Analyzing Dallas’ Defensive Struggles

The Dallas Cowboys have had a historically bad defense this season. They are on pace to allow the most points in a single season in NFL history, beating out the 1981 Baltimore Colts by a staggering 51 points. Nobody expected the Cowboys defense to be good, or even decent for that matter, but to be record-breakingly bad was never on the table. So, what’s going wrong? Let’s take a look at what has caused the downfall of the Dallas defense.

Secondary

The Dallas Cowboys have only one win with the third-highest-scoring offense in the league. Dallas has allowed a 30th-ranked 114.3 passer rating to opposing quarterbacks this season, their 258.0 passing yards per game ranks 23rd, 59.93% of their opponents’ yards has come through the air, ranking 29th in the league, they have allowed an astonishing 3.0 passing touchdowns per game, and they’ve only forced one turnover in four games. As far as defensive resumes go, that’s one of the worst I’ve seen through four games. 

Their defense is a statistical nightmare. Their efficiency is poor, their scoring is awful, and the only reason they don’t give up more yardage is because the other team usually has great field position after the Cowboys fumble the first half away. I have watched and taken notes on every Cowboys game so far this season to see what their problems are. There are a lot of them.

Trevon Diggs

Trevon Diggs is not a good athlete. He was drafted on the assumption that he was a smart, controlled player with good coverage skills. Thus far, those assumptions haven’t panned out. On the season, Diggs has allowed 281 yards and a touchdown on a 63.3% completion percentage and a 105.0 passer rating. Why? Because the man can’t make a play on the ball to save his life. There has been at least one play in every game this season where Diggs has been in really tight coverage on a receiver, the throw comes, and he just gets flat-out beat to the ball. 

In week one against the Rams it was a huge third down play and the Cowboys brought an all-out man blitz. Diggs was on a fellow rookie wide receiver, Van Jefferson, Goff let it fly on a streak, and Diggs just let the ball fall right into Jefferson’s outstretched arms and the drive ended in a field goal. That was probably the best defensive drive the Cowboys had all game apart from that one play, and they ended up losing by a field goal.

In game two against Atlanta, Calvin Ridley was already having a monster game. In the fourth quarter Atlanta faced a third and seven. They were up by 12 and were looking for the dagger to put the game away. The Cowboys brought another all-out blitz, which put Diggs 1-on-1 with Ridley. Diggs was stride for stride with Ridley on a post, but he was directly behind Ridley when the pass came and he couldn’t make the play, which set up an easy field goal for the GOAT, Younghoe Koo (timestamp 0:45). Dallas only won that game because, apparently, the Falcons don’t know how to fall on an onside kick.

I’ll spare you the details of the other plays because I think the point has been made. If Diggs can’t step up and improve his ball skills, teams will take advantage of him in cover 3 and against the blitz. Right now, I’m not sure there is a single wide receiver 1 in the league that couldn’t beat Diggs in a jump ball situation. Teams will start noticing that, and Diggs will begin to be put on a poster weekly by guys who are much bigger, faster, and stronger than him. 

Underneath Zones

The Cowboys play majority zone coverage, and a lot of Cover 3. With a typical Cover 3 the two corners and the FS drop into the deep zone, the two linebackers cover the two hooks in the underneath middle portion, and the strong safety and either another linebacker or a slot corner cover the curl area underneath the corners. The cowboys play off coverage, basically giving the underneath zones to receivers on the edge and they get beat on short throws to the flats every single game. 

In week 3 against the Seahawks, Russell Wilson picked them apart. On a drive that started with 36 seconds left on the Dallas 34 yard line and only one timeout remaining, Russell Wilson exposed the Dallas secondary by throwing three balls to the sideline on Diggs’ side of the field, and then a mesh play confused the defense enough to produce a wide open Tyler Lockett for a touchdown. The Cowboys were way too worried about getting beat deep, and they forgot their only job: force receivers to go down in bounds. Russell Wilson is a talented quarterback, and he made some great throws on this drive, but he essentially makes the same throw twice in cover 3, threads the needle in man coverage on a third throw, and then it’s an easy touchdown from the goal line. The Seahawks won that game by a touchdown. The Cowboys can’t just sit back in coverage and give people underneath zones and expect to win games, especially on the sideline in crunch time (timestamp 6:21-7:20).

The Rams didn’t even complete a pass past the first down marker until the second quarter in week 1. On the first drive of the game, the Cowboys bit on two play-action fake screens to Robert Woods. He went for 20 and then 31 respectively. Then, he caught another pass in the flat for 9 yards on first down, and four run plays filled out the rest of the touchdown drive that went 75 yards in 7 plays. Sean McVay knows how to exploit a team’s weaknesses as well as any other coach besides Bill Belicheck, and that’s exactly what he did. The Rams always live on play action fakes, but in this game, they utilized more bootleg flats and screens than usual because they knew they could bide time to get blockers down field and take advantage of the sub-par corners covering the edges. The genius of Sean McVay was obviously a factor, the ignorance of the Dallas Cowboys play calling definitely can’t be overlooked, and the inability of the Dallas defense to read and recover from play fakes caps it all off. The Cowboys need to mix up their play calling and cover their assigned zones effectively. 

