It’s no secret that while the Dallas Cowboys made the playoffs for consecutive seasons, they very much had one glaring weakness on offense. Last season, the Cowboys struggled to find a consistent receiving threat opposite of CeeDee Lamb. The Cowboys’ lack of offensive depth culminated in a disappointing performance against the San Francisco 49ers in the postseason. Once this year’s schedule was released, it was apparent the Cowboys’ offense would have their hands full on the offensive side of the ball. Let’s dig further and examine the best defenses the Cowboys will see this season.
The Eagles’ defense sacked opposing quarterbacks a staggering 70 times last season. Hasson Reddick vaulted himself into the conversation as one of the game’s most disruptive edge rushers. His 16 sacks last year were a career best and he may still be improving. The Cowboys and their bitter rival are locked into an arms race for NFC East supremacy.
The Eagles also replenished their defensive arsenal. Philadelphia landed Georgia defensive tackle Jalen Carter with their first of two first-round picks. They then selected another Bulldog defender after taking edge rusher Nolan Smith with the 30th pick in the draft. In addition to the draft, they also retained cornerback Darius Slay after a separation from the team seemed all but imminent.
In total, the Eagles created pressure on 25.5 percent of their defensive snaps in 2022. Yet, there is reason for optimism. Dak Prescott got the best of them in the team’s second meeting of last season, scoring 40 points on Christmas Eve. That said, the Eagles’ interior front could present problems for the Cowboys who have lingering questions about what to do at left guard.
Led by defensive coordinator Wink Martindale, the New York Giants’ defense starkly improved from 2021 to 2022. Martindale’s aggressive style permeated his players and the defense demonstrated the characteristics of their coach and his philosophy. Martindale’s entire system relies on sending pressure in the form of additional defenders. The Giants led the NFL in blitz rate, sending an extra rusher on nearly forty percent of plays.
The team also made some additions. New York signed linebacker Bobby Okereke from the Indianapolis Colts who had 152 tackles combined in 2022. The Giants also handed a four-year, $87.5M contract to defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence. Julian Love and Xavier McKinney, if both are healthy, can be a potent safety tandem. The Giants aren’t too dissimilar from the Cowboys in the way in which the defense does an excellent job complementing their offense that’s a needs bit more firepower to become one of the elite in the conference.
San Francisco 49ers
The San Francisco 49ers have arguably the best defense in the NFL. For reasons already mentioned, this game needs to be circled on the calendar. This matchup is a moment for the Cowboys to prove their offense is ready to turn its trajectory for the better and demonstrate that they can contend with an elite defensive unit. The Cowboys have met the 49ers in the playoffs the past two seasons and haven’t had any success on offense. Collectively, Cowboys fans are anxious to see something different.
The 49ers’ defense led the league in expected points added with 56.26. San Francisco boasts impact players on each level of their defense. Nick Bosa is a perennial candidate for Defensive Player of the Year. Fred Warner is a superb linebacker that has tremendous range and instincts. Talanoa Hufanga is a wild card that has drawn comparisons to Troy Polamalu and was elected to the Pro Bowl and was an All-Pro selection in 2022. Dak Prescott and the Cowboys’ offense have to get over the psychological hurdle of finding success against the 49ers’ defense and make a statement when the two teams meet in primetime.
New York Jets head coach and former 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh moved on to New York Jets and they are quickly showing glimpses of being a certified contender in the AFC. Defensively, they have a terrific mixture of youth and experience. C.J. Mosley is one of the best linebackers in the NFL. He is a decorated veteran with countless accolades. In his career, Mosley has been named to the Pro Bowl five times, can defend the run, and has the speed to play from sideline to sideline.
Meanwhile, Quinnen Williams has the quickness to penetrate the backfield and disrupt opposing offenses. Plus, they are also deep along the defensive line. In the past two seasons, the Jets have drafted Will McDonald IV and Jermaine Johnson in the first round to be contributors behind John Franklin-Myers and Carl Lawson. The defensive crown jewel of their defense is cornerback Sauce Gardner. While only a rookie in 2022, Gardner was a lock-down defender on the boundary. He took on the opposing team’s top receiving threat and took home Defensive Rookie of the Year and All-Pro.
Since being named the head coach of the Buffalo Bills, Sean McDermott has been able to turn the franchise from a rudderless operation to a team on the cusp of returning to the Super Bowl. After taking over as the lead man for the Bills, the team has a 62-35 record in the regular season. The emergence of Josh Allen into a franchise quarterback has a lot to do with it. Yet, it’s McDermott’s defense that makes Buffalo a title contender.
In 2022, the Bills’ defense was ranked in the top five in the following categories: takeaways (27), passed defended (90), interceptions (17), and adjusted yards gained per pass attempt (5.9). Featuring Ed Oliver and Von Miller along the defensive line, Buffalo can put a lot of pressure on Dak Prescott. It took some time, but Matt Milano has slowly blossomed into a linebacker that is capable of playing the run and the pass equally well.
The Cowboys will, at bare minimum, play in a hostile environment when traveling to Buffalo late in December and, at worst, brave the elements of a Western New York winter wonderland. The Bills are a great defense and playing against them late in December, amidst harsh elements, would be a great challenge and opportunity. Making a statement against that caliber of a defensive opponent would be the perfect barometer for the Cowboys entering the postseason.