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Dallas Cowboys Defensive Coaching Staff Needs Massive Overhaul

We’ve heard the refrain for years from the Dallas Cowboys. “Create turnovers, put pressure on the quarterback.” Whether it was Monte Kiffen or his disciple Rod Marinelli or new defensive play-caller Kris Richard, the Dallas Cowboys have been preaching turnovers since 2013. Unfortunately, the message hasn’t been absorbed by countless Cowboys defenders, even as they turned over the secondary in a big way since selecting Byron Jones in the first round in 2015.

There are few players remaining from the terrible defenses of the Rob Ryan and Monte Kiffen days, and while the defensive performances have improved statistically under Rod Marinelli and Kris Richard, this team remains one of the worst in the NFL at taking the ball away.

In 2019, the Dallas Cowboys are in the bottom five in the league in takeaways with just 15 on the season. None of the teams ranked 20-32 in the NFL in turnovers are currently slated to make the playoffs. Only twice since 2013, have the Dallas Cowboys finished higher than 16th in the league in turnovers; 2013 when they were 13th and 2014 when they were second in the NFL. They’ve been an average to bad team taking the ball away since 2015. While you can point to the players for some of that, the scheme and the coaching isn’t helping much.

It feels strange to say it, but the guys who were supposed to help this defense take a step forward, particularly along the defensive line and in the secondary, have failed to bring the best out of this team. Rod Marinelli and Kris Richard have struggled in the player development aspect of their coaching duties and that as much as anything is a failure on their part.

Outside of DeMarcus Lawrence, defensive line guru Rod Marinelli failed to develop Taco Charlton or any other defensive end. His influence led the Cowboys to select Trysten Hill and the second-round pick has been a healthy scratch for more games than he’s been active.

Kris Richard, who came to Dallas with the reputation of being a good defensive backs coach has held the secondary back with his insistence on playing Anthony Brown over Jourdan Lewis for size-related seasons. Chidobe Awuzie hasn’t improved under Richard’s watch and Xavier Woods didn’t take the step forward that many expected this season.

Much of the reason the Dallas Cowboys didn’t aggressively look to add safety help whether by trade (Earl Thomas or Jamal Adams) or in the draft (Juan Thornhill or Taylor Rapp) is because they believed Xavier Woods was about to take a step into stardom. Did they overrate the talent of their players this season? Possibly.

It doesn’t take much of a stretch to look at the defense and see several mistakes that Marinelli and Richard made in its composition.

You can go back to 2017 when the Dallas Cowboys selected Taco Charlton over T.J. Watt because they believed Watt wasn’t a scheme fit. Well, Charlton didn’t seem to fit either and could never take a step forward or earn enough of a role to be a contributor for the defense. Though Jason Garrett and Stephen Jones took the bullet for Marinelli, there’s no doubt that if Marinelli would have said Watt was the guy during that draft that the Cowboys would have selected Watt. Their selection of Taco Charlton was influenced by Rod Marinelli.

So far, it appears that influence has led to Trysten Hill as well.

Marinelli and Richard argued for Trysten Hill over Juan Thornhill and Taylor Rapp. Though Rapp is the target of Los Angeles’ Rams fans for a blown coverage in week 16, he and Thornhill have had pretty good rookie campaigns. Hill may become a player, it remains to be seen, but for this team, who was hoping to make a run into title contention, they needed a player that could contribute right away and it’s obvious the secondary needed some help in 2019.

That brings us to Sunday when the Dallas Cowboys could have clinched the NFC East with a win but fell flat on both sides of the ball. Though the offense carries a hefty portion of the blame, the defensive performance was equally disappointing.

The Eagles were without starting wide receivers Alshon Jeffrey and Nelson Agohlor and starting Right Tackle Lane Johnson. Against a banged-up team, the Dallas Cowboys couldn’t muster a sack or create a turnover against an Eagles offense that did what they wanted to on Sunday night. Sure they only allowed 17 points, which should be enough to win a football game, but they allowed the Eagles to get into field goal position on two other drives and forced a turnover on downs deep in the Cowboys half of the field.

Carson Wentz looked to have all kinds of time in the pocket and was pressured on just 13 of 44 dropbacks. Wentz threw for more than 300 yards and was easily the better quarterback on the field on Sunday. The Cowboys didn’t challenge the Eagles receivers, instead looked to play off in coverage and rely on their front four to get to the quarterback, which didn’t happen.

Yet the Dallas Cowboys, instead of attacking Carson Wentz and his receivers, they sat back and waited for Wentz and the Eagles to make mistakes, which they didn’t do.

There’s been a lot of talk about moving on from Head Coach Jason Garrett, but the defensive staff (as well as the offensive staff) is equally to blame for the Cowboys sitting at 7-8 this season. The Cowboys couldn’t contain a team that was thin at pass catcher and couldn’t slow down rookie Miles Sanders in the running game.

