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What we need to see from the Cowboys defense in Thursday night’s Hall of Fame game

What should we watch for in the Hall of Fame game?

Dallas Cowboys Training Camp Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

In 2021, the Dallas Cowboys are going to go as far as Dak Prescott and the Cowboys offense is able to take them, but the defense needs to be improved.

We saw glimpses of dominance from the offense in 2020, but a Dak Prescott injury, and a historically bad season from the Cowboys defense had the team struggling to find the win-column even with averaging 32.6 points per game in the first five games of the season. That was solely due to two things.

  1. Turning the ball over at an extremely high rate
  2. Ineptitude on defense

While it’ll be tough to judge the turnover rate after one preseason game, we can pay close attention to how the defense is being run and if the unit is more prepared heading into 2021. We obviously won’t get the whole picture after one preseason game, but there are a few things we can pay attention to. The Cowboys won’t be out there doing a ton of exotic blitzing or disguising a ton of coverages, but we will be able to see a few things.

Has the run defense improved?

Dallas Cowboys Training Camp Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

One of the biggest struggles on defense in 2020 was stopping the run. The defensive tackles struggled mightily plugging holes, and allowing the linebackers to flow freely to the football. Even when they did their job, it seemed as if the linebackers were either filling the wrong gaps, or couldn’t make plays when given the opportunity. We should see quite a bit of Brent Urban, Quinton Bohanna, Carlos Watkins, and Osa Odighizuwa tonight, and that will give us a glimpse of what the Cowboys interior defensive line will look like in 2021.

With additions to both of those groupings (defensive tackle, linebacker), we should be able to get a feel for how much better the interior defensive line run defense could look in 2021 against a run-heavy offense in the Steelers. Pittsburgh has quality depth in their running back room, behind rookie sensation Najee Harris. Veterans such as Benny Snell, Anthony McFarland, Jaylen Samuels, and Kalen Ballage will test the Cowboys responsibilities on defense even in this exhibition matchup. While it’s unclear how much they’ll play, there is interest in seeing rookies Micah Parsons and Jabril Cox get coverage reps against Jaylen Samuels and Anthony McFarland, two backs who are known for their ability to catch the football out of the backfield.

Over the coverage bust woes?

Dallas Cowboys v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

Last season under Mike Nolan, there seemed to be a huge bust in coverage in almost every game. The Cowboys are adopting more of your “bend but don’t break” defense in 2021, and while it’s not something that should excite a ton of fans, that style of defense works with a dynamic offense, and we all expect this offense to be really good. In Quinn’s heavy Cover 3 defense, you can expect a lot of underneath throws, with the occasional deep shot. After watching this defense in 2020, limiting the big plays for the opposing offense was a weekly struggle for this defense and cost them multiple games on that aspect alone.

In 2021, you can expect to see less big plays, but possibly some longer drives from opposing offenses. While it’ll be tough to judge much of this from tonight’s game due to Pittsburgh’s style of offense, we can still pay attention to how assignment sound the back end defenders are playing, and how much they seem to be picking up on their responsibilities in coverage. While you probably won’t see a ton of Trevon Diggs tonight, we should get our first look at rookies Kelvin Joseph and Nahshon Wright, two players that may need to play major roles in the Cowboys defense in 2021.

Health, health, and more health

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At the end of the day, the only thing the Cowboys need at the end of the preseason is for a majority of their roster to be at full strength heading into the regular season. While winning some games, building camaraderie, and learning a little bit about the team in the process is always good, the key to this teams success moving forward is keeping their best players healthy for the games that matter.

With a good amount of the key players on defense coming off of, or dealing with, some lingering injuries, it’ll be important for the coaching staff and medical staff not to push them too hard in this exhibition games. The last thing this defense needs is to have one of their key players on defense get banged up. Be smart, keep them healthy, and get them ready for September 9th. If the Cowboys escape week one of the preseason with no real injury scares, chalk it up in the win column not matter what the scoreboard says when the clock strikes 0:00.