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If the Cowboys need to choose between run or pass defense, the choice is obvious

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The Cowboys aim to have a better run defense in 2020, but do they need to?

NFL: SEP 13 Giants at Cowboys Photo by Ray Carlin/Icon Sportswire/Corbis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It’s an age-old adage in the NFL, if you stop the run, you can shut down an offense. The idea is that taking away an offense’s run game makes them unbalanced and forces them to throw, making it easier for a defense to predict what the offense will do. But as analytics start to overwhelmingly suggest teams should throw the ball much more than they currently do, what does that mean for run defense?

More importantly, as teams like the Chiefs, Rams, and Saints all start airing it out more and find more success with that formula, how are defenses adjusting to that? Most defensive coordinators begin their game plans with figuring out how to shut down an opponent’s run game, but with such a pass-happy league now, shouldn’t they focus first and foremost on defending the passing game?

Speaking directly in terms of the Cowboys, their run defense was porous at times last season, and Rod Marinelli’s penetration style of defensive line play was partly blamed for the team getting gashed in the running department too often. Our own Danny Phantom highlighted that weakness recently while suggesting new defensive line coach Jim Tomsula should shore up the team’s run defense:

Getting after the quarterback is great, but stopping the run is a must as well. The Cowboys were 8-8 last season, but check out this breakdown:

- Win/loss record when the defense allowed 100 yards or less: 5-1

- Win/loss record in games where the defense allowed more than 100 yards: 3-7

Stop the run, please.

This statistic doesn’t exactly paint the full picture though. It’s similar to statistics that suggest your team will magically win if your running back gets 20 carries in a game: there are too many variables to be a reliable stat.

Let’s break it down real quick. In the six games where the defense allowed 100 yards or less, the opposing teams only ran an average of 19.5 carries; only two of those teams ran more than 20 times in the game, and one of those teams hit 100 yards exactly. And with the exception of the Jets game (which we’ll chalk up to head coach Adam Gase being a poor game-manager), these were all instances in which Dallas spent the majority of the time in the lead. Naturally the other team threw more to try and catch up, thus lowering their rushing yards totals.

And overall, the Cowboys actually weren’t terrible at stopping the run. It may not have felt that way, but the numbers say as much. Only seven other teams allowed fewer yards per attempt in 2019, and their -10.4% run DVOA ranked them 15th in the NFL, just slightly above average. In actuality, it was the Cowboys’ pass defense which did them in; their +13.2% pass DVOA ranked 23rd in the NFL.

To the larger point, though, there’s not a very strong correlation between good run defenses and teams that win a lot of games. Out of the top ten teams in run defense DVOA from 2019, only five of them made the playoffs.

Only two of those teams, the Vikings and Titans, even won a single playoff game; it’s worth noting that both teams’ Wild Card victories came against other teams with a top 10 run defense DVOA. But the Vikings got carved up by the run-heavy 49ers a week later and the Titans were brutalized by a potent passing attack against the Chiefs to seal their fate.

This seems to suggest two things: firstly, that having a good run defense isn’t an overly reliable statistic, and secondly, that good run defenses don’t translate directly to successful teams. This isn’t even necessarily a new trend either. Football analytics godfather Brian Burke noted this discrepancy back in 2006:

Notice that only 5 of the 12 playoff teams were above average while the other 7 are below average. Only 1 playoff team was in the top 7 in run defense. Additionally, 4 of the worst 6 run defenses made the playoffs including the absolute worst 2. Incredibly, the 2006 Super Bowl winner was the very worst—and not just by a little but by .39 yds/run, almost an entire standard deviation worse than the next best team.

Conversely, let’s look at the teams who finished top ten in pass defense DVOA. Seven of those ten teams made the playoffs, four of them won at least one playoff game, and two of them made it all the way to the Super Bowl. It’s also worth noting that the Vikings, who were one of two top ten run defenses to win a playoff game, also had a top five passing defense.

Furthermore, the Chiefs, Ravens, Bills, and Packers all had top ten passing defenses while also fielding some miserable run defenses. The Chiefs ranked 29th, the Ravens 20th, the Bills 18th, and the Packers 23rd in run defense DVOA. None of these teams had even an average run defense, and yet they had a combined record of 49-15 with two conference championship appearances and a Super Bowl victory.

Obviously, this can’t be entirely pinned on the defense, and it’s also obvious that offense played a huge role in these teams’ successes. The Chiefs and Ravens had two of the best offenses in the league, and the Packers were led by Aaron Rodgers; it’s telling that the “worst” of these four teams was the one featuring Josh Allen at quarterback.

So while this doesn’t represent some sort of secret formula to winning lots of games and going far in the playoffs, it does strongly support the notion that pass defense is significantly more crucial to team success than run defense. Obviously it’d be great to have incredibly efficient run and pass defenses at the same time, as the Patriots and 49ers did, but that rarely happens. And if you’re forced to choose between having a great pass defense and a great run defense, it seems that the obvious choice is having a great pass defense.

Not surprisingly, it’s been a while since the Cowboys had a great pass defense: the last time they finished with a top ten pass DVOA was 2007. Since then, Dallas has had six different defensive coordinators and two scheme changes, none of which have really worked. So with Mike Nolan coming in as the latest coach to try and solve this defense, his priorities should be clear.

Stop the pass now, worry about the run later.