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Cowboys will be relying on defense early in season again, but for different reasons

Mike McCarthy is installing some new offensive concepts which could take time to take hold, meaning the defense will be needed to cover early in the year.

NFL: Houston Texans at Dallas Cowboys Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

After three seasons of seeing Kellen Moore’s offense start the season strong only to fade down the stretch and into the playoffs, Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy has taken matters into his own hands by taking charge of the team’s play-calling duties in his fourth year with Dallas. McCarthy and new offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer face the pressure of helping this offense take the next step, with new faces like Brandin Cooks to help at receiver, but they have the benefit of one of the league’s best defenses to potentially buy them time early in the schedule.

This is eerily similar to how the Cowboys were forced to play last year, losing Dak Prescott to injury in a week one loss. Though Cooper Rush made clutch plays and filled in admirably, there’s no doubt the identity of this team shifted to Dan Quinn’s defense. The foundation for this was even laid out in that season-opening loss when Tom Brady was held to 19 points but the Cowboys managed just three. The defense followed this by holding Joe Burrow and the Bengals to 17 points and 165 passing yards in a win, the start of a four-game win streak under Rush where the defense allowed no more than 17 points in a game.

Prescott’s injury took a part of the season where Moore’s offense was typically at its best and changed the course of not only the 2022 season, but the current roster as well. Prescott’s return to the lineup was an expected boost from the level they were on with Rush, but the season ended with the same result. The 12-point offensive output to end the season at San Francisco didn’t move the Cowboys to make big moves on offense besides Cooks, instead they mostly doubled down on defense this offseason with the addition of Stephon Gilmore and using three of their top four draft picks on defense.

With the Cowboys hoping to finally find the perfect storm of an offense that can adapt to the attrition of an 18-week season in support of a star-studded defense, they could find themselves relying on the defense to help bank wins early in the year before some tougher stretches in November and December. While McCarthy’s offense finds its footing and players adjust to a new scheme at full speed for the first time, the Cowboys will still be favorites in QB matchups like Prescott vs Daniel Jones in week one, Kyler Murray in week three, and Mac Jones in week four.

This is a stark contrast from the gauntlet of Jalen Hurts, Josh Allen, and Tua Tagovailoa the Cowboys could see from weeks 14-16. The defense will have made its own adjustments by that point in the year too, but core concepts like unleashing Micah Parsons to track down these mobile QBs and playing tight run defense with the addition of Mazi Smith will still be in place.

What these core concepts on offense will look like is yet to be seen, with just some jog-through-like practices for the Cowboys to install the basics of a new offense so far. The West coast style concepts expected to be featured raise some of the same concerns raised with Moore’s offense, like how Dallas will be able to stretch defenses expecting short passes vertically and if they have the push up front to sustain a run game.

For a head coach that’s tied his long-term future with the team to the offensive success more than at any previous point in his tenure, a coach that once said he’d be looking over his shoulder by having an established coach like Quinn on the staff should be more thankful than ever for Quinn’s services. It’s going to be a very long time from now until we know if McCarthy’s offense is decidedly better than Moore’s, but with the way the Cowboys schedule falls it shouldn’t take nearly as long to see if Quinn’s defense is poised to continue the dominant stretch of play they’ve been on.

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