For the people who have been banging fists on the table for Donovan Wilson to get a shot at safety, the Cowboys’ humiliating loss to the Browns offered at least one positive. On the Browns’ opening offensive possession, they capped off a quick four-play drive with Jarvis Landry throwing a touchdown to Odell Beckham Jr. in an early sign of utter disrespect for this putrid defense:
And there’s Darian Thompson at the end, tripping over air as he trails badly trying to cover Beckham on the touchdown. It’s the kind of thing that gets you benched, and it did just that. Thompson didn’t see the field on defense once more. Instead, Wilson entered the game.
Keep in mind that Wilson has never seen this type of action in the NFL. He played all of 16 defensive snaps last year, and had zero defensive snaps through the first three weeks of the season. Suddenly, he played every defensive snap for the remainder of the game, coming out to 70 total snaps. In one game that he didn’t even start, Wilson played more than he had in his first 19 career games.
So how did the former sixth-round pick do? Well, the defense still gave up 41 more points in the game, so he clearly wasn’t a game changer. But Wilson wasn’t a liability either, which was an instant upgrade over Thompson. Not only was he not a liability, but Wilson ended up as the leading tackler with 10 tackles while also adding adding a sack on his lone blitz of the game.
Let me repeat that: Wilson didn’t even play until the second defensive series and still led the team in tackles. Now, that’s both an indictment of the Cowboys’ linebackers (who had a wholly terrible game against Cleveland) and an indicator of Wilson’s value. Back when Wilson was drafted by Dallas, his film showed a player who relishes the opportunity to make the big tackles, but needed to get more consistent in his tackling form. Wilson did miss two tackles on Sunday, so he hasn’t cleaned that up entirely, but a willing and able tackler is something Dallas has been missing this season.
Additionally, Wilson’s high tackle count was not due to him giving up catches left and right either, which is often the case when a defensive back racks up the tackles. Wilson was only targeted three times, and while he did allow catches on two of those targets, he made the tackle instantaneously; Wilson only surrendered one yard after the catch, for a total of 17 yards when targeted. Additionally, his 81.2 passer rating allowed was the second lowest on the team, behind Trevon Diggs.
Saying that Wilson was one of the best in coverage is admittedly a low bar, because the defense is just that bad, but it has to count for something. For contrast, Thompson was surrendering a 141.7 passer rating when targeted this season and allowed three touchdowns. Thompson is far from the only thing wrong with this defense, but he’s certainly one of the problems.
And Wilson may not be the piece that changes this defense’s course - actually, it’s highly likely that he’s not - he’s objectively an upgrade at the position. He was better in coverage, better in run support, and offered a threat coming off the edge as a blitzer. With Brandon Carr being released earlier this week, Wilson is more deserving than ever of being the starting safety alongside Xavier Woods when the Cowboys take the field against the Giants on Sunday.