In many ways, Mike McCarthy’s second season in Dallas was his first real season, since the 2020 season featured a limited offseason due to the pandemic, losing Dak Prescott for the year, and a whole host of other injuries throughout the season. But in 2021, McCarthy's Cowboys were looking exactly like what some had hoped when he was hired.
After narrowly losing to the reigning Super Bowl champion Buccaneers, the Cowboys won six in a row, including a win on the road over the Vikings with Cooper Rush making his first career start. The offense, in particular, was red-hot and looking unstoppable. Then came a home appointment with the 4-4 Broncos, a team that had just traded away superstar Von Miller and looked to be ready to move on from third-year head coach Vic Fangio.
The game turned into a blowout loss for the Cowboys. They were shut out in the first three quarters, eventually scoring in the fourth quarter when the Broncos defense was clearly not playing aggressive anymore, to dress up the final score a bit at 30-16. Still, it was an embarrassing loss for Dallas, who came into the game as 10-point favorites and lost by two touchdowns.
Fangio, often a very quiet personality and unremarkable quote, suddenly had a lot to say:
“How about them Broncos as Jimmy Johnson used to say,” Fangio said with a smile as he began his media session.
“I just felt we had the right stuff to give ourselves a chance,” Fangio explained. “We just had to do it the right way, call it the right way, which I’m in charge of, so you know that’s going to be taken care of, and I just felt okay about. I don’t say, oh good about it, teams just haven’t played them the right way.”
As the talking point quickly became whether or not Fangio had just created a blueprint for beating the Cowboys’ high-powered offense, McCarthy more or less laughed the suggestion off:
“This is a copycat league, and I just told [that] the team, so get ready, I hope they do, too,” McCarthy responded during his November 8 press conference. “Vic played us very aggressive. That’s good to hear him beating his own drum.”
A copycat league it certainly is, because Fangio’s style of defense has taken the league by storm. There are 14 teams in the league that currently operate some iteration of the two-deep safety scheme that Fangio has had decades of success with, while even more teams have incorporated elements of the scheme into their own defense in one form or another.
In fact, the Cowboys have faced 10 such teams this year alone, including six games (Cardinals, Chargers, Rams, Eagles x2, Panthers) against defenses coordinated by coaches that have direct links to Fangio in their coaching tree. To say that the Cowboys have seen this defense more often than not would be an understatement. If Fangio caught the Cowboys by surprise in 2021, that won’t be the case this week as he tries to defend an offense now run by McCarthy himself.
As for the scheme, it’s not all that difficult to understand. A Fangio defense is predicated on having two safeties play deep, at least at the snap, while employing a variety of coverages designed to take away the deep plays. Fangio most frequently uses quarters coverage and Cover 6, flooding the deep portion of the field and only giving up underneath routes.
The Fangio defense, as run by the man himself, rarely blitzes - Miami has the fourth-lowest blitz rate in the league - and runs a ton of zone coverage, currently ranking ninth in rate of zone coverage plays per game. The defense is also often accompanied by very light boxes, effectively daring offenses to run the ball.
The Bills, who run a similar scheme but don’t have any real ties to Fangio, successfully baited the Cowboys into this trap last week; there were many times early on where Prescott checked into a run play, with varying degrees of success, which impacted the passing offense’s ability to get into a groove once they were playing from behind.
As far as the actual personnel, Fangio arguably has the best roster he’s ever worked with. Miami is third in pressure rate and second in sacks even after losing edge rusher Jaelan Phillips for the year. That’s because Miami also has Bradley Chubb, Emmanuel Ogbah, Christian Wilkins, and Zach Sieler anchoring this defensive line.
In the secondary, Xavien Howard remains a steady presence and has since been rejoined by perennial All-Pro Jalen Ramsey, who tore his meniscus in training camp. Safety Jevon Holland has continued his rapid ascendant to stardom, performing as one of the best safeties in the league.
That said, this defense has been inconsistent throughout the season, and for all their talent they only rank 13th in defensive DVOA, though they’re third in EPA/play allowed. As has been a common trouble for Fangio defenses this year, the run defense has been especially vulnerable: Miami is 20th in run defense DVOA and 17th in EPA/carry allowed, though they’re sixth from the bottom in total rushing attempts faced. In short, the run defense is a weakness that rarely gets exploited because their offense usually scores so much that opponents can’t afford to run the ball. Sound familiar?
The Dolphins are not a team that the Cowboys have much experience facing, but the defensive scheme they’ll be going up against is one they’ve had plenty of experience with this season. McCarthy and Prescott should come in with a good understanding of how to beat Fangio’s scheme, even if the players running it are different. That’s important, because the Dallas defense will be hard-pressed to generate stops against Miami’s own red-hot offense. This could easily turn into a shootout, which might be just the way McCarthy wants it after how he exchanged words with Fangio last time their teams faced each other.