The Dallas Cowboys entered this offseason knowing they needed to address their defensive woes. While the entire team underperformed in their first year under new head coach Mike McCarthy, the offensive struggles figure to be due to starting quarterback Dak Prescott missing 11 games and the offensive line being severely hindered due to injuries.
That was not the case for the Dallas defense, which was relatively healthy all season. This unit’s issues were more about poor performance and scheme issues. Attempting to install a new defensive scheme in the midst of all the restrictions forced by a worldwide pandemic proved to be too much to overcome for the Cowboys in 2020.
As a result, the Cowboys allowed 29.6 points per game to be scored against them last year, the fifth-highest amount in the NFL. And their run defense, which allowed an average of 158.8 yards per game on the ground to opposing offenses ranked a lowly 31st.
Taking the fall for the defensive miscues was first-year coordinator Mike Nolan. The veteran coach was fired and replaced by Dan Quinn. The former highly-successful defensive coordinator for the Seattle Seahawks was coming off a six-year stint as the head coach for the Atlanta Falcons.
Quinn’s new defensive coaching staff includes secondary and defensive pass game coordinator
Joe Whitt Jr. along with defensive line coach Aden Durde. A return to a more familiar defensive scheme under Quinn figures to allow this unit in Dallas to rebound quickly in 2021.
Yet, there are two defenders that will likely be impacted the most by these defensive changes. One positively, and one potentially negatively. The player that figures to benefit most from this change is linebacker Jaylon Smith.
After playing on a Pro Bowl level in 2018, and actually getting his first Pro Bowl nod a year later, Smith’s play has been in steady decline over the past two seasons. Despite posting a career-high 154 total tackles in 2020, Smith earned a career-low overall grade of 54.2 from Pro Football Focus for his performance. And there was some speculation the Cowboys may decide to move on from the 25-year old linebacker this offseason.
Instead, the Cowboys seemingly gave Smith a boost of confidence after an unnamed source recently revealed the team is not considering releasing their young linebacker. This could be in large part to the hiring of Quinn and the hope Smith’s career can rebound because of it.
While Smith might benefit from the coaching change, a player who might be hurt by it is defensive end Dorance Armstrong. Despite coming off his third mediocre season (33 total tackles, no sacks) in Dallas following his fourth-round selection out of Kansas in 2018, Armstrong appeared to be a coaching favorite last year earning a career-high 369 defensive snaps and 287 special teams snaps.
Yet, entering the final season of his rookie contract in 2021, Dorance Armstrong is far from being a shoo-in for re-signing in 2022. In fact, the introduction of a new defensive coordinator and defensive line coach might hurt him the most as he attempts to prove he deserves an extension in Dallas.