In what could be classified as the biggest surprise of the year for the Cowboys (so far), first-year defensive coordinator Dan Quinn has done a masterful job turning around this defense. He’s well exceeded expectations, with the Cowboys climbing up to fourth in defensive DVOA and fifth in defensive EPA per play.
For quite some time, the Cowboys defense had been helped out by unusually consistent takeaways. However, the unit was playing well against the Falcons and Chiefs before they notched any takeaways, and their performance against the Vikings was a beauty that came with no takeaways at all, proving that this is actually just a good defense and not one entirely reliant on an unreliable statistic.
And yet, as is often the case with NFL defenses, they’re starting to run out of steam. The run defense has been dipping in quality in recent weeks and the pass rush (save for rookie standout Micah Parsons) has become nearly nonexistent. The vast majority of this defense’s pressures the last four weeks have come on downs where Parsons is rushing the passer - either as an EDGE or a blitzer - but without him their pass rush has done very little.
That was perhaps no more evident than the Raiders game on Thanksgiving. Derek Carr is a quarterback that has historically struggled under pressure from defenses, and his offensive line has been especially bad at protecting him this year. Still, aside from Parsons, the Cowboys only got to Carr a couple times on Thursday. The average 2.85 seconds Carr had to throw in the game was the third-highest amount he’s had all season, as well.
Not surprisingly, Dallas gave up a whole bunch of yards and points in that game. Sure, a lot of it came by way of penalties, but Carr shouldn’t have even had time to throw all of those pass interference balls in the first place. What we’re seeing is an undermanned defensive front finally showing cracks. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; in fact, it’s quite impressive it took this long for this to happen.
The good news is that the reinforcements are just around the corner. DeMarcus Lawrence was activated from the injured reserve last week and is expected to make his return this Thursday against the Saints. Randy Gregory is officially eligible to return from the injured reserve this week as well, although Dallas may wait a week to bring him back. Beyond those two, Brent Urban and Neville Gallimore are reportedly close to returning from injured reserve as well.
All of these additions would be huge, but obviously the two edge rushers are the most important ones. Lawrence is still the best player on this defense, although Parsons is making a great argument. His value as a pass rusher is significant, and his contributions in run support are among the very best of anyone at his position. And we all saw how fearsome of a pass rusher Gregory is, as he racked up five sacks and 22 pressures in seven games before getting hurt.
The idea of both Lawrence and Gregory coming off the edge is a titillating one. They’ve only played together once this year, and it came in Week 1 against the notoriously quick trigger Tom Brady. With Parsons now on every team’s radar as a legitimate threat, the opportunities are endless for Quinn. He’s already used both Gregory and Lawrence inside on occasion, and Parsons has been just as effective blitzing the A-gap as he has been coming off the edge.
But the interior of this defensive line needs help more. Osa Odighizuwa has played admirably considering he was never supposed to see this much action so early in his career. It does appear the former Bruin is hitting a rookie wall, and his snaps have slightly declined the last two games. With Lawrence and Gregory returning, that’ll create more opportunities for Quinn to play fellow rookie Chauncey Golston inside, thus reducing the amount of snaps Odighizuwa has to play.
Of course, the bigger help will be getting Urban and Gallimore back. Urban is an elite run defender, and it’s no coincidence that the Cowboys’ run defense got worse once he found himself on the injured reserve. Gallimore, on the other hand, was expected to be the top guy along the interior of the Cowboys trenches this year after making a big jump physically in the offseason. Obviously Dallas doesn’t want to rush him back, but if Gallimore is able to come in and provide the spark he was originally expected to - or even half of it - that would pay massive dividends for a defense currently finding itself short on depth.
As we’ve seen earlier in the year (read: when Gregory was playing), Quinn’s defense is at its best when he gets pressure in the quarterback’s face. That leads to desperate pass attempts that this opportunistic secondary feasts on, and that in turn helps the Cowboys offense score points even faster. With the Raiders game showing signs of slowing while Dallas is preparing to enter a final stretch in which they’ll play four divisional games and host the current top seed in the NFC in the Cardinals, it’s crucial that these reinforcements boost the defense, and in turn, boost the Cowboys to a strong December and January finish.