Cowboys defense: What’s gone wrong and how can they fix it?

Dallas Cowboys defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence (Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports)
Dallas Cowboys defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence (Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports) /

It’s just a quarter of the way through the regular season, but the Dallas Cowboys’ defense is historically bad. What’s gone wrong and how can they fix it?

They say defense wins championships, and if that’s the case then there is no way to sugar coat it, the Dallas Cowboys are nowhere near a championship. It might sound harsh, especially for a team just a quarter of the way into a new season with a new head coach and defensive coordinator. However, that doesn’t make it any less true.

Current defensive coordinator Mike Nolan and head coach Mike McCarthy go way back to 2005 when Nolan was the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers and brought the latter on as his offensive coordinator. McCarthy stayed in the bay area for one season before becoming the head coach of the Green Bay Packers.

Nolan most recently coached linebackers for the New Orleans Saints and the last time he had been a defensive coordinator was in 2014 with the Atlanta Falcons. Nolan’s scheme is a lot more complicated than what Dallas ran last season.

It relies on multiple looks, disguises, and coverages as opposed to the single base defense the Cowboys largely ran under former defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli. A myriad of blown coverages and consistent miscommunication show that it’s been an uphill battle for the team to acclimate.

Outside of edge rusher Aldon Smithand a few brief flashes from rookie cornerback Trevon Diggs, you’d struggle to point out many things that have gone right on the defensive side of the ball for Dallas this season.

Sure, veteran linebacker Joe Thomas has looked solid at times, and there have even been moments where Trysten Hill has shown signs of life on the interior of the defensive line. However, neither were ideal scenarios for the Cowboys as both are seeing their playing time largely thanks to injuries.

Perhaps the most concerning thing about this year’s defense is that some players haven’t just looked bad this season, they’ve flat out regressed in their development. Linebacker Jaylon Smith in particular has looked lost at times and seems to have taken several steps backward.

The Cowboys hit rock bottom last Sunday against the Cleveland Browns when the defense had one of the worst outings in the franchise’s 60-year history. Dallas allowed the most rushing yards in team history as Cleveland nearly hung 50 points on them and at times effort was a serious question. The Browns’ leading rushers were their third-string running back, who just two seasons ago was playing in the AAF, and a wide-receiver.

The worst part about all of this is how mind-numbingly apparent it was going into the season. All offseason fans clamored for a big trade for a player like Jamal Adams to address the secondary. When Earl Thomas was released from the Baltimore Ravens, fans were insistent that Dallas send the safety a one-way ticket and a blank check. Looking at the current roster it’s not exactly a surprise that some of these players have struggled in the early going.

Remember in 2018 when the Cowboys went into the season with Allen Hurns, Terrance Williams, and Cole Beasley as their top three wide receivers? Everyone warned that the lack of a number one receiver was going to be that team’s Achilles heel, but their hubris rendered them inactive and complacent. This feels almost just like that.

That 2018 team stubbornly went 3-4 through seven games before they traded for Amari Cooper during the bye week and it ended up making all the difference. They finished 10-6 and even won a playoff game. Cooper was the jolt the team needed to kick start their season and maximize the potential on the roster.

There is no reason the Cowboys shouldn’t do what they did in 2018 and make a move to bring in a player who can help this team. The experiment has gone on long enough. Whether it’s Thomas or someone else, the Cowboys have to do something to help out the backend of the defense.

Analytics can tell you a lot, but sometimes raw numbers can speak for themselves. The Cowboys have allowed 146 points through four games. Go back and read that number again, it wasn’t a typo, they’ve allowed 146 points through four games. This averages out to be 36.5 points per game. A number up over two touchdowns from the 20.1 they allowed last season.

The record for most points allowed in a season was set by the 1981 Baltimore Colts when opposing teams scored 533 against them. Right now the 2020 Dallas Cowboys are on pace to allow 584.

The next quarter of the Cowboys’ schedule presents a solid opportunity for the team to get back on track. They play all three teams in the woeful NFC East as well as the Arizona Cardinals. The combined record of those teams is 4-11-1 (as a note Arizona accounts for half of those wins). If this team can’t build confidence against offenses led by quarterbacks like Daniel Jones and Kyle Allen, then you have to wonder who could they stop?

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There are a lot of things that the Dallas defense needs to fix, and there isn’t one magical cure-all solution for their problems. They have serious issues with scheme, talent, and effort. But whatever this team needs to do, they better do it fast. Otherwise, the 2020 Dallas Cowboys won’t just make dubious history, they’ll be sitting home in January.