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The Cowboys defense in two words: Chaotic simplicity

Dan Quinn mixes very standard coverages with pre-snap disguises and chaos on the line to become an elite defense.

Dallas Cowboys v New Orleans Saints Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images

The Dallas Cowboys defense has been one of the best in the league in the two years since Dan Quinn elected to join Mike McCarthy’s staff as the defensive coordinator, only a few months removed from being dismissed mid-season as head coach of the Atlanta Falcons,

The turnaround from being one of the league’s worst defenses in 2020 to one of its best in 2021-2022 has garnered Quinn praise for reinventing himself, and created consistent buzz related to just about every head coaching vacancy. But how has Quinn crafted one to the top units in the league?

It boils down to two words.... chaotic simplicity.

Quinn has not revolutionized who he is as a defensive coach. The fingerprints of the Legion of Boom that Quinn coordinated a decade ago are still all over this Dallas defense. That Seahawks group was famous for being almost embarrassingly simple in their coverage schemes. Those teams ran Cover-1 (man coverage with a free safety in the middle of the field), or Cover-3 (three deep/four under zone coverage), on virtually every snap.

In 2022, Quinn called Cover-1, Cover-3 or Cover-2 (two deep/five under zone coverage usually with a linebacker dropping deep to the middle of the field) on over 83% of the Cowboys’ defensive snaps. These three coverages are the most basic and universal coverages used in the NFL, and are called every week in middle schools and high schools all over the country. Every offense in the league has concepts designed to beat these coverages, and every quarterback knows how to read them and what to expect when they face them.

So how is the Dallas defense able to be so simple in coverage, and still be second in total defensive DVOA, and third in pass defense DVOA?

One way is that the Cowboys do a good job of giving quarterbacks false keys pre-snap.

This play with Trevon Diggs lined up “out of position” in the slot against Cooper Kupp, and Leighton Vander Esch aligned wide over the tight end is a great example. This tells the quarterback it’s almost certain to be man, but then the team drops to Cover 2, with a linebacker in the role traditionally played by the corner, and a boundary corner in the role traditionally played by a linebacker or slot corner.

And another example of the changing picture here, as Parsons’ pre-snap alignment and movement with the shift from the running back insinuates that they are in man coverage. Combine that with the fact that the rest of the defense doesn’t change alignment or really show any indications of adjustment or communication, and the quarterback is thinking man coverage on third and long, probably with Parsons adding to the pressure inside. But instead they once again drop to a very simple Cover-2 look and force a check down.

But for these types of tactics to really pay off and give you an elite defense, you need more, you need chaos.

When you think of chaos caused by defenses, you think of all-out blitz schemes called by Wink Martindale, or Gregg Williams calling some crazy six or seven man rush.

But Quinn has been able to create this chaos using mostly four or five man pressures and very traditional and sound coverage structures. In fact, of the 207 blitzes the Cowboys ran against the pass in 2022, over 80% were only five man rushes, and another 10% were “simulated” pressures, where a non-defensive lineman rushed, but only four total players actually rushed the passer. Quinn is able to do this because he has really good players up front, and he has deployed them in ways that give them a chance to succeed.

Plays like this exist all over the Cowboys tape, defensive linemen slanting, twisting, and stunting in every imaginable direction, combined with individuals winning their matchups, and the result is chaos for offenses.

The Cowboys play very simple, and sound coverage structures, dressed up with some false flags and window dressing, and create chaos with high level talent, and multiple fronts and pressure looks up front, and opposing quarterbacks wind up in a world of trouble.

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