2018 seemed like the beginning of a new era. A defensive era. For the first time in years the Cowboys were able to consistently lean on their defense during games, staying alive even as their offense sputtered and limped through stretches early in the season.
The defense was downright prolific some weeks. They carried the Cowboys to an inspiring home victory over the New Orleans Saints to put them in prime position to make the playoffs. They dominated the Wild Card game in key moments, making key stops and holding the Seahawks to just 22 points in the win. They featured one of the league’s best individual pass rushers in DeMarcus Lawrence, an All Pro cornerback in Byron Jones, and one of the league’s most exciting young linebacker duos.
For all of this success, this defense still lacked one thing. Takeaways.
The Cowboys forced only 9 interceptions in 2018, ranking 26th across the league. In fact, linebacker Leighton Vander Esch was actually tied with Xavier Woods for the team lead in interceptions with just 2. When it comes to total takeaways the Cowboys’ defense was a little better off, though, finishing 16th in the NFL.
Part of the “problem” seems to be their philosophy. The Cowboys have finished 26th, 24th, 27th, and 31st in interceptions dating back to 2015. They’ve also finished 9th, 25th, 18th, and 19th in team defense DVOA over that same stretch. Clearly there was an improvement in total defense in 2018, but neither their team defense nor ability to take the ball away has been strong since 2015.
The bigger problem, really, is a lack of luck. While this sounds like a cop-out, takeaways often do come down to just that. Of course putting yourself in the right place at the right time to benefit from a batted pass or overthrown ball matters, but those bounces finding the right hands is usually a matter of luck.
Turnovers are incredibly volatile year to year, and as much as you’d like your players to “make their own luck,” randomness does play a part here.
You can certainly argue the Cowboys have done their best this offseason to increase their chances at takeaways, however. By trading for defensive end Robert Quinn, re-signing DeMarcus Lawrence, and adding talented players to the middle of their defensive line as well, Dallas has put an emphasis on getting after the quarterback and corralling the opposing running game. Putting pressure on quarterbacks can force them into quick decision making or bad throws, which could in turn breed interceptions.
This is far from guaranteed, though. Plus the Cowboys play against some of the league’s top quarterbacks this year, which hurts their chances of taking the ball away further.
In the end the Cowboys will need both the skill of their pass rushers and defensive backs to put them in good positions, and luck to smile down on them, if they’d like to turn around their takeaway numbers in 2019. And after all, this demoralizing trend has to reverse itself at some point, doesn’t it?