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How to fix the Cowboys defense (part 1): Identifying the problem

What ails this Cowboys defense?

NFL: DEC 23 Buccaneers at Cowboys Photo by Andrew Dieb/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It’s always a refreshing feeling to get a new coach. Good, bad, or indifferent, just the notion that big changes are coming is enough to get us fans excited about what lies ahead. The hire of new defensive coordinator Dan Quinn certainly seems like a good decision on the surface. Only time will tell if his tutelage will be what the doctor ordered to cure the Cowboys underperforming defense.

Quinn will definitely have his hands full, but what exactly will he need to do to get this Cowboys defense playing better? To help gain a better understanding of the issues on the defensive side of the ball, we’re going compare a few defensive categories and see if we can properly identify the problem.

Theory #1 - If you take the ball away, you’ll have a great defense

We all know the importance of protecting the ball on offense and generating turnovers on defense. The Cowboys had a nice three-game winning streak near the end of the season where their defense was a turnover-generating machine. Obviously, when the defense takes the ball away, an opportunity for the opposing offense to score points is thwarted. But do takeaways correlate well with the amount of points the defense gives up? Here is where the team has ranked in points allowed and takeaways over the past ten years.

While turnovers are extremely important, there isn’t much of a connection to how many points the defense gives up. Only twice has the defense finished inside the top 10 in points allowed and both times they finished outside the top 15 in takeaways. At the same time, the team is coming off their best season over the past six years in takeaways, finishing seventh in the league. They also gave up a franchise-worst 473 points this season. Getting turnovers helps, but there are more pressing issues for this team.

Theory #2 - If you stop the passing game, you’ll have a great defense

We’ll now take a look at how the Cowboys ranked against the pass over the last decade and compare it to their points allowed. Just to be clear, we want to look at effectiveness against the pass, and not total volume as game scripts tend to mislead us at times. For example, in 2016 when the Cowboys went 13-3, they allowed the seventh-most passing yards that year, but a lot of that had to do with teams having to play catch up with the team’s high-scoring offense. In reality, their pass defense was middle of the pack. Similarly, in 2015 when the Cowboys only won four games, they allowed the fifth-fewest passing yards because opponents attempted the second-fewest passing attempts in the league that year. On an efficiency basis, the defense was in the bottom 10 in yards per attempt.

There’s definitely a much better correlation between passing yards allowed and the amount of points given up than there was to takeaways, but there’s still a lot of room between them. Let’s see if we can do better.

Theory #3 - Stop the run, stop teams from scoring

There’s a lot of discussion that goes on about the importance of running the ball. We’re not going to get into a debate about “establishing the run.” We know football has been around for a long time and offensive coaches continue to use both the run and pass, while defensive coaches continue to plan against defending both the run and pass.

What we’re most interested in is - does the Cowboys (in)ability to stop the run correlate to the amount of points they surrender? Again, we’re only interested in yards per carry rankings.

Now, that looks like we’re on to something. The rushing yard rankings correlate well to the amount of points they give up. To get a better feel of these factors, let’s do a side-by-side comparison of all three categories. We will look at the absolute difference between the points allowed rankings and the rankings for each of these categories.

From these numbers, the ability to stop the run correlates the strongest to the amount of points the Cowboys give up, and it’s not even really close. Over the last ten seasons, the rushing yards per attempt rankings were never more than six spots off from the team’s points allowed ranking. That’s pretty tight.

This isn’t something that is limited to the Cowboys. Successful defenses around the league stop the run. Only five teams allowed fewer than 100 yards per game this year. All five made the playoffs. The five worst run defending teams are all picking in the top 10 of the draft, with the Cowboys six-win season being the most successful of those teams.

We realize we’re not breaking any new ground here as the idea of stopping the run has been preached continuously since the beginning of time. We just know the Cowboys are really bad at it and if they want to improve their defense, they better figure out ways to stop it. Next, we dive a little deeper and see if we can point ourselves toward a root cause.

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