By nearly every metric, the 2021 Dallas Cowboys fielded a historically great defense. They finished the year ranked second in defensive DVOA and first in weighted defensive DVOA, meaning they were playing their best ball towards the end of the year.
As they prepare to start the 2022 season, all these Cowboys are being told is that their defense - in its second year under coordinator Dan Quinn - is bound for a sharp regression.
At first blush, it’s hard to understand why that would be the case. Of the 16 defenders who logged at least 300 snaps for Dallas last year, 13 of them are still here. DeMarcus Lawrence also returns after playing just 272 snaps last year due to injuries. Carlos Watkins is in danger of being a final roster cut, but that’s still 13 returning key contributors from last year’s group if you count Lawrence.
And two of the three who moved on, safety Damontae Kazee and linebacker Keanu Neal, did so because their usage declined in favor of other players as the season went on. So while they finished the year with plenty of snaps played, they were not really core pieces of the defense by the time the season ended.
So why would a great defense with so much continuity take a step back? Well, the simplest answer is because that’s what defenses do. We know from decades of historical data that defensive production is largely determined by the caliber of offenses - and, really, just the quarterbacks - they face in a year. For example, the Texans, Jaguars, and Titans struggled to put together reliable defenses when they were facing Peyton Manning twice every year.
In that respect, the Cowboys defense benefitted from playing a really poor cast of opposing quarterbacks last year, especially in their own division. While the NFC East hasn’t exactly had an influx of quarterback talent in a year, Dallas still plays a better list of quarterbacks this year, including the likes of Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Joe Burrow, Matthew Stafford, Matt Ryan, and Kirk Cousins. It could be even harder if second-year quarterbacks like Trevor Lawrence, Justin Fields, and Davis Mills make jumps under new coaching staffs.
This is often the principle reason for volatility among defensive performances from year to year, and we see it play out all the time. Of the top 10 teams in defensive DVOA in 2020, only one had a higher DVOA in 2021 and four of them fell out of the top 10 altogether. That kind of fluctuation is pretty consistent on a year-by-year basis.
Of course, the Cowboys finished second in DVOA last year, so it would be pretty hard for them to actually improve in that regard. However, it wouldn’t be unlikely for the Cowboys to regress while still remaining a very good defense. Given their level of continuity from last year, especially returning some of their very best players, that seems much more likely than falling off the face of the Earth as some believe will happen.
One big area that the Dallas defense is ripe for regression is the takeaway game. No defense had more takeaways than the Cowboys last year, and they were buoyed by Trevon Diggs’ ridiculous 11 interceptions. But while Diggs absolutely deserves recognition for his ball skills, the Cowboys’ sky-high takeaway totals were inflated by two main factors.
First was a highly efficient offense that, for most of the season, scored touchdowns at a blistering rate. This translated to their opponents having to take more chances with the ball, thus putting the ball up for grabs more often than they would in a more neutral game scenario.
The second factor played off of that first factor, a nod to Mike McCarthy’s emphasis on playing complementary football. Quinn ran tight man coverage with a high rate of blitzes much of the time, speeding up the quarterback’s process and daring him to make a play against this physical secondary. Quinn notably deviated from this strategy in games where his pass rush or the Cowboys offense wasn’t as effective. This can be seen by the fact that three of the Cowboys’ four games in which they had one or less takeaways also came in games where the offense recorded less than their season average 8.78 expected points added (EPA).
To this extent, it should also be noted that the Cowboys had an embarrassment of riches in the pass rush last year. One of the top authorities on defensive line play, Brandon Thorn, recently released his ranking of the top 25 edge rushers in the NFL. The Cowboys’ top three rushers last year - Micah Parsons, DeMarcus Lawrence, and Randy Gregory - were all on it. Parsons and Lawrence were both in the second tier, ranked 7th and 12th respectively, while Gregory fell in the third tier, ranked 22nd overall.
It’s rare for teams to have two edge rushers of such caliber at the same time; having three of them is almost like seeing Bigfoot riding a unicorn. As you would expect, such a trio combined for an especially lethal pass rushing package last year for Dallas. And while they kept two of the three - the best two, according to Thorn - that still equals less than what this defense had in 2021.
Pair that with a stronger cast of opposing quarterbacks and a Dallas offense that’s likely looking at a regression of their own, especially with continuing uncertainty at wide receiver, and you’ve got a perfect storm for regression on defense. The caveat, of course, is that this remains a talented defense with plenty of impact players.
In short, we shouldn’t expect this defense to be stealing souls like they were last year. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be losing games left and right for this Cowboys team either. There’s a much higher likelihood of that being true for the offense in 2021, which will in turn make things harder for Quinn’s group.