Cowboys defense must find happy medium between simplicity of last year’s scheme and the complexity of Mike Nolan’s

Moving forward, perhaps less is more.

FRISCO — The Cowboys went from a defensive scheme that, for many tastes, was too vanilla to one now that is quadruple-fudge brownie cookie dough with gummy bears, marshmallows, chocolate truffles and marzipan cherries.

There has to be a happy medium.

Last Sunday, the Cowboys pulled off a 40-39 comeback win over the Atlanta Falcons. Their dramatic escape didn’t diminish the number of mental errors the defense counted when reviewing its performance. Moving forward, less is more.

Coordinator Mike Nolan can afford to scale back his defense, beginning this Sunday against the Seattle Seahawks. It would be to the unit’s benefit.

“Absolutely. Absolutely,” linebacker Jaylon Smith said Thursday. “I believe just allowing us more opportunities to [hone] in on what we’re actually going to run in our game plan. I believe it’s important that each and every player knows, in and out, what they have to do. And with a smaller playbook, it gives us a better opportunity to do that.”

The coaching staff tracks the number of missed assignments in a game.

Coach Mike McCarthy declined Thursday to disclose the exact number of mental errors versus Atlanta, other than to say the defense committed “way too many.” He acknowledged the Cowboys, who installed a far more complex defense during an offseason when COVID-19 significantly reduced their on-field installation time, may need to simplify the scheme.

“I think that’s Page 32 of the Head Coach 101 manual,” McCarthy said. “When your team has too many mental errors, you cut the volume back. It’s definitely part of the conversations you have as a staff, and it’s definitely something we talked about.”

Nolan was ambitious.

Based on what the Cowboys showed in the first two games — the number of alignments and techniques in the front seven, the usage of two-point stances for traditionally hand-in-dirt defensive ends DeMarcus Lawrence and Everson Griffen, the varied coverages and vast number of plays — too much is on players' plates to expect them to play as a fast, sound unit.

Injuries have not helped.

Nolan wants offenses to struggle knowing what the Cowboys' defense is doing in a given play.

Too often right now, the defenders are struggling with that, too.


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In This Story

Michael Gehlken. Michael Gehlken joined the Cowboys beat for the Dallas Morning News in August 2019. This marks his 11th season covering the NFL, previously having reported on the San Diego Chargers and Oakland Raiders. GehlkenNFL
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