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The Dallas Cowboys had arguably the worst defense in team history in 2020. They finished 31st against the run, 23rd in yards per game, and gave up a franchise-record 473 points.
It became apparent very early in the season that defensive coordinator Mike Nolan’s hybrid scheme wasn’t the answer in Dallas. So, after parting ways with Nolan, the Cowboys brought Dan Quinn on board to run the defense for the foreseeable future. Last week on the PFF NFL Podcast, Quinn talked about getting into the film room and seeing what he has to work with personnel-wise.
“I think you don’t really have a real sense when you’re going somewhere (new) of what a team has, and that’s kind of what my challenge is now, to make sure I get a chance to watch everybody on tape, get a chance to see what their strengths are and see if we can put guys in spots to know how to feature them,” Quinn said, via the team’s website.
Quinn will see strengths on the defensive line and in the secondary. DeMarcus Lawrence had his fourth-consecutive season of double-digit tackles for loss and tied a career-high with four forced fumbles. Randy Gregory missed the first six games of the season but still managed to register 3.5 sacks and three forced fumbles (all in Week 16 vs the Philadelphia Eagles). Rookie Neville Gallimore had some struggles but was one of the highest-graded interior defensive linemen in Week 9 due to his performance against the Pittsburgh Steelers, and closed out the season with 16 tackles and a half-sack in the final five games.
Rookie cornerback Trevon Diggs took his lumps as well early in the season, and despite missing four games with a broken foot, he became the first rookie Cowboys defender to lead the team in passes defended (14) and interceptions (3) outright. Second-year safety Donovan Wilson took full advantage of his opportunity after an ankle injury derailed his 2019 campaign. He logged 10 starts and showed he’s the playmaking safety the Cowboys have been looking for with 3.5 sacks, three forced fumbles, and two fumble recoveries.
Even though Quinn’s scheme is similar to what was run by former defensive coordinator Kris Richard — who worked under Quinn during the “Legion of Boom” days with the Seattle Seahawks — it remains to be seen how it will all materialize in 2021. Quinn, however, is prioritizing players over the scheme aspect.
“There will certainly be guidelines that you want to fit guys into, but more than anything, what do you have and how to feature guys will drive a little bit of how you can play. That’s to me the top of the pile,” Quinn said. “Scheme-wise everybody has enough defensive flexibility to last for a while. It’s about how to put guys in the best spots and also having guys who can play significant roles of doing certain things really, really well. So that’s what I’m looking forward to, getting a chance to visit and see these players (on film) and find out all the unique stuff they have.”
Quinn also mentioned that physicality, speed, and relentless effort is what he wants his defense to play with.
“Those are things that you always want everybody to see us when we’re playing,” Quinn said. “So that’s A, No. 1, top of the pile for sure, creating that identity that when everybody sees us play, you know exactly what you’re going to get.”
The personnel Quinn has to work worth could look a lot different once the season starts. Aldon Smith, Jourdan Lewis, Chidobe Awuzie, and Xavier Woods are all free agents. Jaylon Smith is currently under contract, but after a lackluster 2020 showing, speculation Exists the Cowboys may move on from him.
There are plenty of things to figure out defensively for the Cowboys in the coming months. However, it’s encouraging to see Quinn isn’t wasting time trying to get this unit back to a respectable level.