Cowboys' dramatic defensive rebuild reveals synergy between coaches, scouts and players

Dallas Cowboys cornerback DaRon Bland (26) celebrates an interception with his teammates. Bland was a fifth-round draft pick by the Cowboys in 2022. AP Photo/Ron Jenkins

FRISCO, Texas -- The statistics for the Dallas Cowboys' defense are staggeringly different now than they were two seasons ago.

Through five games in 2020, the Cowboys had allowed 2,022 yards and a 47.9% third-down conversion rate, tallied 1 interception and 10 sacks, and given up -- ready for this? -- 180 points.

Through five games in 2022, the Cowboys have allowed 1,557 yards and a 33.8% third-down conversion rate, tallied 5 interceptions and 20 sacks, and given up -- ready for this? -- 72 points.


“Statistically, when we started in 2020, we had some tough days, particularly stopping the run,” coach Mike McCarthy said, alluding to a run unit that allowed an average of 155.8 yards through five games in 2020. “This is clearly a different defense. It’s different personnel that fits the system and all of those things.”

Linebacker Micah Parsons, who spent the 2020 season training after opting out of that year at Penn State because of the COVID-19 pandemic, said nobody around on the defense then has mentioned to him just how poor it was.

“But I watched TV. I watched football. We all saw it,” Parsons said. “No reason to talk about it. I would like to talk about this year."

Cornerback Trevon Diggs was a rookie in 2020. What’s the reason for the turnaround?

“Coaching. Brotherhood,” he said. “Being together, playing together, just being around each other, knowing everyone’s strengths and weaknesses and just execute.”

Defensive coordinator Dan Quinn received a lot of credit for the 2021 turnaround that saw the Cowboys go from allowing a franchise-record 473 points the season prior to 358 points, while leading the NFL with 34 takeaways. He deserves credit for the much improved play this season as well, especially adjusting the looks of the defensive fronts and using the talents of a pass rush that goes beyond Parsons and defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence.

But how the Cowboys rebuilt the defense in such a short time is worth noting, too.

There are seven primary defensive holdovers from prior to McCarthy’s arrival: Lawrence, Dorance Armstrong, Leighton Vander Esch, Anthony Brown, Jourdan Lewis, Donovan Wilson and Trysten Hill.

Two more came in the 2020 draft: Diggs and Neville Gallimore.

Since Quinn’s arrival, there have been 14 additions through the draft and free agency: Parsons, Jayron Kearse, Malik Hooker, Anthony Barr, Osa Odighizuwa, Dante Fowler Jr., Quinton Bohanna, Chauncey Golston, Israel Mukuamu, Sam Williams, DaRon Bland, Jabril Cox, Kelvin Joseph and Nahshon Wright.

For all of that to work, there has to be a synergy between the coaches and the personnel department.

“It’s very, very important,” McCarthy said. “I don’t know how you win without it.”

Vice president of player personnel Will McClay and his staff listen to the coaches about the types of players they want for their schemes. Quinn wanted defensive linemen with longer 34-inch arms. That became a priority. The Cowboys always preferred cornerbacks with size, but proven playmaking ability was a must. And they wanted speed everywhere.

“In every organization, man, is it important because there could be one train of thought, ‘Hey, this is the group we have and you coach them,’” Quinn said. “But having that connection between the coaching staff and the personnel side, it’s so important.

"So if we can say, ‘This is how we would feature the player if he was on our team.’ I think that kind of paints a picture for the personnel side ... Then it’s how do you get them?”

The Cowboys did not pay megabucks for their free-agent signings, whether it was Kearse last year (one year, $1.127 million) or this year after he led the team in tackles (two years, $10 million, $5 million guaranteed). Hooker and Vander Esch returned on one-year deals. Fowler, whom Quinn coached in Atlanta, came on a one-year deal. Barr, whom McCarthy admired from the linebacker’s days in Minnesota, signed during training camp on a one-year deal.

In 2021, their first six draft picks were defensive players. This year, four of their first five picks were offensive players, but they have gotten production from Williams (second-round defensive end), Bland (fifth-round cornerback) and could see another fifth-rounder, linebacker Damone Clark, return within a month from a neck injury.

When the Cowboys lost linebacker Randy Gregory to the Denver Broncos in free agency in the offseason, there was a lot of lament. The Cowboys were able to re-sign Armstrong, who has four sacks in five games (one off his career high), add Fowler (who has two sacks) and take Williams (who had his best game last week versus the Los Angeles Rams) in the second round.

Gregory’s cap figure this season is $5.6 million. Armstrong, Fowler and Williams combine to count $7.42 million against the cap.

"Everybody is 'him' [on this defense]," Armstrong said after the Rams’ win. "If it's not the same guy this week, it's a new guy. That's the good thing about our defense -- we've got guys that can actually go."

Quinn mentioned Armstrong’s quote on Monday.

“That speaks to the unselfish nature of the group, and it speaks to the entire crew and how deep and how we roll together,” Quinn said. “Knowing that it may be somebody different next week to be counted upon in certain roles, and I thought that was a pretty accurate description of him. They all can be that. We play guys in different roles in different ways, and we don’t put too much on one person, and the next one there is ready to attack.”