The 2018 Dallas Cowboys as we know them were born on a Thursday night in late November. After starting the season 3-5, head coach Jason Garrett’s team rattled off three straight wins heading into its Week 13 matchup with New Orleans. But Drew Brees and the Saints—whose offense had racked up 175 points over their past four games—figured to present an entirely different sort of challenge. That night, playing on a national stage in the house that Jerry Jones built, the Cowboys held New Orleans to just 176 yards of total offense. The Saints went three-and-out on their opening two possessions, and for the first time in his 18-year career, Brees started a game 0-of-4 passing. The Cowboys won 13-10, and that victory solidified them as NFC East favorites. It also served as an awakening for this iteration of the franchise: If Dallas had any hope of advancing deep in the playoffs, its defense would have to guide the way.
In the six weeks since, the calculus hasn’t changed. Dallas finished the regular season ranked ninth in Football Outsiders’ defensive DVOA and sixth in scoring defense (20.3 points per game). The Cowboys’ transition to a defense-first identity initially came as a shock, as just two seasons ago most people in the NFL thought their future would be headlined by their young core of offensive stars. In 2016, the rookie pair of quarterback Dak Prescott and running back Ezekiel Elliott propelled Jerry Jones’s team to a 13-3 record and the top seed in the NFC. Dallas was fifth in points per game that season, and it seemed as if the Prescott-Elliott pairing was poised to rule not only Texas, but the league for years to come.
Instead, even as both players still play vital roles for the Cowboys, the offense has given way to a defense led by a collection of homegrown cornerstones, new linebacker talent, and a fresh coaching voice that’s tapped into the potential of this unit. “I think we saw it last year at times,” veteran linebacker Sean Lee says of what the defense was building. “And then we had some injuries and had some drop-off, and we were young in certain areas. Then [we] got the combination of guys coming in, of guys going from Year 1 to Year 2, [passing game coordinator Kris] Richard—all of it kind of came together. We felt it.”
Over the course of his five-year defensive coordinator tenure in Dallas, Rod Marinelli has led units that have often exceeded expectations. But until this season, the Cowboys were always missing something on that side of the ball. Dallas has made gains in each of the subtle, understated areas where it previously lacked. It’s unleashed a defensive attack that’s been years in the making—one that represents the Cowboys’ best hope, both this weekend against the Rams and beyond.
“Effort” has long been a buzzword used by defensive coaches. Coordinators want their players to fly around the field and swarm the ball with a collective, focused aggression. Marinelli is far from the first NFL coach to preach that gospel, but he might be the first to build a calculation for it into his system.
Ben Bloom has worked in the NFL for 10 seasons. He spent the first two in Cleveland as a low-level assistant before joining the Cowboys as a quality-control coach in 2011. In total, Bloom worked for three different staffs in two cities before coming under Marinelli’s tutelage in 2013. Now, he can definitively say that for all the lip service other coaches pay to the notion of playing hard, none has committed to the idea more fully than Marinelli. “[You know] that concept as a football coach and a football player,” Bloom says. “But I’ve never been in a system other than this one where it’s part of your Day 1 installation.”
During the Cowboys’ first team meetings of the year, Marinelli presents his method of tracking players’ work ethic on every play. Coaches are tasked with monitoring what Marinelli calls “loafs”—any snap during which a player doesn’t run to the ball or throttles down before having to speed up again. “Before we install our fronts, our coverages, our alignments, our assignments, our keys, and our technique, we install effort and how to play physical and what the standard for that is,” Bloom says. “We never get away from that.”
After each game, Bloom and the rest of the Cowboys’ defensive coaches grade the tape like any other staff. They give players marks for completing assignments, using correct technique, and making individual plays. At the end of each play, though, the Dallas assistants also decide whether a player exerted maximum effort. During film sessions, many of those rulings are announced to whole position groups. The goal isn’t to humiliate, but to remind: Marinelli’s defense has an unwavering standard, and that extends to every person involved with the defense. “If I miss the loaf and I don’t hold the player accountable, then I’m letting him get away with it,” Bloom says. “And then I’m violating the standard.”
Because of that standard, Marinelli has produced overperforming if unspectacular units in his first few seasons in Dallas. During the Cowboys’ 13-3 campaign in 2016, the team was fifth in scoring defense, at 19.1 points per game. A ball-control offense that dominated time of possession aided that figure, but the defense also outpaced its talent. That unit featured some of the same names as this 2018 group, but it was far from the force it is now. Pro Bowl defensive end Demarcus Lawrence played through much of that season with a back injury. Byron Jones bounced between positions. The Cowboys’ two most important cornerbacks, Orlando Scandrick and Brandon Carr, careened toward the wrong side of 30. Dallas had the leadership and structure to field a top defense, but other aspects lagged. It wouldn’t be long, though, before that infrastructure got the health luck and the talent influx it needed to make the leap.
At this point in Lee’s career, there aren’t many pointers that he hasn’t heard. The 32-year-old linebacker has crafted an All-Pro résumé from an obsession with film study and an appreciation for the intricacies of the position. Yet when Richard arrived as the Cowboys’ new passing coordinator this offseason, even Lee found himself picking up new tricks.
Richard came to Dallas after spending eight years on Pete Carroll’s staff in Seattle. The former NFL cornerback was the Seahawks’ secondary coach for four seasons, overseeing the emergence of Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, and the legendary Legion of Boom. When Seattle lost former defensive coordinators Gus Bradley and Dan Quinn to head-coaching jobs (with the Jaguars and Falcons, respectively), Richard rose up the ranks. But his time in Seattle ended messily; following a relatively lackluster defensive season by the team’s standards in 2017 (a 13th-place finish in DVOA), Richard was nudged out of the organization.
The Seahawks’ loss was the Cowboys’ gain. Richard was hired in Dallas last January to fill the role previously held by current Colts defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus. Bringing in Richard meant tweaking some of the Cowboys’ base coverage plans, shifting from the soft-zone concepts Eberflus and Marinelli preferred to Seattle’s version of Cover 3, featuring a more aggressive, physical approach by the outside cornerbacks. The basics of Cover 3 weren’t new to Lee, but the meticulous version installed by Richard was. Linebackers in Cover 3 must make a choice when dropping into coverage: match the route concepts of an offense or read the eyes of a quarterback. Rather than allowing his guys to flail in the dreaded space between those techniques, Richard presented a detailed plan of how to choose one or the other depending on formation, down and distance, and game situation. “He brought the details of when to do both, situationally, and how to really do that, and took it to the next level,” Lee says.
Richard’s arrival came with other large-scale changes too. Lee says that in the nine years he’s spent in Dallas, he’s never devoted this much time to meeting with the back seven. Yet with Richard overseeing the pass defense, the Cowboys’ secondary and linebackers convene frequently, and that’s sharpened communication between the two groups. Richard has also been the team’s primary defensive play-caller. The defender with the microphone in his helmet communicates with Richard before each snap; while calls are a collaborative effort among Marinelli, Richard, and other staffers, Richard has become the voice of the Cowboys defense on game day.
That voice has been crucial to the emergence of Byron Jones. After being picked 27th overall in the 2015 draft, the UConn product spent his first three NFL seasons rotating through positions in the Dallas secondary, from slot corner to outside corner to free safety. That long tour of the defensive background gave him a sense of how all the pieces of Marinelli’s scheme fit together, but thanks to Richard he’s finally found a home. “There’s a lot of things that have to go right for a player to be successful,” Jones says. “Here, I have the best chance of doing that because of the defensive style that we have, the defensive coach that we have, and the technique he teaches us.”
Jones has played strictly on the outside this season, and Richard’s version of press coverage has unlocked him in revolutionary ways. He’s been more physical than ever, using his hands to stifle receivers at the line and trusting his speed to make up for mistakes that could come from being assertive at the snap. Jones has always had rare physical gifts; he clocked a 44.5-inch vertical leap at the combine, and his 147-inch broad jump is the longest in the history of the event. Richard has allowed him to maximize those. After being selected to his first Pro Bowl in December, Jones was recognized as a second-team All-Pro earlier this month.
