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One thing is still the key question for the Cowboys’ defense

If the Cowboys didn’t get this fixed, trouble lies ahead.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Baltimore Ravens Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Here is a question many Cowboys fans have probably asked themselves this offseason: What is the one thing the Cowboys have to fix this season to have success? It is obvious that the offense doesn’t need much work. Just getting so many key starters back should lead to yards by the ton and plenty of points. That takes us to defense. Frankly, there is a lot there that we rightly worry about. Dallas did a lot to address the various issues, starting with replacing the defensive coordinator and much of that staff, then using both free agency and the bulk of their draft picks to bring in (hopefully) better talent.

It was a broad-based approach, but not all things are equally crucial. To figure out the key thing that must be fixed, look back at the most glaring issue last season. Some may think it was the linebackers, and others could point to the secondary. But it all started, in more than one sense of the word, with the breakdown of the run defense, and that comes back to one specific position group: the interior of the defensive line, or the defensive tackles. So many times, we saw them just pushed around by the opponents’ running attacks.

But wait, you protest, this is a passing league, and running doesn’t matter. It is in many ways easier to stop the ground game. Which just makes the fact that the Cowboys were mostly dismal an even brighter red flag. If an NFL team lets itself be slapped around in run defense, they can see the cascade effect that afflicted Dallas in 2020. Good first down gains lead to second downs where the run is still a very viable option, which means the defense has to still look to stop the run first. That makes them more vulnerable to the passing game, since they are not able to really get after the passer or drop more defensive backs into coverage. Those EDGE types have to read the play before they can rush, and the box safety and linebackers must determine if the ball has been handed off before they can focus on defending the pass. There is a little thing called play-action that is based on that. Running successfully also allows a team to maintain control of the ball and the clock. Opponents pushing it down the field for a score pressures Kellen Moore and his offense to answer, which can lead to unforced errors such as the rash of fumbles early last year. That in turn leads to multiple score deficits, and the other guys just benefit more and more from a heavy dose of runs.

There’s also a personnel effect. We all became sick of Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch struggling last year. That was most evident against the run. But they were dealing with offensive lineman a lot. Keeping the linebackers clean to stop things is the job of the defensive line, particularly the DTs. That just didn’t happen enough last season. Plays that should have gained two or three yards were going for five or more. Another thing that may have happened is that Smith and Vander Esch were expecting the run to go certain places if the defensive tackles did their job, but had to suddenly try and adjust to something else.

I hate the term “establish the run” because rushing should be the secondary element of a good NFL offense. Still, it would be foolish to not TEST the run early. If you encounter a situation where the run is doing better than it should, as happened time and time again against the Cowboys, then any decent play-caller is going to mix in more early down runs. You have to stop it to get teams to go back to throwing. Running is just safer and has the aforementioned benefits of controlling tempo and such.

That gets us to the next part of this question. Have the Cowboys done enough to fix this?

Everyone is wondering if Dan Quinn has the answers. There actually is a good piece of evidence that he does. It is mentioned frequently that his defense is going to incorporate 3-4 concepts more than previously. The 3-4 was originally conceived as a better way to stop the run than the 4-3. That was back when running backs most certainly did matter, and the game has evolved. Still, the basics are there, and 3-4 looks on early downs is better for clogging up those running lanes at the line. So the defensive coordinator is headed in the right direction.

But Jimmies and Joes are more important than Xs and Os, to appropriate a phrase. The best plan is going to have difficulties without the right players to execute it. The brain-trust of the Cowboys, including Quinn, saw that was an issue last year, and what they did to try and address things was one of the most striking parts of the offseason.

At the start of last season, the defensive tackle unit for Dallas consisted of Dontari Poe, Antwaun Woods, Trysten Hill, and Neville Gallimore. Tyrone Crawford also kicked inside at times. Poe was released midseason, Hill spent most of the year on IR, and Crawford and Woods were not brought back for this season. That left the Cowboys with Gallimore and Hill to begin the offseason. The former had predictable rookie struggles early on, but made noticeable strides that allowed the team to make the decision on Poe. We hope Hill is back after a promising start in his second campaign. Justin Hamilton also was brought onto the roster for depth last season and will be trying to stick this year, but it is reasonable to expect that the team is hoping for a better answer.

Free agency saw the addition of Brent Urban and Carlos Watkins as resources for the IDL. The draft added Osa Odighizuwa and Quinton Bohanna. They also drafted Chauncey Golston, who was an EDGE in college but in OTAs may have been used more as a 3-4 DE to help further shore up the run defense, and the staff seemed to be very interested in his run-stopping ability wherever he lined up.

That is a lot of new blood inside for Quinn to choose from. There are still many questions to sort in training camp and preseason, such as how the team will address nose tackle. Mike McCarthy has stated in the past that he prefers to carry five DTs and five DEs on the 53-man roster, so that may be a guide to how many are going to make the team. Gallimore and Hill would be expected to, as are Odighizuwa and Urban. Depending on how they actually use Golston, there could well be a spot for Bohanna, but his low draft status does make him a possible waiver that the team would hope to get on the practice squad.

Some DTs are used more on passing downs, and Hill seems to be one player who could have that role. That leaves the others to be the main early down linemen, with possibly three of them on the field at once, from some combination of Gallimore/Odighizuwa/Urban/Bohanna, or possibly Golston in that mix.

Will that get the job done? It just might, if you look at the job as becoming more an average run defense than the bottom of the league effort of 2020. The prospects are good to get enough out of this group.

Failure, however, will just plunge the team back into the problems of last year. That was the main culprit in how poorly the defense did. They came in next to last in yards allowed on the ground, while the pass defense was actually above average league wide, coming in eleventh in yards given up. That was partly because teams were able to run so much on Dallas and didn’t have to throw nearly as much to beat them, which once again points to the problems at the line. So fixing this flaw with the DTs is the main thing that has to be accomplished. We’ll see how it goes.

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