The Atlanta Falcons fired head coach Dan Quinn at the end of the 2020 season, and he replaced Mike Nolan as the defensive coordinator for the Dallas Cowboys. Tasked with fixing a historically bad defense that ranked 28th in points allowed, 23rd in yards allowed, and 31st in rushing yards allowed at 158.8 yards per game, Quinn has made strides.
A common complaint about Nolan's brief tenure in Dallas is his schemes were not only difficult, but they also lacked any rhyme or reason. Enter Quinn, who has settled that unit down some, the most notable improvements being in the red zone and on third down.
The Cowboys have also been much more opportunistic. Second-year cornerback Trevon Diggs has five interceptions on the season, two against Sam Darnold in Week 4.
The Cowboys have nine takeaways this season, and they've only allowed 81 rushing yards a game, which puts them in the top ten. This defense is still a work in progress. Overall, it's been a far better complement to the offense than it was last year. That has allowed the Cowboys' offense to strike more of a balance rather than to rely as heavily on the arm of Dak Prescott to bail them out if they were trailing.
Speaking of which, it's worth noting that before his season-ending ankle injury, Prescott was on a projected pace to throw for over 5,000 yards, which forced the Cowboys' offense to be a bit one-dimensional. Now, with a good defense, the Cowboys can establish the run and keep opposing defenses honest.
Let's look at each unit a bit more closely.
Quinn has brought his 4-3 base defense, and this defense is playing much better because the personnel is a better fit. Rookie third-round pick out of UCLA Osa Odighizuwa has 15 pressures this season. His disruptiveness, stout frame, and hand usage have been exceptional through four games, and he poses a tough challenge for the Giants offensive line.
Brent Urban, 6'7' and 300 pounds, is a veteran presence who has a significant role on this defense, having played in 112 snaps so far this season. Quinton Bohanna will also rotate in there behind Odighizuwa and Urban, as will Justin Hamilton. Bohanna is a true nose who is massive, and Hamilton is a rotational player.
Star defensive lineman Demarcus "Tank" Lawrence is currently on injured reserve after suffering a broken foot. Had he been available, his matchup would have come against right tackle Nate Solder, who has been quietly playing decently enough this season.
The remaining edge rushers are Randy Gregory, Terrell Basham, Dorance Armstrong, Azur Kamara, and Bradley Anae. Gregory was a highly touted player who fell to the second round because of off-field concerns. When he's available, he brings flexibility, burst, and long arms to the position. This season, Gregory, who has ten pressures, uses his length well to bat passes out of the air.
Basham has six pressures on the season, four of those coming against Carolina last week. His snaps increased exponentially last week with the injury to Armstrong, and Basham played over 40 snaps.
In previous seasons, Basham was a solid player with the Jets, and he'll look to play opposite Gregory and rookie linebacker Micah Parsons, who also sometimes aligns on the edge.
Like Gregory, Armstrong is a long pass rusher who is explosive, but Gregory is a more productive player. Armstrong hurt his ankle against the Chargers in Week 2, so his availability this week isn't guaranteed.
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Kamara and Anae are situational pass rushers. The latter was injured against the Chargers and may be questionable for Week 5. Kamara has filled in for Anae. He's a tweener at 6'4", 235 pounds, who will likely be a rotational player in passing situations.
Chauncy Gholston has played well given the injuries at the edge position. Gholston is a rookie third-round pick out of Iowa who is 6'5" and 270 pounds. He has four pressures on the year and can be disruptive. His measurables don't suggest he's as explosive as some of the Cowboys' other edge players, but he can convert speed to power, and he has been known to stun offensive linemen with his punch.
Micah Parsons has lived up to his draft selection, and then some. Quinn has trusted him on the edge since the Lawrence injury, and he is displaying that unique profile that made him so interesting to the Giants during the pre-draft process.
Parsons's versatility allows Quinn to use him in multiple ways. He will be all over the field against the Giants. He has a team-leading 17 pressures and 2.5 sacks on the season and has been deployed as a blitzer through both the A- and B-gaps in this defense.
Leighton Vander Esch is a rangy long linebacker who has dealt with a lot of injuries throughout his career. The Cowboys drafted him in the first round of the 2018 draft, but they did not pick up his fifth-year option.
That doesn't mean he's a bad player. Vander Esch's best season by far was his rookie year when he had 140 tackles. The combination of Parsons and Vander-Esch is a dynamic linebacking duo with versatility.
Safety convert Keanu Neal was with Quinn in Atlanta, deployed as a money linebacker--more of a hybrid safety/linebacker than anything else. Neal is physical but doesn't have the range desired of a safety, which is why he's been converted to linebacker. He's coming off an Achilles injury and has missed the last two games with a hamstring injury.
Cowboys' 2020 second-round pick Trevon Diggs is having a breakout season with five interceptions this year. He looks explosive, has great technique, and can diagnose well. He also has three passes defended and has only allowed a 50% catch rate. Diggs figures to line up against Kenny Golladay a lot Sunday.
Anthony Brown plays opposite Diggs. Brown can be exploited and will likely draw rookie Kadarius Toney in coverage when Toney lines up outside. Brown has been with Dallas since 2016, so Giants offensive coordinator Jason Garrett knows him very well to where he should be able to take advantage of Brown's vulnerabilities and those by the other defensive personnel left over from his years in Dallas.
Jourdan Lewis is the Cowboys' slot cornerback, and he's been a good player for Dallas since he came into the league back in 2017. Maurice Canady also contributes to the slot and the dime. As good as the Cowboys corners are, if the Giants continue their aggressiveness in New Orleans against Dallas, there will be opportunities to be had.
The Cowboys safety group is underrated and consists of high upside, rare physical type of players.
Malik Hooker was a first-round pick by the Colts out of Ohio State. He struggles to stay healthy, but he has rare range and movement skills when he is on the field. Hooker is the third safety behind Jayron Kearse and Demante Kazee.
Kearse has rare size (6'4, 215 pounds), speed, and length for a safety and typically lines up close to the box where he's been solid in run support. Kazee also followed Quinn to Dallas and is the Cowboys starting free safety. Quinn isn't afraid to deploy a three-safety look, so expect that to continue to be the case against the Giants.
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