It’s been a volatile year for the narratives surrounding the Cowboys defense. Under Mike Nolan, they were pretty awful until later in the year, when players got more comfortable in the new scheme and also had the benefit of facing some bad quarterbacks. Still, the buzz was that Dallas had a historically bad defense, even though they finished 23rd in defensive DVOA, 23rd in yards allowed, and 28th in points allowed. The defense certainly wasn’t good, but not quite as terrible as people seemed to think.
Either way, Nolan was out and Dan Quinn was in. Ironically, Quinn ended up installing a scheme that’s effectively done the same thing Nolan was trying to do, utilizing exotic hybrid fronts with disguised coverages that attack a quarterback and force him into turning the ball over. Talk around Quinn’s defense quickly went from “They just need to be not-terrible” to “This defense is unstoppable!”
As usual, the truth is somewhere in the middle. By most metrics, the Dallas defense is playing well above average. They currently rank sixth in defensive DVOA and fifth in defensive EPA per play. They’re also ninth in points allowed and 11th in yards allowed, and their 14 takeaways are tied for the second-highest total in the NFL.
Of course, that last number has been the biggest caveat so far this season when discussing this defense. Their high number of takeaways has masked an otherwise average - and at times outright porous - defense. Even after a strong showing Sunday night, they’re still giving up conversions on early downs at a higher rate than the league average:
Even after yesterday, the Chiefs still lead the league in moving the chains, both overall and after 2nd down. pic.twitter.com/LFhCDz8Mxl— Timo Riske (@PFF_Moo) November 2, 2021
For a few weeks now, I’ve been a bit of a doomsayer on this defense despite my overall optimism from this unit. The concern was that when the takeaways stop coming - which historical data trends tell us will happen - this Cowboys defense will be unable to get off the field.
Well, half of that doomsday prediction came true this week. The takeaways dried up, Trevon Diggs snapped his interception streak, and Dallas actually found themselves with a -2 turnover differential by the end of the night. Much of this was due to Kirk Cousins playing an ultra-conservative game while Cooper Rush was, well, Cooper Rush.
It was evident early on that the Cowboys defense would need to get several stops if the team was going to win, but with the Vikings unwilling to test them the way other teams have this year, that cast some doubt over the defense’s ability to step up. For example, Cousins’ 4.2 average air yards per attempt was the third-lowest figure this week, and nobody threw into a tight window at a lower rate than him. He was intent on only taking what the defense gave him.
As it turns out, this defense didn’t give him much. Justin Jefferson was limited to just two catches for 21 yards, and outside of a 32-yard catch-and-run Adam Thielen averaged just 9.2 yards per catch. All in all, Minnesota tallied 17 first downs in the game, six less than Dallas. Seven of those 17 first downs came by way of penalties. And the Vikings converted just one of their 13 third downs, a dismal conversion rate.
Really the only time the Vikings offense looked competent Sunday was their opening drive, when they marched down the field and scored a touchdown. After that hot start, though, Minnesota’s offense failed to score another touchdown, settling for three field goals. In fact, they only reached the red zone once and it came on the drive when three separate unnecessary roughness penalties against Dallas carried them down the field. Even then, the Vikings were forced to settle for a field goal.
That all of this came without any takeaways is the encouraging part, and it speaks to the overall philosophy of this defense. While Quinn has smartly evolved his defense and moved away from playing Cover 3 every down, the general plan of attack remains the same: make offenses pay when they throw deep and force them to take the underneath throws, at which point the defense makes the tackle for a loss or minimal gain.
That’s exactly what the defense did Sunday night. Micah Parsons alone had four tackles for loss, and the defense was constantly making tackles near the line of scrimmage. In fact, seven of the Vikings’ 13 third downs came with seven or more yards to go for a conversion. Minnesota converted zero of those seven third and long situations, all of which were set up by winning on first and second down.
This doesn’t magically make the Cowboys defense elite, but it is proof that Quinn’s approach not only works but can succeed in different ways. The Cowboys will face better offenses and quarterbacks who avoid third and long or can test this team down the field better. They’re not going to play this well every week, but that’s the nature of defensive football. Still, this defense has shown that they’re capable of doing what it takes to help their team win, whether they’re getting takeaways or not. That’s a huge development for these Cowboys.