Run defense has become a hot topic in Dallas the last few years, and for good reason. In 2018, the Cowboys enjoyed a banner year stopping the run, buoyed by the strong performance of linebacker duo Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith. They finished sixth in the NFL in run defense DVOA and surrendered the fourth fewest rushing yards per carry.
The 2019 season saw a big regression in run defense, dropping to 14th in run defense DVOA and allowing the 12th most rushing yards per carry. But the reality is that this was a trend that began at the tail end of the 2018 season against the Colts, which kicked off a five-game span (including the playoffs) in which Dallas allowed an average of 146 rushing yards per game; by contrast, the Cowboys hadn’t surrendered 100 yards on the ground in their five games prior to that Colts game.
While that loss to the Colts was a bit of the beginning of the end for the Cowboys defense under Rod Marinelli and Kris Richard, the next guy to come in and run the defense absolutely blew it to shreds. Mike Nolan, by his own admission, simply tried to do too much with too little time in a contracted offseason. As a result, the defense struggled mightily. Their run defense which finished 23rd in run defense DVOA and allowed the third most rushing yards per carry was especially dismal.
Not for lack of trying, though. Nolan and the Cowboys did take significant steps to improve the run defense heading into 2020. They signed Gerald McCoy and Dontari Poe to shore up the middle of their trenches, and while both Everson Griffen and Aldon Smith were heralded for their edge rushing skills, they both brought some juice against the run. But none of those guys really worked out. Smith was by far the most productive, but even he saw a dip as the season went on and the Cowboys didn’t opt to re-sign him this summer. Worse than those free agents not panning out was the continued decline of the two aforementioned linebackers.
A year later and everything has changed. Nolan has been swapped out for Dan Quinn, and the likes of McCoy, Poe, Griffen, and Smith are all gone. And while Vander Esch and Smith are still in town, they’re not guaranteed a thing after Dallas brought in Quinn disciple Keanu Neal and drafted both Micah Parsons and Jabril Cox. Parsons is sure to get plenty of playing time as the team’s top rookie, while Neal and Cox are likely to see most of their playing time come on passing downs.
But it won’t matter too much how talented these new linebackers are if the issues from the last two years persist. That is to say that Vander Esch and Smith’s struggles were exacerbated by a porous defensive line that couldn’t keep their linebackers clean.
New Cowboys DT Brent Urban had a 79.7 run defense @PFF grade in 2018 and 83.7 grade in 2020. Latter was third-highest run defense grade among all NFL interior linemen.— Michael Gehlken (@GehlkenNFL) March 18, 2021
That won’t be the case this year. Dallas brought in Brent Urban, whose run defense grade from Pro Football Focus ranked third among all interior defensive linemen last year. According to the Urban Cowboy himself, Quinn will use him in a similar manner to the way he used Red Bryant back in the day in Seattle.
Dallas also drafted Quinton Bohanna, a hulking nose tackle from Kentucky who trimmed down to 327 pounds for his Pro Day. As a sixth-round pick, Bohanna may not see much playing time in 2020 but whatever snaps he does get will surely come against the run. The Cowboys’ two other defensive line draft picks, Osa Odighizuwa and Chauncey Golston, were both praised for their run defense as well. While Quinn has already suggested he will use Odighizuwa as a 3-technique penetration pass rusher on nickel downs, Odighizuwa displayed good technique against the run in his UCLA days. Golston, on the other hand, gained recognition during the draft process specifically for his run defense:
One of my favorites in this NFL Draft - @HawkeyeFootball DE Chauncey Golston - heading to @seniorbowl next week— Ben Fennell (@BenFennell_NFL) January 23, 2021
Powerful pass rusher who can slide into 3tech in subpackage fronts... but he is an OUTSTANDING run defender! Sets physical edges and has no problem stack/shed blocks pic.twitter.com/FKz6VDgkZd
But there are two forgotten pieces on this Dallas defensive line when it comes to run defense: Tarell Basham and DeMarcus Lawrence. It’s easy to understand why Basham is flying under the radar. He spent the last three seasons as a rotational EDGE defender for some pretty awful Jets teams and has just 7.5 sacks in his four-year career.
But Basham is coming off a career-best year. Not only did it feature him getting more snaps than ever before in his career, but Basham was second on the Jets defense - a group which, by the way, ranked eighth in run defense DVOA and sixth in team pass rush win rate - in sacks and QB knockdowns, while actually leading the team in both hurries and pressures.
That alone highlights that Basham can be a very effective rotational edge rusher, but that’s not all. Basham came in tenth among all EDGE defenders in run stop win rate. Not only was Basham frequently blowing up run plays, but he made splash plays too, with three forced fumbles last season.
Then there’s Lawrence, the Cowboys’ prized pass rusher, who actually came in fourth among all EDGE defenders in run stop win rate. He was also one of three EDGE defenders to finish top ten in both pass rush win rate and run stop win rate in 2020. Lawrence has long been one of the Cowboys’ best run stoppers, but now it won’t be all on him. Basham, Urban, and the rookie trio of Bohanna, Golston, and Odighizuwa all offer legit run-stopping credentials. If they can do their job and keep Parsons and the rest of these linebackers clean in 2021, the Cowboys will have finally solved their run stopping woes.