Dallas Cowboys defense needs to play lights out
By: J. A. Massey
Beating a team led by Tom Brady has been a tall order for teams over the last twenty years. Brady has a record of 230-69 in the regular season, and he has been a part of seven Super Bowl winning Championship teams. So what does the Dallas Cowboys defense have to do to give their team a chance to win on Thursday night? The answer is pretty simple… Make his life miserable. Simple to say, not so simple in reality.
To make his life miserable, you need to put him under pressure and keep him there. This is what it took to beat Brady in New England, but is it the same for beating Brady in Tampa Bay? Let’s look at how he performed under pressure last season. His completion percentage was 71.7% when he wasn’t under pressure in the regular season, but it dropped to 43.8% when pressured. According to Pro Football Focus, he averaged 3.1 fewer yards per attempt under pressure than when he was in a clean pocket, which was the seventh-largest drop in the league last year. He was one of only four quarterbacks to see his QB rating decline by more than 60 points when under pressure. Pretty simple right? Not so fast, because Tampa Bay’s offensive line is excellent, Brady only faced pressure on 17.2% of his throw in 2020. So how is Dallas going to accomplish this feat?
The answer to that question involves many factors and a lot of things going right on Thursday night. The first factor will be whether the Cowboys can get a consistent push along the interior of the defensive line. Follow that up with the emergence of defensive end Randy Gregory and whether he can show he has finally put it all together, rookie LB Micah Parson, and finally Dan Quinn and his defensive staff. Put that all together, and you might have something cooking.
The Cowboys had one of the worst interior defensive lines last year, and they made sure to address it during the offseason. They brought in defensive tackles Carlos Watkins and Brent Urban and drafted Osa Odighizuwa in the third round. While starting DT Neville Gallimore is injured and will miss the game; Osa has stood out in his place, providing quality reps and a push from the center of the line. Brent Urban, more known as a run stopper (PFF’s third highest-rated run defender for interior DL in 2020), has surprisingly been pushing the pocket in camp and preseason. Even if they cannot generate direct pressure on Brady in the game, it will be a massive upgrade for the interior defensive line not to be pushed 5-10 yards downfield, allowing the QB a pocket to escape into when the rush comes from the outside.
Speaking of the rush from that outside, that brings us to Randy Gregory. The Cowboys need him to have an excellent game opposite of DeMarcus Lawrence. Lawrence has consistently been one of the best pass rushers in the NFL (despite what the sack numbers will tell you), and having a consistent rusher opposite of him will only make the both of them better. Gregory has bulked up this year and has been a standout in camp, many calling him the best player all camp for the Cowboys. That needs to translate to the field on Thursday with consistent pressure on Brady all night.
The next factor will be the Cowboys’ first-round pick in this year’s draft, Micah Parsons, and his unique ability to line up just about anywhere and make a play on the field. So far, we have seen him line up at LB, DE, and even at NT. In each position, he has shown an ability to get to the ball carrier and make a play, whether running with a wide receiver in coverage or beating a double team block to pressure the QB. The Cowboys would be wise to bring Parsons as an extra rusher early and often against Brady.
Lastly, the addition of Dan Quinn and his defensive staff should be a massive upgrade over the disaster that was Mike Nolan last season. The Cowboys’ defense is noticeably faster on the field, which will be crucial in the game against a skilled Tampa Bay offense. The Cowboys blitzed on 46.4% of pass plays during the preseason, which is a considerable upgrade and would have been the highest blitz rate in the NFL last season. While a higher blitz rate does not guarantee pressure on the QB, a higher rate can mask predictability, something the Cowboys’ defense struggled with the previous season. I don’t expect the blitz rate to continue to be that high, but it does show the Cowboys’ willingness to bring the extra man if they feel it’s warranted this season.
The Cowboys’ defense will have their hands full on Thursday night with Tom Brady and his high-powered offense. On paper, it is a mismatch in favor of Tampa Bay, and most expect Brady to have his way. However, don’t dismiss this Cowboy’s defense just yet due to the shortcomings of last season. If these ingredients mix just right and the stars align, they might be able to put Tom Brady in the pressure cooker and make it a miserable night.