OXNARD, Calif. — Everybody knows that very little went right defensively for the Dallas Cowboys during the 2020 NFL season.
Thursday’s Hall of Fame Game in Canton, Ohio (8 p.m. ET, Fox), against the Pittsburgh Steelers represents an opportunity to change the Cowboys’ narrative.
“We understand where we were at last year, the guys that were on the team and the guys that saw us play last year,” Dallas defensive end Randy Gregory said. “We weren’t a very good defense at all. I think we were the worst in the league, right?”
Well, try No. 31 out of 32 in rushing defense.
“Almost the worst,” Gregory continued. “For us, we’ve just got to go out there and build on each day, and that’s what [defensive coordinator] Dan Quinn talks about all the time and that’s what we’re doing.”
Coach Mike McCarthy and Quinn conundrum: Is it more important to set a tone defensively, even when the results don’t matter, or to hold out some key players and go strictly with the younger players who are trying to carve out roles?
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The Cowboys’ defense last season was an embarrassment. Dallas allowed the most points (473) and second-most rushing yards (2,541) in franchise history and had a difficult time stopping anybody in a regrettable 6-10 finish.
Quinn was brought in to replace Mike Nolan as the defensive staff was retooled. Aden Durde replaced Jim Tomsula on the defensive line, Joe Whitt Jr. replaced Maurice Linguist as the secondary/defensive passing game coordinator and senior defensive assistant George Edwards gained a more prominent role with the linebackers.
The Cowboys continued the overhaul this offseason, adding five free agents and six draft picks on defense. There could be as many as six new defensive starters this season.
“We can’t be the problem as to why this team doesn’t succeed, and we know that and we’re working towards that,” Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith said. “It’s just about our work every day, and that’s kinda what we’re focused on.”
Through the first nine practices of training camp, there have been signs things will be different beyond the scheme Quinn will employ, which is similar to what the Cowboys used from 2014 to 2019.
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, Nolan had to teach his defense over the computer last season, and when training camp practices began, players were unsure. Practicing inside the Ford Center, the lack of talking became noticeable. This year, in Oxnard, there is constant chatter before the snap with players alerting changes based on what the offense is showing.
And there has been more post-snap chatter because of the success the defense has had against the offense, although the first team has not always had starters Dak Prescott, Zack Martin, Tyron Smith and Michael Gallup. Wide receiver Amari Cooper has not practiced at all yet.
But it’s a start.
“Swagger and confidence creates speed because now when you have confidence, you really don’t have to think,” Quinn said. “When we’re confident, we know exactly what to do and let it rip. By playing fast, that means you have confidence and that goes into a lot of ways. Playing fast isn’t just running, it’s trusting the communication, holding the leverage, I can play a certain technique to allow you to go. What’s nice about the team right now, you’re seeing some of that come to life on the field.”
Then there are the takeaways and pressure. In Prescott’s final full practice, he was intercepted three times. In the next practice, Cowboys quarterbacks were intercepted five times. Cornerback Maurice Canady, who opted out last season, has three picks. Free-agent pickup Damontae Kazee has two. Last year’s second-round pick, Trevon Diggs, has been excellent, and the coaches are high on this year’s second-rounder, Kelvin Joseph.
Linebacker Micah Parsons, the Cowboys’ 2021 first-round pick, has been around the ball. Linebacker Leighton Vander Esch looks like he did as a Pro Bowler in his 2018 rookie season. The defensive line has not had DeMarcus Lawrence (back) or Trysten Hill (knee), but Gregory has been a threat from the first practice. Tarell Basham, one of those free-agent acquisitions, has been active, as have Brent Urban, Carlos Watkins and Neville Gallimore.
Prescott has noticed the change.
“They’re doing a good job pre-snap of making a lot of things look similar and post-snap, making me think or making the quarterback and the receivers trying to read the coverage think a little bit longer than they would like to,” Prescott said. “That’s the area they want to play in. It makes it tougher on any offense you’re playing. They’re going to continue to get their communication right, continue to get their disguises the way they want to.”
The run defense still has questions considering the team hasn’t gone through tackling drills yet. So in what ways can the unit improve?
“Everything,” Vander Esch said. “We’re constantly growing, trying to get better. We can improve drastically in every area of the run game. … Having an identity as a defense that we’re going to stop the run and make them one-dimensional and make them throw the ball.”
It’s one thing to do all the work in training camp; it’s another to see the success against an opponent during the preseason. And there’s another jump that will need to take place when the regular season begins.
Quinn is hopeful his defense will “get to go out and prove it.”
“Ball-hawking and tackling and finishing people, I definitely see that,” Quinn said. “That’s the great thing about football, man. … The best of the best, you get to prove it. And I have a sense there will be some people on this defense that will have very big chips on their shoulder with much to prove. … Coaches included.”