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After further review: Cowboys defense still has plenty of room to improve

What happens when the takeaways stop for the Cowboys?

Carolina Panthers v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

Dan Quinn absolutely deserves a ton of credit for the quick turnaround of this Dallas defense. So, too, do the position coaches he hired/retained. Defensive line coach Aden Durde, in particular, has done a great job with a young group missing its best player. Joe Whitt Jr., the defensive passing game coordinator, has also done a great job of mixing up coverages for the Cowboys so that they’re not as predictable as they once were.

And through five games, Quinn’s defense is not only improved, but downright good. They rank sixth in total defensive DVOA, seventh in pass defense DVOA, and eighth in run defense DVOA. Micah Parsons is the frontrunner for Defensive Rookie of the Year, while Trevon Diggs is a contender for Defensive Player of the Year.

There’s no disputing that this defense has been good so far. But it’s way too early to start believing in them.

One major reason the Cowboys have graded out so well on defense thus far is because they’ve produced a lot of plays that are extremely efficient. By that, I mean takeaways. Dallas has 12 takeaways so far on the year; only the Bills have more. Diggs alone has more takeaways than literally half of the teams in the NFL.

However, that’s exactly the problem. Almost all of this defense’s production has been by way of takeaways. They’re not especially great at rushing the quarterback, as their nine team sacks are the third-fewest in the NFL and their 18.3% pressure rate is fifth-lowest. They also rank 17th in pass rush win rate and 15th in run stop win rate, neither of which are bad but certainly aren’t reflective of the Cowboys’ gaudy DVOA numbers.

Here are some numbers that offer up some real cause for concern for Dallas. Only the Chiefs and Lions are allowing more total yards per play right now. Kansas City is floundering at 2-3 despite elite offensive production, while Detroit is one of two remaining winless teams. The other winless team, the Jaguars, are allowing as many yards per play as the Cowboys. The Dallas defense also leads the league in penalties drawn by a defense with 46, though only nine of them have actually resulted in a first down.

This graphic from Pro Football Focus’ Timo Riske breaks down how often a defense is allowing a first down conversion after each down:

As you can see, the Cowboys aren’t doing great. On first down, opposing teams are moving the sticks 26% of the time, which is above the league average of 23%. On second down, they’re giving it up 51% of the time, which is the league average. And on third down, Dallas is allowing a conversion 67% of the time, which is slightly below the league average of 71% but still only the 16th best third down conversion rate.

Dallas also hasn’t been very good on defense when their opponent gets into the red zone. They’re allowing touchdowns two thirds of the time, which is the 11th-highest rate in the league. Compare this with the only defense with more takeaways - the Bills - who are allowing a touchdown on just 35.71% of red zone trips, best in the league.

To put it plainly, this defense is giving up a lot of first downs at a pretty consistent rate and when opposing offenses do get inside the 20-yard line, it’s usually turning into six. The only reason the Cowboys are allowing just 23.4 points per game is because their takeaways have ended plenty of drives a lot earlier than they otherwise would have.

This isn’t to say that the Cowboys defense has been playing bad. They haven’t. Getting off the field is good no matter how you do it, and doing so via a takeaway is very good. The issue is that history tells us takeaways can be very random, statistically speaking. It’s almost a certainty that Diggs won’t end the season with an interception every game, and it’s very likely that Dallas will go a game or two (at least) without a takeaway.

So what happens then? If the Cowboys defense is performing well now (almost entirely) because their defense is taking the ball away, what happens when that stops? What we’ve seen so far suggests that they’ll start giving up more points unless they figure out another way to get off the field. If that happens, and Quinn and company haven’t figured out a solution, things could take a turn for the worse. It’s something to keep an eye on as the season progresses.

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