Here’s where the Cowboys’ defense thrives most, coverage or pass rush

The NFL is an ever-evolving beast. One day the Tampa 2 defense is ruling the day, the next day the Seattle single high is the defensive de jour. In 2023, it’s versions of 2-high coverage (Cover 2, 4, 6) that’s captivating defensive coordinators.

The Vic Fangio discipline has smothered scoring league-wide in recent seasons. 10 QBs passed for 30 or more touchdowns in 2020. Nine passed for 30 or more in 2021. In 2022 and 2023, only four passers in each season hit the 30-mark, and in 2023 specifically, only the Cowboys’ Dak Prescott passed for over 32.

The Cowboys have generally resisted the trend of bend-but-don’t-break coverage. Dan Quinn has preferred to do what he knows best, and that’s Cover 1. Dallas led the NFL in Cover 1 usage in 2023 and doesn’t appear to be in any hurry to change that as they enter the postseason. Together with his amoeba-like front, Quinn is free to send three, four or even five rushers after the passer without any major disruptions in coverage.

While everyone else in the NFL is aggressively packing secondaries to limit chunk plays and make intermediate windows narrow, the Cowboys are still embracing the risk-reward nature of Cover 1.

With his favorite coverage to lean on, Dallas has been happy to mix up the pass rush. Notoriously not one to be blitz-happy, Quinn has taken on a more aggressive attitude of late, blitzing 28.5% of the time in 2023. This blitz rate ranks the Cowboys 13th in the league and has made the Dallas pass rush one of the NFL’s most feared units in the NFL.

Oddly enough, where the Cowboys have drawn the most criticism isn’t in their stubborn refusal to accept current NFL trends in coverage, it’s in their less aggressive defensive fronts. When Dallas doesn’t prioritize pressure and drops extra players into coverage, their defense has looked downright terrible at times. Is that a matter of the oft-unreliable “eye test” or do the number back it up?

Since the definition of blitz varies from outlet to outlet, let’s look at the actual numbers of pass rushers sent and the impact on EPA (numbers curtesy of Sumer Sports):

In standard four-man pass rushes, which Dallas uses 66.3% of the time, the Cowboys are producing a pressure rate of 30.5% and a -0.02 EPA/play. In five-man rushes, which the Cowboys use 27.6% of the time, they produce a pressure rate of 39.5% and an EPA/play of -0.12 (the more negative the number the better). In rushes of six or more, which Dallas deploys 3.9% of the time, the Cowboys produce a pressure rate of 40.9% and an EPA/play of -0.93.

Not surprisingly, more rushers have produced more pressure, and more pressure has produced better EPA results. Why? Because the secondary can handle it. But what about packing the secondary and sending three or less pass rushers?

While these situations haven’t happened often, the results have been pretty telling. In these situations, Dallas has produced a pressure rate of 23.1% and an EPA/play of +0.59. At just 2.3% of plays, it’s a small sample size but important to take note of nonetheless.

The Cowboys’ coverage scheme is built with pressure in mind. Ballhawks fly freely in the secondary and thrive with man coverage and nervous QBs. Stephon Gilmore is holding passers to a CPOE of -5.9 when targeted while DaRon Bland holds them to a dismal -12.0% CPOE. The Cowboys are essentially built to pressure passers and lean on their man-coverage CBs, and sometimes that means blitzing.

The Cowboys aren’t conforming to league trends and it’s working to their advantage. In a season in which big plays are hard to come by, the Cowboys are prone to give one here and there, but over the course of the season their style has served them well and they intend to lean on that style as they embark on the postseason.

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Story originally appeared on Cowboys Wire