Science Lab: This Defense Could Be No. 1 in '22

Science-Lab--Defense-Could-Be-No.-1-in-‘22-hero

Patrik [No C] Walker joined the Dallas Cowboys digital media group as a staff writer and media personality in July 2022, having professionally covered the NFL and, more specifically, the Cowboys since 2007.

He most recently did so for CBS Sports by way of 247Sports, where he also spent time delving into collegiate recruiting as well – ultimately becoming well-known for his level of unapologetic objectivity labeled by many as his own unique brand of football "science".

Welcome to "The Science Lab", a place where football facts and in-depth analysis always triumph over feelings.

FRISCO, Texas - It's been a very long time since the Cowboys were consistently the plaintiff in their case to prove themselves a Super Bowl contender in the court of public opinion, instead often needing a defense attorney to come to their aid, but the last several haven't been able to do anything more than file for an endless number of continuances.

Enter Dan Quinn, essentially a proven football esquire who not only has skins on his wall as a Super Bowl-winning defensive coordinator, but one who required only one offseason to flip the Cowboys defense from literal worst in several categories to first in many - overall one of the best in the entire NFL in 2021.

But what's the ceiling here? It's justifiable to pose this question, and for several reasons, but for as much evidence as there is to support a possible defensive downturn in Dallas, there are reasons to believe they're quite literally just getting started.

Let's first talk about what, historically speaking, is working against them.

Trevon Diggs is looking to build upon a record-setting season that saw him reel in an eye-popping 11 interceptions in 16 regular season starts, tying team legend Everson Walls for the most by any Cowboy in a single season and falling narrowly shy of the all-time record set by Dick "Night Train" Lane in the 1950s; and he also racked up a league-most 21 pass deflections to go along with two pick-sixes and 52 combined tackles (43 of which were solo).

It was an inhuman pace of production that is typically difficult - to say the least - to replicate, and for a lot of reasons. For one, the secret is out on Diggs, and that means in order for him to equal or better his 11 interceptions (which he's listed as one of his top individual goals) they'll need to continue throwing his way. It goes against all manner of common sense that opposing quarterbacks would continue with such lunacy, but here's what works in Diggs' favor:

They kept doing it last season, and relentlessly, so maybe common sense isn't common at all.

What could make it more challenging for them to avoid Diggs in 2022 is what looks to be another level up by Anthony Brown, who arguably had the best training camp of any Cowboys player not named Micah Parsons. The festivities in Oxnard got underway with Brown hauling in a pick six against quarterback Dak Prescott, setting the defensive tone that would carry throughout the remainder of camp.

The sixth-year cornerback is much-maligned around the fandom but isn't exactly anything to shake a stick at - grabbing a career-best three interceptions last season that, to his admission, could've been many more. To Brown's tally, the Cowboys "left another 10 [INTs] out there" in 2021, before noting "I dropped probably five myself" and noting the defense " definitely has room to grow" this coming season.

This is coming from a starter on a defense that logged a league-high 26 interceptions last season, and he's right: they can be better.

And there are 31 NFL offenses that know this to be true.

The secondary, led by the triumvirate of Diggs, Brown and Jourdan Lewis (who, like Diggs and Brown, is also coming off of a career-best season), has itself improved on paper with the addition of rookie fifth-round pick DaRon Bland - who continually stole the show in training camp and throughout much of the preseason - and the safety unit has taken only two offseasons to go from the biggest defensive weakness to one of its main strengths.

The 2021 additions of Malik Hooker and Jayron Kearse headline the group in 2022, and former breakout safety Donovan Wilson is again healthy to combine with a surging talent in Israel Mukuamu and another impressive undrafted rookie Markquese Bell to give Quinn enough ammunition to make any cross-examination a visceral affair.

OK, but games are won in the trenches first and foremost, right?

Right.

That's because the goal for any defensive coordinator is to shrink the coverage windows for cornerbacks and safeties, which lessens exposure to key possession plays early and big plays later that usually result from fatigue errors (both mental and physical), making it paramount the Cowboys establish themselves at the front of their defensive unit to help make/keep the back end an elite one; and losing starting right defensive end Randy Gregory in free agency doesn't help that cause - a fair initial assessment of that loss.

But what if I told you Dorance Armstrong has been better than most give him credit for, and that the onus won't simply be on him to secure the right edge opposite All-Pro pass rusher DeMarcus Lawrence, who himself brings plenty of law and order when healthy?

