In the NFL, the value of a strong defense cannot be overstated. We have all heard the old adage that “defenses win championships”, and while a high-powered offense is all the rage right now, there is something to be said about being the team that looks to build a unit that can handle, and beat, the Patrick Mahomes and Jalen Hurts of the world.
When you look at the Dallas Cowboys since Dan Quinn got to town, they have made it their mission to build a high-octane defense to combat the league’s best offensive attacks. From historically bad in 2020 under Mike Nolan, to where they are now is nothing short of miraculous.
The pass rush is a staple of this defense, the secondary is a strong group headed by star power, but where the Cowboys have struggled mightily is in defense of the run. They have seen all of their playoff chances be dashed by efficient rushing attacks, and when you identify a problem you need to solve it. The team understands that and looked to put a stop to it with how they address this year’s draft class.
The drafting of Mazi Smith was met with mixed feelings, with myself being one of the main culprits of dissension. However, within the realm of defensive prowess, the role of a high-level defensive tackle is pivotal, and is the missing piece to the defensive unit Quinn is building. After doing a deeper dive and studying the tape more while understanding the plan the Cowboys have in place, the significance of adding such a player as Smith through the draft will elevate the Cowboys defense to heights they have yet to reach.
A high level defensive tackle ideally possesses the strength, technique, and agility to disrupt opposing offenses from the interior of the defensive line in both the rushing and passing attacks. Smith has all of those attributes. While at Michigan, Smith was limited by scheme and responsibility when it came to rushing the passer, but was a dominant force in run defense. As he transitions to the NFL world, Quinn’s system will put him in advantageous spots to apply pressure on the quarterback, collapsing the pocket, and disrupting running lanes. Quinn will force offensive linemen to account for Smith in pass protection, while being a presence in the running game with the hopes of necessitating double teams. Using his sheer size and athleticism in the middle of the Cowboys defense, Smith will look to create favorable matchups for edge rushers and linebackers, allowing them to exploit one-on-one situations and increase the units overall effectiveness.
Regardless of how you may feel about it, the run game is a fundamental component of any offense, and stopping it is critical to defensive success. If Smith can develop into a top tier defensive tackle, he will ideally bring exceptional run-stuffing abilities, using his size and power to plug gaps, shed blocks, and make tackles at or behind the line of scrimmage. The Cowboys hope Smith can disrupt play rhythm, set a tone of dominance, and force the offense into predictable passing situations that will allow the pass rushers to pin their ears back and attack. Smith‘s first job will be to limit the opponent’s rushing attack, and by doing so it will significantly enhance the overall effectiveness of this Cowboys defense.
Dallas selects Michigan DT Mazi Smith 26th overall— PFF College (@PFF_College) April 28, 2023
Career high 81.3 run defense grade last season pic.twitter.com/uDlyaGpyEb
While stopping the run is essential, a high-end defensive tackle will need to be proficient at generating pressure on the quarterback. By collapsing the pocket on his own and creating a disruptive presence up the middle, Smith will attempt to limit a quarterback’s ability to step into throws and disrupt the timing of passing plays with the base pass rush without adding blitzers and compromising the back end of the group. Pressure from the interior that can result in hurried or errant throws consistently will be a vital key to this defense taking another step forward. If Smith can turn into who the Cowboys think he can be, he can be one of the final pieces in a defense that turns into a fearsome unit capable of stifling even the most potent offenses.
Been watching Mazi Smith for 20 minutes and I’ve seen him do this three times.— David Helman (@davidhelman_) April 28, 2023
I think I’m buying what Will McClay’s selling that you can coach him into pass rush production. pic.twitter.com/jNmebddPZz
Beyond his physical attributes, Smith’s versatility and scheme flexibility is important and will allow Dan Quinn to deploy various formations and fronts. Whether it’s their traditional 4-3, or some version of a hybrid defense that can put Micah Parsons on an island, Smith may be asked to anchor the line, adapt to different roles, and seamlessly transition between run stopping and pass rushing duties. The skill and versatility he can present opens up a variety of play-calling options, making it harder for offenses to predict and exploit defensive weaknesses.
Cowboys EVP Stephen Jones on DT Mazi Smith: “Dan (Quinn) will have him do some things that aren’t just totally reading the run. He’ll get him in a track stance and let him get off the ball, when it’s time to do that. I think he’s got versatility and multiplicity.” Jones added…— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) April 28, 2023
There were many directions the Cowboys could’ve gone with their first-round pick and there were many interesting options they bypassed to make Smith the selection. But what the Dallas Cowboys did was what they always do. They stick their plan, trust their board, and select the player with conviction while keeping the big picture in mind. The Cowboys have earned our trust and while they aren’t absolved of fair skepticism, they have done a good job of getting this draft thing right. If Mazi Smith is another one of those hits for the organization, this Cowboys defense and team as a whole will be in good hands for years to come.