Defensive Improvement Makes Cowboys a Playoff Threat
NFL Week 14 - The Dallas Cowboys defense has been one of the best in the league all season. Between Trevon Diggs' interception streak, the ascension of rookie Micah Parsons at two positions, and Dan Quinn breathing some new schematic life into the unit, the Cowboys found a potent blend of star power and stability. That by itself is hardly a story at this point. What is scary now for the rest of the league is that the Cowboys are finally getting healthy up front.
Defensive end Demarcus Lawrence returned two weeks ago from a foot injury that has kept him out since Week 1. Defensive end Randy Gregory, who missed the last month with a calf injury, returned to the lineup this week. Lawrence has been among the league's best pass-rushers for years when healthy, while Gregory has been at a Pro Bowl level when on the field this season. Additionally, second-year defensive tackle Neville Gallimore was finally made active this week for the first time all season following a dislocated elbow in the preseason. The Dallas front seven that played against Washington this weekend is much better than the one they have been playing with for most of the year.
With that many explosive pass-rushers available, the goal for any defense coordinator should be to generate one-on-one opportunities. If all of the potential rushers are good enough to win, there is a great chance the defense can create havoc on any given snap. That's exactly what Quinn sought to do in this game. Sometimes Washington played to Dallas' strengths by giving them empty five-man protections; other times Dallas was able to manipulate more standard six-man protections to generate one-on-ones without even bringing more than four rushers. The Cowboys always had another trick up their sleeve, but the Football Team rarely had a successful response.
Washington's inability to find answers out of empty formations was the easiest issue to see in this game. They tried a couple of different protections and pass concepts but could not get much of anything going against Dallas' fierce pass rush and violent coverage.
In this clip, Washington leaves the outside linebacker off their left side unblocked on purpose because quarterback Taylor Heinicke intends to throw "hot" to beat the blitz with the ball anyway. It makes more sense for Washington to block up the inside rushers to clear up the window for Heinicke to throw the slant to that side since that outside linebacker will not get into that window. As such, both the left tackle and left guard block inside to wash down the blitzing inside linebacker and defensive tackle out of the window.
In theory, that is not a bad answer by Washington. It simplifies the read for Heinicke to get the ball out against a pressure look and blocks the most immediate threats. However, Dallas deployed star cornerback Trevon Diggs in press man coverage over Terry McLaurin in the slot for this slant route. Diggs does not give McLaurin a clean release and then does a great job playing the catch point from behind the receiver to knock this one down. Even when Washington negated what Dallas tried doing pressure-wise, it did not matter in this instance.
From that point on, Washington went back to just trying to block up all five players from empty. That, of course, allows for the offense to either read out more of the concept or call deeper combinations under the assumption that the offensive line can block up all five players effectively. Well, that second part of the equation did not work out as planned for the Football Team. The Cowboys constantly made Heinicke uncomfortable and mucked up his throwing platforms.
With defensive end Tarell Basham (93) stood up right over the center and two players to either side of him, Washington cannot safely slide either way with their protection. The Cowboys could just as easily get three rushers to either side, so the offense does not want to slide one way with three players and only leave two on the other side. It's a gamble. Instead, Washington just gets a hat on a hat in man protection. That ensures there are no free rushers, but it also leaves them susceptible to twists and stunts. Dallas runs two twists on the play, one of which gets Demarcus Lawrence (90) looping inside from a 3-technique position over the top of Basham, crashing through the center's right shoulder and into the right guard.
Lawrence does not get the sack, but as was often the case in this game, Heinicke did not feel comfortable stepping up into the pocket. That kind of pressure, aided by tight press coverage behind it, forces both the quarterback and receiver to make a perfect play. Good luck trying to run an offense with that business model.
Here is Dallas doing something similar a bit later in the game. Washington actually gets hands on everyone and blocks things up better this time around, but Micah Parsons (11) still gets a one-on-one over the right guard. In a way only few linebackers can, Parsons completely bull-rushes the guard into Heinicke's lap and condenses his space to comfortably make this throw. Heinicke felt the heat again, resulting in an underthrow that gave his guy no shot at the ball.
Being able to consistently generate pressure with five pass-rushers can be enough to have a successful day of defense on its own. It is tough for quarterbacks to operate when they never feel like they will be clean. In this game, Quinn took things a step further. Dallas was able to pressure Heinicke in a number of instances where they backed out of looks in which they showed five or more pass-rushers.
Again, Basham is hovering over the center with two players on either side of him. Washington decided to just get a hat on a hat again, this time with the running back staying in to check for any added rushers or potentially help chip anyone rushing through the middle. The Cowboys do not actually bring Basham, though. The other four rushers get one-on-ones with their guys, while Basham drops off to spy Heinicke and leave the center blocking air. Dallas' rushers constrict the pocket all over and flush Heinicke right into Basham, taking away Heinicke's opportunity to scramble and forcing him to make an improbable throw down the sideline. Somehow, Heinicke delivers a catchable ball, but the receiver fails to get two feet in, and Washington only converted because safety Malik Hooker earned himself an unnecessary roughness penalty.
Fluky conversion or not, forcing quarterbacks and receivers to make near-impossible plays such as that one is a world Dallas was able to live in all Sunday long and it largely worked in their favor.
Dallas wants to get the running back involved in the protection while dropping extra bodies out in coverage here. That takes away a receiving option to shift the coverage math in favor of Dallas while still getting Parsons a favorable matchup as a blitzer. In order to make that happen, the Cowboys align in a 5-1 front. The simplest answer for Washington against this look is to have their five offensive linemen block Dallas' five defensive linemen, then ask the running back to pick up Parsons up the middle. They also ask the tight end to check-release to help block Randy Gregory (94) if need be. On paper, everyone is blocked up and they even have some potential help to the strength of the formation.
When both edge rushers fall off to play the curl area in this funky Cover-2 coverage, Washington's center and running back are still left in one-on-one situations with their guys while the Cowboys now have seven coverage defenders for four receivers. The crosser/shallow combination Heinicke tries to read over the middle gets taken away by all those bodies in coverage, giving Parsons time to beat the running back and bend back to sack the quarterback.
Generating this kind of disruption, both when bringing pressure and when backing out of it, played the biggest role in Heinicke going 10-for-24 for 112 yards, one touchdown, one pick, and three sacks through the first three quarters. Even Heinicke's touchdown pass featured him being moved out of the pocket on a five-man pressure, but he happened to make a 43-yard hero throw in which Cam Sims dunked on Diggs in the end zone.
When it takes a superhero effort like that to generate one-third of an offense's passing yards and their only score through three quarters, the Cowboys defense can come away feeling pretty good about how they crafted and executed their game plan.
So long as this core remains healthy, the Cowboys should continue to generate pressure in this fashion down the stretch and into the playoffs. Quinn had already done a good job calling this defense and adapting to its talents, and now they have the most healthy talent available that they have had at any point this season. If the offense can return to the elite level they were playing at earlier this season, there will not be many teams with as much explosive potential on both sides of the ball as the Dallas Cowboys come playoff time.