The Dallas Cowboys handled the DT position perfectly this offseason

Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports /

The Dallas Cowboys were nothing short of terrible against the run last season. Their 5.0 yard/carry, 158.8 yards/game, and -64.9 run stops over expectation rated 30th, 31st and 31st in the NFL, respectively. They allowed 100+ yards on the ground in 14 of 16 games and routinely offered up career rushing days to opponents. The slow death of their run defense wasn’t just disheartening to fans, but it seemed to break the will of Dallas’ already dejected players.

Most of their struggles against the run could be attributed to the poor line play in the defensive interior. Guys like Dontari Poe, Antwaun Woods, Trysten Hill and Neville Gallimore offered weekly examples of what not to do up front. Not one interior defensive linemen on the Dallas Cowboys rated even average in PFF’s run stop grade and their inability to maintain gap discipline had a clear and obvious impact on the second level of Dallas’ defense.

It became clear, if the Cowboys wanted to improve against the run in 2021, they’d have to dramatically improve at defensive tackle. So what did the Cowboys do?

The Dallas Cowboys only marginally addressed the DT position this offseason – playing the situation perfectly.

You read that correctly. Instead of overreacting and throwing premium resources at one of their biggest perceived problems, the Cowboys treated their run-stopping deficiencies with the attention it demands – modest upgrades.

For as back-breaking as those grinding runs felt, they were far more beneficial to the Dallas Cowboys than the alternative

As we explained multiple times this offseason, the Dallas Cowboys run stopping deficiencies paled in comparison to the their coverage deficiencies. For those just looking at final defensive rankings that may be a confusing sentence to read. After all, last season the Cowboys ranked 30th in run defense, but 11th in pass defense.

Looking beyond the vague and categorically misleading rankings, we can see that the Dallas Cowboys were hurt far more against the pass in 2020 than they were against the run. As hard as it is to believe, per, the Dallas run-defense held opponents to a 44.5 success rate, meaning the Dallas D won 55.5 percent of the time on runs (in non-blowout situations). They held opponents to a – 0.015 (negative) expected points added average, indicating when opponents ran on Dallas, Dallas won.

As for coverage they allowed a 51.7 success rate and an EPA of +.204 which are both head and shoulders worse than what the run-D gave up. For as back-breaking as those grinding runs felt, they were far more beneficial to the Dallas Cowboys than the alternative. Proof that facts don’t always match with feelings.

This is far from an exception to the norm. Josh Hermsmeyer over at Five Thirty Eight recently broke down the numbers regarding the impact run-stopping has on the other team moving the ball and scoring. By calculating run stop wins over expected (RSWOE) he was able determine a good run defense has virtually no impact on helping a defense win. In fact, the better the run defense the worse the overall results…

As everyone knows by now, passing is king in today’s NFL. In expected points, 30 of 32 offenses were better through the air than they were on the ground, and typically the only teams who are better on the ground are only so because they are completely inept at passing. So it makes sense that defenses that encourage running, come out better than those who encourage passing.

defenses that encourage running, come out better than those who encourage passing.

The Dallas Cowboys didn’t overcommit to getting stout. They invested modestly in pieces like Brent Urban and Carlos Watkins. They drafted Osa Odighizuwa in the third round and Quinton Bohanna in the sixth round. Perhaps the most impactful of all is the shift back to a single high safety scheme.

They improved but didn’t over-improve, one might say.

Again, the data shows that getting elite up front is actually to the detriment of your defense if your secondary isn’t elite as well. It makes teams go to the air which inherently produces bigger results. When you take a minute to digest the Dallas Cowboys current situation in their secondary, this vulnerability becomes even more apparent.

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The Dallas Cowboys were last in the NFL in 2020 in DVOA against WR2s. They addressed it by replacing Chidobe Awzuie with Anthony Brown (someone who had a worse coverage grade than Chido last year). Therefore we really shouldn’t expect much, if any, improvement at CB2 this year. At least not early. So it stands to reason we DON’T want opponents airing it out against us.

At the end of the day, we want opponents to have moderate success running the ball against the Dallas defense. Because, unless the Cowboys suddenly field an elite secondary, a run against this defense is far better than a pass against this defense.

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Ideally, both units would be elite on the Dallas Cowboys defense but we know that’s not the case here in 2021. So if you have to pick a vulnerability, a weak interior run defense is the way to go

  • Published on 09/01/2021 at 12:08 PM
  • Last updated at 09/01/2021 at 12:08 PM