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Is the opinion of the Dallas Cowboys’ defense matching reality?

The Dallas Cowboys haven’t had the same stout defense that many were expecting to translate over from the 2018 season. But has it been as poor as perceived?
Credit: AP
Dallas Cowboys defensive tackle Maliek Collins, 96, and Jaylon Smith, 54, huddle with other members of the defense during the first half of an NFL football game against the Miami Dolphins in Arlington, Texas, Sunday, Sept. 22, 2019. (AP Photo/Roger Steinman)

In a reversal of last season, the offense for the Dallas Cowboys is surging to great heights while the defense and special teams have been lagging behind. Or, at least, that’s the perception of how things are going so far this season. 

Dallas is sitting at 6-4, and though that’s currently good enough to lead the NFC East, there have still been some games that the Cowboys could have won to solidify themselves as a top contender NFC. So, is it really the defense dragging them down?. 

Despite slow starts, the offense is indeed much improved this year as they rank first overall in yards per contest and their 28.6 points per game is fourth-best in the league. 

The perception that the Dallas offense is carrying the team matches the reality there. As for special teams, the aspersions that have been cast upon that unit have been well-founded. 

RELATED: Special teams coverage woes hindering Dallas Cowboys

The kick coverage’s inability to limit returns has put the Cowboys’ defense in precarious spots throughout the season. 

However, even with shorter fields to defend thanks to the current failings of a special teams unit that did its job in 2018, the sense is that the Dallas defense has fallen off considerably from being the team’s best unit in 2018 to a regressing liability in 2019. 

Does that judgment match fact? The impression is that the Cowboys’ defense headed up by Kris Richard and Rod Marinelli has been the team’s worst in recent memory. Are our eyes deceiving us when it comes to the Dallas D? 

The numbers tell a different story than you might expect. 

There’s no question that the Cowboys have had their issues stopping the run, most glaringly so in the losses against NFC North leaders Green Bay (120 rushing yards, 4 rushing TDs in Week 5) and Minnesota (153 rushing yards, 1 rushing TD in Week 10). 

Heck, even last place Detroit racked up 121 yards and two scores against the Dallas defense last week. 

Dallas has allowed at least 100 yards rushing in seven of their ten contests this season and that includes six of their last seven games. The Cowboys have also allowed more rushing yards than they have gained behind Ezekiel Elliott and their stacked offensive line in five of those ten games. 

Problems against rushing attacks have had a trickle-down effect of wearing out the defense while putting more pressure on Dak Prescott and the offense to score as a way to counteract what the defense isn’t doing. 

With that said, are they actually any worse than in recent memory?

Credit: Patrick Conn

Looking at the numbers, through the first ten games of each season, the 2019 rushing defense is definitely lagging behind in the amount of rushing touchdowns allowed. However, they have given up the second-fewest yards per attempt of the four-year span. 

The problem is the sheer amount of rushes attempted. Rushing numbers can be greatly skewed based on situational football. Teams are running more on Dallas in 2019 than in 2016 due to the fact that the Cowboys were getting off to quick starts in 2016 and then methodically draining the clock, forcing teams to try to pass against them if they wanted any hope of making a comeback. 

Teams run the ball when ahead but abandon it when they are playing from behind. The Cowboys have been playing from behind nearly every week this season which has put the defense to the test early and often. The reality is, yes, the Cowboys’ rush defense is worse than a season ago, but overall, based on yards given up, the defense is actually playing better than they’ve been given credit. 

Another difference could be the fact that the young linebacker core has been more banged up this season than last. Leighton Vander Esch will miss the contest against New England on Sunday which could be more bad news for a unit looking to change the opinion that people have had of them so far this season.

Where things get even more interesting is when looking at the pass defense. As you can see from the chart below, the Cowboys are putting up better numbers across the board than in their last three seasons with fewer yards per game through the air: 

Credit: Patrick Conn

Of course, this is also partially a byproduct of teams passing less often against the Cowboys but you can’t deny that the results have been, at the very least, compelling. Dallas has its lowest opposing quarterback passer rating, is allowing fewer touchdowns, and is sporting the lowest 3rd down conversion rate through the air by far this season. 

Overall, the perception that the Cowboys defense is far worse than in recent years doesn’t fit reality. The rush defense hasn’t been quite up to snuff, but the ability to prevent teams from moving the ball through the air is making up for it. 

So why has that perception grown? Sequencing, mostly. Early miscues and poor execution has caused the Cowboys to give up 6.2 points per first quarter this year as compared to the 1.4 of a season ago. 

Add in the fact that the offense is only generating 4.0 points per first quarter this year and you begin to see how actual game trends are dictating what the opposing offense wants to do. 

Dallas scores more as the game goes on but they’re often already playing from behind, which means the defense is facing more bruising runs early. Those plays add up and can slow them down as the game progresses causing something of a snowball effect of self-fulfilling prophecy. 

In this case, the Cowboys need the offense to start quicker and they need the special teams to limit big returns. That should help alleviate some of their defensive woes and turn around the perception that it’s the Dallas D dragging the team down.

Do you still think the Dallas defense has been worse than advertised and if so, can they turn things around to make a run to the playoffs? Share your thoughts with Patrick Conn on Twitter @DraftCowboys.

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