When the Cowboys throttled the Eagles, it was the pinnacle of an exceptionally hot streak for them, and it was largely led by their offense. Dak Prescott had risen to the top of the MVP discussion, and Mike McCarthy was earning plenty of praise for the way he reworked the offense around his quarterback.
Then, they hit a brick wall in Buffalo. Some of that was influenced by weather, but the Bills simply shut them down. The Cowboys did better against the Dolphins - they averaged 0.147 EPA/play in the game, seventh best among all teams this weekend - but it still wasn’t the kind of fireworks we’ve come to expect from this offense.
There is a genuine reason for optimism that the Cowboys get back into that rhythm this week, and it’s not just because they’ll be playing at home. The Lions have been a really good team all year, but their defense has often been their biggest weakness. They’re currently 24th in points allowed per game, 22nd in yards per play, 21st in EPA/play allowed, and 14th in defensive DVOA. None of that is particularly inspiring, especially ahead of this game against the Cowboys.
The man at the center of it all should be very familiar to Cowboys fans. When former Cowboys player Dan Campbell took the Lions job back in 2021, he tabbed a fellow former Cowboy to be his defensive coordinator: Aaron Glenn. The former longtime cornerback followed Campbell from New Orleans, where he had coached the defensive backs for five seasons and overseen a defensive turnaround that featured several star defensive backs.
Since arriving in Detroit, Glenn has faced a tough road in turning around the Lions’ defense. Glenn’s unit was one of the worst in the league in 2021, which prompted the Lions to spend six of their eight draft picks in 2022 on the defensive side of the ball. While the defense saw some improvement - they went from 29th in defensive DVOA to 27th - it wasn’t enough, and many of the Lions’ losses last year were high-scoring shootouts.
The Lions once again spent the offseason trying to beef up their defense. They drafted two defensive players in their first four picks, both of whom are starters, and brought in three veterans in free agency. The hope was that the infusion of new talent would help produce a better product from week to week. That’s somewhat been the case, though Glenn’s defense has struggled with consistency.
Schematically speaking, Glenn comes from two main coaching trees: Vic Fangio, under whom he played three seasons in Houston, and current Saints head coach Dennis Allen, who was actually a college teammate of both Glenn and Campbell at Texas A&M.
Allen himself is a mix of Fangio’s now-popular two deep safety scheme and the controversial but successful Gregg Williams. Fangio’s scheme is something that the Cowboys have faced extensively this year and is characterized by minimal blitzing, frequent light boxes, and lots of quarters zone coverage. Williams’ scheme, by contrast, is defined by aggression; his defenses frequently featured exotic blitzes and lots of aggressive man coverage.
What that means for Glenn, as well as Allen, is a healthy dose of quarters coverage that puts a lot of responsibility on those two deep safeties mixed in with man coverages. Glenn’s Lions don’t use a ton of light boxes like Fangio, but they’re not as blitz heavy as Williams was either, sitting right around the league average in blitz rate on the season. Glenn is unafraid to blitz, but he picks and chooses his spots to do so.
The problem Glenn has encountered in replicating the success Allen has had in New Orleans is the personnel. Detroit has a really formidable front seven, highlighted by second-year edge rusher Aidan Huchinson. The second overall pick from a year ago is third in the league in pressures, though he has just six sacks to his name. Opposite Hutchinson, the Lions have a deep rotation of situational players. Alim McNeill (injured) and John Cominsky have developed into wildly underrated interior defenders, while veteran linebacker Alex Anzalone works between a rotation of linebackers.
The secondary is where things have been tricky. The Lions brought in veteran corners in Cameron Sutton and Emmanuel Moseley, as well as former Eagles slot defender C.J. Gardner-Johnson, to shore up the pass defense. But Moseley was on the PUP list until Week 5 and tore his ACL in his first game back, while Gardner-Johnson has been on the injured reserve since Week 3.
Injuries aside, the Sutton signing hasn’t worked out so well while backup Jerry Jacobs has become a frequent punching bag for opposing offenses. Rookie Brian Branch, who can play both corner and safety, has been the Lions’ best defensive back by a mile but even then, he’s had moments where he looks like a rookie. The Lions’ two primary safeties, Kerby Joseph and Tracy Walker, have struggled to protect the back end as a result of the inconsistencies at cornerback. All of this has combined to make the Lions into a secondary that gives up big plays at a high rate; in fact, only one other defense has surrendered more total air yards than Detroit.
That should be music to the Cowboys’ ears as their offense is at its best when the deep threat is real and tangible. CeeDee Lamb had some big plays last week against the Dolphins, but things were otherwise pretty quiet downfield. The Cowboys should be able to get Jake Ferguson and Brandin Cooks going again with this matchup.
However, the Lions’ biggest weapon on defense also has the ability to mask their biggest weakness. That’s their pass rush, which is currently third in pressure rate and leads the league in hurry rate. After the Cowboys’ pass protection struggles the last two weeks, they seem vulnerable against this Lions pass rush. Of course, that can be helped out a bit if Dak Prescott gets the ball out quicker and has more open windows to throw into, something that was largely unavailable over the last two weeks. But this will be the biggest chess match to watch between this offense and defense.
The Lions are far from the worst defense the Cowboys have faced this year, but Prescott has also gone up against better defenses and had great success. The opportunity is there for this offense to get right back into the groove it was in the last time they played in AT&T Stadium, but this Detroit defense is too scrappy to expect a cakewalk.