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Wednesday, October 28, 2020

What’s wrong with the Cowboys defense? Here’s five steps to fix what’s become a major problem

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There aren’t enough synonyms in the thesaurus to describe how lamentable the Dallas Cowboys defense has been to start the 2020 season. Entering Week 5, they’ve now allowed 38 or more points in the last three games — only the second roster in franchise history to do so (0-11-1 team in an expansion 1960 season being the other) — and have allowed a combined 146 points in the first four games. The Cleveland Browns walked into AT&T Stadium and ran for 307 yards on the ground without Nick Chubb for 3.5 quarters, used Odell Beckham as both a running back and a receiver, and hung 49 points on the unit like it was Tecmo Bowl. 

Needless to say, this isn’t going to cut it for any team, but especially if you’re the Cowboys. Why? Simple. It’s because all the world is watching and in a year that’s seen the club finally move out of the Jason Garrett era and into the hyped regime of Mike McCarthy, starting 1-3 is the antithesis of what was promised. Dak Prescott is on pace to shatter Peyton Manning’s single-season passing record by nearly 1,300 yards (!!) while averaging more than 50 pass attempts per game, and while the former is as wildly impressive as the latter is unsustainable, it’s required when the defense can’t stop a nosebleed with seven hands.

There is no singular fix for what’s happening to the defense in Dallas, but there are ready-made solutions waiting for them to deploy, assuming they have the courage and wisdom to do so. And should they choose to accept this mission, in only a few short weeks, they’ll find themselves back on track to do what they still believe they’re capable of: making a run at Super Bowl LV.

Otherwise, it’s going to be a very, very long season.

1. Stop the offensive turnovers

When your defense is struggling, stop asking them to return to the field before you have to.

Because the Cowboys have suddenly become a turnover machine in 2020, the discombobulated defense is tasked with taking the field more often, and it’s a recipe for disaster when factoring in their inability to take the ball away and give it back to the very offense that just lost it. And with that, the Cowboys are continually losing the time of possession battle and being forced to climb back from large deficits on a weekly basis, and they haven’t been able to. The historic comeback against the Atlanta Falcons required a 40-point effort to best a bad Falcons team, in Arlington, by a single point. Still in the fight in the fourth quarter against the Seattle Seahawks and Cleveland Browns, Dak Prescott and the offense has shown it can shoot it out with anyone, and while it’s unfair to ask them to never, ever make a mistake — the reality is they can’t afford to.

The defense is giving up the kitchen sink on possessions gained by Cowboys giveaways, having allowed 45 points on them in the first four weeks, and if you subtract that sum from the 146 combined points allowed and extrapolate for the averages — Dallas would be 4-0 with a bullet. Instead, they’re 1-3, and while it’s mostly because of the defense, the offense can help by gluing the ball to their hands when they’re running in the open field. The Cowboys lead the league with six fumbles (four in one quarter alone against the Falcons), and that can’t continue if they want to play ball in January.

Again, is it fair to ask them to be flawless? No, but it’s fair to point out how unacceptable it is to average 1.5 fumbles per game, and especially when your defense is in shambles. With an offense this prolific, eliminating the fumbles would make them unstoppable, and put the entire onus from here on out on the defensive unit to get stops.

2. Acquire safety help — ASAP

First and foremost, it’s time for Donovan Wilson to start at safety.

Wilson was a dynamo in preseason work last year but never got the nod from Rod Marinelli, Kris Richard and Jason Garrett — shelved for players like Darian Thompson and Jeff Heath. With Heath now in Las Vegas, the 2020 season should’ve began with the Cowboys looking to take the next step with Wilson as opposed to signing a now-fired Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, and with Thompson now struggling, Wilson finally saw defensive snaps due to McCarthy benching the former early on against the Browns. Time will tell if Wilson can be an impact player beside Xavier Woods, but it really shouldn’t have taken this long to pull that trigger at a position of such dire need.

And because there is such a need, the added trigger to pull here is bringing in a respected free agent. The key word here is “respected,” because respect is not something Earl Thomas is garnering from players around the league, and that’s why McCarthy and the Cowboys remain ice cold to the idea of adding him to the locker room. Thomas isn’t the only veteran safety who can help immediately though, despite what talking heads and those thirsty for clicks would have you believe. For my money, and considering it would also be for less money, I’d put in a call to Tony Jefferson, Eric Reid or Eric Berry.

Any of those three could help turn the secondary around in short order, and without the character concerns. Jefferson recently met with the Indianapolis Colts following the loss of Malik Hooker to injury but remains a free agent, ready to be plucked. Berry worked out for the Cowboys in 2019, but the team opted to pass on signing him due to concerns over his medical assessment — sources told CBS Sports at the time — rooted in his decision to not undergo surgery to repair a bone spur in his right heel that can cause aggravation and/or damage to his Achilles tendon (which was once itself torn). Berry reportedly then took the 2019 season off to regather and refocus, and is ready to play ball again. 

A top-flight character guy, if Berry is healthy enough to play 12+ games, he’s worth the call and subsequent one-year deal. The same goes for Reid, who also logged 16 starts and career highs in combined tackles (130) and sacks (4) in 2019 with the Carolina Panthers. In assessing Jefferson, Berry and Reid versus the current state of affairs in the Cowboys secondary, it’s borderline malpractice to ignore them continually.

