Through five weeks, the Dallas Cowboys defense is proving to be the Imagine Dragons of NFL defenses: they have some hits, but the product as a whole is vastly overrated.
Despite the Cowboys being one of the best in the league in one key stat we’ll get to later, there’s a laundry list of others they aren’t so high in:
-- Second-most passing yards allowed
-- Eighth-most total yards allowed
-- Fourth-most yards per play allowed (6.3)
-- Fifth-least in pressure percentage
-- Eighth-most missed tackles
-- Most penalized defense
In addition, Dallas does not have a single defensive lineman rank in the top 10 in any of ESPN’s defensive win rate statistics. The unit as a whole ranks 16th and 17th in pass rush win rate and run stop win rate, respectively. These onslaught of stats are to point out that the Dallas defense, as a whole and as individuals, mostly range somewhere from medicare to below average.
But there’s one category in which the Cowboys are among the best in the league, and it may be the most crucial category in all of football: takeaways. As far as defensive takeaways go, it’s the Bills, Cowboys and everyone else through five weeks.
Turnovers and the parallel statistical terms -- takeaways, turnover differential, turnover percentage -- are the most important stat in football because they correlate to wins and losses more than any other statistic. Being second in the league in all of the turnover related denominations almost offsets the aforementioned scroll of defensive shortcomings.
But in the spirit of not just throwing stats at the wall, let’s dig a little deeper and go to the tape.
The golden boy of the Cowboys defense, aside from Micah Parsons, is second-year cornerback Trevon Diggs. Diggs leads the NFL in interceptions and is on a rocketship to “best cornerback in the NFL” as far as public perception goes. Diggs is a phenomenal cornerback, but part of the reason the Cowboys defense is being perceived the way it is is due to the fluky nature of much of Diggs’ interceptions.
One was front and center for the nation to see in the season opener against the Buccaneers: Tom Brady threw a screen pass to Leonard Fournette, who volleyed the ball off his hands and up the field to a closing Diggs. Sunday against the Giants, Diggs was beat deep by CJ Board and Mike Glennon criminally under threw the pass directly into Diggs’ arms. Against the Panthers there was a clear cut miscommunication between Sam Darnold and Robby Anderson that ended with Darnold stepping up and delivering the ball on a rope to an unsuspecting Diggs. Another interception against the Eagles was admittedly a great break on a short out route by Diggs, but Devonta Smith also slipped, making the interception uncontested.
This isn’t to say Diggs isn’t a great cornerback -- he’s incredible. In fact, he’s allowed the lowest passer rating when targeted this season, per PFF. And the other two interceptions not addressed were phenomenal jumps on elite receivers in Keenan Allen and DJ Moore. Again, Diggs is phenomenal and well on his way to being among the elite cornerbacks in the NFL. But it’s worth pointing out that four of his six interceptions come with planet sized asterisks. Without them, Dallas would not be perceived as a powerhouse defense.
Lucky for the Patriots, luck tends to regress over time. What better time for the Cowboys’ interception luck to regress than against an offense as safe as that of the Patriots?
Here are three more aspects of the Dallas Cowboys to keep an eye on this Sunday...
Tag Team, Back Again
Kellen Moore’s tenure as Cowboys offensive coordinator has seen the transition from the arcane offense of the Jason Garrett era to a more progressive scheme. One of the major aspects of this is actually using a second running back. It’s no mistake that all the best offenses with the top offensive minds do this: the Patriots, the Shanahans in various iterations, Sean McVay, and both LaFleurs. Even Sean Payton has consistently given carries to the various Alvin Kamara backups.
Whether it was the hit on Tony Pollard in the fourth round of the 2019 draft or the realization that Zeke Elliott won’t continue to hold up for entire seasons now that there’s an extra regular season game, the Cowboys are finally falling in line with the multi-running back trend. Elliott and Pollard are third and eighth in the league in rushing yards and tenth and second in yards per attempt, respectively. For the first time in his career, Elliott isn’t on the field for nearly 90% of Dallas’ total snaps -- much to he and the Cowboys’ benefit.
Dak Prescott is lighting it up through five games. He has the second-highest completion percentage in the NFL, is fourth in touchdown percentage, and is top five in any variation of the “yards per attempt” statistic you can get your hands on. The small contingency of people who still denigrate Dak have very little to point to this season. Aside from an overthrow that was intercepted against the Chargers, Dak has gone punch for punch with Tom Brady when Dallas’ running game was useless against the Buccaneers and outdueled Justin Herbert. Per PFF, Dak had an 82.1 adjusted completion percentage against the Eagles as well as zero turnover-worthy plays against the Panthers. He’s the MVP standing in plain sight.
I’ll Be Dak...With Weapons
What better way to support your MVP-caliber quarterback than to have the most stacked pass catching corps in the NFL? Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb, and Michael Gallup were already considered the best wide receiver trio in the NFL in 2020 (well, before Antonio Brown signed with the Buccaneers). Gallup is on injured reserve, but 2018 sixth-round pick Cedrick Wilson has slotted in nicely to the third wide receiver slot. Blake Jarwin and Dalton Schultz are a true tight end duo, with neither having significantly more targets or snap share than the other -- another avenue by which Kellen Moore has modernized the Cowboys offense.