As Jones nears the end of his fourth season in the league—with a lucrative contract extension likely on the horizon—he has gained an appreciation for how much context matters in the NFL. Young players tend to believe that talent trumps all, but time brings perspective. He now realizes how many factors go into which players ascend and which ones sink. “You see a lot of good players throughout the league, no question,” Jones says. “But one thing that makes players great is the system that they’re in, the coaches that they have, what they’re being taught on a daily basis.” Looking back on his first three seasons, he says he wouldn’t change a thing. He needed that experience to make this year possible. “I never look back and think, ‘Oh, I wish I was a corner earlier,’” Jones says. “I wouldn’t have been ready earlier. The fact it happened in this moment, with this coach, with this team, with this defense, it’s perfect.”
Gradual development from homegrown products like Jones and defensive end Demarcus Lawrence formed the foundation of this Dallas defense. For this year’s Cowboys to truly make the leap, though, they also required an adrenaline shot to the heart.
When the front office took Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith in the second round of the 2016 draft, many around the league were puzzled. Fewer than four months earlier, Smith tore the ACL and LCL in his left knee, and the damage was so severe that some wondered whether he’d ever fully recover. Drafting Smith was a calculated risk, a bet that after a de facto redshirt season the player once billed as a top-10 talent would become a bargain. That gamble has paid off several times over.
Smith sat out for the entire 2016 campaign and eased back into action upon returning to the field. He started six games last season, showing flashes of the top prospect he once was while being limited by a brace on his knee. By last spring Smith ditched the brace, and rumblings that he was back to full form began. From Week 1 of this season, that’s held true: Smith has looked agile moving laterally, injecting a dose of athleticism into the middle of the Dallas defense. And he hasn’t been the only one.
Linebacker wasn’t the Cowboys’ most pressing need entering the 2018 draft, which made their selection of Boise State’s Leighton Vander Esch at no. 19 somewhat surprising. For one, Vander Esch had started only a single season in college; and secondly, if both Lee and Smith were healthy, the rookie’s role in Dallas would be restricted. But Lee went down with a hamstring injury in Week 3, opening the door for Vander Esch to step into the starting lineup. He hasn’t looked back. Vander Esch’s 11.3 run-stop percentage in the regular season ranked fifth among 98 qualified linebackers, according to Pro Football Focus. He was voted second-team All-Pro. “You’ve seen him just eat all this information up and then apply it on the field,” Lee says. “It allows him to use all this athletic talent that he has. He can run, he can hit, he’s very athletic. But because of the sense of urgency he has to learn and his ability to apply it, that’s why he’s played so well so early.”
Beyond the numbers they pile up, Smith and Vander Esch bring a new gear to the middle of the Dallas defense. No duo in the NFL covers more ground in less time. As Lee has watched his pair of young teammates blossom, he’s been struck by how smoothly and maturely they navigate open space. With Vander Esch, what sticks out to Lee is the rookie’s patience. Rather than barreling into the fray against the run, Vander Esch holds back, trusting his ability to change direction and make up for lost ground. With Smith, it’s all about grace. Few linebackers appear more at ease moving at full speed. Together, the duo is able to erase throws toward the middle of the field and recover when offenses try to exploit their aggressiveness with misdirection.
Against Jared Goff, Todd Gurley, and the Rams on Saturday, those skills will be paramount. Head coach Sean McVay’s play-action passing game is designed to beat run-stuffing linebackers patrolling the middle. And while it’s unclear how much Lee will play in Los Angeles, his presence will remain crucial for the Cowboys. He’s worked to stay engaged—with everyone from Marinelli and Richard to Smith and Vander Esch—in an effort to help this defense grow into the best version it can be. For Lee, the most difficult part of getting injured this season wasn’t conceding his spot to a rookie; it was figuring out how to play his part in Dallas’s period of discovery. “Instead of being disconnected, I’m still part of the family,” Lee says. “It helped me get through it.”
For the elder statesman of this unit, seeing Dallas take on a defense-first identity has been its own reward. And the playoffs could be just the beginning. “We’ve been fighting for it,” Lee says. “We’ve been fighting to build this defense for a long time. That’s why I’m proud of this group. This is something that’s been going on for a lot more than just this year.”