The Dallas Cowboys are preparing for shootouts which is why they are focused on stopping the pass.
Dallas Cowboys fans have argued about it since the dawn of the franchise: Should the defense focus on stopping the run or prioritize stopping the pass? Knowing what we know about success rates and expected points added per play we can easily determine the passing game is more deserving of a defense’s attention.
Last season, all but three teams had a higher EPA per play through the air than they did on the ground. In other words, 29 NFL teams increased their scoring probability more through passing attempts (including incompletions and interceptions) than they did with their rushing attempts.
Understanding that three yards and cloud of dust on first down is statistically hurtful for your odds or scoring, this is understandable. That’s why we’re seeing the run-pass ratio swing so heavily in the favor of passing game these days.
You may have noticed, most successful teams focus majority their roster building on stopping the pass. It’s not because stopping the run is unimportant (flashback to the 2018 playoffs against the Rams) but it’s because running game is generaly much easier to stop.
Pro Football Focus determined over the past two years 61 of 64 teams had a negative EPA in the rushing department while just 10 teams had a negative score for passing (in neutral game situations). Understanding that not all positive gains are good for an offense’s scoring chances it becomes clear “stopping” the run is one of the easiest things to do in the NFL. Stopping the pass, on the other hand, requires much more talent, scheme, and attention.
And that is where the Dallas Cowboys new head coach, Mike McCarthy, is at in his strategy heading into the 2020 NFL season:
Dallas Cowboys planning to play with a lead
From a roster building perspective, Mike McCarthy lays out the plan: He wants to rush the passer. That doesn’t mean he plans to ignore the run, it’s just that the NFL running game is inefficient and he’s not going to focus too much attention on something so easy neutralized.
Besides, McCarthy and coordinator Mike Nolan have already treated the running game with more respect than the previous regime did. They allowed Maliek Collins and Robert Quinn to leave in free agency and they were two of the worst run-stoppers in the league last season. Adding Dontari Poe (a strong run-stopper) at 1-tech and incorporating more 2-gap discipline will instantly upgrade the Dallas Cowboys ability to stop the run without devoting extra personal inside the box.
Having some 2-gap responsibilities and better run-stopping personnel on the field will let the defense play more 2-man and cover-2 than before. It will allow the defense to focus on stopping the pass which is clearly the priority – especially if the Cowboys are playing with a lead and/or in a shootout.
Look at who the Dallas Cowboys brought in through free agency and the draft this offseason. Besides Poe, every consequential player added this offseason has been brought in to either help the passing game or shut down the oppositions passing game.
Deciding to move on from Byron Jones was undoubtedly a risky move for the defense. Without a clear CB1 on the roster, we don’t know if the Cowboys will be able to effectively cover a WR1 or WR2 with just one CB. But given the expected scheme change and defensive focus, it seems the Dallas Cowboys planning to focus on rushing the passer and covering the receivers all while daring the opposition to run the ball.
Watching an opponent grind out long drives on the ground is painful, but it’s rarely fruitful on a consistent basis. That’s why the Dallas Cowboys are right focusing on stopping the passing in 2020.