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Snap judgments: Snap count vs Texans reveals likely Cowboys defensive starters for 2021

Want to know which Cowboys defensive players were on the field in the first half against the Texans? Look no further.

NFL: AUG 21 Preseason - Texans at Cowboys Photo by George Walker/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

When the Cowboys announced they would keep their first-team defense on the field against the Texans for the entire first half, my heart skipped, skipped a beat.

Here was a chance to get a first look at the 2021 Cowboys defense, or at least a reasonable facsimile of one, given the current injuries on the defense.

This made reviewing the entire first half of Saturday’s game against the Texans and charting which defensive player was in on which defensive play a worthwhile endeavor. The hope is that this will give us a better understanding of how the Cowboys depth chart is developing.

Overall, there were 27 official defensive plays in the first half. This excludes all special teams plays like field goals, kickoffs and punts, but I did add one play where the Cowboys took a timeout, because this post is about understanding who was lining up where in which situations, not the results of the official plays.

The first thing to look at is a simple snap count which details which player was in on how many of the 28 plays in the first half. And that’s exactly what the table below shows.

Cowboys' Defensive Snapcount, 1st Half vs Texans
DTs DEs LBs CBs Safeties
Player Snaps Player Snaps Player Snaps Player Snaps Player Snaps
Odighizuwa 21 Gregory 14 Parsons 18 Brown 28 Kazee 23
Urban 20 Armstrong 25 Neal 15 Diggs 28 Wilson 20
Hamilton 9 Anae 14 Vander Esch 13 Lewis 21 Kearse 18
Bohanna 7 Carter 1 J. Smith 12

Keep in mind that presumptive starters DE DeMarcus Lawrence and DT Neville Gallimore were out with injuries, DT Carlos Watkins was held out “out of an abundance of caution” under the COVID guidelines, and DE Tarell Basham also didn’t play a single snap all night.

We’ll get to the specific down-and-distance situations a little later, but here are some general observations about the snap counts:

Nickel and Heavy Nickel

Last year, the Cowboys lined up in the nickel (three cornerbacks, two safeties) on 71% of their defensive plays, the fifth-highest percentage in the league. Expect that to continue, but with a twist:

The Cowboys lined up in a nickel formation on 26 of the 28 first-half snaps against the Texans, but five of those were in a “heavy nickel” formation, with three safeties and two cornerbacks. With Malik Hooker expected to join the first-team safety rotation soon, could we see even more heavy nickel formations this year?

The trick with the heavy formations is that you need a “heavy” or hybrid safety for the formation to work. The heavy safety has to be able to play as a linebacker when the offense condenses the set, but also has to match up on a flexed tight end when the offense spreads out the formation. With Hooker, Wilson, and Kearse, the Cowboys have an abundance of safeties that can play the “heavy” safety role, and with the Cowboys playing the bulk of their defensive snaps with a single-high safety, the “heavy nickel” feels like a good marriage of scheme and talent in Dallas.

Cornerbacks

Anthony Brown and Trevon Diggs were the only players lined up on all 28 plays. These are your starting corners in 2021, with Jourdan Lewis manning the nickel spot on 21 plays. How the depth plays out beyond those starters is anybody’s guess, but fan-favorite Maurice Canady (25 second half snaps) along with rookies Nashon Wright (27 second half snaps) and Kelvin Joseph (27 second half snaps) will likely round out the depth chart here.

Safeties:

Damontae Kazee is your starting free safety in 2021. He was in on 23 plays, and lined up as the single-high safety on almost all of them (the Cowboys lined up two-deep on the others). Your in-the-box safeties are Donovan Wilson (20 plays) and Jayron Kearse (18). Malik Hooker (17 play in the second half) will get the fourth safety spot, and that’s likely going to be it.

Linebackers: We’ll probably need a separate post to figure out where exactly Micah Parsons was lining up on each play, because he was lining up all over the place, rushing the passer next to the defensive end, lining up over the center as a DT, or occasionally in a more traditional MLB role.

At first it appeared that Parsons and Keanu Neal were lining up together on passing downs, while Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith were lining up on running downs, but it wasn’t quite that simple.

Because the Cowboys lined up in the nickel so much, the defense lined up with “just” two linebackers on 26 of 28 plays. On the two plays with three linebackers, the trio consisted of Parsons, Smith, and LVE. Outside of those two snaps, the Parsons/Neal duo lined up 15 times, Smith/LVE lined up on 10 plays, and on one 4th-and-1 play on the first drive, Parsons and LVE line up as the two LBs.

In any case, those four players will carry the load this season. Draft favorite Jabril Cox didn’t get a single snap in the first half (but 25 in the second), so he’ll have to be content with a backup role for now.

Defensive Ends: The Cowboys didn’t have much of a rotation going here, perhaps because depth is thin with Lawrence and Basham out. Gregory lined up on 14 plays, once even moving over to LDE. He’s the unquestioned started at RDE as the bookend to Lawrence. Dorance Armstrong lined up at LDE on 25 plays, and Bradlee Anae spelled Gregory at RDE on 14 plays. And that should already give you a pretty good idea of the depth chart here. Curiously, Ron’Dell Carter made a surprise appearance at LDE on one play late in the second quarter.

Defensive Tackles: Osa Odighizuwa (21 plays) and Brent Urban (20 plays) took the bulk of snaps at DT, occasionally spelled by Justin Hamilton (9 plays) or Quinton Bohanna (7 plays). Don’t expect anybody beyond those four to make the roster at DT (excepting Gallimore who is out with injury).

