Just about nothing went right for the Dallas Cowboys defense in 2020.
Under first year defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, the Cowboys looked to move from their more traditional single high (and occasionally two high) Rod Marinelli philosophy to a more complex quarters coverage philosophy. The goal was to be more multiple, more unpredictable, and tougher for offenses to read.
The result of the change, though, was chaos early on. Linebackers unable to meet gap responsibilities, cornerbacks and safeties blowing coverages, and big plays getting allowed all over the field.
Last week, the Cowboys fired Nolan, and have recently announced they are hiring former Falcons head coach Dan Quinn for the defensive coordinator role. But while any change on the defensive side is welcomed by Cowboys fans, what exactly does Quinn's hiring mean for this unit in 2021?
Let's start with the positive outlook. As Charles Robinson mentioned on Twitter, Dan Quinn was probably the most prestigious candidate for a defensive coordinator job this offseason. His defenses in Seattle were always top notch, helping to coach them to a Super Bowl victory in 2013. He's also earned the respect of a ton of great players around the league, such as former cornerback Richard Sherman.
Quinn is a very good DC who didn’t work out at HC and who probably didn’t need the extra burden of having the 53 in that HC position. He connects with players and can navigate divergent personalities. Easily the best DC that was actually a realistic candidate for the #Cowboys. https://t.co/svrCvjmbKq
— Charles Robinson (@CharlesRobinson) January 12, 2021
Quinn will also just be the defensive coordinator this time around, unlike in Atlanta. He doesn't have to focus on the head coaching duties, and can pour all of his time into the defensive side of the ball. That will help a lot.
What exactly will be changing with this defense, though?
Well, for starters, they are likely getting back to simplicity. Quinn is famous for his cover 1 and cover 3 schemes, stacking the box to allow his front seven to one-gap while his cornerbacks and safeties have clear responsibilities on the backend. Dallas will be in a single high safety look most of the time, meaning they will have numbers in the run game upfront, and are tasked at stopping the big pass play in the secondary.
Because of the new emphasis on passing in the NFL, two high safety defenses have become the preferred choice of NFL Twitter. And the analytics community has even said that, basically, run defense doesn't matter.
Run defense, or lack thereof, mattered a lot for the Cowboys in 2020 though. Jaylon Smith became the constant target of criticism as he was out of position, or unable to fit the right gaps in Nolan's scheme. Quinn will make it as simple as can be for him and Leighton Vander Esch when defending the run, and this will help take the load off their shoulders a bit.
This isn't to say there won't be stunts or slants upfront, or that the Cowboys won't blitz at all, but when Quinn's defenses were at their best it was single high coverage with his front four getting home.
That leads to my main concern for this 2021 defense.
The “best” defensive scheme (in my book, at least) is single high safety, +1 in the box, with the players upfront who are able to create pressure without bringing extra blitzers. Quinn had this in Seattle and they were dominant. He didn't have this in Atlanta, and they were mediocre.
Football isn't that simple of course. A lot of other factors played into the success levels of those Falcons defenses. But what's going to save this defense at the end of the day is the ability of their players.
So, do the Cowboys have the horses to win in this scheme?
Surprisingly enough, I think they are a much better fit for Dan Quinn than they were Mike Nolan. And it's probably the most talented bunch of players at key positions that Quinn has had in a couple seasons (see: DeMarcus Lawrence).
— Joey Ickes (@JoeyIckes) January 12, 2021
Under Quinn, the best finish for the Falcons defense by DVOA was 17th. Most years, they fell between 17th-19th. This is far from an elite unit of course, but mediocrity and timely stops is all this team is going to need to be good.
The Cowboys offense, specifically their passing offense, has a chance to be incredible in 2021. They don't need their defense to be an elite group, they just need it to not be terrible like it was for much of last season.
Don't allow big plays, get early leads, and let DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory rush the passer.
That's the formula to success under Kellen Moore and Dan Quinn next season.