After having one of the worst defenses in 2020, the Dallas Cowboys defense rebounded significantly in 2021 catapulting to No. 2 in Football Outsiders highly regarded DVOA rankings. Behind the play of Trevon Diggs and Micah Parsons the Dallas defense did the unthinkable – they matched the high powered offense. In fact, the Cowboys defense improved so much that there were games where the defense actually carried the offense.
What stood out the most about the Cowboys defense was how it improved in producing big plays and forcing turnovers. With Trevon Diggs leading the way with 11 interceptions, the Dallas Cowboys defense posted a staggering 34 turnovers. Enroute to a perfect 6-0 NFC East record, the Dallas defense also collected 41 sacks.
The Dallas Cowboys defense made enormous improvement in 2021 and they still have room to grow
It’s not bold to say Dallas hasn’t had a defense this good (talent wise) since their Super Bowl-winning days of the 1990’s. I’m not saying they were better than those glory years, by no stretch, but the Cowboys have the playmakers and the depth we haven’t seen in quite some time.
If anyone would have told you at this time last year that Dallas’ defense would led the league in takeaways with 34 and score a few defensive touchdowns along the way, you would have laughed. Their ascent last year was almost unfathomable if you really think about how much they improved.
Most Dallas Cowboys fans will remember the years (especially 2014 and 2016) when Dallas’ offense had to carry the defense and play close to flawless football because the defense was completely inept.
As the 2021 season progressed, and Dallas’ defense continued its upward spiral of success, it appeared Dallas finally had a well-balanced team that they could lean on any given Sunday.
That was until Dallas’ defenses started showing their immaturity and the defensive failures of the past flared up like a pimple on picture day. For every timely interception, defensive touchdown scored, and sack Dallas’ defense accumulated, there was an untimely penalty on third down that reminded you there was room for improvement.
Offsides, defensive holding, late hits, missed tackles, and the most notorious penalty of them all: pass interference. These undisciplined penalties showed up in all of Dallas’ six losses (playoffs included). Pick any game and you saw one of the aforementioned penalties.
For example, we all believe Diggs to be an All-Pro corner, but Diggs had several plays where he was either beat because he jumped the route and failed, or he held the receiver. Of course, I’ll take Diggs and his aggressive style any day as long as it yields interceptions and pass breakups, but Diggs must improve in this area as offensive coordinators will certainly use this against him.
Diggs is so good that in the span of two plays he returned an interception for a touchdown against the New England Patriots only to give up a 75-yard touchdown pass on the very next play. It appeared Diggs got beat by wide receiver Kendrick Bourne’s double move (a move used against corners who jump routes).
As great of a ball hawk Diggs may be, he must clean up his shortcomings and force quarterbacks to reduce that cataclysmic variance in his play. Diggs becoming more technically sound could be just as good as nabbing an interception. Think about former Dallas’ corner Byron Jones-a corner who lacked interceptions but shut down opposing offenses WR1. Diggs has the potential to be the best of both worlds.
Even the veteran corner Anthony Brown fell victim to sloppy play. He had four pass interference penalties called against him in a loss to the Las Vegas Raiders.
Despite Brown receiving well deserved criticism, Brown recorded three interceptions, had 59 solo tackles and scored a defensive touchdown. Brown isn’t a bad corner; he’s playing out of position because he’s a better slot corner than playing on the outside.
Besides improving in stopping the running game, Dallas’ defense must become more disciplined. Against the 49ers, there is absolutely no reason for the stupid penalties that extended drives for a 49ers team that simply ran the ball more than they passed it. Jimmy Garoppolo is prone to throwing late-game interceptions (and he did, throwing an interception to Brown).
Once Dallas had neutralized the 49ers rushing attack, a more disciplined team would have capitalized off of this opportunity. That comes with experience, however.
Luckily for the Dallas Cowboys, their defense possibly has multiple cornerstones on multiple levels of their defense (assuming DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory stay). Jayron Kearse may also be that cornerstone player should the Cowboys decide to re-sign him. He was a leader and playmaker from the safety position.
All of those players can take pride in knowing they played a pivotal role in turning around Dallas’ defense into a top unit, and they should learn and grow from their mistakes moving forward. This bodes well for the futures of Gregory, Diggs, Parsons, and Kearse as they’re still young and will only get better under the guidance of defensive coordinator Dan Quinn.
The defensive meltdown against the 49ers is a painful experience of what it takes to win in the NFL. That goes for other promising, defensive players like Gallimore, Trysten Hill, Jabril Cox, Osa Odghizuwa, Chauncey Golston, Quinton, Dorance Armstrong, Jr, Nahshon Wright, and Donovan Wilson.
Even though Dallas’ defense was one of the best in the NFL last season,, there is always room for improvement and that’s what we’re expecting in 2022. Always. BOOM!