The reality is that with the loss of Gregory came the acquisition of rookie second-round pick Sam Williams who, while still a bit raw in some respects (it is his first year, after all), has already displayed the power to move buildings with his bull rush and the speed to blow past offensive tackles a time or two?

And with Quinn also professing Williams' rapidly-growing ability to slide inside and rush over guard when needed, the reigning record-holder for Ole Miss' single-season sack record (2021) demonstrates the flexibility to rush the edge opposite Lawrence but to also aid an interior defensive line that looks monstrous heading into the 2022 season - in rotation with Neville Gallimore, Osa Odighizuwa, Chauncey Golston and Quinton Bohanna, who have all shown signs in camp of turning the corner toward what could be a breakout season for each.

If rookie fifth-round pick John Ridgeway, who also possesses earth-moving power but needs to add refinement and finesse to his technique and arsenal at the point of attack, can produce in any regard in Year 1, well, what's been a questionable run defense over the years (pre-Quinn) could become one to fear in the campaign to come.

The run defense in Dallas wasn't nearly as poor as the narratives would have you believe but, middling the pack in rushing yards (16th) with 1,918 allowed and subpar in yards per carry (23rd) at 4.5 allowed per rush, you see the glaring area for growth.

That said, they were top-10 in rushing touchdowns allowed (9th) and their 13 rushing touchdowns given up were only two more than the fifth-ranked Buccaneers and only four more than the Patriots and Broncos - who tied for fewest in the entire NFL last season - and this was achieved with Gallimore missing all but four starts.

Considering Gallimore might be the skeleton key to everything Quinn is trying to unlock in run defense and interior pressure, and seeing as he's healthy and back to top form (or better?) this season, all signs point to an improvement between the bookends on the defensive line.

Oh, and then there's some guy named Micah Parsons, and I'm assuming you've heard of him.

All he did was earn First-Team All-Pro honors and a Pro Bowl nod as a rookie last season, blasting off to a team-high 13 sacks (6fh in the NFL) as an off-the-ball linebacker, adding three forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries and 84 combined tackles (64 solo) to his Year 1 resume, so you should probably pencil him in as being a problem for any and all opposing offenses.

But, like Diggs, the question on if Parsons can equal or better such success in 2022 is a fair one but considering he's far-and-away had the best camp of anyone on the roster - excluding absolutely no one - he's off to the correct start in potentially avoiding any sort of regression.

"Bro, I can get better everywhere," Parsons said at the 2022 NFL Pro Bowl in February. "I can become a better pass rusher. I can become a better LB. Like, anything. I just feel like I'm just out there raw and I was just learning, and I grew and I kept getting better and better throughout the year.

"No one's ever perfect. There's always room to grow in many ways to get better."

Head coach Mike McCarthy believes it, and there's no reason not to.

"You know, I think Micah is a second-year player," said McCarthy from Cowboys training camp in Oxnard. "And what you look from from the rookie class - we talk about it all the time - is taking that second-year jump. He's lost a little weight; he's had a really good offseason. Obviously, in Year 2, and how people look at him, and how they'll have to game plan against him, we've had a whole year to implement the schemes around that and to make sure we're giving him the opportunities he's needing.

"... He's definitely put himself in a position to take a big second-year jump."

What helps Parsons' mission is the addition of four-time Pro Bowl linebacker Anthony Barr, an acquisition that instantly adds a barrel of dynamite to the LB unit that can add a level of overall explosiveness rarely witnessed from the second level of the Cowboys defense.

Barr's presence makes it virtually impossible to laser in on Parsons, as does what looks to be a determined Leighton Vander Esch (on a prove-it deal in 2022, no less) and the return of promising former fourth-round pick Jabril Cox to help make for a LB corps that can cover sideline to sideline and fire out of a cannon toward the opposing quarterback at the most opportune but unpredictable of times.

The bottom line is the Cowboys defense, while stellar in 2021, left a lot of meat on the bone and they know it.

So, they went to work adding pieces that not only could negate at least one major personnel loss, but that looks to have created such a surplus of talent that - added to incumbent impact players seeking to prove their career-best campaign last season wasn't a fluke - creates an atmosphere of competition, motivation, mentorship and hunger for more that makes it equally difficult to fathom a repeat of the best parts of 2021 as it is to try and comprehend a scenario in which they can't improve upon it.

If this unit can remain even mostly healthy, keeping in mind what they were able to achieve despite massive personnel losses one year ago, the sky truly is the limit.

Time will tell how it all plays out, but in the case of Quinn and the Cowboys, the defense doesn't plan to rest their case in 2022 - at least not unless they're the last ones standing in February.

No objections here, your Honor.

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