Will the Cowboys' defense improve on 2016 performance after free-agency losses?

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Thursday July 6th, 2017

The Cowboys’ comeback in January’s NFC playoff game against the Packers was thwarted by Jared Cook’s toe-drag 35-yard reception from Aaron Rodgers, ultimately setting up Green Bay’s game-winning field goal. What could be forgotten is just how good a tired Dallas defense was in the final quarter against one of the best quarterbacks in history.

In the fourth quarter, the Packers’ first series in the fourth quarter, Cowboys’ Barry Church brought down Rodgers to force a punt in the first series, stopped running back Ty Montgomery for a loss of five yards that forced a Mason Crosby kick from 56 yards and sacked Rodgers for a loss of 10 yards with less than 20 seconds in the game before the miracle throw.

But despite the performance against Green Bay, it’s tough to imagine the Dallas defense—a classic bend-don’t-break D—holding up again the following week against Atlanta’s offensive machine or against Tom Brady and the Patriots in the Super Bowl. The Cowboys struggled throughout 2016 to produce turnovers and consistent pass rushing, and after a good-not-great offseason of talent acquisition, one must wonder if the Dallas defense will have enough juice to make a serious postseason run.

The answer to that question should contain a healthy amount of skepticism around this Cowboys’ defense, albeit on paper and in July.

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Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli is one of the best defensive minds in the game, and his one-gap scheme (and the brilliance of linebacker Sean Lee) helped the Cowboys be one of the best run-stopping units in the league. Dallas allowed just 83.5 yards per game, the best mark in the NFL in 2016. They had the fifth-best scoring defense in the league at 19.1 points per game, and Dallas’ 36 sacks ranked in the middle of the NFL.

Of course, Dallas’ run defense benefitted greatly from the offense posting high scores and draining the clock. The Cowboys finished third in the league in time of possession at 31:23 and fifth in points per game. And though the Cowboys improved on their sack total from the year previous (and without a stud pass-rusher), the individual leader in sacks was Benson Mayowa with six.

And the Cowboys would feel good about defensive end David Irving turning in three of his four sacks in the final four games of last season if he weren’t facing a four-game suspension for violating the league’s PED policy, making him yet another Cowboys pass-rusher in recent years who will miss time due to league suspension. The Cowboys spent their first-round pick on Michigan’s Taco Charlton, and he may develop into a fine pass rusher in the NFL. But only so much should be expected of the 22-year-old rookie.

Lee is a known quantity at linebacker, but what about 2016 second-round pick Jaylon Smith?

“A big ol’ arrow up,” Jerry Jones recently told reporters.

In reality, Smith is a big ol’ question mark for Dallas. A top-10 talent, he hasn’t played an NFL snap due to his nasty knee injury in a bowl game. Nerves in his knee are reportedly regenerating, though it’s impossible to predict his talent level or consistency in 2017 playing with a brace for his drop foot.

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Finally, Dallas spent most of its draft capital on fixing its secondary for the long term. Four of the Cowboys’ five picks after Charlton were used on defensive backs after seeing four DBs leave in free agency. Chidobi Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis will work at cornerback with Orlando Scandrick, Anthony Brown and free-agent acquisition Nolan Carroll while sixth-round pick Xavier Woods will offer some depth behind safeties Byron Jones and Jeff Heath.

Dallas only had nine interceptions in 2016 when the league-low was seven. Even worse, five of those interceptions walked out the door in free agency in Brandon Carr, Barry Church, Mo Claiborne and J.J. Wilcox.

Every team in the NFC East got better offensively this offseason, and the Cowboys also get to face the four squads from the stout AFC West in 2017. Dallas’s championship aspirations with its championship offense may have to wait on its defense for a season or two.

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