Nobody expected the Dallas Cowboys defense to finish the 2021 season second in defensive DVOA, but that’s what happened. Trevon Diggs blossomed into a ballhawk in his second year in the NFL, while Micah Parsons wrecked every single offense he lined up against. So how can this unit possibly improve?
Well, retaining Dan Quinn as their defensive coordinator after interviewing for several head coaching vacancies is a good start. Statistically speaking, defensive performance is very volatile and dependent on the offense they’re facing, so some regression should be expected for the defense next year. However, these three areas were points of weakness for the Cowboys that they’ll need to clean up in 2022.
After watching the 49ers gash the Cowboys with their innovative run game in the Wild Card Round of the playoffs, you’d be well within your rights to accuse me of recency bias here. However, the fact is that the Cowboys struggled against the run for most of the 2021 season; they finished the year ranked 16th in run defense DVOA and 14th in run stop win rate.
That’s why the Cowboys were such a uniquely bad matchup against the 49ers’ rushing attack, and head coach Kyle Shanahan absolutely smashed them to pieces early on. But Quinn’s defense hadn’t always struggled this much. They were actually as high as eighth in run defense DVOA heading into their Week 6 matchup with the Patriots. They experienced a gradual decline ever since then.
So what changed? It’s hard to pinpoint any one thing, but defensive lineman Brent Urban sustained a triceps injury during the Patriots game that ultimately knocked him out for the entire year. Urban’s signing this past offseason was hailed largely because of his stout play against the run in previous stops. Losing Urban coincided with this decline in run defense efficiency, although it would be hard to suggest that it was the sole reason for that.
Urban’s currently set to enter free agency, but Dallas could easily extend him. They could also seek to add similar run-stuffing players in free agency, with a pool currently set to feature names like D.J. Jones, Steve McLendon, Austin Johnson, and Foley Fatukasi. There are also plenty of players in the upcoming draft who could serve such a role.
The root of Dallas’ run defense issues comes from their weakness in the trenches. Osa Odighizuwa was drafted to be a situational pass rusher, while Neville Gallimore fulfilled a similar role once he returned from injury. Quinton Bohanna is a space-eating nose tackle, but was limited in snap share all year and missed the final three games for undisclosed reasons. The Cowboys need more bodies inside, and specifically bodies who can stop the run. Urban already has proven capable, and there will be plenty of other options too.
Part of the pass rush issues were due to the injuries sustained by both DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory at various points throughout the season, but the Cowboys all too often relied entirely on Micah Parsons to provide a pass rush. This was evident in the fact that Dallas finished the year 10th in the league in blitzes - with Parsons alone making up nearly 52% of their blitzes - while being fourth in pressure rate.
Even with the high pressure rate, the Cowboys were 13th in sacks, with nearly a third of those coming just from Parsons. As we saw in games against the 49ers, Cardinals, and Eagles, there are times where Parsons has more value as an off-ball linebacker than as a pass rusher or blitzer. In those games, the Cowboys need to be able to create a consistent pass rush so as to not leave their secondary out to dry.
Lawrence provided a big spark in that category once he returned, and the hope is he’ll have a clean bill of health in 2022. But Gregory’s contract is up, as is Dorance Armstrong’s. Tarell Basham and Chauncey Golston both flashed at times, but can they be counted on going forward? Or will the Cowboys look to free agency (including Gregory and Armstrong) or the draft to beef up their pass rush. Whatever the answer is, they need to reinforce that aspect of the defense.
For all intents and purposes, we’re going to consider Parsons a linebacker because that’s what it says on the team site. That allows us to say that, outside of the soon-to-be-decorated rookie, the Cowboys linebackers underwhelmed in 2021.
First, there was Jaylon Smith’s surprise release a few weeks into the season. But it went further than just one player. Keanu Neal converted from safety to linebacker to play in Dallas, but he gave up the highest completion rate of any Dallas defender that saw more than ten targets this year. He also allowed 9.3 yards per completion compared to 3.8 yards of average depth of target. In other words, quarterbacks didn’t go very deep against him but he still gave up a lot of yards.
Leighton Vander Esch had similar problems, while also struggling to keep pace with ball-carriers at times in run defense. However, Vander Esch had some very strong performances towards the end of the season. Neal and Vander Esch both have expiring contracts, though, leaving fellow rookie Jabril Cox as the only other linebacker under contract for next year.
Cox offers some real potential, especially with his skills in coverage, but the rookie missed most of the year with a torn ACL. His recovery from that injury muddies his potential path towards claiming a starting role next to Parsons in 2022. Even if he does make a full recovery and ends up a starter, neither of which is a guarantee, the Cowboys need bodies at the position. They’ll need to add, or re-sign, some talent here in order to keep the defense firing on all cylinders.