One of the biggest factors in the Cowboys demise during the 2020 season was the woeful play of their defensive unit. Even in the beginning of the season, when Dak Prescott and company were piling up the yards and lighting up the scoreboard, the Cowboys as a team were still losing, and much of that had to do with their poor defense.
Fixing that side of the ball is second in importance this offseason after getting the Dak Prescott situation resolved. Just how they go about fixing that defense is yet to be determined. Some of it will come from coaching and scheme, and the Cowboys have already made a move in that direction by hiring Dan Quinn.
It’s dangerous to try to take too much from a single football game, but there was a masterclass of defense on display in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers win in the Super Bowl. That defense totally stifled one of the most prolific offenses the NFL has seen. Taking a look at what they did might give some lessons to be used in rebuilding the Dallas defense.
The architect of the Bucs defensive game plan was Todd Bowles. Once upon a time Bowles was the Cowboys secondary coach (2005-2007). What he did on Sunday was the result of having the right personnel meeting the right scheme, with prefect execution.
The first thing they did was rush four most of the time. The Bucs only blitzed on 9.6% of plays in the Super Bowl. Yet they set a record for quarterback pressures in a game.
Patrick Mahomes was pressured more in this game than any QB in Super Bowl history (29), passing the record of 25 by Jim Kelly in SB XXVI.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) February 8, 2021
Tom Brady faced his fewest pressures (4) in any Super Bowl of his career pic.twitter.com/CnRaG7gR5s
What’s the lesson? It’s not that you never blitz, it’s that having four defensive linemen who can create pressure is so key in the modern NFL. The Bucs didn’t need to blitz because their front four of Shaq Barrett, Jason Pierre-Paul, Ndamukong Suh, and Vita Vea were able to collapse the pocket and force Patrick Mahomes to scramble. That allowed Bowles to keep his back seven in coverage and clamp down on Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce.
There were mitigating factors here. The Chiefs offensive line was in shambles with the absence of both starting offensive tackles. And Mahomes probably got a little excessive with his scrambling instead of throwing it away or taking off and running past the line of scrimmage even more than he did.
The Chiefs also made the mistake of thinking they could provide protection without offering some help to their offensive line.
KC used 5 man protection on 92% of dropbacks (48 of 52). They left those two backup OT's w/o help & it was a big mistake. h/t @NextGenStats— Daniel Jeremiah (@MoveTheSticks) February 8, 2021
So the Chiefs made plenty of mistakes in dealing with the Bucs pass rush, but there is no denying that having four guys who can push the pocket makes a world of difference. Everyone knows that Barrett and Pierre-Paul can rush the passer, but the leader in sacks on Sunday was defensive tackle Suh with 1.5 sacks. And Vea was constantly pushing the middle of the pocket forcing Mahomes wide.
The Chiefs also used a ton of stunts with their front four. They used T-E stunts to confuse the Chiefs offensive line who had multiple players playing out of position. They also lined up their defensive linemen in different places to add to the confusion.
The Cowboys have DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory, but so far no defensive tackle on their roster has shown the ability to be a force in the pass rush. We often remark on their need for defensive tackles who can stop the run, but having defensive tackles who can push the pocket may be as equally important.
The other thing the Bucs did on defense was sit in a deep-shell zone coverage. They used Cover 2 on 87% of the plays. They did not let Mahomes go deep to Tyreek Hill and company, and they also took away the sideline passes. They forced everything underneath and to the middle where they rallied for tackles.
They did this with a few studs back there, including linebacker Devin White who was everywhere. The Bucs have a capable secondary, but the scheme they played help them tremendously in slowing down an elite offense. Because the front four was capable of creating a pass rush without the help of blitzes, they could sit back in their zone with seven players and funnel everything to the middle. Playing so much zone also helped to limit the damage Mahomes could do with his scrambling.
Once again, there were mitigating circumstances here as the Chiefs failed to counter. The Chiefs only ran the ball with their running backs 11 times. If the Bucs were going to keep both safeties back in a Cover 2 shell, Kansas City needed to force them to come out of that by beating them up in the running game. They failed to do that.
Additionally, the Chiefs dropped a lot of catchable passes, some that could have been huge plays or touchdowns. That was a huge factor on the night. Plus, Mahomes just didn’t look right with that injured toe.
Still, the Bucs showed that you don’t have to disguise coverages or play exotic schemes to stifle an offense. You don’t have to play multiple looks or do overly-complicated things to be effective. They did show some single-high looks only to drop into a split-safety shell at the snap, but it’s not like Kansas City couldn’t see what they were doing.
But more than anything, you have to have a dynamic front four who can put pressure on the quarterback without blitzing. As stated at the beginning of this article, you don’t want to extrapolate too much from just one game, and this isn’t a new concept. It was just reinforced at the Super Bowl.
If you have one, or maybe two guys, that can rush the passer, offenses can compensate for that. If you have three to four dynamic playmakers on the front line, things become very difficult for an offense. The Cowboys have to add a defensive tackle that can make a difference, or hope that Trysten Hill and/or Neville Gallimore can really elevate their game. Sure, they need to be better against the run, but they also need to push the pocket from the inside out.
If they do that, they can protect their secondary by not having to resort to blitzing too much and run some standard shells. In the case of Dan Quinn, that will likely be Cover 3. Let’s hope they can make it happen.