Last year the Dallas Cowboys’ defense was not terrible, but it was not good. They gave up over 23 points a game, which ranked 16th in the league. This year the defense has not been great, but it has been good. Only allowing 19 points a game, the unit ranked 5th league wide.
Without any major changes to the personnel or coaching staff, it’s hard to believe such a big improvement in the most important defensive category could be made. But if you look close enough—past the yards allowed, the third downs converted and the red zone stops—several explanations can be found. Here’s how Rod Marinelli’s defense got its act together in 2016.
1. They made offenses one-dimensional
As we’ve referenced before, the Cowboys surrender the 9th best opponent passer rating, but teams that can’t take advantage of this have struggles to score on Dallas. Boasting the best rushing defense in the league, it’s almost impossible to match the Cowboys in offensive balance.
2. The back end kept big plays to a minimum
Something that has been a big problem for Cowboys’ defense of the past
Dallas may give up passing yards at a high rate, but they don’t give up big plays. Barry Church, Brandon Carr, and Morris Claiborne have stabilized the secondary by playing some of the best football of their respective careers. Dallas gives up the 3rd fewest big plays (running plays for 10 or more yards, and passing plays for 25 or more yards) in the league.
Marinelli and Jason Garrett attempt to make each game a test of which offense can sustain itself with 10-play drives. A test, they believe, their offense is more likely to pass.
3. Big plays were made when it mattered most
Often times in the NFL the team that makes the big plays in the fourth quarter can eek out close games. This was a huge problem for the 2015 Cowboys who only registered 3 sacks and 4 takeaways in the games most important 15 minutes.
The same can’t be said about the 2016 Cowboys. Thanks to the emergence of David Irving, a signee off of the Kansas City practice squad, the defense improved its sack and takeaway totals from the year before by 12 and six respectively.
4. The best defense is a good offense
It’s an old adage, and it couldn’t be truer for Dallas. Last season terrible quarterback play and a so-so running game didn’t make life very easy for the defense. But thanks to Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott and the best offensive line in the league, the Cowboys can control the ball better than any team in the league. Ranking 1st and 2nd in the league in time of possession and rushing yards, respectively, are the primary reasons for the huge improvements on the other side of the ball.