The Dallas Cowboys play their first regular season game of 2018 in just eleven days. Without seeing their starting quarterback since week two of the preseason, Running Back Ezekiel Elliott in any game, and lingering injuries to Left Tackle Tyron Smith and Center Travis Frederick, it’s becoming clearer by the day that the Cowboys energetic defense will have to cover for this offense early in the year.
You can point to budding stars like Cornerback Chidobe Awuzie and Linebacker Jaylon Smith as huge reasons why this is even a possibility for Dallas. With Rod Marinelli still coordinating this Cowboys defense though, the team will always rely on every player through the depth chart having a say, which is the case on their deep defensive line.
The Cowboys rotation at defensive end could be one of the league’s best at full strength. The same might be said about their defensive tackles should David Irving return to form after serving another four game suspension. For now, the team is getting by at DT thanks in large part to the 6’1″, 318 pound Antwaun Woods.
Woods has absolutely embraced the Cowboys lone weakness on the defensive line, turning the 1T position into a strength so far this preseason. Between the first-year player in Woods and second-year Cowboy Brian Price, the Cowboys have legitimate options at nose tackle to allow a player like Maliek Collins to line up at 3T again.
For the first time since undergoing surgery on a broken foot in the spring, defensive tackle Maliek Collins took snaps in 11 on 11 drills. He worked at both tackle spots and continues to be on track to be available for the season opener.
Collins has done just that as he continues to ramp up his activity in practice, returning from a second broken foot in three years. Playing admirably as the 1T last season, Collins’ potential as a pass rusher was lost, which the Cowboys can hope to regain in 2018. Collins — who also missed most of training camp as a rookie — recorded five sacks from this spot in 2016.
Should Collins not be ready for week one, the Cowboys have also been afforded the luxury of moving veteran Tyrone Crawford back to his original position at defensive tackle. If not for Woods, this move would likely be viewed as irresponsible and counterproductive.
DeMarcus Lawrence, the undisputed leader of this talented Cowboys defensive line, has endorsed Crawford’s shift back to 3T as a way to free him up to the quarterback more. Lawrence said the same thing about Collins at the start of last season.
In his own right, a leaner and faster Crawford will also benefit from having Woods occupy double teams on the inside.
The Cowboys first-team defense played 39 snaps this preseason, 16 in their base defense and 23 in nickel. Here’s how they lined up in each:
The Cowboys first team defense, which Woods has staked a claim in as both a base and Nickel starter, has not allowed a single point this preseason. With their only focus for Thursday’s final exhibition being keeping everyone healthy, this stat shouldn’t change before the team heads to Carolina.
The Cowboys level of play on defense has quickly disbanded their “orphans” moniker of just a year ago. If you didn’t know any better about Antwaun Woods, you might think that the preseason standout was a remnant of these defenses.
Instead, Woods is a perfect product of his own work paired with exceptional talent around him. The USC Trojan has become a fan favorite not only for his value to the Cowboys, but also for a social media presence that embraces the scrappy nature of Woods’ thankless position.
The Cowboys have devalued the 1T position in previous years, and in turn their entire defense hasn’t gotten the credit it’s arguably deserved. Now, this unit is set to earn plenty of headlines, and Cowboys Nation shouldn’t lose sight of what Antwaun Woods’ consistency this preseason will mean to this cause.
Officially, the box score only shows two assists against the run for Woods in 54 snaps this preseason. His ability to bring the same technique and power into each of these reps has earned him more than just an extended look in the Cowboys defense, but a starting position that’s going to make those around him even better.