Over the last few weeks, the Cowboys have been getting a lot of publicity on the way to a surprising 5-1 start. You’ve probably read a lot about the Dak Prescott/Tony Romo QB controversy and seen Ezekiel Elliott tear up your fantasy league in what has been a record-breaking rookie season, and strong offensive play has certainly been a catalyst to the team’s success. However, it’s the Cowboys’ defense that really makes them a legitimate contender. Widely regarded as one of the worst defenses in the league heading into the season with only one reigning Pro Bowler (Sean Lee) and three key starters facing suspension (Demarcus Lawrence, Randy Gregory, Rolando McClain), its perceived flaws tempered expectations for their season as a whole. However, the results they’ve put up through six weeks are stronger than anyone could’ve expected given their limited personnel and uninspiring 2015 performance, and while it’s fair to question the sustainability of their current performance to some extent we’ve reached the point where their results are undeniable.
After finishing a mere 17th in points per game allowed last year at 23.4 and dead last in takeaways at 11, this year’s Cowboys have improved their standing to 7th (17.8) and 10th (9) in both statistics respectively through 6 games in 2016. While they’ve allowed a similar amount of yardage per game to last year’s team (went from 17th to 16th in the league), their sizable jump in points per game allowed can’t be attributed to mere luck, as along with the jump in turnovers the Cowboys have actually allowed the 4th highest third down conversion rate in the league (45%). This suggests that they may have actually gotten a little unlucky and could stand to see their yardage allowed per game improve. As a whole, the defense’s improved play is largely due to its secondary, which Pro Football Focus graded as having been the 4th most productive in the league heading into week 7 after grading poorly last year (https://www.profootballfocus.com/pro-ranking-all-32-nfl-secondaries-entering-week-7/). What’s remarkable about this turnaround is that Byron Jones was the only member of last year’s secondary to post a positive grade in coverage, showing just how much the play of those around him has improved. Additionally, after starting the season with just 6 sacks in 4 games (an expected weakness for them with the aforementioned suspensions of Randy Gregory and Demarcus Lawrence), they’ve rebounded with 5 sacks in the last two weeks after getting Lawrence back on limited snaps. While this likely won’t ever turn into an area of strength for them over the course of this season, their days of being completely anemic should be coming to a close with Demarcus Lawrence easing in to take pressure off Tyrone Crawford and provide Dallas with some much-needed stability on the edge.
As long as Dak Prescott (or Tony Romo) continues to provide the Cowboys with excellent QB play, the Cowboys don’t even need their defense to play as well as it has to stay in the conversation as legitimate contenders. However, given that Prescott is still merely a rookie and Romo posted a QBR of only 79.4 when healthy last year, continued production at the position is far from a certainty. Since 2000, only one team has won the Super Bowl without finishing the regular season with a top 10 scoring defense or having a quarterback that finished with a top 10 QBR (the 2007 Giants), showing that if you don’t have a premier quarterback or defense a Super Bowl win is probably not in the cards. Through six games the Cowboys have both, and the emergence of their defense will only serve to protect an offense that faces an adjustment period when it either undergoes a quarterback change or officially hands Prescott the keys to the offense. If they can maintain these improvements for the rest of the season, 5-1 may be just the beginning of what the Cowboys can achieve.