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A deep dive into Dan Quinn, Part III: Problems with the Cowboys defense could be a lack of talent

Has the Dan Quinn experiment run its course or are better days coming?

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

48 points. That’s how many points the Green Bay Packers put up on the Dallas Cowboys in the Wild Card game. It was the most points scored against the Cowboys this past season and it couldn’t have come at a worse time.

The defensive collapse has many people wondering if Dan Quinn is still the right guy to lead this defense. In the first part of this deep dive series, we looked at Quinn’s impressive résumé to not forget why he was so highly touted in the first place. Yesterday, we took a close look at his time in Dallas where he started hot, but the flame is slowly dying out. Today, we will finish things off by looking at how the Cowboys have used players this past season and if that in itself poses a problem.

The strength of the Cowboys' defense is their pass rush. Much has been made about it and this isn’t new news to anyone. The transformation in success from the team’s pass-rushing ability is remarkable. Look at the progression they’ve made in this area since Quinn’s arrival.

  • 2023: 59% (1st)
  • 2022: 52% (2nd)
  • 2021: 42% (12th)
  • 2020: 37% (28th, Mike Nolan)

While overall that’s impressive, the Cowboys’ pass rush started to grow absent down the stretch. They went through a five-game stretch near the end of the regular season where they only got one sack in each game. They never came close to disrupting Jordan Love in the Wild Card game.

Many people will point to the never-ending non-holding calls against Micah Parsons as one reason for the Cowboys' pass rush slowing down. Some other factors include some really good offensive line play from their opponents. The defense has good players in the trenches, but they do need to get stronger, especially along the interior.

The linebacker group is the most alarming of Cowboys defensive units. The team lost two of their top linebackers in Leighton Vander Esch and third-round rookie DeMarvion Overshown, forcing them to rely on fifth-round pick Damone Clark and UDFA Markquese Bell, both in their first full season starting on this defense. As well as they have played at times, this is an undersized group. Expecting these guys to shed 300-pound offensive linemen regularly is unreasonable.

The Cowboys also employed several strong safeties down in the box to assist against the run game. Jayron Kearse and Donovan Wilson are thumpers who have made great plays near the line of scrimmage, but neither are stellar athletes. When asked to take on more coverage duties in the secondary, they struggled, and this was on full display against Green Bay.

Even the Jekyll and Hyde season of DaRon Bland has to have some wondering just how good he is. His league-leading interceptions combined with record-setting returns for touchdowns have earned him All-Pro status, yet this same All-Pro has been toasted at times this season.

Nine players logged more than 60% of the defensive snaps for the Cowboys this season. Seven of them were defensive backs. Does this look like a strong defense to you?

  • 94% Stephon Gilmore – seasoned veteran corner
  • 90% DaRon Bland – overachieving 5th-round corner
  • 81% Micah Parsons – all-pro edge rusher
  • 77% Malik Hooker – solid veteran safety
  • 77% Jayron Kearse – UDFA/low cost outside FA
  • 73% Damone Clark – 5th-round linebacker
  • 68% Jourdan Lewis – veteran backup slot corner
  • 68% Donovan Wilson – 6th-round strong safety
  • 61% Markquese Bell – UDFA safety converted linebacker

Now, don’t us wrong. These are the people that Dan Quinn and the coaches brought to the dance. If they aren’t up to the task, then it wasn’t a good plan in the first place. But at the same time, the fact that this group of middling talented players performed as well as they did is still a testament to what the coaching staff can bring to the defense.

Against the Packers, they had a horrible plan. Rolling with nickel packages so stubbornly against heavy-run personnel from Green Bay was a bad idea. Relying on unathletic run-stopping safeties to handle coverage duties was also not good. And Micah Parsons lurking back in coverage? Nope.

The scheme against Green Bay was terrible. The adjustments they made were minimal. And the overall performance of the players was abysmal. There are coaching mistakes that were made in the game, but it also seems like the Cowboys don’t have enough tools to be effective, especially when it comes to stopping the better offenses in the league. The Cowboys might be able to resolve their defensive concerns by recognizing that maybe their pieces aren’t quite strong enough and more talent is needed. The team also drafted many new rookie defenders last year that made little to no contribution. That’s uncharacteristic of this team. A more developed second-year group or a better draft class this upcoming draft should help improve the talent on defense.

It’s fair to question if Quinn has lost a step after what we’ve seen as of late. It’s also fair to wonder if, like in Atlanta, his defensive guys aren’t talented enough to get it done. Time should reveal the answer and don’t be surprised if Quinn’s defensive group returns to the force we grew to love.

That’s if he stays.

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