Dallas Cowboys: Predictability could be a big problem for the defense

Jason Parkhurst-USA TODAY Sports
Jason Parkhurst-USA TODAY Sports /

The Dallas Cowboys took a few good steps in the right direction this offseason when they dedicated most of their energy in fixing their defense. At times, the 2020 Cowboys defense was at a historically bad pace and at no point did it appear to be something resembling competence.

That’s why Dallas brought in a new defensive coordinator (Dan Quinn), brought back a familiar scheme (Cover 3) and used most of their free agent and draft resources on the defense. It simply had to improve for the Dallas Cowboys to have a chance in 2021.

Dan Quinn and the Dallas Cowboys have, independently, been far too transparent in coverage

But all the changes don’t matter a hill-a-beans if the Cowboys don’t find a way to get less transparent. Transparency has long been a problem. It’s the reason Kris Richard was sent packing, after all. The former Seattle coach was single high safety expert here in Dallas, but he didn’t value the concept of deception, and the Cowboys paid for it.

In the NFL a defense can’t afford for an offense to know the exact coverage on the field. The game is tilted in the offense’s favor and any QB worth his salt can pick a secondary apart if he knows all the defense’s assignments.

The only real exception to that rule as of late is the old Legion of Boom defenses in Seattle. Seattle was so rich in talent even the best QBs in the world struggled hitting windows in their infamous Cover 3. Perhaps that’s why Kris Richard thought he could do it the same way in Dallas and why Dan Quinn continued the same predictable strategy in Atlanta.

Last season, Pro Football Focus tracked predictability across the league. Calling the same coverages and blitzing at the same rate at the same time all lead to very predictable defenses over the year. Some of those that jumped out as the most predictable were the Seattle and the Atlanta defenses. The Dallas Cowboys were also one of the five most predictable as recently as last year.

As with just about every extremely successful defense, NFL offenses have caught up to the Cover 3 and it’s now even high school coaches can beat a “Seattle Cover-3. At an offseason coaching clinic Texas coach Steve Sarkisian said this about the Cover 3:

"“How many defensive coordinator in here, raise your hand? How often do you just call Cover 3 nowadays? I mean, it’s too easy. Because I can RPO you, your defender has to react, and I’m going to play catch every time. Every time.”"

How predictable was Dan Quinn in Atlanta?

The answer to this will go a long way in determining whether or not the Dallas Cowboys will be predictable in 2021, after all. According to Bob Strums findings over at the Athletic (subscription required), Quinn was in a single high safety look 76 percent of the time in Atlanta. Yikes.

The blitz rate was also extremely predictable with Atlanta blitzing just 22 percent of the time (29th in the NFL). Now, blitzing infrequently isn’t necessarily a bad thing. As we’ve discussed in the past, offenses generally do quite well against the blitz and the ultimate goal should be pressure without blitzing.

But a high or low blitz rate speaks to predictability so the goal is avoid being a top-10 or bottom-10 team because both of those are equally predictable. I’ll remind you Quinn is a bottom-4 coach in blitzing.

All of this should be extraordinarily concerning since predictable defenses rarely find success anymore and the only ones that do, are generationally talented (definitely not the Dallas Cowboys). But there’s good news to be had if that’s what you’re looking for…

A single high look can be either Cover 1 or Cover 3 and as Adithya Prabakaran broke down earlier in the offseason, the Cover 3  can feature a ton of variations that make it partially unpredictable. We shouldn’t expect the Cowboys to roll out a replica of the old Seattle Legion of Boom defense just like we shouldn’t expect the same ling we saw in Atlanta last year. Sure, they’ll be more alike than unalike, but Quinn’s defense will continue to evolve.

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The blitz rate will likely never get to true unpredictable levels but with rookie Micah Parsons rushing from a variety of places, that’s certainly possible. We expect Parsons to be used as chess piece of sorts and that means rushing from the edge as well as blitzing as an off-ball linebacker.

We know from the numbers the best way for a moderately talented defense to find success is by being unpredictable. Dallas has always been predictable as just about all Dann Quinn coached teams. Can we change that suddenly in 2021 or will it be more of the same. We’ll see…

dark. Next. Dallas Cowboys: The Cover 3 Defense isn't as dead as you may think

Our best hope is that this Dallas Cowboys offense is so dominant the predictable defense doesn’t matter.

  • Published on 08/03/2021 at 13:18 PM
  • Last updated at 08/03/2021 at 13:21 PM