. Peterson is doing great, allowing just a 56.5% completion rate, and Murphy is excelling in the slot, where he’s giving up an even lower 50% completion rate despite being targeted more than any other defender.
Dre Kirkpatrick, the other outside corner, has been struggling in a big way. On 24 targets, he’s given up a 70.8% completion rate; he’s also given up 102 yards after the catch and leads the team in missed tackle rate. The safeties have also been suspect; opposing offenses have found ways to isolate either Baker or second-year player Deionte Thompson and attack them. Between the two of them, they’re giving up completions over 68% of the time and allowing over 10 yards per completion, as well as giving up three of the total eight passing touchdowns allowed.
Another casualty of Joseph’s blitz-heavy scheme is it drops his linebackers into coverage with little help, and Hicks and De’Vondre Campbell have been shredded in the passing game as well. However, Joseph does have Peterson follow the opponent’s top receiver all over the field, so it’ll be interesting to see which receiver he chooses. Cooper is the obvious pick, but Lamb and Gallup have both been making highlight plays lately.
Regardless of which receiver Peterson ends up shadowing, it’ll leave one of these productive pass catchers one-on-one with Kirkpatrick, and Dalton would be wise to target him plenty. Don’t be surprised to see Kellen Moore try and get some matchups against Kirkpatrick for Lamb, considering how much YAC Kirkpatrick is giving up.
The biggest takeaway, though, is the absence of Jones. As their star pass rusher, he opened up a lot of things for other blitzers, and it remains to be seen how the pass rush will fare without him. If Dalton and the line can manage the blitz pickups, he’ll be able to dissect this spotty pass defense and keep the Cowboys from missing a beat offensively speaking.