Dallas Cowboys

What’s wrong with Cowboys defense?

Green Bay Packers running back Aaron Jones (33) gets past Dallas Cowboys safety Jeff Heath (38) as Jones runs the ball for at touchdown in the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Oct. 8, 2017, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Michael Ainsworth)
AP Photo/Michael Ainsworth


The amount of points the Dallas Cowboys have scored in the last two weeks.


The amount of yards the Cowboys’ offense accumulated against the Los Angeles Rams and Green Bay Packers.


Dak Prescott’s QB rating in his last two outings.


The number of losses the Cowboys have in those two games.

It’s obvious to even the casual viewer that the Cowboys’ offense hasn’t been the problem lately — it’s the defense. Under Football Outsiders’ DVOA system, the Cowboys rank 23rd in pass defense, 32nd in run defense, and 29th in overall defense this season — meaning the Cowboys’ defense has been below-average thus far. Those struggles have been exacerbated the last two games.


Glad you asked.

Can’t get off blocks

Teams with good run defenses have front sevens that know how to play off and shed blocks. Unsurprisingly, the Cowboys haven’t been able adequately shed blocks this season — and especially in the last two weeks:

On this play, no Cowboy defender is able to beat his block and affect the play, which allows Aaron Jones to waltz into the end zone nearly untouched.

One reason why the linebackers have struggled to get off blocks is because they have been slow to diagnose plays. Instead of playing downhill and dictating the point of contact, the LBs have allowed the offensive linemen to get on top of them, ruining their ability to play downhill with the proper angles of pursuit.

Take a look at the play above for example. Jaylon Smith barely moves off his spot after the ball is snapped, giving the Packers’ right tackle an easy block to create the running lane for the touchdown.

If Smith had been able to diagnose the play quicker and play downhill with a proper run fit, he may have been able to make the stop even with the rest of the front seven unable to get off their blocks.

Poor run fits

Another problem plaguing the Cowboys’ run defense is poor run fits. On a typical play, every gap should be accounted for by a corresponding defensive player. If one player fails to account for his gap, it can unravel the other 10 players as they attempt to do their job.

Here’s an example of the Cowboys’ poor gap responsibility:

On this play, second-year defensive tackle Brian Price gets caught peeking into the backside A-gap when he is supposed to occupy the playside A-gap. Couple that with Durant pursuing inside for some reason –Gurley has a runway to the second level of the Cowboys’ defense.

The linebackers have had similar problems playing with gap responsibility:

On this play, Wilber fails to flow to the C-gap and instead gets caught up in the trash, which allows the Green Bay running back to get to the edge for a good gain.

Subpar defensive tackles

Boy, do the Cowboys miss Terrell McClain. With McClain in Washington, the pressure was on Maliek Collins to step up and be a disruptive force in the middle of the Dallas defense; however, he has yet to live up to expectations.

As a pass rusher, Collins has struggled to provide much juice. On the season, Collins has 10 total pressures, but just two of them have come in the last two weeks. The fact that the Rams and Packers aren’t regarded as particularly strong on their interior offensive lines only throws more salt on the wound.

In the run game, Collins has been similarly ineffective, with just one stop in the last two games, per Pro Football Focus.

Collins is at his best moving forward and penetrating his gap. When he isn’t able to win quickly, he lacks the strength to consistently hold his ground against the run. Here’s an example:

A problem the Dallas defensive tackles have had is getting their shoulders turned against zone runs. Here’s an example:

On zone runs where teams try to horizontally stretch, it is paramount that the defensive tackles stay square to the line of scrimmage if they aren’t able to quickly penetrate. A failure to do so opens up huge cutback lanes as long as the opposing running back remains patient.

On this play, you see exactly that — Gurley patiently presses the front side before simply bending it to the backside for a big gain.

Poor safety play

The Cowboys have seen a significant dip in their safety play from a year ago. With J.J. Wilcox and Barry Church elsewhere, Jeff Heath has been thrust into the starting lineup, and he has struggled, especially in terms of his ability to come to balance in space.

Here’s a great example:

On this play, Heath overpursues Gurley instead of playing the running back’s inside hip. The result: Gurley easily eludes the Cowboy safety on his way to a touchdown.

Unfortunately, Heath’s struggles have continued in coverage as well:

On this play, Heath gets burned by a wheel route from the Rams’ tight end. Heath should have stayed on top of the initial stem so that he would have enough time to react to the wide receiver going vertical, which would put him in perfect inside trail position to defend the pass (here’s an example of Jones correctly playing the same wheel route).

While it is unfortunate that Heath has played poorly, he wasn’t expected to be a game-changer for the Cowboys’ defense. Byron Jones was.

The third-year safety’s up-and-down play has been frustrating. He has made his fair share of good plays in coverage, but he has also made his fair share of bad plays:

On this play, the Cowboys appear to be in quarters coverage. At the snap, Jones, who is the playside safety, bites hard on the play-action fake, vacating his zone and leaving an easy pitch and catch for a touchdown.

These types of mistakes kill a defense, and they are becoming all too frequent for the Cowboys.

