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Cowboys defense must do what it does best without Trevon Diggs - get creative

If any defensive coordinator can handle the loss of a shutdown cornerback like Trevon Diggs, it’s Dan Quinn.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys Training Camp Jason Parkhurst-USA TODAY Sports

There’s no doubt about it - the loss of Trevon Diggs for the remainder of the 2023 season is a huge loss for a Dallas Cowboys team with championship aspirations. Led by their defense in two blowout wins with a combined score of 70-10 so far, Diggs has been a huge factor in erasing opposing receivers and forcing quarterbacks into a 1.0 passer rating when targeting him. The tandem of Diggs and Stephon Gilmore was living up to the hype through two weeks, with the Cowboys pass rush feasting in front of them without Daniel Jones or Zach Wilson having anywhere to go with the ball.

The Cowboys strength in numbers on all three levels of the defense has been their biggest strength on Dan Quinn’s side of the ball this year, and now their depth at cornerback will be immediately tested. BTB’s Joey Ickes covered the Cowboys most likely plan at the position for this Sunday at the Cardinals and beyond, giving second-year standout Daron Bland more opportunity on the outside in Digg’s spot.

The Cowboys will likely move second-year corner back DaRon Bland to play outside corner full time with Diggs injured for the year. Bland has been an incredible find since getting an opportunity due to injury in 2022, and now the Cowboys will need him to continue to step up in a major way in 2023.

But what about the inside? How do the Cowboys now handle slot receivers?

Jourdan Lewis, who spent multiple seasons as the Cowboys “starting” nickel corner likely steps in to take most of the work there, but if we know Dan Quinn at all, we know he will take a carpet bomb style approach to this situation.

One of the biggest strengths of this Cowboys roster is the safety position, which Quinn uses as a sort of malleable plug to fill needs wherever they pop up. We will certainly see safety Israel Mukuamu get snaps in the slot, as well as Jayron Kearse, Donovan Wilson (who should be returning from an injury of his own soon), and Juanyeh Thomas. These guys provide the physicality required of a slot corner in the running game which is very important for a team that plays as many sub-packages as this team does. With Malik Hooker playing over the top of them and giving them support, they’ve also shown the ability to play well enough in man coverage that the Cowboys defense should still function at a very high level.

Veteran Jourdan Lewis, inactive for week one and only in for ten snaps against the Jets, would be next man up at slot cornerback. The Cowboys also have safeties Israel Mukuamu and Jayron Kearse capable of matching up in man coverage, as they welcome back Donovan Wilson back as a true safety. The Cowboys have an experienced group nearly all hand-picked by Quinn, something he’s alluded to when talking about the progression of this defense and how they can continue to develop new looks.

The looks based around the coverage and ball-hawking ability of Diggs and Gilmore, each with an interception in the first two games, were certainly working as Quinn planned thus far. Now, the Dallas defense has a perceived weakness that Quinn can develop into a strength. With the defensive line already doing a great job at causing identification issues for offenses pre-snap based on who may be rushing or not, the Cowboys can hone in on any teams thinking the hole at cornerback Diggs leaves behind is an easy target.

The Cowboys mentality to take the ball away has kept them doing so even with offenses knowing they’ve led the league for two years in a row here, and must take care of the ball to have any chance. Not only can Diggs’ likely replacement in Bland get his hands on the ball himself, with six interceptions in 19 career games, but the turnover production may continue as the team disguises coverages to jump any passes coming towards Bland, Noah Igbinoghene, or any cornerback on the outside paired with Gilmore.

NFL: New York Jets at Dallas Cowboys Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

The Cowboys have also gotten to QBs without needing to blitz much, adding to the numbers they can use to disguise coverages with their versatile safeties, or linebackers Damone Clark and Leighton Vander Esch.

This week’s opponent in the Cardinals is another one the Cowboys are expected to handle. The Cardinals are last in the NFL in yards per reception, but have seen Josh Dobbs keep them in games completing 69% of his passes. Dobbs will take what defenses give him, which with Diggs in the lineup was virtually nothing for the Cowboys first two opponents. The Cowboys will feel just how big of a loss Diggs’ ACL tear is right away, but over time still have plenty of plans in place to stay a step ahead of offenses and remain the driving force for this team winning games.

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