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5 Bucks: Defensive Identity? McCarthy's Stamp, More


(Editor's Note: Bucky Brooks brings a wealth of experience, not only as a former NFL player of five seasons, but also as a scout and on the pro personnel side for two teams. In the last decade, Brooks has worked in the media, including the NFL Network. Bucky will provide his own analysis and opinions of the Cowboys but also the entire NFL.)

After reviewing the film of the Cowboys 48-39 loss to the Browns, here are five observations based on my tape study.

Mike McCarthy needs to put his stamp on the team.

McCarthy's resume as a Super Bowl winner played a huge role in Jerry Jones' decision to hire him as Jason Garrett's replacement. Jones wanted a "team builder" and a "winner" as the new leader of his franchise and raved about McCarthy's track record for building a championship-caliber program at the introductory press conference.

After four games, the Cowboys look nothing like a championship squad. The team has underachieved in every significant category when it comes to winning games. The Cowboys turn the ball over at an alarming rate and rank as one of the most penalized teams in the league. On defense, they are surrendering too many points due to balls flying over the top of the secondary. Against the run, they've been punched in the mouth at the line of scrimmage and responded with little to no fight in return. The lack of physicality and toughness has been exceeded by their lackadaisical effort and energy.

On top of those woes, the Cowboys have struggled with communication and execution in all three phases. The cumulative effect of repeated issues and miscues has the Cowboys sitting at the bottom of the NFC East with a team that's more than capable of making a playoff run.

With that in mind, it is time for McCarthy to put his stamp on this team by having an open and honest dialogue with the squad. He needs to re-establish the standards and expectations, while also cleaning up any confusion regarding the team's philosophy, scheme, and player roles. As the head coach, he needs to set the example and demand that each player meets the standard or remove them from the lineup or roster.

In addition, McCarthy must challenge his coaches to make sure that they are coaching the team in line with his long-term vision for the program. Whether it is greater attention to detail and the fundamentals or scaling back the game plan or putting players in a better position to succeed within their respective scheme, the head coach must demand more from everyone involved with the team. He must impose his will on his coaching staff and players, and get this team to play up to their potential.

No more excuses for the players.

Despite McCarthy falling on the sword for his team in press conferences, the Cowboys' problems begin and end with the performance of the players. The team has underachieved in every area due to their shoddy play and lack of attention to detail. The Cowboys don't hustle or play with great effort on defense, and it stands out whenever you study the tape. Defenders are laying on blocks and exerting minimal effort when the play goes to the other side of the field. Look at any of the Browns' big plays and you will spot three or four Cowboys' defenders walking behind the play without any urgency to pursue the ball with reckless abandon.

The lackadaisical effort embarrassing to watch as a fan or an observer, and it should make players shrink in their seats during film sessions. Players should not expect a stern lecture from their coaches but they should also receive rebukes from the hardest workers on the team. Financial guru Dave Ramsey frequently points out that you can't keep thoroughbreds and donkeys in the same stable due to their different approaches to work (thoroughbreds must be restrained due to their energy and exuberance while donkeys need a constant kick in the rear).

The Cowboys need to identify the thoroughbreds and donkeys on their roster and encourage the thoroughbreds to take charge of the program. The leaders need to hold the defensive "donkeys" accountability for their efforts on the field and demand more from them on the field. In addition, the leaders need to make sure that everyone is paying attention in meetings and on the practice field to avoid the recurring mistakes that have plagued this team from the beginning of the season. If players are able to police themselves and raise the standard within the locker room, the Cowboys can certainly turn things around after a disappointing start.

What's the Cowboys' defensive identity?

Mike Nolan wants to play a multiple defense that features a variety of schemes and personnel packages. The constant change is designed to confuse opponents and create negative plays or turnover opportunities. In theory, the multi-dimensional approach sounds like an excellent idea for a team with a roster full of hybrid players with plenty of experience. But the Cowboys' defenders look dazed and confused on the field.