When Jones is in man coverage, he does a great job of using his athleticism to remain sticky in coverage against tight ends, wide receivers and running backs:

Unfortunately, when receivers use their physicality at the top of routes to create separation, Jones struggles. Receivers often bully Jones at the top of routes to create separation and easy throwing targets for their quarterbacks:

Here, Jones lets Jonnu Smith (with a little help from the top receiver) bully him during the release, which allows Smith to create separation for the easy completion. Jones has to fight harder to get through the receivers’ “pick” and Jones’ physicality.


In the last two weeks, the Cowboys haven’t forced a single turnover but have allowed five explosive pass plays (passes of 20-plus yards) — 12th-most — and 14 explosive run plays (runs of 10-plus yards) — most in the NFL, per Sharp Football Stats.

That’s not a good recipe for success in the NFL. The Cowboys’ defense has to do a better job of limiting explosive plays and take advantage of turnover opportunities. The Cowboys have had their opportunities.

Orlando Scandrick had a chance at an interception against the Packers:

Scandrick has dealt with a hand injury all season, so he should probably get a pass, but that wasn’t the only turnover opportunity that slipped through Dallas’s hands:

The NFL is a game of inches and missed opportunities such as this are backbreaking. If Scandrick and Tyrone Crawford are able to convert on their turnover opportunities, the Cowboys are probably 4-1 and riding high into the bye week.

Simplistic scheme

The Cowboys have one of the most simplistic defensive schemes in the NFL. Rod Marinelli wants to keep things simple so players can play fast without having to think too much. In lieu of complicated concepts, Marinelli focuses on getting his players to play fast with optimal effort. The tradeoff is that Dallas’s defense can be predictable, which is a problem against great QBs and smart offensive minds.

In the last two weeks, the Dallas defense has played Cover 1 41.8 percent, Cover 3 29.9 percent, Cover 2 13.4 percent, two-deep man 10.4 percent, and Cover 4 4.5 percent of the time, per PFF. Moreover, the Cowboys blitz opposing offenses just 23 percent of the time — seventh-least in the NFL.

At its best, the Cowboys’ defense would like to operate in the same vein as the Jaguars — one of the few teams which blitzes less and plays the same vanilla coverages as Dallas. Unfortunately, the Cowboys don’t have the same kind of talent as Jacksonville, which boasts great talents such as A.J. Bouye, Jalen Ramsey, Calais Campbell, Myles Jack and Yannick Ngakoue.

The result is Jared Goff and Aaron Rodgers moving the ball at will against the defense.

It would be great to see Marinelli utilize Matt Eberflus’s knowledge from his time working with Rob Ryan to insert some combination coverages and exotic blitzes.

The Cowboys don’t have the talent to consistently stop offenses with simple defensive concepts. It’s time for Marinelli to put his tinfoil hat on and break his tendency of playing it safe. The players need help — it’s time for Marinelli to give them some.


The return of Sean Lee will definitely help this defense, because he is capable of covering up some of the weaknesses plaguing the Cowboys. Lee’s ability to read-and-react quickly has been sorely missed, and his return should improve the run defense. Since 2015, when the Cowboys are without Lee, they give up 139.2 rushing per game (89.2 with Lee) and 4.76 yards per carry (3.94 with Lee), per Bob Sturm of the Dallas Morning News. 

However, Lee won’t be a cure for all of the defense’s pesky problems. Dallas still needs the other linebackers to play with better technique and mental processing ability.

The defensive tackles need to raise their level of play — though Irving’s return helped in Week 5 and should help more in the weeks to come.

Byron Jones needs to become more consistent for the Cowboys and limit mental mistakes while being more physical at the top of routes. Jeff Heath should be replaced by Xavier Woods in the starting lineup.

While things may look bleak for the Cowboys’ defense after this examination of its problems, there is still room for some optimism.

The pass rush is finally starting to get home, pressuring opposing QBs on 30.3 percent of their dropbacks. And the defense has been particularly effective in Cover 3, as opposing QBs have just a 75.2 QB rating against Dallas’ three-deep zone, per PFF — easily the best among the coverages Dallas has played this season.

DeMarcus Lawrence has been the best pass rusher in football through five weeks with 8.5 sacks — already besting his previous high for sacks in a season. Irving looks ready to be Lawrence’s disruptive sidekick up front. Jourdan Lewis looks like a future No. 1 cornerback — playing with swagger, toughness, good technique and discipline — and Xavier Woods has performed well beyond his years in the slot and at safety.

Optimal starting lineup 

  • RDE: Tyrone Crawford
  • UT: Maliek Collins
  • NT: David Irving (Best position is at DE, but Dallas needs help inside)
  • LDE: DeMarcus Lawrence
  • Sam LB: Damien Wilson
  • Mike LB: Anthony Hitchens
  • Will LB: Sean Lee
  • RCB: Jourdan Lewis
  • LCB: Orlando Scandrick
  • FS: Byron Jones
  • SS: Xavier Woods
  • (Nickel) Slot CB: Anthony Brown


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