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Cowboys point/counterpoint: Exposing the defense

As with the entire performance by the Cowboys last Sunday, we wonder if it was an aberration or an unmasking.

Denver Broncos v Dallas Cowboys
Broken tackles were a huge issue.
Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

It’s not exactly a must-win situation for the Dallas Cowboys - yet. But there is no denying they have a lot that needs to be corrected after the 30-16 debacle against the Denver Broncos. This Sunday’s game against the Atlanta Falcons is their first chance to do so, and get back in the win column.

With so many issues last game, there are a lot of things that David Howman and Tom Ryle could choose to discuss. However, they had to pick one, and it is the defense.

Tom: Vic Fangio said that the Broncos solved Dak Prescott, but I am confident he just caught the quarterback at a bad time, and the offense will bounce back. I’m even expecting the reshuffled offensive line to be better in this version’s second week. I do think the Broncos did expose something, however. That was the defense. And now they also have to deal with the absence of Randy Gregory, one of the two best defenders they had on the field.

For the first six games of the season Dallas lived off of takeaways. Being on the plus side of that particular stat is one of the best predictors of who winds up winning the game. Meanwhile, the defense was overall very up and down. They would have some key stops, but also were giving up a disturbing number of big plays. When the takeaway string ended in the Minnesota Vikings game, things were pretty good as they held the opponent to just 16 points and 278 yards of total offense.

Then came Denver, and a near total collapse of the defense. While Teddy Bridgewater had an outstanding game despite being sacked four times, it was the run that did the Cowboys in. They got 190 yards. That allowed them to control the clock and sustain almost every drive. There was always a fear that the running game was the weakness of the Dallas defense, and this seemed to prove it.

David: This was easily the worst performance we’ve seen out of the Dallas defense this year, but it was also the worst performance we’ve seen out of this offense too. Just like there was nothing special the Broncos did defensively, there was nothing special they did offensively either. They just caught the Cowboys feeling overconfident, and mayhem ensued. Take a look at Javonte Williams’ running chart from this past week, courtesy of Next Gen Stats:

He got barely anything when running up the middle, but gashed the defense outside. Generally, the Cowboy have been really good in run defense all year, and even after this week they still rank 14th in run stop win rate and 15th in run defense DVOA. Those numbers don’t pop out as elite, but they’ll get the job done. To me, this defense is still every bit as good as we thought they were. They just had a bad game, and it happened to come on the same day the offense had an equally bad game.

Tom: That chart illustrates one of the biggest issues from the Denver game, however. Dallas did a terrible job setting the edge. This is one place the absence of DeMarcus Lawrence is sorely missed. He is one of the best in the league at keeping teams from beating the defense there. Now with Gregory gone, it falls on the remaining edge rushers to keep opposing runners from breaking runs to the outside. So far, the evidence is not encouraging.

Something that the chart does not show is the yards after contact, which absolutely killed the Cowboys last Sunday. The tackling was horrendous, and the Broncos’ backs repeatedly broke free for extra yards, or just pushed the pile an extra four or five yards before going down. That goes back to the overreliance on taking the ball away, as the Dallas defenders seemed to be far more focused on trying to strip the ball (which they failed to do) rather than bringing the ball carrier down.

We have to hope that the coaches can get that corrected, but it will be hard this deep into the season. Bad habits have been learned.

David: The tackling was abysmal, which was surprising because they’ve been a solid tackling team all year. It did appear to me that these defenders looked gassed early on, though, and it’s hard to blame them. The Cowboys’ offensive ineptitude in this one meant the defense played a lot.

Prior to the Broncos game, only two opponents had crossed the 30 minute threshold in terms of time of possession. Those teams were the Los Angeles Chargers with 30:57 time of possession, and oddly enough the Carolina Panthers with 33:36. Denver had a whopping 41:12 time of possession on Sunday. It doesn’t really matter how good your defense is, they’re not going to hold up well when they’re on the field for that long.

Keep in mind the defense had strong starts in both the first and third quarters, forcing a three-and-out both times. In the first quarter, the Cowboys offense failed on a fourth down attempt after the three-and-out, and the third quarter stop resulted in that whole punt block mess that sent them right back onto the field. Mike McCarthy talks a lot about complementary football, and I believe that’s all we’ve seen this year. The defense has played well when the offense has played well, so it’s no surprise to see the defense struggle when the offense struggles.

Tom: We are left hoping the same thing for both sides of the ball, that the loss last Sunday was due to aberrational play. I have a good deal of faith that the offense will bounce back, but there were some hints during the winning streak that the defense had these issues already. They weren’t consistent, as some of the games were quite good for the defense, but not all of them when you take out the impact of the turnovers. I really hope Dan Quinn gets things right for the game against Atlanta, but hope is not exactly something to hang your hat on. With Gregory now out, things just got even more complicated. Micah Parsons will probably be forced back into an EDGE role this week. He is very good, but he cannot carry the defense by himself. The team also needs the secondary to step up in coverage, which was really shaky against the Broncos. A similar issue of looking for a pick rather than working to stop the completion seemed evident, and the obvious pass interference and holding have to stop.

Maybe it was just an overall down game for Dallas. But if it wasn’t, we could be in for a rougher back half of the season.

David: I would be a lot more inclined to agree with you if we hadn’t just seen this defense play great on the road without any takeaways against the Vikings. That was also in a game where the offense struggled, but it was expected to be that way with Cooper Rush starting. Quinn smartly adjusted his tactics in that one, and it worked beautifully. Last week’s offensive output was a complete blindside.

All of this is to say that we’ve seen Quinn make adjustments on defense nicely all year. That Chargers game showed us how well he overcame Gregory’s absence, and we’ve seen Anthony Brown gradually improve as a cover corner each week. And not to overstate this, but Quinn does have a lot of familiarity with the next quarterback on the schedule. I believe in his ability to get this defense back in its rhythm, especially against the Falcons this week. The body of work we’ve seen this whole year is enough to give me confidence that this one game was an outlier, even if it was miserable to watch.