Those are just two examples of drives where the flats killed Dallas, but that has been a theme throughout every game this entire season. Countless third down conversions, short gains to set up easy third downs, and big gains to get firsts have come from little flat routes because the Cowboys refuse to press and/or cover the flats. That aspect of the Cowboys defensive failures I attribute to coaching and something needs to change. 

Conclusion

The Cowboys have also been susceptible to the occasional deep ball, the most memorable of which coming against the Seahawks when Trevon Diggs punched D.K.’s 61-yard bomb out of the back of the end zone. Also, Russell Wilson and Jared Goff were able to hit receivers in between zones down field late in games. However, Dallas’ main problems in the passing game have been with giving up easy yardage on the sidelines and Trevon Diggs’ inability to make plays on the football. 

Front 7

The Dallas front seven has been much more effective than their secondary. Of course, that is a very low bar. I expect only worse things to come. Dallas’ pass rush has also been disappointing. They rank 19th in sacks per game this season at 2.0. Overall, it’s just been bad.

Run Defense

The Cowboys defense held up relatively well against the run on paper in weeks 1-3. They were keeping the big plays to a minimum and no team had averaged over 4.5 yards per carry against them. In those weeks, the Cowboys only gave up one rush of 20+ yards or more. Then the Browns rolled into town and punched 311 rushing yards right through Dallas’ chest and ripped out the star where their heart should be. And, if that weren’t bad enough, star running back Nick Chubb didn’t even play the majority of the game. 

The Browns absolutely dominated the Cowboys defensive line. It got to the point where the Cleveland backs had 2-3 yards down field before they passed their own offensive linemen. There was no sensible reason for the Cowboys to perform as badly as they did. Odell Backham Jr. broke off two huge runs on jet sweeps, both were on the same exact play I might add, and the second one went for a 50-yard TD and won the game for Cleveland. They also gave up two more 20+ yard runs to Nick Chubb and rookie D’Ernest Johnson. Cleveland has a steller run game, that’s a given, but this was by far their best game of the season, and their starter was out for most of it. That makes me curious: Was this game a fluke or is the Dallas run defense in real trouble?

Let’s look at the first couple games. Malcolm Brown was the only Rams back who found success in week 1, averaging 4.4 yards per carry on 18 attempts. However, this is a team that just lost their workhorse back and handed the backfield to a trio made up of a rookie, a second year player with miniscule experience, and a fifth-year career-long backup. The Cowboys allowed 153 yards to that group. It may not have been efficient on 3.3 yards per carry, but the Cowboys failed to contain the run game in significant short-yardage situations. The Rams went 10/18 on third and fourth downs combined, half of those came on run plays, and most of the failed conversions were long-distance pass situations. The Cowboys just couldn’t penetrate that offensive line and stop run plays in short distance situations.

The Falcons game was the only game where they actually succeeded in most aspects of run support. They kept the Falcons to 3.3 yards per carry and 113 yards on the ground with no rushing TDs. They held the falcons to below their season average of 3.9 yards per carry. Unfortunately, that’s awful and the Falcons running game is pitiful. It’s impossible to accurately judge this defense’s performance against the Falcons because Atlanta ranks 26th in the league in yards per carry. They did succeed in this game, but it will rarely be so easy.

Finally, the Seahawks came along. Since the Cowboys secondary is so awful, they only ran the ball 26 times as opposed to their 40 pass attempts. They averaged 4.5 yards per carry with no touchdowns on the ground. So, what was supposed to be the team’s first real test against the run ended up being a shootout, and the Dallas run defense remained relatively untested. 

What does this mean? It means that Dallas is in trouble. If Cleveland can rush for over 300 yards against them at home without Nick Chubb for most of the game, any team with a decent run game can go to town on this Dallas front 7. The Cowboys defense can be beat on the ground and in the air. At this rate, Dak’s historic passing season may never slow down because the Cowboys are clearly a second half offense, and a neither half defense.

Pass Rush

It’s difficult to gage how well Dallas’ pass rush has done based on statistics, however, based on the eye test, I’d say they’re not doing well enough to make up for their horrendous secondary but not bad enough to warrant any drastic changes. The Cowboys have a lot of talent on that defensive line. Demarcus Lawrence and Aldon Smith, both former Pro-Bowlers, could easily return to that elite status this year, and Smith is already on the way with 4.0 sacks in as many games. However, other than Smith, the sacks haven’t been there. Those four from Smith account for half of Dallas’ sacks this season, and they rank 19th in sack percentage at 5.44%.

Unfortunately, the pressure really hasn’t been there either, and when it has, quarterbacks always seem to find a way to get out of it. Russell Wilson scrambled for 22 yards against them, Jared Goff ran for 15, even Matt Ryan ran for 16. Not to mention, a number of important third/fourth down conversions have been on quarterback scrambles, including a crucial fourth down against the Falcons. 

As of right now, the production from Dallas’ d-line has been sub-par. However, the pass rush will get better as the season progresses because the talent is there and it has shown flashes of mid-to-high tier production. Pass rush effectiveness would greatly help the secondary troubles and hopefully stop some of the bleeding that starts every time Trevon Diggs steps on the field. 

Conclusion

The Dallas Cowboys have the third-highest scoring offense in the whole league, and have produced more yards than any other team in the league, yet they are 1-3. If they want to win games, they are going to have to keep this historic offense rolling because I have very little faith in their defense.

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