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Cowboys going all-in on defense shows they’ve learned lesson from 2021 letdown

The Cowboys are looking at a deeper playoff run based on their mistakes of 2021.

Chicago Bears v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images

The NFL trade deadline came and went without the Cowboys making a last-second move, all but locking in the roster that’s gotten them to 6-2. They are tied with the Giants with the head-to-head tiebreaker while still chasing the 8-0 Eagles in the NFC East. The Cowboys are 4-1 in games started by Cooper Rush this season, 2-1 with Dak Prescott, and went into the bye week with a season high 49 points to beat the Bears 49-29.

The 29 points allowed by the Cowboys in their last game was also a season high for Dan Quinn’s defense, but they made a difference in the game with four sacks and a Micah Parsons fumble return for touchdown. This win over the Bears was a polar opposite of the types of games this team found themselves in around this point in the season a year ago.

It was week nine last year when the Cowboys lost to the Denver Broncos 30-16 at home, which was truly the start of a second half of the season slide for an offense that couldn’t recapture their magic even with the trio of Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, and CeeDee Lamb at receiver. A defense that led the NFL in takeaways fought desperately to keep the Cowboys in games, like their 19-9 loss at the Chiefs, but a team built for offense never found their spark on the way to a first-round playoff exit.

While the offseason only brought more concerns to an offense that lost Cooper, La’el Collins, and other key starters, the Cowboys have seen Dak Prescott elevate the talent around him on offense in his last two games back from injury while leaning into their new identity on defense. The Cowboys defense hasn’t been quite as prolific taking the ball away, but they’re a sounder unit that can bring pressure on any snap and still makes flash plays in the secondary with Trevon Diggs.

The Cowboys have learned from their failure to sustain on offense last year, and chose to address shortcomings on defense going into the bye week instead. Over Quinn’s time as coordinator, this defense has given up too many big plays on the ground. By moving on from Trysten HIll, trading for Jonathan Hankins, and getting Damone Clark on the field at linebacker, Dallas is committed to stopping the run with better size in the front seven.

Instead of asking the offense to be something they aren’t, the Cowboys defense is looking for any and all ways to improve having already shown they can carry this team in the early part of the season.

It was the 49ers who exposed the Cowboys run defense the most in their Wild Card win at AT&T Stadium in ‘21, and these same two teams could be on a collision course again with San Francisco adding Christian McCaffery to their backfield. For the Cowboys to look past the first round of the playoffs this season, they not only have work to do in their own division, but have more to prove on offense to show they can regularly win high-scoring games.

The amount of weeks that Kellen Moore has had to scheme this offense at full strength has been shortened greatly, something that could help the Cowboys down the stretch. Instead of a long 17 games with Prescott and the same receivers, the Cowboys have adapted to life with Cooper Rush at QB, Tony Pollard starting at RB, and lineup changes at WR. If the finished version of this offense is anything close to the explosiveness they showed against the Bears, the Cowboys highly-questioned team-building tactics coming into the year will have produced one of their most balanced teams in years.

The next test for Mike McCarthy’s 6-2 squad? A homecoming to Lambeau Field for his team’s third straight game against the NFC North, a division he owned as head coach of the Packers.

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