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Defensive Review: Is this the best defense in the NFL?

Defensive Review: Is this the best defense in the NFL?

The Cowboys defense was dominant yet again. After a performance like that on the road against the defending Super Bowl champs, it’s fair to begin to wonder how high this team’s ceiling is when Dak Prescott returns.

10 points. Three takeaways. Just six of 17 on third down. Five sacks. 36 pressures. Just 2.5 yards per rush. It was a truly dominant performance from the Cowboys defense. We are now five weeks into the season and the defense has yet to surrender 20 points and has surrendered just one touchdown. It is no longer crazy to consider this unit the best defense in the NFL.

With the offense under Cooper Rush beginning to show signs of serious laboring as Prescott’s absence has continued, the burden has fallen on the shoulders of Dan Quinn’s defense. Micah Parsons and the defense have responded by surrendering a total of 53 points over the four games Prescott has missed (13.3 points per game). This just might be the best defense Dallas has had in decades.

Run defense

Run defense had been a concern for the Cowboys so far. As good as the defense has been, you could identify run defense as the one chink in the armor of an otherwise impenetrable defense. Sunday, the run defense showed out. Cam Akers carried the ball 13 times for just 33 yards. There was almost nowhere to go throughout the day. It was very impressive.

Without arguably Dallas’ best run-stuffing nose tackle in Quinton Bohanna, the Dallas defensive front played admirably. Carlos Watkins stepped up from the practice squad and provided solid snaps. Osa Odighizuwa had his best performance of the season (albeit most of his damage came rushing the passer).

Sam Williams was Dallas’ highest graded run defender with a grade of 79.1, per Pro Football Focus, including two stops (a stop recorded by PFF is “a tackle that constitutes a “failure” for the offense). Not just that, he was Dallas’ highest graded overall defender with a 91.6 grade. I want to spend some time noting Williams’ development. His snaps, pressures, stops, and PFF grades are all trending in the right direction.

Snaps Overall Grade Run Defense Grade Pass Rush Grade Pressures  Stops
vs. TB 6 28.5 37.2 59.2 0 0
vs. CIN 10 34.8 57.8 54.9 0 1
@ NYG 18 48.0 65.8 51.7 2 0
vs. WAS 17 63.1 46.4 63.6 1 1
@ LAR 26 91.6 79.1 79.3 3 2

Williams was thought to be a bit of a project that needed some time to develop. Dallas’ depth on the defensive line has afforded him that time and his development is heading in the right direction. Williams’ role should increase as the season wears on and he continues to improve. Quinn has clearly noticed and is giving him more snaps each week.

The usual suspects like DeMarcus Lawrence, Donovan Wilson, and Jayron Kearse were again strong, but I also felt this was a great performance from the linebackers. Leighton Vander Esch has continued his strong start and Anthony Barr had (in my opinion) his bests game as a Cowboy. With Parsons’ groin ailing him, he was only able to situationally rush the passer, so much more was asked of Vander Esch and Barr.

With Philadelphia’s run-heavy attack up next, the Cowboys’ run defense will need to once again be sharp.

Pass defense

The pass rush was, as has been stated many times in this defensive review and previous defensive reviews, dominant. The Cowboys’ pass rush got after Matthew Stafford from the very first drive that ended with a Dorance Armstrong strip sack and a DeMarcus Lawrence fumble recovery that was returned for a touchdown. The tone was set early on and Dallas hit Stafford all afternoon. The Cowboys racked up 36 pressures, 23 of which were hurries, eight were hits, and five were sacks. Here are your pressure leaders from Sunday:

  1.  Osa Odighizuwa: 7
  2. Micah Parsons and DeMarcus Lawrence: 6
  3. Dante Fowler Jr.: 4
  4. Sam Williams and Carlos Watkins: 3
  5. Dorance Armstrong: 2
  6. Leighton Vander Esch, Trysten Hill, Neville Gallimore, Jourdan Lewis, Jayron Kearse: 1

Lawrence is playing arguably the best football of his career. After a strong first two weeks in run defense but no pressures to go with his stout run defense, Lawrence has recorded 22 pressures over his last three games. Parsons injured his groin and was used as a situational pass rusher in the second half, yet he still wrecked the game with two sacks. Parsons and Lawrence just may be the best edge rushing duo in football.

