Dallas Cowboys: Why the Mike Nolan era was important

James D. Smith via USA TODAY Sports
James D. Smith via USA TODAY Sports /
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Jul 22, 2021; Oxnard, CA, USA; Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn during training camp practice at the Marriott Residence Inn. Mandatory Credit: Jason Parkhurst-USA TODAY Sports
Jul 22, 2021; Oxnard, CA, USA; Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn during training camp practice at the Marriott Residence Inn. Mandatory Credit: Jason Parkhurst-USA TODAY Sports /

A Defensive Identity means better roster construction, not better Defensive Scheming

The Cowboys’ secondary was all over the place in 2020. The team’s starters were Trevon Diggs, Chidobe Awuzie, and Anthony Brown. Two of them are starting for Dallas this season and having great seasons. Awuzie, currently in Cincinnati, is also playing the best football of his career. How were these three apart of one of the worst secondaries just a year ago?

Diggs was a rookie so that explains his growing pains. Awuzie’s body type continued to be a weird fit in a defense that stressed press coverage. Brown was forced to guard the opposing team’s best receivers while also having to switch between outside and the slot because of injuries to the defensive backfield.

Jourdan Lewis and Rashard Robinson weren’t making their cases to start for the team when forced into greater playtime and Daryl Worley was cut fairly quickly as a result of his poor play.

In 2021, Dallas drafted Nahshon Wright and Kelvin Joseph. Wright is 6-feet-4 with 33-inch arms. Joseph, while shorter than 6 feet tall, has roughly 32-inch arms and very good athletic ability for the position. Both these defenders have the ability to play press coverage with the range to overlap routes deep down the field.

They also added Jayron Kearse via free agency. As the season has progressed, he has taken the majority of the Nickel snaps (so most snaps) from the original starting NCB Jourdan Lewis. In zone coverage, his frame makes it harder for quarterbacks to throw into smaller windows; in man coverage, he has the size and strength to match bigger receivers and tight ends; and he displays good blitz timing posting a 42 percent pass rush winning percentage.

With last year’s team, the secondary had a mix of skill sets. When Mike Nolan called for a specific look, it’s possible only half the secondary was actually comfortable running from that look. Offensive coordinators and quarterbacks are smart enough to know when they have favorable matchups depending on their pre-snap looks.

Now, the Cowboys have multiple defensive backs capable of doing the same thing. The expectation is that Dallas will press opposing wide receivers at the line of scrimmage. Dan Quinn can call plays knowing all his defenders have the ability to do this. When he disguises and forces his defenders to bail or play in off coverage, it’s designed to mix things up for the opposing quarterback potentially confusing him.

The defensive identity here is this team WANTS to beat you with press coverage even if they don’t HAVE to play press. Coaches preach versatility because it allows them to place defenders anywhere on the field and confuse opponents. However, in order for them to do that, they have to make sure their defenders are all capable of playing a certain way before they branch out. The unpredictability doesn’t come with scheduled change in playcalling (specifically coverage shells), it comes when a defense is able to break tendency from their initial operation.

This is applicable to the team’s defensive line shift as well. Last season, the team signed defenders who could two-gap, but were much more effective at one-gapping given their athletic ability and build. If the team invested in more than one guy who could two-gap (Poe on a good day), they would have been able to two-gap much better.

Crazy how this gets back to my original point of good players are necessary for good defenses, but if a defense expects to be near the top of the league, the worst player has to have the ability to perform above average relative to his position.