Spagnola: There Can Be No Standing Still With NFL’s 8th-Ranked Defense

         FRISCO, Texas – There is so much for the Cowboys to consider just 12 days from the start of free agency on March 14 and now 55 days from the start of the NFL Draft come April 26.

         Here is something for them to chew on, and a lot will depend on how they evaluate their defensive performance in 2017.

         Now, we know the Cowboys made a defensive jump into the NFL’s top 10 when it comes to average yards per game. The Cowboys’ 318.1 ranked them eighth in the NFL, a six-spot improvement from their 14th standing in 2016. That’s good. They keep moving in the right direction ever since bottoming out at 32nd in 2013.

         But when it comes to average points per game, the Cowboys tied for 13th, right at 21. That number becomes bloated by five opponent defensive returns for touchdowns, causing a regression from 2016 when the Cowboys finished fifth in points allowed at 19.1. The major difference, though, was the team yielded no opponent defensive returns or special team returns for touchdowns that season.

         Still, while there seems to be this current preoccupation with the Cowboys going big for a wide receiver or tight end, defense still must be a high priority when adding personnel to a team dropping from 13-3 in 2016 to 9-7 in 2017, a respectable total considering what the Cowboys went through this past season, and meaning they have gone 22-10 over the past two seasons and 38-26 over the past four, ever since getting out of their three-year 8-8 rut.

         Improvement on defense is imperative going forward.

         Because when checking out the Cowboys’ 2018 opponents, injury aside, this is the gauntlet of quarterbacks the Cowboys will face, complete with their 2017 NFL ranking and QB rating:

         No. 1 Alex Smith, Washington (twice), 104.7

         No. 2 Drew Brees, New Orleans, 103.9

         No. 4 Carson Wentz, Philadelphia (presumably twice), 101.9.

         No. 6 Matthew Stafford, Detroit, 99.3.

         No. 10 Russell Wilson, Seattle, 94.5.

         No. 14 Jameis Winston, Tampa Bay, 92.2

         No. 15 Matt Ryan, Atlanta, 91.4.

         No. 20 Blake Bortles, Jacksonville, 84.7.

         No. 24 Cam Newton, Carolina, 80.7.

         No. T25 Eli Manning, NY Giants (twice, we think), 80.4.

         No. 27 Marcus Mariota, Tennessee, 79.3.

         And then there are two more, Andrews Luck, who missed the entire season for Indianapolis this past year; and Houston’s Deshaun Watson, the rookie playing in only seven games and attempting a non-qualifying 204 passes, but had a 103 QB rating before suffering his season-ending torn ACL. Luck underwent surgery to repair a torn labrum in January, but was coming off a 96.4 QB rating in 2016. Watson’s ACL surgery was on Nov. 8, so he might be ready for the start of the season.

         A QB Muderers’ Row of sorts?

         Look, if you add Watson’s QB rating at the time of his injury, and factor in Luck at 96.4 in 2016 – and we understand both might not be their normal selves again in 2018 or that Wentz has a long road ahead of him to return from his ACL tear – that’s potentially having to play nine games against quarterbacks coming off seasons with at least Russell’s rating of 94.5.

         Maybe more frightening, in 2018 the Cowboys are scheduled to play six games against quarterbacks ranking in the top 6 this past season, with four of those guys sporting at least a 99.3 rating and two playing in the NFC East.

         And with Luck and Watson notwithstanding, the Cowboys will play 10 games against quarterbacks who finished 2017 with a higher QB rating than that of Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott, coming in tied for 17th at 86.6.

         The Cowboys certainly will have their hands full defending some of the NFL’s best quarterbacks, causing many out there to exclaim, what will they ever do against all these guys who can sling the ball around the field?

Well, from just looking at the names, you wouldn’t have thought this past season would have been a walk in the park, right? Manning (twice), Carson Palmer, Jared Goff, Aaron Rodgers, Kirk Cousins (twice). Smith, Ryan, Wentz, Philip Rivers, Derek Carr, Wilson and Nick Foles/Nate Sudfeld were the ones they faced. So add it up, the Cowboys did play nine games against top 15-ranked quarterbacks.

And while there is a perception these quarterbacks ripped up the Cowboys, in actuality, only two guys threw for more than the 263 yards Cousins and Smith did in games the Cowboys won: Palmer (325 yards) and Rivers (434), somewhat distorting what this young Cowboys defense did overall in 2017. And at that, they beat Arizona but lost badly to San Diego.

Why, the Cowboys pass defense this past season finished 11th, giving up an average of 234.1 total passing yards per game. And to think in 2016 they finished 26th against the pass, giving up an average of 273.5 a game.

But the disconcerting stat from both seasons: The Cowboys only intercepted 10 passes in 2017, a most modest improvement of one over 2016. Only five teams had fewer interceptions than the Cowboys this past season, and only Atlanta in that bunch finished with a winning record.

That must improve, the burden not solely on the secondary. Pass rush comes into significant play, and when it comes to those numbers, the Cowboys did finish 2017 with 38 sacks, sure, two more than the 36 in 2016, but quite modest since they tied for 15th in the league. So, average, even though the 38 was the Cowboys’ highest sack total since posting 42 in the 8-8 season of 2011.

         Now the good news is the Cowboys will most certainly figure out how to return defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence, his 14.5 sacks second in the NFL. Rookie defensive end Taco Charlton appeared to be getting it toward the end of the season. They would certainly hope restricted free agent defensive lineman David Irving plays more than his injury/suspension-shortened season of last year (eight games), assuming they do get the restricted free agent re-signed.

         And those rookie defensive backs were coming on strong the last half of the season, finally healthy: Chidobe Awuzie, Xavier Woods, Jourdan Lewis, along with second-year safety Kavon Frazier and one-time starting cornerback Anthony Brown. Who knows if veteran corner Orlando Scandrick will be back, and signs keep pointing to probably not, but if these youngsters keep making progress, the Cowboys might be on to something back there.

         Still, though, in this NFL, if you are standing still you are getting worse. The Cowboys must not only improve their offensive performance in 2018, they need to continue improving on defense, too, especially if you factor in all of those top quarterbacks they will face.

         So, yes, better chew that up darn good.

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