3. Trust the system or ditch it

This point has a lot of layers to it. 

For one, the players need to either completely buy in to what Nolan is selling, or a change needs to happen. That change should be Nolan doing away with his attempt to install a hybrid defense in a year that lacked minicamp and a preseason, as well as a scheduled April 6 start for teams with new coaching staff. What should’ve been a phased approach to the install — i.e., break it down into four parts and install one phase at four various points going forward between August and January — is instead Nolan trying to squeeze a bowling ball into a garden hose. The better plan was to start with a marble and go from there, considering Nolan hadn’t been in the same room with his new-look defense until August.

And considering he hasn’t been a coordinator in half a decade.

But here we are, and the Cowboys defense is actually much worse than a year ago when they ranked 11th with an average of only 20.1 points allowed per game, and were hyper-predictable in the process. Players look wholly confused in the new haphazard scheme and some are seemingly reverting back to what they’re more accustomed to, quiet as it’s kept, which means there is quite literally several schemes being run on the field at the same time by way of player freelancing. It’s officially the wild west under Nolan, and that can’t continue. 

Eventually, it’ll all explode behind the scenes. 

4. Look behind Mike Nolan

Now here’s a test for the Cowboys. 

For mostly a decade, they were stubborn in how they handled the coaching staff. The front office has a habit of going long in the tooth with issues, doing their best to fill cavities that extend to the root instead of simply yanking it and putting in a new one. That was the case with Jason Garrett, who allowed it to be the case with Scott Linehan and Rod Marinelli — the latter being the key reason T.J. Watt isn’t in Dallas (i.e., scheme > player). With the first quarter of his inaugural season in Dallas now behind him, Mike McCarthy is faced with pressure to make a change at defensive coordinator before it’s too late. It’s not going to happen just yet, if at all, and that’s also in large part to the pre-existing relationship between the two that’s eerily similar to what existed between Garrett and Linehan, as in the latter gave the former his first coaching job.

But while McCarthy will and is standing on the table for Nolan, the change doesn’t necessarily mean a firing. It could be a reassignment of duties, something that happens often in the NFL. Nolan could easily be retained but named a senior defensive assistant or the like, and McCarthy could then let someone like George Edwards test drive the defense. Edwards spent the last five seasons as defensive coordinator for the Minnesota Vikings under Mike Zimmer, and joined McCarthy in his trek to Dallas this offseason. 

Here’s a breakdown of the Vikings defense annual points per game average under Edwards:

2014

21.4

11th

2015

18.9

5th

2016

19.2

6th

2017

15.8

1st

2018

21.3

9th

2019

18.9

5th

That’s provocative. It gets the people going.

Much like a drastic in-game adjustment — something McCarthy has shown he’s willing to do — he can bite the bullet and admit Nolan might not be the man for the coordinator job, but also utilize the escape hatch labeled “Reassign Him.” Edwards is a talented defensive mind whose defense in Minnesota dipped below the top 10 only once, ranked in the top five on two occasions and was the best in the league in 2017. It’s safe to say whatever Edwards might be selling, players would stand in line to buy.

By the way, Edwards was also the linebackers coach for the Cowboys from 1998-2001, helping to mold players like Dexter Coakley, so there’s also familiarity between he and the Joneses. That said, they won’t bat an eye if McCarthy approaches them with this option.

5. Buy time for the cavalry to arrive

The Cowboys mostly escaped the injury bug in August, but it’s sinking its teeth into their neck pretty good nowadays.

The team was forced to place Leighton Vander Esch, Sean Lee, Anthony Brown and Chidobe Awuzie on injured reserve at differing points to start the season, currently leaving them without three defensive starters and one Pro Bowl linebacker who’s coming off of arguably the best year of his career. With the exception of Joe Thomas, the team hasn’t been able to enjoy the “next man up” mantra, because few players are stepping up to produce in the absence of the aforementioned talent. That’s the bad news, obviously, but the good news is the Cowboys defense will soon enjoy a wave of players returning over the next few weeks.

While both Vander Esch and Lee are a bit farther out, Brown and Awuzie have a shot at returning in October to help the porous secondary. And once the two star linebackers do return to provide needed aid to Jaylon Smith and Co., the Cowboys should see an instant uptick in production. As for their defensive line — who is having trouble getting home consistently on opposing quarterbacks — there’s a gift soon to arrive for them as well.

Randy Gregory, recently reinstated from his indefinite suspension, is eligible to return to practice going into Week 5 and to the field for live games in two weeks. Like Aldon Smith, Gregory is a freakish talent who’s shown (in 2018) it’s possible to have zero rust being forced to sit for an extended period of time. With DeMarcus Lawrence, who called the defense “soft” after the embarrassment against the Browns, is currently nursing a knee injury and Everson Griffen not performing up to standard, the addition of Gregory could be huge for the d-line. That includes possible packages where Gregory lines up on the left opposite Smith, and no opposing offensive line is looking to such a combination. The reduced snap count on Lawrence would allow him time to heal and not ask so much of someone who’s operating on a bad leg, and Gregory is both refreshed, focused and starving to attack QBs in 2020.

From players healing up as we speak to Gregory readying for his return, if the Cowboys can make the above changes and buy themselves time for help to arrive, the season might end very differently than which it began. 

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