A lot of the interest and speculation concerning the Dallas Cowboys centers around the offense. The new combination of Mike McCarthy and Kellen Moore has inspired some high hopes, and the electrifying pick of CeeDee Lamb in the NFL Draft just amped things up. One reason that things like Team 40 Burger have become so popular is that this was already a very talented offense. Lamb is a big plus, and there is reason to hope that the departure of Travis Frederick and Jason Witten will be adroitly handled by their replacements. Blake Jarwin has flashed his ability, and the Cowboys have a proven center in Joe Looney, plus developing players in Connor McGovern and Connor Williams to work with. Rookie Tyler Biadasz may be the future of the position.
Defense, however, is a different story. It is entirely likely that five of the eleven starters on opening day will be players that weren’t with the team last year, one may be in a different position, and another rookie is a dark horse to win a starting job by then. Add in the almost total revamping of the coaching staff on that side of the ball, and there are lots of things that should attract our attention. So let’s dive into them.
All those new faces
For week one, it is probable that the Cowboys will have Gerald McCoy, Dontari Poe, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, and Trevon Diggs starting. If he is in shape, Aldon Smith is likely to be at RDE, and if he isn’t, it could be Randy Gregory taking that first defensive snap if he is also reinstated. Even if neither are ready to go week one, it is safe to assume one of them will move to the starting role at some point in the season. Meanwhile, reports continue to circulate that the staff wants to give Chidobe Awuzie a look at safety. There might also be a door opening for Reggie Robinson II to get into the mix for a starting job.
Obviously, the personnel will be significantly different from what the team had last season. While some of the new faces are older vets, they come with a much stronger pedigree than we have seen, and outside of Smith, some recent productivity to encourage us.
Playing the run
The additions to the roster are a lot of fun to consider, but the real possibilities for Dallas lie in what the new staff is going to do with them, and the established players.
Right off the bat, it was clear that one major change in the philosophy was coming. The first free agent signing by Dallas was Gerald McCoy. That was a signal that the interior of the defensive line was going to get a bit more attention than we have seen in recent seasons. Even more emphatic evidence of this came when Dontari Poe was brought on board. Not only is he a DT, he is a true NFL nose tackle in size and skill set. Listed at 346 lbs, he is not only far bigger than any of the other D linemen, he is much bigger than any of the offensive linemen on the team.
Under Rod Marinelli, the approach was for the linemen to rush the passer first in all situations, and play the run on their way to the quarterback. This had mixed results, as some opponents used this tendency to gash the Cowboys on the ground. The lack of power up the middle also often resulted in a clean pocket for the passer to step up into while the rushers found themselves too deep to make a play.
Now, with McCoy, Poe, and perhaps rookie Neville Gallimore, Dallas has players that can not only clog up the run between the tackles, but that can push the pocket back into the QB. That makes him an easier target for the EDGE rushers. And McCoy and Poe are not impotent rushing the passer, either. In 2019, as teammates with the Carolina Panthers, they combined for nine sacks. McCoy’s five were equal to the Cowboys’ second-leading sacker, DeMarcus Lawrence, while Poe had as many as the three players tied for third on the team.
Shutting down the run effectively and upgrading the pass rush? Gimme.
Last season, the Cowboys were 26th in the NFL in blitz rate per dropback by the opponent, per Pro Football Reference. With Mike Nolan as the linebackers coach, the New Orleans Saints were eighth. It is a reasonable assumption that Dallas is going to bring an extra man more often than we have seen lately.
Willingness to come with more rushers is just part of the equation, however. Creativity in how you dial those blitzes up is also important. The Cowboys already have a trio of linebackers in Jaylon Smith, Leighton Vander Esch, and Sean Lee that can all be effective coming from the mid level of the defense. That means that however many LBs are on the field, the offense has to be aware of all of them in pass protection.
There could be a new wrinkle as well. The idea has been raised of a SAM/designated pass rusher role. Jaylon Smith may well be used that way. In a four-man front, he can be used with his speed and ability to blitz on both runs and passes. And if the Cowboys show a 3-4 look, which will likely happen on some plays, he can stand up at one outside spot and let the offense worry about just who’s coming.
That is without even considering using safety and corner blitzes. Add those to the mix, and things could get very uneasy for opposing quarterbacks.
Facing the ball in the secondary
It has been reported that Kris Richard was very confining in the technique he demanded from his defensive backs. Now it is expected that Al Harris and Maurice Linguist are going to teach a very different approach.
The lack of takeaways has become a fixture for Dallas in recent years. While that is always one aspect of the game that is very subject to chance, just getting your players in position to make plays on the ball could have a major, positive impact. Awuzie may be one that could benefit greatly if he is indeed moved to safety, where he would face the ball almost all the time. Clinton-Dix has a good history of being a ballhawk as well. Diggs brings a decent college history in that respect to the table as well, having snagged three picks his final year. And most of us have felt that Jourdan Lewis and Xavier Woods have more potential in that regard than we have seen happen.
Those are the main points, but other aspects such as how Nolan may be much more creative with his linebackers in general and the overall impact Jim Tomsula has on the line also come into play. There are many more unknowns on defense than there are on offense in Dallas. Given the frustrations we have had there, that looks to be more good than bad.