The defensive line seemed to be the cause of some confusion in the game. On the fifth play of the first drive, the Cowboys lined up with just 10 players, presumably missing a LDE (probably Armstrong) as this screenshot shows:

Two plays later, with a 1st-and-two at the goal line, the Cowboys lined up with Urban and Odighizuwa at DT, but called a timeout. When they came back, Odighizuwa was out and Bohanna was in.

Here’s a full overview of which Cowboys defensive players were on the field for which plays:

Play No. Down Play DTs DEs LBs CBs S
HST Drive No. 1 75 95 99 98 94 92 56 97 11 42 9 55 26 27 30 35 6 32
1 1-10-DAL 23 Pass incomplete 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
2 2-10-DAL 23 M.Ingram for 4 yards 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
3 3-6-DAL 19 Pass to B.Cooks for 5 yards 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
4 4-1-DAL 14 M.Ingram for 2 yards 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
5 1-10-DAL 12 M.Ingram for 8 yards 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
6 2-2-DAL 4 P.Lindsay for 2 yards 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
7 1-2-DAL 2 Timeout #1 by DAL 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
8 1-2-DAL 2 M.Ingram for 2 yards, TOUCHDOWN. 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
HST Drive No. 2 75 95 99 98 94 92 56 97 11 42 9 55 26 27 30 35 6 32
9 1-10-HST 11 Pass to B.Cooks for 5 yards 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
10 2-5-HST 16 P.Lindsay for 3 yards 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
11 3-2-HST 19 Pass incomplete 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
HST Drive No. 3 75 95 99 98 94 92 56 97 11 42 9 55 26 27 30 35 6 32
12 1-10-HST 25 M.Ingram for 4 yards 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
13 2-6-HST 2 M.Ingram for 1 yard 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
14 3-5-HST 30 Pass incomplete 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
HST Drive No. 4 75 95 99 98 94 92 56 97 11 42 9 55 26 27 30 35 6 32
15 1-10-HST 45 M.Ingram for 3 yards 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
16 2-7-HST 48 Pass to B.Jordan for 7 yards 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
17 1-10-DAL 45 P.Lindsay for -2 yards 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
18 2-12-DAL 47 Pass to C.Moore for 7 yards 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
19 3-5-DAL 40 Pass to C.Moore for 4 yards 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
20 4-1-DAL 36 P.Lindsay for -1 yards 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
HST Drive No. 5 75 95 99 98 94 92 56 97 11 42 9 55 26 27 30 35 6 32
21 1-10-HST 34 S.Phillips for 4 yards 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
22 2-6-HST 38 S.Phillips for 2 yards 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
23 3-4-HST 40 Pass incomplete 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
HST Drive No. 6 75 95 99 98 94 92 56 97 11 42 9 55 26 27 30 35 6 32
24 1-10-HST 24 S.Phillips for 7 yards 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
25 2-3-HST 31 R.Burkhead for 4 yards 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
26 1-10-HST 35 Pass to R.Burkhead for 6 yards 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
27 2-4-HST 41 Pass incomplete 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
28 3-4-HST 41 Pass incomplete. PENALTY, Intentional Grounding 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Total Plays 21 20 9 7 14 25 14 1 18 15 12 13 21 28 28 23 20 18

Overall, it’s probably fair to say that the Cowboys played their first team (such as it is right now, given the injuries) for the first six drives, and then fielded mostly their second and third line of players in the second half.

Over those six drives, the Cowboys defense allowed seven points, held the Texans to 0-for-6 on third downs, allowed 77 net yards on 27 plays, as well as an Eli Manning-esque 6-for-12 pass attempts and a 56.3 passer rating. Not too shabby, even if it was against the Texans. Then again, it’s the preseason, where we shouldn’t read too much into the stats and results, both good and bad.

Finally, here’s an overview of the official snap counts by half. The players on the left played the majority of their snaps in the first half, the players on the right played most or all of their snaps in the second half.

Player POS 1st Half 2nd Half Total Snaps Player POS 1st Half 2nd Half Total Snaps
T. Diggs CB 27 0 27 J. Hamilton DT 9 27 36
A. Brown CB 27 0 27 Q. Bohanna DT 7 10 17
D. Armstrong DE 24 0 24 R. Carter DE 1 23 24
D. Kazee S 22 0 22 N. Wright CB 0 27 27
J. Lewis CB 21 0 21 L. Gifford LB 0 27 27
O. Odighizuwa DT 20 0 22 K. Joseph CB 0 27 27
B. Urban DT 19 0 19 J. Cox LB 0 25 25
Wilson S 19 0 19 M. Canady CB 0 25 25
Parsons LB 18 0 18 A. Faoliu DT 0 24 24
J. Kearse S 17 0 17 A. Kamara DE 0 21 21
K. Neal LB 15 0 15 D. Thompson S 0 17 17
B. Anae DE 14 10 24 M. Hooker S 0 17 17
R. Gregory DE 13 0 13 I. Mukuama S 0 10 10
L. Vander Esch LB 12 0 12 T. Coyle S 0 10 10
J. Smith LB 11 0 11

There are 29 players on this list. Assuming the Cowboys keep 25 defensive players, and with roster spots reserved for Lawrence, Basham, and Gallimore, along with perhaps Carlos Watkins and C.J. Goodwin, up to nine players from this list could be cut in a few weeks. The players will likely come from the players that saw the field in the second half.

As fans, we are often (some would say: permanently) blinded by the Star. As such, some fans took the loss against the Texans to heart, because their Dallas Cowboys lost a game. But when you understand exactly which players were wearing that Star in the second half on Saturday, you’ll understand that many of them will not be Dallas Cowboys on opening day, and that you probably shouldn’t lose any sleep over the final result of the game - like in any preseason game.