We've seen a handful of blown coverages and miscommunications each and every week. Receivers are running wide open against the team's split-safety coverage and any other scheme employed by the squad. In addition, the linebacker corps has struggled to sort out receivers in route concepts with multiple linebackers running with the same receiver and leaving another pass-catching target wide open over the middle.

Against the run, the Cowboys' defensive line has been mauled and mashed at the point of attack. They've been blown off the ball and dropped into the laps of unsuspecting linebackers on the second level. The lack of gap control is problematic for a defensive scheme that's expected plug in at least one defender in every gap.

After studying four games of the Cowboys' defensive failures, I don't know the unit's identity. The defense is a mix of read-and-react plays and ineffective blitzes with blown coverages in the back end. On top of the schematic failures, the defense isn't a hard-playing unit and the laziness shows up repeatedly on tape.

With a "must-win" game on the horizon, Nolan has to do some soul searching to determine the best way to help his players play at a high level. Whether it is scaling back on some of the tactics or finding a few concepts that the team has done really well, Nolan has to put them in the right situation to succeed. In addition, he needs to demand more effort and better execution from his players when he finally gets them on the same page.

If the Cowboys are going to turn it around on defense this season, Nolan will need to rely on his experience and wisdom to come up with a plan to help this defense reach its potential in a hurry.

The D-Line needs to step up.

For all of the criticism being lobbed in Jaylon Smith's direction for his sub-par play, it is hard to play well with the entire defensive line resting in your lap. The Cowboys' frontline was pushed around by the Browns at the point of attack as part of an effort that produces 300 yards on the ground. Dontari Poe, Tristen Hill, Antwan Woods, Demarcus Lawrence, and Aldon Smith were part of a unit that were abused by the Browns' offensive line. The unit was unable to control the line of scrimmage and their lackluster efforts made it easy for the Browns to enjoy a banner day on the ground without their RB1 (Nick Chubb) playing a major role.

Studying the tape, the Cowboys' defensive line didn't get off the ball on the snap and their lack of penetration makes life difficult for the linebackers to do their jobs. Part of their problems can be attributed to high pad level and poor hand usage. The Cowboys' defenders couldn't get off blocks and struggled to separate from blockers after the initial engagement. In addition, the frontline defenders failed to set the edge or occupy their gaps at the line. Without enough hats in the cracks, the Browns runners easily scooted to the second level for big gains.

In the end, the whipping at the hands of the Browns rests on the shoulders of a defensive line that endured a 60-minute butt-kicking. The frontline was dominated in the trenches and the disappointing performance is one of the reasons why the defense continues to fall short of expectations.

Dak has become an A-level playmaker.

The Cowboys' QB1 has been unfairly miscast as a game manager for most of his career. His critics have suggested that he compiled an impressive resume due to the wealth of talent around him. From a dominant offensive line to All-Pro running back to a trio of WR1s on the perimeter, the supporting cast has been cited as the enablers to his success.

In 2020, the fifth-year pro has turned that narrative on its head by playing at an all-star level from the pocket. He is on pace to throw for 6,000-plus yards after surpassing 450 pass yards for the third straight game. Considering that he has done behind a patchwork offensive line with unproven offensive tackles and a couple of suspect interior blockers, the production reflects a player that's coming into his own as a franchise quarterback.

Sure, Prescott has missed on a few throws and turned the ball over six times in four games, the emerging star has become a deadly assassin as a passer when given sufficient time in the pocket. From his pinpoint throws on play-action slants to his superb touch on the deep ball along the boundary, Prescott is making defenders pay when they're out of position. Whether it was firing the laser to Cooper between multiple defenders on a skinny post for a touchdown or find a streaking CeeDee Lamb against an out of position safety on the hash, No.4 is cashing in the lottery tickets that are available on the perimeter.

If the Cowboys can ever get the game on their terms and enable their QB1 to deal while playing with a lead, the rest of the league will _finally _start to appreciate Prescott's growth as an emerging superstar at the position.


The Cowboys are back at AT&T Stadium next Sunday, October 11th to take on their rivals, the New York Giants. A limited number of tickets are on sale now. Get yours now before they sell out!

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