The Dallas Cowboys were a disaster on the defensive side of the ball in 2020. They finished 28th in points, 31st against the run, and 23rd overall. Injuries to key contributors like Leighton Vander Esch, Sean Lee, and rookie Trevon Diggs were crippling and combined with the difficulty of implementing former defensive coordinator Mike Nolan’s hybrid scheme, the Cowboys defense never found a consistent rhythm.
One of the biggest names on the Cowboys defense, Jaylon Smith, made an appearance on FS1’s Speak For Yourself on Tuesday. The former second-round pick blamed the Cowboy’s 1-3 start while Dak Prescott was healthy on himself and the entire defensive unit.
“Heavily part of it is definitely the defense,” Smith said. “We weren’t clicking. From an execution standpoint. We weren’t playing together as a team.”
“You’ve got a bunch of dominant, elite players individually. Got to be able to come together as a team and understand the scheme. Understand where we supposed to be. And then go out and execute. So definitely early in the season you see that.”
Cowboys linebacker @TheJaylonSmith answers what led to Cowboys 1-3 start when Dak was healthy. pic.twitter.com/2Gs9soOkB0
The Cowboys defense gave up 146 points (36.5 per game) and 430 yards per game in the first four weeks and only forced two turnovers. The team as a whole continued to struggle all year, however, in the last month of the season, the defense started to click and showed some promise.
“And then if you look at games later in the season. Gelling together, excitement for each other, causing turnovers, celebrating, having fun,” Smith said. “That’s really what led to the change of what you’ve seen later in the season from our defense that can obviously help an elite offense.”
Although they were still giving up nearly 400 yards, the defense forced 12 turnovers and only allowed 20 points per game, and the team finished 3-1 in the final month.
Even though it was a season to forget defensively, there were some bright spots. DeMarcus Lawrence was one of the highest-rated edge rushers all season according to Pro Football Focus. Rookie defensive tackle Neville Gallimore had some growing pains but showed several flashes that he can be an anchor on the interior. Randy Gregory, after missing all of 2019, registered 3.5 sacks and three forced fumbles in 10 games.
Two young studs in the secondary also made a name for themselves. Cornerback Trevon Diggs missed four games with a broken foot, but still managed to become the first rookie defender in team history to lead the team in pass breakups (14) and interceptions (3) outright. Second-year safety Donovan Wilson played in 14 games (10 starts) and recorded 71 tackles, 3.5 sacks, three forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, and two interceptions.
The Cowboys hired Dan Quinn as its new defensive coordinator last month, and he brings with him a pedigree of producing top-notch defenses from his days with the Seattle Seahawks. With an infusion of talent in free agency and the NFL draft, mixed with the promising pieces already on the roster, the Cowboys defense should be significantly better in 2021 under Quinn.