Dallas Defense Means More to Cowboys Playoff Hopes Than Dak's Return

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystMay 27, 2021

Dallas Cowboys defensive end Randy Gregory (94) and Jaylon Smith (54) celebrate after Gregory sacked Philadelphia Eagles' Jalen Hurts in the second half of an NFL football game in Arlington, Texas, Sunday, Dec. 27. 2020. (AP Photo/Michael Ainsworth)
Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

It's a time of considerable optimism at Valley Ranch. After struggling through a miserable 6-10 season in 2020, the Dallas Cowboys once again enter the summer with lofty expectations—largely because of the return of star quarterback Dak Prescott.

There is no question Prescott's return (coupled with the bevy of weapons at his disposal) will give the Cowboys one of the NFL's most potent offenses. But if Dallas is going to unseat the Washington Football Team, win the NFC East and make a run in the playoffs, it won't be because of Prescott and the offense.

It will be because the new-look defense in Dallas improved markedly over last year's unit that allowed the fifth-most points per game in the league.

When the Cowboys began OTAs this week, Prescott was on the field and zipping passes to receivers. As Jori Epstein reported for USA Today, head coach Mike McCarthy said he's been very pleased with how Prescott's rehab from last year's season-ending ankle fracture has progressed.

“He’s been moving with a lot of confidence for some time now,” McCarthy said. “I’d say he’s ahead of schedule.”

Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

When Prescott went down last year against the New York Giants, it put an end to an absolutely torrid start to the season. He averaged 371.2 passing yards per game over the first five weeks, a pace that would equate to over 5,900 yards for an entire season. He threw for at least 450 yards in three straight games from Week 2 to Week 4.

Dallas averaged over 32 points per game during those first five weeks—a number that would have led the NFL over a full season.

Prescott has one of the league's best wide-receiver trios at his disposal in Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb and Michael Gallup. A pair of quality tight ends in Blake Jarwin and Dalton Schultz. One of the league's best young running backs in Ezekiel Elliott. And an offensive line that includes two players who have been to multiple Pro Bowls in Zack Martin and Tyron Smith.

There's no reason to think the Cowboys won't field a top-10 offense in 2021. The top-five is well within reach.

But there's a potentially glaring problem. One that could derail Dallas' entire season.

You see, for all those yards that Prescott piled up through the air and all those points that Dallas scored over the first five games, at the end of that contest against the Giants the Cowboys were 2-3.

Because the defense was awful.

Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

Dallas was a respectable 11th in pass defense. But no team in the NFC allowed more rushing yards per game than the 158.8 the Cowboys surrendered. Per Football Outsiders, the Cowboys were 23rd in defensive DVOA—the lowest mark in the NFC East.

Those defensive struggles got coordinator Mike Nolan his walking papers after the season. The team settled on former Falcons head coach Dan Quinn as his replacement. Quinn told reporters (via ESPN's Todd Archer) that he's looking forward to the opportunity to prove himself after a rocky end to his tenure in Atlanta.

"What I would say is what you can count on from me is somebody that's real specific in how we're going to go about it and get after it," he said. "And I'm very much looking forward to proving that. The very best competitive moments in my life have come from prove-it moments."

Long known for running a 4-3, Cover-3 scheme in Atlanta and Seattle, Quinn raised some eyebrows when he said that Dallas would use more three-man fronts in base sets. Per Isaiah De Los Santos of FanDuel, Quinn said he didn't want to just do the same things he's always done.

"That included defensive cutups from 2013 to 2020, and that brought me into some of the system changes that I wanted to implement on the next lap around. I didn't want to do just another rinse and repeat. And, so, that was a big piece on what I wanted to do."

Frankly, the changes may not be as drastic as some think. Quinn's "Under" fronts included a defensive end who would line up wide of the tackle standing up. The difference between that and a 3-4 rush linebacker is as much semantic as schematic.

Quinn didn't just bring experience with him from Atlanta. Former Falcons strong safety Keanu Neal (who will reportedly play weak-side linebacker in Dallas) was signed in free agency. So was versatile defensive back Damontae Kazee, who can play both free safety and the slot.

The crown jewel of the defensive additions in Big D this offseason was the selection of Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons with the 10th overall pick. The 6'3", 246-pounder, who has drawn comparisons to Jacksonville's Myles Jack, was an animal for the Nittany Lions two years ago, racking up 109 total tackles and 14 tackles for loss. Parsons told reporters (via Archer) that he's ready to be a force in the middle for the team.

David Dermer/Associated Press

"They wouldn't move me there if they didn't have a need at Mike. Mike linebacker, you get a chance to force. You get to be a Rambo player. You can match up on running backs. You get a chance to play in the box. That is what I do best. You watch what I did in college, I was able to go sideline to sideline. I can go both ways, always be around the ball. They know that is what I do best. I am excited to start there."

In Parsons, Neal, rookie fourth-round pick Jabril Cox and holdovers Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch, the Cowboys would appear to have the combination of speed, athleticism and toughness at linebacker to improve substantially on last year's putrid run defense without being eaten alive in coverage. Kazee is an accomplished pro in the secondary who picked off seven passes back in 2018.

On paper, the Dallas defense looks much better than last year's unit.

However, games aren't played on paper, and there are multiple questions facing the Cowboys defensively in 2021.

The Cowboys' 31 sacks in 2020 ranked in the bottom half of the NFL, and outside of edge-rusher Demarcus Lawrence (who has just 11.5 sacks the past two years), Dallas is short on proven pass-rushers. The team declined Vander Esch's fifth-year option after an injury-marred 2020, which will make him a free agent in the 2022 offseason.

Smith's level of play regressed badly last year relative to his Pro Bowl campaign the season before. Neal has played in more than three games once in the past three years. Parsons opted out of the 2020 season at Penn State. The depth chart at cornerback behind second-year pro Trevon Diggs isn't scaring anyone.

Quinn has his work cut out for him. And even if things mostly fall into place, the Cowboys aren't going to pass Washington as the best defense in the division.

The thing is, they don't have to. Dallas doesn't need a top-five defense to win the NFC East. Or even a top-10 defense. The Cowboys just need a competent defense that can get off the field and make the occasional big play. A defense that can complement their explosive offense as opposed to dragging it down and placing immense pressure on Prescott and company to score on every possession.

If Quinn can take the new pieces in Dallas and mold them into a defense that ranks in the top half of the league, the Cowboys have a good chance at making their first playoff appearance since 2018.

If he can't, then 2021 will likely look a lot like 2020—Prescott putting up ridiculous numbers, Dallas playing in shootouts every week and the Cowboys struggling to play .500 football.

At least we won’t have to wait long to see which way things are headed. Dallas kicks off the season in Tampa against the defending Super Bowl champions.

The defense had better be ready.