For years, the defense of the Dallas Cowboys has served as a huge roadblock for this team. Things went from bad to worse in 2021 as new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan struggled to implement his system leading to a historically bad year. Then, a breath of fresh air arrived last season in the form of Dan Quinn. Suddenly, the Cowboys defense was a force to be reckoned with.
A big component of the success of the defense came in the form of creating turnovers. The Cowboys were absolutely sensational at taking the ball away. Last year, the team led the league with 34 takeaways as well as ranking first in the league with 26 interceptions. Turnovers are not a statistic that projects a lot of stability and it’s reasonable to expect the Cowboys to take a step back in that department this upcoming season. Yesterday, we made a case that while takeaways should decrease this year, it won’t necessarily mean it will put the defense behind the eight ball. Today, we’re going to highlight three more things that the defense/special teams did really well last year to help suggest why another good year from this unit is not out of the question.
Best in the NFC at opponent 3rd-down conversion
There was a time when Mike McCarthy’s Green Bay Packers finished the regular season with a 15-1 record despite his defense allowing the most yards in the league. But thanks to having the no. 1 offense in the league led by Aaron Rodgers, the Packers defense was put in favorable situations for generating turnovers. They took the ball away a league-leading 38 times that year. Unfortunately for them, they were bounced from the playoffs in their very first game. That’s a scenario that hits a little close to home for Cowboys fans.
The previous year, however, the Packers had won the Super Bowl. That season, the Packers defense was top five in yards allowed and were actually the stingiest defense in the NFC in terms of points allowed. But another key element to the success of the Packers defense back then was their third-down conversion percentage. They only allowed a 36.2% conversion rate, a mark the Packers defense has not been able to achieve since.
Last season, the Cowboys defense only allowed a third-down conversion percentage of 34%, tops in the NFC. The team did a good job on early downs and were able to get off the field on the money down. While the defense was not dominant in any particular area (except for takeaways), they were respectable in sack rate (6.7%, ranked 15th) and passing yards per play (6.62%, ranked 17th).
The Cowboys' biggest loss on the defensive side of the ball is Randy Gregory, but with Micah Parsons in year two combined with an assortment of intriguing pass rushers on the roster, there is no reason to think they can’t have similar success in this category this upcoming season.
Best in the NFC in completion percentage allowed
The Cowboys have had issues with their passing defense over the years and last year they had some moments where they allowed some big plays. Despite their outside corners, Trevon Diggs and Anthony Brown, giving up some yards, the team surrendered a respectable 6.2 yards per attempt, which ranked middle of the road last season.
Even though they get a bad rep at times, the secondary did a good job closing on receivers as the Cowboys’ defense only allowed a completion rate of 59.5%, which was tops in the NFC last year. This was the lowest completion rate they’ve allowed in 15 years.
Both Diggs and Brown were among the top four in pass breakups last season. Jourdan Lewis and Jayron Kearse also finished with double-digit pass breakups. With the same cast of characters returning in the secondary, the defense should be able to continue to play well and that’s not even factoring in if some of the younger defensive backs take a step forward.
Best in the NFC in punt return average
You may already know that Bryan Anger had a great year as he is coming off his first Pro Bowl season in 10 years in the league. His 48.4-yard average was the fourth-best in the league, so he demonstrated that he still has a booming leg. But it’s not just Anger that deserves all the credit. While the hangtime and location of his punts have been fantastic, so has the Cowboys punt coverage unit. Last year, the team finished with a net punt return average of just 6.5 yards, the best in the NFC. This helped Anger lead the entire league in average net yards.
The Cowboys special teams unit last year was outstanding in a multitude of areas. We all know about the three punts they blocked which are as many as they’ve had in the previous 20 years combined! But it doesn’t stop there as the Cowboys' punt coverage group is doing their part as well.