Even when the Dallas Cowboys have won the NFC East this decade, they haven’t featured an elite defense. The Cowboys have experienced recent success behind one of the best offensive lines in the NFL, an All-Pro running back and quality quarterback play.
As far as the defense goes, the Cowboys have relied upon defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli to get what he can out of the unit. Frankly, the defense isn’t where the organization wanted to invest a lot of money or high draft picks anyway.
But that’s slowly changed, and with that, the Cowboys’ identity may be too.
In order for the Cowboys to be competitive in the NFC East this season, Marinelli’s group must keep improving and reach elite status.
Dallas Cowboys Defense Must Continue to Improve If They Want to Contend in NFC East
A Struggling Dallas Cowboys Offense
At its heart, this team is still about dominating the line of scrimmage and controlling the time of possession with its running game. But with center Travis Frederick sidelined because of an autoimmune disease, the Cowboys ability to do that is hampered.
And without a true number one receiver, defenses can stack the box even more often and slow down the Cowboys rushing attack.
Elliott has dealt with the stacked boxes well in the first two games, as he’s averaging 4.6 yards per carry. But quarterback Dak Prescott and the passing game has still struggled to the tune of 6.1 yards per attempt. Take away his 64-yard touchdown to Tavon Austin, and Prescott has 266 passing yards on 53 passes.
The touchdown pass to Austin is definitely something to build upon, but it’s not something this offense is going to be able to count upon on a weekly basis. Elliott will get his yards, but until Prescott shows more consistency, the defense is going to have to win games for the Cowboys.
Dallas Cowboys Investing in the Defensive Line
For the first time in years, counting upon the defense shouldn’t worry the Cowboys. Dallas is known for drafting offensive linemen early in recent drafts, but over the last several years, the Cowboys have done a really nice job of drafting and developing defensive talent.
Since 2012, they have selected 12 defensive players in the first three rounds of the draft. Ten of those players are still on the team.
Demarcus Lawrence, Tyrone Crawford, Taco Charlton, Maliek Collins, and Randy Gregory are all part of that group and make up a defensive line that can be elite. Lawrence led the team with 14.5 sacks in 2017 and already has two this year.
The Cowboys are investing a lot of salary cap space to keep this line together. Dallas’ defensive line salary ranks as the ninth-highest in the league according to spotrac.com. Lawrence’s franchise tender is a big reason why the unit is more expensive, but it also signifies a slight change of philosophy for the Cowboys.
On Sunday night, the defensive line recorded four of the team’s six sacks and helped hold the Giants to 35 rushing yards and 2.1 rushing yards per attempt.
Dallas Cowboys Secondary Improving
Speaking of a change in philosophy, in 2014, the Cowboys had the third-most expensive secondary in the league. Back then, the Cowboys weren’t so worried about generating a pass rush because they counted on elite coverage.
Now, the defense is built in reverse. The Cowboys want to get after the quarterback and create havoc in the backfield before breakdowns happen in their young and cheaper secondary.
Except in Week Two, the Dallas secondary arguably played just as well as the defensive line. Marinelli trusted cornerbacks Byron Jones and Chidobe Awuzie in one-on-one coverage against Odell Beckham Jr. for large portions of the game, and Eli Manning still couldn’t get him the ball. Part of the reason why was the pass rush, but Jones and Awuzie played lockdown coverage too.
Beckham caught only four passes for 51 yards. Through two games, the Cowboys are allowing under 15 points per game.
The Dallas defensive line is deep and will get deeper with the return of Gregory and David Irving, who is serving a four-game suspension. Plus, the secondary is improving and the most important piece, linebacker Sean Lee, is healthy.
It’s a good thing too because if the Cowboys expect to stay in the NFC East hunt, winning defensively is how they are going to have to do it.