Cowboys Defense: Something Solid or Just Fool’s Gold?

Jan 3, 2016; Arlington, TX, USA; Dallas Cowboys middle linebacker Rolando McClain (55) celebrates the defense making a safety during the second half against the Washington Redskins at AT&T Stadium. The Redskins defeat the Cowboys 34-23. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 3, 2016; Arlington, TX, USA; Dallas Cowboys middle linebacker Rolando McClain (55) celebrates the defense making a safety during the second half against the Washington Redskins at AT&T Stadium. The Redskins defeat the Cowboys 34-23. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports /

The Dallas Cowboys #6 ranked defense is getting quite a bit of praise this season. Did the Cowboys build something solid or is the success just fool’s gold?

It was no mystery what the Dallas Cowboys’ weakest unit was heading into the 2016 season. Think about it — The offense was loaded with first round picks and/or pro bowlers at every single position unit. Special teams had a flawless long snapper, proven punter, an explosive returner, and the most accurate kicker in NFL history. The defense?

Yeah, the defense was gonna be a problem.

Whether you’re looking at the draft or free agency, the Dallas Cowboys have invested very little money or resources into the defense over the years. The Cowboys have only used two first round picks on defense ( Morris Claiborne and Byron Jones) and up until now, one of them (Mo) has been considered a colossal bust.

The biggest defensive free agent signing the past few seasons was a guy named Greg Hardy and we all know how well that ended up, right? Nope, this defense was as talent-starved as there was in this league. Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli was given quite the task: build a respectable unit out of role players and young undeveloped players.

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It’s tough to deny that Rod Marinelli has exceeded all expectations this season. The Dallas Cowboys defense ranks #6 in points against per game with an average of 17.8. In yards against, the Cowboys rank #17 in the league, which testifies to their “bend but don’t break” strategy.

Despite having subpar pedigree, the Dallas defense has found a way to excel. Much of their fortune can be found in their ability to create turnovers. The Cowboys have four interceptions and five fumble recoveries this season, putting them substantially ahead of their pathetic pace from last season when they totaled only eight INTs and three recoveries in 16 games.

So far, the stats say the Dallas Cowboys have a pretty good thing going but it may not be sustainable and could nothing more than fool’s gold.

Turnovers are Fickle

For starters, turnovers can be a very fickle thing. Without any notable upgrades to the defense in the offseason, the Cowboys are largely rolling out the same players and same coaching staff as last season. The Cowboys didn’t suddenly figure it out – they’re largely doing the same things they did last season with the same personnel.

Typically, turnovers are fickle unless the defense has a strong pass rush. As we all know, a strong pass rush leads to sacks, fumbles, and rushed passes. And since rushed passes lead to interceptions, the only reliable way to bank on turnovers is have a consistent pass-rush.

A consistent pass rush, the Cowboys do not have.

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The Pass Rush

Last season, the Dallas Cowboys were #25 in sacks. This season they are #24. It shouldn’t be all that surprising considering they did almost nothing to address it in the offseason. Rotational players and raw talent have been asked to carry the defensive line this season.

The only blue-chip talent on the defensive line started the season suspended and while DeMarcus Lawrence has returned, Randy Gregory may never come back (considering his history).

Related Story: Randy Gregory Will Be Banished From the NFL. Book it

More Statistics

While the yards against and points against are favorably representing the Cowboys defense, there are a few stats that aren’t so flattering. The Dallas 3rd down defense is ranked #29 in the league, allowing 45.07 percent to be converted for 1st down. The last three games they are allowing 51.28% to be converted, so sadly, they aren’t even trending in the right direction.

Yards per play has also taken a hit this season. The Dallas defense is allowing 5.9 yards per play against. That’s 23rd in the NFL. Time of possession is clearly in the Cowboys favor but that speaks primarily to the offensive prowess of the team rather than the defensive aptitude.

Fool’s Gold or Something Solid?

This remains to be seen but there are many reasons to be suspicious about the sustainability of their performance. It all really comes down to one thing – the pass rush. If the Cowboys can find one, they will have a good defense. If they can’t, their luck is going to run up.

Lost in the fun of that dominant win in Green Bay, was the impotence of the Cowboys’ front four. Most of the afternoon, Aaron Rodgers had all the time in the world to deliver his passes. If he would have been remotely accurate, he could have changed that game considerably.

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Eventually the Cowboys rush stepped up and took over, but we can’t let that mask how ineffective they were most of the game. Playoff-Aaron Rodgers isn’t going to miss like that. And neither are about 20 other NFL QBs.

The pass rush needs to improve – pure and simple.

The good news is the Dallas Cowboys have multiple players who are still developing and have yet to reach their ceiling.

David Irving had a breakout performance last week and has the physical tools to theoretically be a force going forward.

DeMarcus Lawrence is two games returned from suspension and he’s expected to be the #1 edge rusher once he gets in better game shape.

Tyrone Crawford has the snap counts and the big contract that says he has double-digit sack skills. Could he find his calling on the outside?

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At the end of the day there are many reasons to be optimistic and just as many (if not more) to be suspicious. Relying on turnovers is foolish unless you have a consistent pass-rush. Unfortunately we just don’t know what state the pass rush is in with so many unproven players on the roster.

So just like we said all offseason – it’s all about the pass rush. That will dictate whether or not is Fool’s gold or something more.