It’s not just those two either. Aaron Donald leads defensive tackles with a pass rush win rate of 19.8 percent. Right behind him in second place at 19.6 percent is Osa Odighizuwa, just ahead of All-Pro caliber players like Jeffrey Simmons and Kenny Clark.

All of this is without even mentioning Dorance Armstrong, Dante Fowler Jr., Sam Williams, and the other viable options Dallas has up front. This Dallas defensive line is as deep as it gets.

Coverage wise, it was another really good day for the Dallas safeties and linebackers. In fact, Dallas’ three highest-graded players in coverage (min. 20 coverage snaps) were Malik Hooker, Anthony Barr, and Leighton Vander Esch. Barr and LVE allowed a combined five catches for 29 yards and Hooker allowed no receptions and came away with an interception.

Hooker has been outstanding so far and he has been a tremendously unsung hero on the Dallas defense. Hooker is currently PFF’s fourth highest-graded safety and has allowed just two catches for five yards this season while also recording an interception. The further away he gets from his injury, the better he has gotten.

Donovan Wilson was once again rock solid and Jayron Kearse seemed fully healthy in his return as well. Their play both in coverage and around the line of scrimmage has been instrumental in Quinn’s scheme.

Here’s how the Dallas secondary’s targets/receptions allowed broke down this week:

Coverage Grade Targets Receptions Yards YPC TD Allowed Passer Rating
Trevon Diggs 61.9 10 8 184 23 1 152.1
Anthony Brown 61.8 9 4 21 5.3 0 51.6
Jourdan Lewis 59.9 4 3 19 6.3 0 84.4
Donovan Wilson 68.6 5 3 16 5.3 0 65.4
Jayron Kearse 68.6 5 4 36 9.0 0 96.7
Malik Hooker 74.9 0 0 0 0 0 0

The main takeaway from this is that Trevon Diggs had a very rough day. I would contend that Diggs was better than his statline would indicate. The two big catches he gave up of 75 yards to Cooper Kupp and Tutu Atwell for 54 yards make up most of those 184 yards. If you watch the tape of both of those plays, the coverage is not poor at all.

The deep ball to Atwell was about as perfectly placed of a deep ball as you’ll see from Stafford. There wasn’t a whole lot else you could ask of Diggs in that spot. The play to Kupp was a shorter crossing route that Stafford put on the money. While Diggs was beat on the short route, Kupp taking it 75 yards to the house is not all on him. There’s several other DBs in the secondary that need to be there to make the tackle (it was also an outstanding play by Kupp). It wasn’t Diggs’ best day in coverage, but he certainly wasn’t nearly as poor as a 8/184/1 statline would suggest.

Overall, the Cowboys pass rush won the day.

The Parsons Project

Parsons was once again a gamewrecker. He registered six pressures, two of which were sacks, three of which were hurries, and one was a hit. His snap counts and positions he played are a little skewed given that he injured his groin and was reduced to a situational pass rusher in the second half (a role he excelled in).

He added to his Defensive Player of the Year resume Sunday with another incredible performance. He is now the league leader with six sacks and is second in pressures behind Nick Bosa with 28. Dallas will need another outstanding performance from Parsons against the Eagles if Dallas wants to lead the division come Sunday night. Here’s his updated snap counts by position for the season:

vs. TB vs. CIN @ NYG vs. WAS @ LAR
DL 40 55 40 53 30
LB 21 3 20 8 16
CB 1 2

Dallas will look to continue to establish itself as the best defense in the NFL on Sunday night. A significant test awaits.

Staff Writer covering the Dallas Cowboys || Co-Host of The Silver and Blue Podcast || Co-Host of The Victory Avenue Podcast

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