The offseason was a defense intensive one for the Dallas Cowboys. While offense will depend on the health of Dak Prescott and the offensive line players who were all on IR at the end of last season, the dismal performance in trying to stop the other teams in 2020 became a major concern. The team quickly ended Mike Nolan’s time and hired Dan Quinn to right this ship. Understanding that it was not just X’s and O’s that led to the issues, the front office went hard at bringing in new blood for him to coach, both in free agency and the draft. We all know that Prescott is the single-most important player for this team. But of the eight draftees and five free agents added to the defense this offseason, who is the most important one?
This is just an opinion, of course, but looking back at what ailed Dallas last season, the answer here is 1-tech Quinton Bohanna.
Yes, a sixth-rounder at a position that, along with safety, the team has consistently neglected. And given his draft status, that really didn’t change. However, probably due to Quinn’s influence, Bohanna is not the typical 3-tech that the team has not been shy about acquiring. He is a big, 327-pound run-stuffer who offers some real hope that the interior of the line will not be exploited by other teams. Because it was the run defense’s failures that really made the Cowboys so bad at stopping opponents. It led to early deficits on the scoreboard and allowed the other team to control the ball far too much.
We all see last year’s defense as one of the worst in the league, but that was almost all because of the failures against the run. Dallas was the second-worst team in stopping opponents on the ground, ahead of only the Houston Texans, another study in futility from last year. That was what made things look so bad for Dallas. It may surprise you to know that they were the eleventh best team in yards allowed passing. The porous run defense was why they were the tenth worst team overall in yards allowed. When a team is putting up big numbers on the ground, they also don’t have to pass as much. While the overall 6-10 record may have been mostly about the three quarterbacks that tried to fill in for Prescott after he went down, the inability to stop the run played a big role as well, especially in the 1-3 start to the season while Prescott was still healthy and putting up some huge numbers. He just found himself down early and had to play from behind all the time. Those early scores by the opponents have a lot to do with how they were able to run at will.
In those first four games, the Cowboys’ run defense gave up 153, 113, 117, and a staggering 307 yards against the Cleveland Browns. Only against the Seattle Seahawks did Dallas, with star Ezekiel Elliott, outrush the opponent. While passing is where most NFL teams pile up yards and points, being able to run the ball successfully on early downs is important in controlling the flow of the game and the eventual outcome. In the case of the Cowboys, it was not so much about the other team establishing the run as their own inability to stop it.
Much has been made about the failures of the linebackers last year, but at least part of that was due to the defensive line not doing a good job of keeping them clean. Arguably, that was the biggest thing on the field, if you put the often evident confusion during games on the coaching in practices. And the team was frankly short-handed at DT after Trysten Hill was lost to injury. That left Antwaun Woods and then-rookie Neville Gallimore starting, with Justin Hamilton and Eli Ankou as the backups/rotational players. Gallimore improved through the season, but was struggling a bit in the early going. Woods has since been released by the team.
None of them are the kind of big body space eater that Bohanna should be. His addition to the defense should keep teams from gashing them up the middle on early downs and make the job of the linebackers, including additions Micah Parsons, Jabril Cox, and Keanu Neal, much easier.
Of course, Bohanna is not a three-down player. The team will want him off the field for passing downs. His role is likely to be there on first down and short-yardage situations, with players more suited to getting after the passer replacing him on most second and third downs. If the Cowboys get some big early leads, as we hope, he will not see the field much at all as the opponents go more and more to the pass to try and catch up.
Despite that, having Bohanna on the field early in the game for early downs will be a major factor in keeping the opponents from running the ball and make moving the chains harder. That is exactly what the defense needs. And so far, Dan Quinn is giving us hints that DT play is very important to him.
Bohanna may never get flashy stats. He will probably see the field for a low percentage of the defensive snaps. But his ability to stuff the run will be crucial in setting the tone for this defense. It can allow the Cowboys to dictate the flow of the game and stop the bleeding on the ground. That will make a huge difference, and while others will get the glory, he will be the key new player if Dallas gets things turned around on D.