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The Cowboys need improvement at defensive tackle, but maybe that could come from within

Maybe a couple of young guys will make a leap for the Cowboys in the interior.

NFL: OCT 11 Giants at Cowboys Photo by Andrew Dieb/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

One of the most referenced concerns for the Cowboys heading into the 2021 season is the run defense. The Dallas defense was poor all around last year, but the run defense was especially bad. The team was ranked as the second-worst in the league after giving up 158 yards per game on the season. The Cleveland Browns actually put up over 300 yards rushing on Dallas, an astronomical number.

Part of the problem was the change in scheme and coaching. For a good part of the season nothing went right on defense as players were slow to react to plays and were often caught out of position. The chaos affected all levels of the defense and eventually cost Mike Nolan his job as defensive coordinator. It also cost defensive line coach Jim Tomsula his job, and that is partly a reflection of the awful run defense, and the poor play in the interior of the defense.

If the Cowboys defense is to make strides in 2021 under Dan Quinn, they have to solve their run defense issues. Central to that is the play of the defensive tackles. The Cowboys will return to more of a 1-gap scheme under Quinn, but it probably won’t be the aggressive “attack the QB and worry about the run later” scheme we saw under Rod Marinelli. Look for a more moderated approach.

Regardless of scheme, the team needs the personnel to make it work, and last year showed they didn’t have it. Or rather, they didn’t have it yet. It’s no sure thing, but the Cowboys do have a couple of defensive tackles under contract who have shown the potential to be part of the solution.

Lost among the Dak Prescott injury in the Giants game last year was the ACL tear for defensive tackle Trysten Hill. The Cowboys second-round pick from 2019 was starting to show that he wasn’t a bust after a horrendous rookie year.

Hill spent his rookie season looking uncommitted to what it takes to succeed in the NFL and a like a player who was going to waste his enviable talent. Hill has an incredible first step and when using proper technique showed that he could be a backfield-wrecker in college. He couldn’t even get on the field in his rookie year and was already being saddled with the bust label.

2020 was a different story. Something happened that flicked the switch for Hill and he was suddenly earning all kinds of praise out of the Star.

“Trysten Hill has been doing some really good things,” [Jim] Tomsula said. “I’m tickled to death in how hard he’s working both mentally and physically, and how hard he’s working in the meeting rooms. The questions, the phone calls, the texts – him swinging back by the office at night, asking questions. He’s wanting to look at a clip of tape. When you see him walking around the hallways, his eyes are buried in his (tablet) and he’s watching reps of film. I’m really exciting for that guy and the way he’s approaching it and getting better every day.”

This was night and day compared to how Hill was portrayed in the 2019 season. These two tweets from the middle of 2019 showed a plyer who seemed unconcerned about his football future.

In the 2020 training camp, Hill was being called one the most improved players on the team. Once Gerald McCoy went down with injury, Hill was elevated to starter status and seemed to be on his way toward redemption.

During his brief five game stint as the starter, Hill was flashing some potential. His stats weren’t overwhelming, but for a defensive tackle they weren’t bad, In five games he had 11 combined tackles, with one tackle for loss and three QB hits. It’s not exactly a bonanza of stats, but over 16 games that would have been roughly 36 combined tackles which isn’t awful.

The Cowboys also started to see some production out of Neville Gallimore, their 2020 third-round pick. Gallimore sat out much of the early season as Hill, Dontari Poe and Antwaun Woods, along with Tyrone Crawford, saw much of the action in the middle. Once Poe was released and Hill was injured, Gallimore was pressed into duty. In only his second game as a starter, he was a force against the Steelers.

Gallimore also had another big game against the San Francisco 49ers later in the year. In all, he had 28 combined tackles in nine starts with four tackles for loss and four QB hits. Much like Hill, those aren’t overwhelming stats, but for a couple of young players they do show promise. Gallimore’s second half of the season earned him some decent grades from PFF.

With Hill and Gallimore back in 2021 and now with a little experience under their belts, the hope is that they will take another leap forward. The Cowboys can’t just count on this, they shouldn’t ignore the issue of the run defense in free agency or the draft, and they could certainly use a big 1-tech in the middle to help with stopping the run.

But Hill and Gallimore represent promise. They are both young players who are still learning and still maturing. Hill’s attitude seems to have matured, and Gallimore’s limited football experience is also maturing. The need at defensive tackle is real, but these two guys could go a long way toward mitigating that need.