In 2018, the Dallas Cowboys created their own three-headed monster on offense when they acquired Wide Receiver Amari Cooper to team up with Quarterback Dak Prescott and All-Pro Ezekiel Elliott. This changed life for the Cowboys as they won seven of their final nine games to finish 10-6 and won the NFC East. It was clear they were loaded on offense at this point but something special was also brewing on the other side of the ball.
The Cowboys defense last season was a huge surprise to everyone. As a unit, they finished seventh overall, fifth vs the run, sixth in fewest points allowed and 13th vs the pass. Several players did their part to contribute to this stellar defense. Linebacker Jaylon Smith had a breakout year with 121 tackles and four sacks. Right beside him, was rookie Leighton Vander Esch who led the team with 140 tackles while earning Pro Bowl and second-team All-Pro honors. Defensive End DeMarcus Lawrence‘s 10.5 sacks gave him double-digit numbers in that category for the second consecutive season. Lastly, Cornerback Byron Jones received the first Pro Bowl/All-Pro honors of his career as well.
This setup high expectations for this defense heading into this season, which only increased when the organization added former All-Pro Defensive End Robert Quinn to pair with Lawrence. However, the 2019 version of this unit hasn’t met those expectations, in fact, they’ve regressed and have shown to only be consistent at being inconsistent.
Stopping the run was something the Cowboys hung their hat on last season which is why they finished in the top five in that particular category. So far in 13 games this season, the Cowboys have taken a major step back defending the run. They currently rank 19th vs the run league-wide. In fact, running backs have had some monster days against this unit in 2019. Not only did Aaron Jones of the Green Bay Packers and Dalvin Cook of the Minnesota Vikings each have over 180 all-purpose yards vs the Cowboys, but the former set an all-time record for rushing touchdowns by a Cowboys opponent with four. When you can’t stop the run you can’t get off the field as a defense, something the Cowboys have become all too familiar with.
Forcing turnovers is something every defensive coach preaches to no end. Unfortunately, that message doesn’t seem to stick in the minds of the members of this defense. Right now, there are 25 teams that have forced more turnovers than the Cowboys. As a matter of fact, they’re tied with the Detroit Lions for the fewest interceptions in the league with five. At some point, you have to take the ball away and give your offense as short of a field to work with as possible and put up easy points, which is obviously something the Cowboys struggle with.
Pressuring the quarterback has been and always will be one of the first priorities for any defense. With names like DeMarcus Lawrence, Robert Quinn, and Michael Bennett you would think this defense would be one of the best at getting sacks. On paper, sure it seems that way, but in reality, they rank 15th throughout the league in sacks. This is extremely disappointing when you consider that there are several players on the defensive front that have played at Pro Bowl/All-Pro levels during their careers.
Probably the most mind-blowing statistic for this defense has been the amount of missed tackles. They lead the NFL with 104 missed tackles, an average of eight per game. Missing tackles consistently shows a lack of focus and discipline. It keeps drives alive for the opposing offense and doesn’t allow your own offense to get any rhythm. This is definitely an issue that needs to be fixed expeditiously.
This lack of steady production defensively also impacts the offensive side of the ball. The Cowboys have fallen behind multiple scores more times than they would like to remember this season. This has caused Prescott to throw 40 or more passes six times this season in an attempt to get the Cowboys back in ball games, the team is 1-5 in those games. Also, this takes Ezekiel Elliott out of the gameplan because when you need to score quickly the best way to generate points is through the air.
The Cowboys only have three more games to get this defense playing at a level that will be competitive if they hold on to their narrow lead in the NFC East. If they continue to struggle as they are currently this defense could very well be the reason this team doesn’t make the playoffs.