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This draft shows that the Cowboys are trying to make teams think twice about running against them

Opposing teams will continue to run against the Cowboys until they give them a reason not to.

NCAA Football: Big Ten Football Championship-Iowa vs Michigan Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The Dallas Cowboys surprised everyone by picking defensive players with three of their first four draft picks. Considering this team already had one of the best defensive units in the league combined with the struggles they had at times on offense, it seemed a little bit off-script to go that direction. But the Cowboys stayed true to form and didn’t force picks. Instead, they continued to select players that will help their football team. In fact, you could even say that this team had a plan, and they executed it quite well.

You see, the Cowboys have what you might call a “run defense” problem. On a per-play basis, they aren’t terrible. They allow 4.4 yards per play, which ranks them right smack in the middle of the league. The problem is that teams are frequently running against them. Opposing teams ran against Dallas an average of 29.2 times per game last season, which is seventh-most in the NFL. The Seattle Seahawks were the only team who faced more rushing attempts that didn’t have a losing record last year; however, their defense did surrender the third-most rushing yards in the league last season. Teams that can’t defend the run experience higher volumes of rushing attempts against them.

But again, the Cowboys aren’t terrible at stopping the run. They just aren’t great at it either. As fantastic as this team has been on defense (first in takeaways, third in sacks, and fifth in points allowed), they are just average at defending the run, so opposing teams wisely try to exploit the weaker part of their defense. Teams don’t want to be in situations where the Cowboys' pass rush can just pin their ears back and attack them, so they counter this as much as they can by running early and often against them.

In fact, if you look at the past 20 seasons of the Cowboys, you’d find that their two worst years in terms of rushing attempts allowed have come in the past three seasons. That includes last year and their historically bad 2020 season. That’s not ideal.

One of the problems with the Cowboys' rushing defense is that they lose at the point of attack and allow blockers to climb into the second level and take out the linebackers. Without winning in the trenches, the linebackers can get washed out, causing the defense to be more susceptible to big runs. Dallas is just one of five NFL teams whose leading tackler is a safety (Donovan Wilson). Besides the Cowboys, the New York Giants were the only other one of those teams who had a winning record. They finished second-worst in the league in rushing yards allowed per rushing attempt (5.2). It’s not ideal to have your defensive backs be your leading tacklers. And sure, Leighton Vander Esch wasn’t far behind and would’ve finished ahead of Wilson had he not missed three games, but even in 2021 when he was healthy, it was still another safety (Jayron Kearse) who led the team in tackles. The Cowboys linebackers have just had a tough time getting clean shots at running backs.

This is where this new crop of defenders comes in. Starting with the team’s first-round pick, Mazi Smith, the Cowboys finally have a powerful nose tackle who won’t be pushed around at the line of scrimmage. Smith has played a reactive role on defense where his primary goal was to drive blockers and shut down running lanes. With a strong interior defender who can cancel gaps, this is going to make things a lot easier on the back seven.

And speaking of back seven, the Cowboys added a linebacker with the selection of DeMarvion Overshown, but this Texas native isn’t your typical linebacker. With a large range of skill sets, this defender has the speed and length to chase down ball carriers. He has coverage skills and intriguing pass-rushing capability. Labeled as a tweener, he’s a little Wilson-like in the sense that he enters the league a little wild, but he’s a downhill-running playmaker who will light you up!

Wilson is a former sixth-round pick and Kearse was a low-cost free agent signing who originally went undrafted. Instead of turning safeties into these run-stopping linebacker hybrids, why not just draft a linebacker who also has safety skill sets? When you look at what Dan Quinn has done for players like Wilson and Kearse, it’s hard not to be excited about what he could do for a player with Overshown’s athletic traits. The team could have very easily landed themselves another defensive stud.

But the fun doesn’t stop there. The selection of Viliami Fehoko adds another run-stopping ace in the trenches. Fehoko spent his entire college career camping in the backfield of opposing teams with a total of 47 tackles for a loss. Fehoko is effective because he’s a relentless block shedder with active hands and absolutely no quit. He always has his eyes on the prize as his awareness puts him right in the center of the play. Fehoko is going to be a fun player to watch.

The Cowboys want to be able to play to their strengths and create more pass-rushing situations, but to do that, they have to be better at stopping the run. A stronger showing against the running game will force teams into precarious situations which will open the door for this defense to become elite. By adding these three new run-stoppers this team is on their way to achieving just that.

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