The Cowboys defense had two truly good games this year; week 16 against the Los Angeles Rams and against the Philadelphia Eagles in the first meeting. The rest of this 2019 season has been underwhelming and a disappointment.

The defensive game plan was passive from the get-go and it looked like the defense just wasn’t ready to go in the first quarter. Against a team that was undermanned, the Cowboys sat back and allowed Wentz and their receivers time to make plays against the secondary.

The Cowboys’ “bend don’t break” defense is officially broken and much like it’s time for a philosophical change at the top of the coaching hierarchy, the same is true for the defense. They need a new voice and a new scheme. The “our guys are better than your guys, we dare you to beat us” philosophy isn’t going to work in the modern NFL anymore. You have to be able to attack offenses on the defensive side of the ball and force them to make mistakes.

From top to bottom this team needs to hit the reset button on the defensive side of the football. Aside from Byron Jones, DeMarcus Lawrence, and Jourdan Lewis, most of this group took a step backward in their development. We saw flashes from some, but nothing consistent that would have anyone feeling confident about where the defense is heading next year. Perhaps a new voice with a new scheme could bring the best out of this young defense, but there are areas where the Cowboys need an infusion of talent as well.

Per Todd Archer of ESPN, 18 of the 25 coaches on the Dallas Cowboys staff are on an expiring contract. That includes Rod Marinelli and Kris Richard. Given the failures of the coaching staff as a whole, it seems highly unlikely either of the principal defensive coaches is back with the Cowboys next season.

There’s at least one game left and there’s still a slim possibility that things could improve, but there’s been nothing from this defensive group that indicates you have to bring any of them back. This means everybody; from the defensive coordinator to the position coaches. The time has come for a change and change is coming.

What do you think?

John Williams

Written by John Williams

Dallas Cowboys optimist bringing factual, reasonable takes to Cowboys Nation and the NFL Community. I wasn't always a Cowboys fan, but I got here as quick as I could.

Make sure you check out the Inside The Cowboys Podcast featuring John Williams and other analysts following America's Team.

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  1. Can’t fire Richard. Marinelli yes. Smiling Dopey Opie for sure. But until they fire the GM they’re not going to win.

  2. The worst thing that happened to the Cowboys defense was the overachieving 2014 unit. That unit had Nick Hayden and George Selvie as starters. Sean Lee was out for the season. That defense should have performed just as badly if not worse than Kiffen’s defense. Nothing much had changed. If the trend continued, maybe Marinelli is let go and the Cowboys might have had a new coordinator running something other than a Tampa 2 scheme in Dallas. But then the overachieving happened because of an LB unit that played out of their minds. 9 of the 18 interceptions was from the LB unit that had Justin Durant and Rolando McClain playing unbelievably well. Hitchens balled out as a rookie and Bruce Carter had 5 picks in 8 games. But the reason that the Cowboys were near the top in takeaways was because they recovered an astounding 26 out of 27 fumbles. That was a fluke. Fumbles are a 50/50 proposition. There was no way that was a product of scheme. That was luck. But the 9 total interceptions from the secondary and 28 sacks were exactly indicative of Marinelli’s scheme when it’s not buoyed by All – Pro talent like he had in Tampa Bay. But the rationale in 2015 from the Jones’ became “if he got this unit to perform, then let’s get him his guys and let’s go!” And he’s been banging the table for his guys for the past 5 years. Taco versus Watt was a huge mistake and Trystan Hill over any of the 2nd round safeties will be a minus for the Cowboys. But there isn’t a guarantee that either safety or Watt would have thrived in Marinelli’s scheme. Look at Byron Jones. There is no way that Byron Jones should have 2 career interceptions. He is better than that, and if he were to go somewhere else in free agency, it would be interesting to see what happens to his interception numbers. The regression of all the linebackers this year shows that something more is amiss. All have missed more tackles than last season.

    Marinelli shouldn’t be in the War Room, and while it’s looking that he won’t be part of the Cowboys future, he bought himself five years off that 2014 defense. If the 2014 unit played like the abject failure it should have been, Marinelli is probably let go, Jason Garrett’s seat is super hot with the 2015 season putting the nail in the coffin and the Cowboys would have moved on 3-4 years earlier.

    Richard coordinated Carroll’s, Quinn’s and Bradley’s units, so it’s hard to say if his defenses in Seattle were the products of the coordinators before him. But he did groom the Legion of Boom as a secondary coach. Yet he was fired by Carroll for Ken Norton Jr. I think it would be interesting to see if the new defensive coordinator is already a defensive coordinator or a first time coordinator from the ranks of linebackers coach (Eberflus in Indy, Saleh in SF).

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