Training Camp | 2021

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Spagnola: Is This Defense Dressed For Success?


FRISCO, Texas – Let's not become distracted from this summer's No. 1 priority.

And that happening is understandable. We understand how important Dak Prescott is to the success of this 2021 Dallas Cowboys team. But he's going to be fine. The ankle is good. Judging from the way he's been throwing the ball for the past week, so is the strained lat in his right shoulder that had shut him down in an overabundance of caution for most of training camp.

QB1 is not playing in Saturday night's dress rehearsal against Houston at AT&T Stadium, that meaning he absolutely will not play in next Sunday's preseason Game 4 against Jacksonville. So not a single game rep since Oct. 11 of last year before the Sept. 9 season opener against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

As head coach Mike McCarthy says, "At the end of the day, I trust the practice process."

So if he thinks Dak will be good to go in the opener, let's go with it. And really, with Amari Cooper returning to practice, and likely some snaps Saturday night, then this offense will be whole since the offensive line, ravaged by injuries last year, is back intact with Tyron Smith, Zack Martin and La'el Collins mounting up.

Bueno. No worries.

Me, in preseason Game No. 3, I'm scrutinizing just where this defense is. Not any one player in particular or position group, since it's hard to keep up with new defensive coordinator Dan Quinn's packages, numerous enough to fill one of those Amazon delivery vans.

Just defense … defense … defense against the Texans in for sure the team's No. 1 priority group's \_dress rehearsal\_.

"Our defense will reflect more of where we'd like to be in the third (preseason) game," McCarthy said. "So you will see some of the guys get the whole first half."

Good deal. Get out the binoculars. Time to analyze the all-22.

Because, as has been previously stated, if the Cowboys are to improve in 2021 then this defense has to be significantly better than last year's unit that had a heavy hand in 6-10, giving up the most single-season points in the 61-year history of the Cowboys (473).

How important is defense, even if you have a \_Star Wars\_ offense?

"I had one top-five defense in 13 years and won a Super Bowl," McCarthy said, reflecting on his 2010 team in Green Bay. "We had massive injuries that year. The 77 players won a championship, but that defense kept us in the game and kept giving us an opportunity."

He's not lying. Just reflect on Cowboys history. Super Bowl history. All eight times the Cowboys played in a Super Bowl, they owned a top-10 defense: No. 4 in 1970, No. 3 in 1971, No. 5 in 1975, No. 1 in 1977, No. 2 in 1978, No. 1 in 1992, No. 10 in 1993, No. 9 in 1995, and for good measure, when they should have advanced to the Super Bowl that 1994 season, turning the ball over their first three possessions to fall behind San Francisco 21-0 in the NFC title game, eventually losing 38-28, they had the NFL's No. 1 defense.

Me thinks not a coincidence.

And as you can see, in three of the five times the Cowboys won a Super Bowl, they owned the No. 3, No. 1 and No. 1 defenses.

"The teams I want to coach, defense has to be more of a priority," McCarthy said. "So that's what I learned from my Green Bay experience."

Or all re-emphasized from his first-year Cowboys experience, the team finishing 23rd last year in total defense while giving up at least 33 points in eight of the 16 games and an average of 29.5 over the season.

Step right up, Dan Quinn.

And so far, and really just like five possessions in the first two preseason games, the Cowboys defense with the majority of projected starters playing has given up only two field goals. And in the first two halves, just the two field goals and one touchdown, even that after a Cowboys' turnover, setting up the Cardinals at the Dallas 36-yard line.

Not bad.

"I'm hoping this is not an ending point. That we just keep getting better and better and better as we're going, so there's not like a line of demarcation to say this is only as good as we can get," Quinn said. "I'd say the hell with that. We should get a lot better as we're going."

They should. Defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence has yet to play in a preseason game – he won't, either, on Saturday night – or even taken a padded snap during training camp. Yet, he is highly expected to be good to go on Sept. 9. Defensive end Randy Gregory did not play against Arizona, but should get snaps against the Texans. Veteran safety Malik Hooker, returning from a ruptured Achilles that ended his 2020 season with the Colts, is expected to get his first game snaps Saturday, the Cowboys anxious to see what he still can do.

Nevertheless, just seems like this defense is more organized, experiencing fewer busted plays that burned this team last season. And this revelation comes not in just the two preseason games, but during padded training camp practices, too.

"Everybody is communicating better," starting safety Donovan Wilson.

Give credit to Quinn, COO Stephen Jones calling the former Seattle defensive coordinator and Falcons head coach the best acquisition of the offseason, and that includes the number of veteran free agents brought in, the likes of Keanu Neal, Demontae Kazee, Jayron Kearse, Carlos Watkins, Brett Urban, Tarell Basham and the addition of eight drafted defensive plays, the likes of Micah Parsons, Kelvin Joseph, Osa Odighizuwa, Jabril Cox, Nahshon Wright, Quinton Bohanna and Israel Mukuamu (Chauncey Golston still on PUP).

And that's not to mention the return of veteran corner Maurice Canady, who opted out last year, Gregory eligible for an offseason and training camp for the first time since his rookie season, Trevon Diggs and Neville Gallimore (when he returns from his dislocated elbow) no longer rookies. Bradlee Anae, too.

If Quinn is addition No. 1, then Parsons is 1A, and not far behind are senior defensive assistant George Edwards taking over the linebacker room and new secondary/pass game coordinator Joe Whitt.

Just the whole operation seems better than last year's disjointed bunch.

"I've been in this league a long time and I've never seen one side of the ball flipped the way we flipped (the defense) in one offseason," McCarthy said.

We'll see a little more of this \_flipping\_ Saturday night, maybe giving hope McCarthy's No. 1 priority of fixing the defense will actually take place, though we'll not know for sure until the curtain rises Sept. 9 against Tom Brady and his seventh-ranked offense and No. 2 passing offense during last year's Super Bowl-winning season.

"We have a long way to go in terms of creating the speed we like to play, the physicality we like to play, the amount of takeaways we hope to create," Quinn said. "So keep ratcheting it up a little bit more, a little bit more. That's, to me, what the goals the next two weeks are for us. More speed, more takeaways.

"And if we get to that space, that means we're playing fast and that's usually a by-product of knowing where to go and arriving there violently. Knowing this is the moment that I'm going to take my shot and having that confidence to do it."

Yep, keep an eye on Saturday night's first-half defensive rehearsal for the season opener. Check out the speed. See how well last year's 31st-ranked run defense stops the run. Tackles. And maybe gets hands on the ball a time or three. Yet remember, the Cowboys hope this is but the start of heading in the right direction.

"I don't think we're anywhere near as good as we're going to be, and I hope that improvement keeps taking place," Quinn said.

So does McCarthy.

And you, too.

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