No more excuses: It’s time for the Dallas Cowboys defense to shut down or shut up

By Calvin Watkins

FRISCO, Texas — All the talking must stop now. There can’t be any more discussion about what Mike Nolan did or didn’t do with the Cowboys defense last year as the coordinator.

Scheme fit is no longer an excuse.

It’s time for the Cowboys’ defense to prove it’s a much better unit.

Welcome Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers offense in Week 1 on Thursday night. It’s a heck of a way to open the season for a Cowboys defense, which coach Mike McCarthy has said is ahead of the offense based on the practices and preseason games conducted this summer.

“My confidence is what I see every day,” McCarthy said. “I see a bunch that’s connecting come together. I think just the fact that if you take something as simple as the missed assignments vs. the mental errors breakdown, our defense has been ahead of our offense. I think a big part of that is they were able to practice almost daily with the same guys rolling in and out.”

Last season was atrocious. The numbers didn’t lie. This storied franchise with great defensive players such as Randy White, Bob Lilly, Ed “Too Tall” Jones, Cliff Harris, DeMarcus Ware, Mel Renfro and Darren Woodson shook their heads as the 2020 team allowed a franchise-record 473 points. It gave up a franchise-record 57 touchdowns, the most since 1962. Do you even know who the president was in 1962?

So if quarterback Dak Prescott can bury his ankle injury from last October, the Cowboys defense must also bury 2020.

No more excuses.

Dan Quinn, a man praised for communication skills, is the new defensive coordinator. He went back to a scheme that fits this group. Out is a 3-4 scheme and in is the 4-3 alignment, with taller and bigger players tasked with making plays on the ball and bothering quarterbacks.

Defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence — the highly paid, skilled pass rusher — can no longer complain about rushing standing up. He’s back with his hand in the dirt. He’s back to rushing off the edge with a competent partner in Randy Gregory on the other end.

“Being able to switch it up midway through your career, that can be traumatizing,” Lawrence said. “But also be able to get back on track and do the things you’re used to doing and are fundamentally great at, I think we’re in a good spot.”

The word traumatizing is a strong word coming from Lawrence, who compiled 25 sacks during consecutive Pro Bowl seasons in 2017 and 2018. In the last two seasons, Lawrence, battling through a labrum problem and back pain, has 11.5 total sacks.

He’s the leader in the clubhouse with a $25 million cap hit on this team. More production is needed.

Leighton Vander Esch, a former first-round pick, didn’t get his fifth-year option picked up by the team. It was a message to Vander Esch that his time in Dallas could be coming to an end. Vander Esch, like Lawrence, didn’t like the scheme he was asked to work with last year.

“This is a scheme I fit into,” Vander Esch said. “I think that’s obvious.”

There are no excuses for Vander Esch either. If he gets a good amount of snaps in 2021, we should see a playmaking linebacker who has helped his value when free agency starts next March.

Of course, this Cowboys defense has added many new pieces, from first-round pick Micah Parsons, scheduled to be a do-everything linebacker/rush end, to numerous rookies and free agent signees.

Keanu Neal, the safety turned linebacker who worked for Quinn in Atlanta, will pair up with Parsons on passing downs. We have a new partner for safety Donovan Wilson in Damontae Kazee, coming off a torn Achilles.

This is a defense with so much to prove and 17 games to do it. Cornerback Kelvin Joseph, the Cowboys’ second-round pick, will start the season on injured reserve with a groin injury. He didn’t do enough to take the job away from six-year veteran Anthony Brown when he was healthy.

Neville Gallimore, a talented defensive tackle, won’t be seen for six weeks because of an elbow injury.

So the Cowboys have replaced him with third-round selection Osa Odighizuwa, who is full of confidence and even talked a little noise about Brady not being mobile and how his completion percentage decreases if you get him moving in the pocket.

So much talk. No time for it now.

Week 1 awaits.

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