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Whether Dan Quinn stays or goes, Cowboys need to improve their defensive personnel

Why Dallas needs new blood on defense

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Miami Dolphins Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

The NFL coaching carousel will soon grind to a screeching halt. Several teams have filled their head coach vacancies, such as Jerod Mayo succeeding Bill Belichick in New England and Dave Canales being hired away from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to coach the Carolina Panthers. The Cowboys haven’t been entirely exempt from the coach conversations. Though the team opted to retain head coach Mike McCarthy after losing to the Green Bay Packers, their defensive coordinator, Dan Quinn, has drawn interest in the remaining head coach openings.

Quinn is scheduled for a second interview with the Seattle Seahawks, with whom he coached as their defensive coordinator from 2013-2014, and with the Washington Commanders despite rumors of Washington settling on Ben Johnson. Quinn is scheduled to meet with Washington this week. It has also been reported that if Quinn were to accept the position with either team, former Washington head coach Ron Rivera would be a name to watch as a possible replacement for Quinn.

Rivera’s tenure with the Commanders, culminating in a 4-13 season mired by one of the league’s worst defenses, is sure to draw skepticism. Many fans are also not thrilled about the prospect of Quinn returning to lead the Cowboys’ defense should he not be named a head coach elsewhere. Frankly, the disdain for Quinn is understandable but a bit shortsighted. The Cowboys have turned around their defense under Quinn and developed a penchant for turnovers that they were sorely lacking under the former coordinator Mike Nolan.

Quinn, and his approach, isn’t without flaws like uncharacteristically playing more zone versus man coverage against the Packers which warrants the eye rolls it has received. However, it’s in the team’s best interest to retain Quinn for this season, and chief concerns aren’t the coaching or the scheme, but the Cowboys front office needs to understand their defensive personnel must be revamped. The talent on the defense is the biggest hurdle this defense to overcome, more so than the defensive coordinator. Dallas needs to assess these primary areas from the front four to the back seven to enhance their defensive efforts.

Defensive line

The Cowboys’ problems on the defensive line were thought to have been addressed last April. The team drafted Mazi Smith in the first round to fortify the run defense and occasionally provide some interior pass rush. Unfortunately, that wasn’t entirely the case. Smith only played 28% of the team’s snaps on defense versus 40% for Johnathan Hankins, who missed time with an ankle injury. The first domino that must fall is getting the most out of Mazi Smith for the run defense to improve.

Additionally, the defensive front needs more Sam Williams. The team has been patient with Williams, but given the state of the roster going into next season, that patience may not be possible. Dorance Armstrong will be a free agent along with Dante Fowler. The question is simple: Is the breakout happening or not? Williams has the potential, but it’s time to develop into consistency. The Cowboys were fourth in the NFL in sacks in 2022 and fell back to fourteenth this past season. Dallas also regressed in total quarterback pressures. They dropped from fifth-most in 2022 to 24th in 2023.

The interior pressure also dwindled as Osa Odighizuwa started off fast but then tapered off as the year went along. DeMarcus Lawrence and Micah Parsons occasionally provided interior pressure in sub packages. Yet, a penetrating defensive tackle behind Odighizuwa is also needed. Further, the Cowboys may want to play Parsons off the ball more, so Dallas needs to find as many capable pass rushers to win off the edge as possible. A few options in the draft are Adisa Isaac (Penn St.) and Bralen Trice (Washington).

Linebacker

We must acknowledge that the linebacker position and utility have changed in the last ten years. The nickel defense featuring two linebackers and five defensive backs has become the standard for a base defense. Now, the distinction of what a linebacker is for Quinn is loosely defined. Playing in what’s more akin to a big nickel, utilizing a safety instead of a traditional linebacker, Quinn often will play Markquese Bell, replacing a linebacker in tandem with Damone Clark.

Theoretically, it’s a solid strategy to contain the passing game, especially on intermediate crossing patterns. However, when it comes to stopping the run, there has been a problem with such a disparity in size down in the box. Leighton Vander Esch’s season-ending injury against San Francisco changed the dynamic of the personnel in the run defense and Damone Clark at times was slow to diagnose in which direction the run was going. In their last few playoff games, the run defense has been their undoing and its paramount to solve that aspect of their defense.

Part of the solution may be on the roster already with DeMarvion Overshown. Overshown suffered an ACL injury last August but has already begun rehab work with the team. His unique skill and versatility are precisely the type of player Quinn is hoping to have in his defense. Dallas could also stand to add a veteran linebacker to their roster, Josey Jewell and Lavonte David are scheduled to be free agents.

Cornerback

The Cowboys defense could also use cornerback help. The position, though talented, is very top-heavy and needs more depth. In 2021, the Cowboys drafted Nashon Wright and Kelvin Joseph in the second and third rounds, respectively, and neither developed into a starter on defense. Joseph has since been traded and played on three teams this season. Meanwhile, Wright is primarily a special teamer.

Further complicating matters is the future of Stephon Gilmore. Gilmore provided a veteran presence when the Cowboys needed it most, but Gilmore will soon be 34 years old and going into free agency along with slot cornerback Jourdan Lewis. The team needs to get younger at cornerback immediately. There needs to be more certainty among their assets. Trevon Diggs is in recovery from an ACL injury. DaRon Bland is an All-Pro, but he is still a young player and susceptible to lapses in coverage. Addressing the position needs to be a primary focus to make the job easier for Dan Quinn or whoever takes over in his stead.

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