Fixing the Dallas Cowboys defense now is on the shoulders of Dan Quinn. He came to Dallas after being fired as the head coach of the Atlanta Falcons. Before that, he made his name as the defensive coordinator of the renowned Legion of Boom defense of the Seattle Seahawks. He faces a big challenge, including restocking the roster. One major need for the Cowboys is to find a good 1-tech to help stop the way the team was too often gashed in the running game last year. For the season, they allowed the second-most yards on the ground in the NFL, 158.8 per game, just .5 yards better than the league-worst Houston Texans. Many are hoping Dallas will get a big body for the job, as they tried unsuccessfully to do with Dontari Poe last year who was 6-3, 342 lbs. Quinn will have a big say over how they approach the position in his current role. Those longing for that big nose tackle type of player are hoping he pounds the table for one.
There’s a problem, though. A look back at the rosters for Quinn’s defenses since he become the DC in Seattle, and then had a head coach’s input with Atlanta, shows that he shows little inclination to insist on one.
With the Seahawks, he used a combination of Brandon Mebane (6-1, 311 lbs.) and Tony McDaninel (6-7, 305 lbs.) as his starting defensive tackles. Mebane was good, but not quite the size to be that nearly unmovable object in the middle of the line. That looks a lot like the way the Cowboys have long approached the position, manning it with players who are more in the 3-tech mold. His success with that was apparent. However, Dallas has just not had those kinds of positive results with that approach.
When he became the Falcons head coach, he inherited Paul Soliai, who clearly fit the 1-tech template at 6-4, 345 lbs. He was paired with 6-6, 318 lbs. Ra’Shede Hageman, giving the Falcons a lot of beef up front. However, Soliai would be placed on IR at the end of 2015 and subsequently released, while Hageman would be involved in a domestic violence case and would not play again, although he re-signed with the Falcons in 2017, only to spend the year either suspended under the league’s substance abuse policy then finishing the season on IR.
The following year, the Falcons would start a much lighter pair of DTs, 6-2, 300 lbs. Jonathan Babineaux and 6-1, 291 lbs. Grady Jarrett. Jarrett would become entrenched as the 3-tech for the Falcons, going on to earn Pro Bowl recognition after the 2019 season, and tying the record for most sacks in a Super Bowl in the infamous loss to the New England Patriots after the 2016 season. Babineaux would retire after one year with Atlanta.
Their next signing would be Poe, a true nose tackle type at 6-3, 342 lbs. He had a successful career that would unfortunately fizzle badly when the Cowboys signed him in 2020. He only spent the one season with the Falcons, departing in free agency.
And then, Atlanta seemed to move away from the big body concept. In 2018 they signed Terrell McClain, who is familiar to the Cowboys, but is 6-2 302 lbs., indicating a move back to a lighter front under Quinn’s influence. He also only lasted a year, being replaced by another 3-tech type in 6-2, 309 lbs. Tyeler Davison.
This seems to indicate that Quinn may prefer working with defensive tackles that are a bit light to handle the pounding from guards and centers that are as big or bigger than they are. They often draw the double teams in the middle, and while a player in the 300-310 range may be good for pass rushing downs, on run plays, they are just more likely to be moved out of the hole. To succeed against the ground game with that kind of player, the team needs the linebackers to fill well and shut down the running lanes. That was sorely lacking for the Cowboys. Under Quinn, the hope is that Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch will be better utilized, as well as just doing their job without the evident misreads and bad reactions they exhibited too often last year.
When you combine this historical data about the defensive roster building under Quinn with the established reluctance of Dallas to invest much cap space in a good free agent or draft capital in the interior of the defensive line, it does not bode well for any hopes of seeing a big nose tackle type be a priority for the Cowboys. We may need to brace ourselves for another year of the defense trying to make it work with two 3-techs lining up in the middle.