3 & Out: Inside The Defense’s Transformation


FRISCO, Texas – Back with three quick topics as the Cowboys look for their first 4-1 start since the dawn of the Dak & Zeke era in 2016:

  • The Defense's Rise
  • Misleading Stat
  • Winning Combination

I Know…
through four games, the defense's overhaul under Dan Quinn has been every bit as advertised.

We knew change was coming when the Cowboys hired Quinn as defensive coordinator in January. And when the club signed six veterans early in free agency. And when eight of 11 draft picks went toward that side of the ball.

Yet, you can argue it's still surprising – stunning, even – how different the defense looks through four games.

It's far from perfect. Quinn wasn't happy with the red-zone defense against Carolina and still sees too many big plays allowed. Statistically, the Cowboys rank 26th in total yards allowed per game (396.3) and tie for 16th in points allowed average (24.3). But this has been a far more connected, faster, technically sound stretch of games compared to 2020.

Head coach Mike McCarthy said Monday that the internal competition is better than last year.

"And it's not even close," he added.

Hard to argue with that. Just look at how many players are contributing.

Through four games in 2020, the Cowboys rotated a total of 21 players on defense. This year, Quinn said, it's already 30 players. That's a big number when considering it's only a 48-man roster on game day.

Some of that shuffling has been due to injuries and COVID-19 absences. But it's also a sign of trust in the depth chart.

Maybe the most significant part isn't the sheer number of players. It's the number of new players in the group, and how many lack league experience.

There are 11 contributing players in their first or second season: Azur Kamara, Bradlee Anae, Austin Faoliu, Chauncey Golston, Osa Odighizuwa, Quinton Bohanna, Micah Parsons, Jabril Cox, Trevon Diggs, Nahshon Wright and Israel Mukuamu.

There are eight players who joined the team in the offseason or training camp: Carlos Watkins, Tarell Basham, Brent Urban, Keanu Neal, Damontae Kazee, Jayron Kearse, Malik Hooker and Maurice Canady.

That's 19 new players out of 30 who have gelled quickly. And, as Quinn said, "there's more to come." DeMarcus Lawrence, Neville Gallimore and second-round draft pick Kelvin Joseph will eventually return from Reserve/Injured. The internal competition will only increase.

A transformation, indeed.

"I told them I'm proud of the group they're becoming," Quinn said.

"It will pay dividends for us. Not all of the snaps are good. But there is some on-the-job training that goes along with that. I certainly hope the players feel how much we believe in them."

I Think…
here's another example of stats not telling the whole story.

The Cowboys currently rank 14th in passing offense with Prescott averaging 255.0 yards per game. Anyone who's watched them knows it's far from a middle-of-the-road passing attack.

Prescott's enjoying career highs in completion percentage (75.2%) and passer rating (116.9). He's on an early pace for a career-high 40 touchdown passes. (30 is his personal best.)

The difference is the Cowboys' second-ranked rushing attack (165.9 yards per game, despite only 60 yards in the opener against Tampa Bay). Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard are piling up yards and finishing off games. Right guard Zack Martin might be playing the best ball of his career, and he's always been an X-factor in the run game. Remember, he was on Reserve/COVID against Tampa Bay. And last year, the Cowboys averaged 120.8 yards in his nine full starts, compared to 100.1 yards in the other games.

Prescott has shown he can win games with his arm if needed. But so far he doesn't have to, and he's just fine with that.

"That's what you're looking for when you want to be the best offense, when you want to be balanced, is you're going to do whatever it takes to win," he said.

I Have No Idea…
the true secret behind producing takeaways (is it technique, talent, pure luck, all of the above?) but it's finally starting to look like a trend in Dallas.

Trevon Diggs is leading the resurgence. Sunday he became the first NFL player since Darren Sharper in 2009 with five interceptions through four games. Sharper was a starter on the '09 Saints team that won the Super Bowl behind a league-best scoring offense (31.9) and a defense that ranked second in takeaways (39).

So far the Cowboys' offense ranks second in scoring (31.5) and second in takeaways with 10, on pace for 40.

Yes, it's early. Very early. But that's the combination for winning a lot of football games.