FRISCO, Texas — When the Dallas Cowboys defense left practice on Sunday, coordinator Dan Quinn felt it.
The energy. The relentlessness. The “want to,” he says, “to get going.”
The defense Quinn is turning around needed very few corrections in their final session of game preparation. Confidence brimmed across each level of the unit.
“I knew we were in a good headspace,” Quinn said. “The shift was going to take place for us to play really fast.”
After a 41-21 burying of the Philadelphia Eagles, Cowboys fans were in a good headspace as well. The Eagles had scored a touchdown on defense and another with minutes left in the game. Put another way: the Dallas defense allowed just seven points in 56 minutes of play.
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But Quinn sees the holes. Before the 3-0 Panthers arrive on Sunday, he hopes to shore up them.
“We still have a ways to go from the communication standpoint I’d like to see us get to,” Quinn said Tuesday at team headquarters. “We can play faster in terms of what your key is. We’re still giving up too many big plays for our liking.
“There is a lot to do, but that’s also kind of the fun part of this: to see guys go and see where we’re going.”
The problem and the solution
Through three games with Quinn as coordinator, the Cowboys have far outperformed their 2020 effort. They’ve improved from 28th in scoring defense (29.6 points per game) to 13th (23) despite facing Tom Brady and Justin Herbert. They are averaging 2.7 takeaways per game compared to last year’s 1.4. And the most drastic improvement lies against the run: After teams averaged 158.8 rushing yards (31st) in last year’s attacks, they are so far gaining 70.3 (6th).
Quinn acknowledges those wins, praising his players’ versatility and can-do attitude amid lineup changes. Then he turns his focus to the Cowboys’ passing defense.
Six interceptions have helped compensate for the punishing gains the Cowboys have allowed. But the Cowboys rank 31st in passing defense (331.7 yards per game) in large part because of big plays. Against Carolina, they could pay.
No defense has allowed more plays of 20-plus yards than the Cowboys’ 16. The Panthers offense, meanwhile, ranks sixth with 13. If the Cowboys need a reminder of what that devastation might look like, the franchise need only look to its last contest against Sam Darnold. Dallas played Darnold on Oct. 13, 2019, when he was with the 0-4 Jets. Darnold burned Dallas’ defense for a massive 92-yard touchdown. The Cowboys ultimately lost 24-22.
Quinn studies film with his players to consider how offenses have gashed them, the Eagles gaining 255 yards on their 10 longest plays compared to 117 yards on their other 43. Quinn and his players discuss: Was the play superbly designed and executed by the opponent? Or did the Cowboys fall prey to a missed assignment, mental error or lapse in communication?
“Obviously you want to get them corrected right away,” Quinn said. “Those are the ones we hit right on the sideline, when we’re in the locker room together. A few of those we thought had some communication components to it that we could be better. Post snap, where’s it going? How do you get the call communicated to the next player? Those are the things I’m referencing to say (let’s be) tighter, sharper, even more accurate.
“We keep obviously a long log of those to make sure those mistakes don’t happen a second time.”
Players responded well against the Eagles, cornerback Trevon Diggs rebounding after allowing a 38-yard pass on Dallas’ first defensive play of the game. Diggs subsequently doubled down in coverage, swiping one pass intended for former Alabama teammate Devonta Smith that he returned for a 59-yard touchdown. He swatted down two other passes from Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts, including a drive-killing play on third-and-11 with 2:52 remaining in the third quarter.
Fellow starting cornerback Anthony Brown saved a near-touchdown with similar ball-hawking skills, Brown’s interception of Hurts on the Eagles’ first series reminding Quinn of a moment in practice that week.
“He had a big pass breakup down the offensive right sideline in practice on Thursday and it was almost on the same spot of the field, same area where he had the interception,” Quinn said. “So that’s part of my tape for him tomorrow.
“Same thing we’re practicing, it’s showing up on the field. That’s when you know you’re hitting in the right spot.”
Unstoppable force, meet immovable object
Dallas’ defense has needed to play just 27:33 per game so far. The Panthers have worn down defenses for 35:12 per game, and the Panthers have turned over the ball twice in three games. Quinn does not believe the football-world adage that turnovers come in bunches.
“It’s a good thing to say when you don’t have any,” Quinn quipped. “ ‘Oh, they’re coming. Just hang in there.’ For me, right now, I say no. Pedal downhill right now and go get more.
“There were absolutely chances for us to have the ball more (against the Eagles).”
If the body of Quinn’s remarks sound negative, they aren’t intended to be. But a Cowboys team over .500 for the first time in coach Mike McCarthy’s tenure must think soundly about how it handles success. Quinn philosophizes that he will not maximize talent by hammering what players cannot do when he can instead emphasize and build upon what his personnel can. But focusing on results and pretending past game success is predictive will lead his unit astray.
So Quinn implores his players to embrace the link between great practices and great games. He lauds rookie defensive tackle Osa Odighizuwa as a “deliberate practicer” whose best week at the Star predicated his best game thus far, Monday’s 1½-sack performance. Diggs’ feistiness against a deep Dallas receiving corps continues to hone his gameday readiness. Rookie linebacker/defensive end hybrid Micah Parsons has benefited from practicing against seven-time Pro Bowl left tackle Tyron Smith.
The Cowboys follow a Monday night game with a 1 p.m. ET kickoff vs. Carolina, their preparation cut to a Wednesday walkthrough-like mock game followed by Thursday practice in shells. But fundamentals, technique review and extra time on JUGS machines can heighten their chance to arrive at Saturday’s final practice with few corrections once again.
“Trusting your training,” Quinn said. “There is still some on-the-job training, but we will get there.
“We’ve just got to stay relentless in how we’re going to approach things on a day in and day out basis. We’re getting there, but we’ve still got a long way to go.”
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein.