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Turnover luck: Sustainability of Cowboys league-leading takeaways from 2021 could be an issue

The Cowboys regressing to the mean in this department is one of the biggest concerns entering the season.

Washington Football Team v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

The Dallas Cowboys are relying on a pretty similar roster from their 12-5 NFC East-winning season of a year ago to do something they haven’t since 1995-96, win the division in consecutive seasons. Their team-building approach this offseason has drawn skepticism considering the loss of Amari Cooper, La’el Collins, and Randy Gregory.

The Cowboys haven’t even won ten games in two straight seasons since those 95-96 championship years, and with the Eagles sneaking into the playoffs at nine wins a year ago, Philadelphia is a trendy pick to dethrone Dallas for the division in 2022. They’ve aggressively added talent on both sides of the ball in a way Cowboys fans can only dream about.

There’s also one glaring stat from the Cowboys successful 2021 season that many feel is unsustainable, a league high 34 turnovers forced. A Cowboys offense that was inconsistent late in the year scored 111 of their league-leading 530 points on drives following turnovers.

Its hard to imagine things getting much better in this department for the Cowboys anytime soon given the problem of counting on turnovers. In search of something positive, should fans be counting on the team’s offense to overcome their personnel changes and remain a dominant force, or Quinn’s defense to carry them with turnovers at times again?

After looking at the film of the Cowboys takeaways, here is what can be learned about just how “lucky” this production was.

Interceptions - 26

  • CB Trevon Diggs - 11
  • CB Anthony Brown - 3
  • CB Jourdan Lewis - 3
  • SAF Jayron Kearse - 2
  • SAF Damontae Kazee - 2
  • SAF Malik Hooker - 1
  • LB Leighton Vander Esch - 1
  • DT Carlos Watkins - 1
  • DE Randy Gregory - 1
  • DE DeMarcus Lawrence - 1

The Cowboys return every player that recorded an interception for them except Damontae Kazee and Randy Gregory. As long as they have Trevon Diggs, they’ll be expected to produce in this category, with veterans Anthony Brown and Jourdan Lewis still under contract to ease in the future starters around Diggs.

While there are no long-term solutions on the roster at safety, the Cowboys like the interchangeability between Kearse, Malik Hooker and Donovan Wilson. Hooker and Wilson both missed time due to injuries, so starting this year with all three available gives Quinn more looks to practice with.

The bigger concern here is how opposing teams will scheme against Diggs, who gives up enough big plays in coverage for quarterbacks to test him on others where he takes the ball away. His first interception of the year came against Tom Brady, the quarterback he’ll see again to start the season, on a tipped screen pass attempt. This started a streak where Diggs had at least one interception in the first six Cowboys games of the year.

With Diggs carrying the bulk of the Cowboys turnover production, it’s encouraging that only one of his other interceptions came in a tip drill situation - resulting in a pick six of Mac Jones at the Patriots. The rest of Diggs’ highlight reel features the second-year player running routes for some of the best receivers in the game, like Keenan Allen here.

The same can’t be said for Lewis’ three interceptions, the first of which came on an end of a first half Hail Mary attempt. Both of his other takeaways were on tip drills, though DeMarcus Lawrence put pressure in the face of Mike Glennon to create the turnover vs. the Giants.

The plays Anthony Brown made on the ball were much more repeatable as coverage reps, sticking to receivers in single-man coverage against the Eagles and Falcons. His third was a late pick six, also against Mike Glennon in a game the Cowboys had in hand against the Giants at home.

This leaves players that had two or less interceptions, where Jayron Kearse and Micah Parsons made the most notable play. Parsons carried a vertical route and tipped a pass away at the Saints, where Kearse made a sliding catch. Malik Hooker also made a great play at the Giants, covering a deep third after lining up in the box and stepping in front of a post route.

Fumbles (Forced/Recovered)

  • Randy Gregory - 3/1
  • Micah Parsons - 3/0
  • Damontae Kazee - 2/0
  • DeMarcus Lawrence - 2/0
  • Jourdan Lewis - 1/2
  • Tarrell Basham - 1/1
  • Anthony Brown - 1/0
  • Jayron Kearse - 0/1
  • Dorance Armstrong - 0/1
  • Carlos Watkins - 0/1
  • Chauncey Golston - 0/1
  • Kelvin Joseph - 0/1

Fumbles are much harder to predict than interceptions, but there are trends to look at for how the Cowboys may fare in 2022. Not having last year’s leader in forced fumbles hurts, but this is still a point of emphasis in Quinn’s defense to get bodies to the ball and look for strips.

Washington Commanders running back Antonio Gibson led the NFL in fumbles last year, and the Cowboys will get two games against him as well as one versus four of the top eight quarterbacks in fumbles from 2021.

Of the top ten teams in total takeaways last season, the Cowboys were the third least-reliant on fumble recoveries with eight. Only the Rams with six and Patriots with seven recovered less, but the Cowboys had a significantly higher plus 14 turnover differential compared to these teams.

Imagining the Cowboys defense without their impressive streak of turnovers is a scary thought. Allowing nine percent of pass plays against to go for big plays is a number that puts them behind only six other teams in 2021, one of which made the playoffs. Stringing together big plays is the best indicator that any given drive will result in points, with unexpected turnovers being the only thing to stop this momentum.

Keeping Dan Quinn as defensive coordinator remains one of the best things the Cowboys did this offseason, perhaps followed up by drafting five players on defense despite their big needs on the other side of the ball. Just how long the future for this young team is with Quinn on the staff remains to be seen, but he has a core of players with a nose for the ball that create takeaways.

The Cowboys offense will also need to do their part in putting pressure on opposing teams to score early and often, giving players like Diggs more opportunities to force quarterbacks into mistakes.

A regression to the mean in total takeaways for the Cowboys this season may be inevitable, but we won’t know how it will affect the team until the games are played.

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