The Dallas Cowboys dominant win last Sunday against the rival New York Giants included a seemingly improved pass rush. Considered the team's biggest weakness for the last several seasons, pass rushing was a focal point of the Cowboys offseason and will be heavily scrutinized throughout 2017.
Like most of you, I was elated to see the Cowboys take Eli Manning to the ground three times in last Sunday's game. I was especially thrilled to see those sacks come from DeMarcus Lawrence and Charles Tapper, two guys who joined the team with a lot of hype and have been held back by health issues.
Three sacks is a great number. If the Cowboys can average three sacks per game then that would give them 48 total for the year. The Arizona Cardinals defense led the NFL in 2016 with 48 sacks. With guys like David Irving and Damontre Moore not even in the mix yet due to suspension, there's certainly reason for optimism about what this year's defense might be able to accomplish.
However, as is generally the case in all life, optimism needs to be tempered. I'm not trying to be Debbie Downer with the rest of this article, just Reggie Reality.
Last year, the Cowboys had some three-sack games. Heck, they even had a few games with four sacks. You might be surprised to know that the Dallas defense actually finished 13th overall in the league with 36 sacks.
Sometimes we can overrate weakness based on a team's comparative strengths. Remember, this Cowboys team went 13-3 (and Week 17 was a giveaway). To say that the pass rush was its biggest weakness is accurate, but that's like saying Jason Bourne's biggest weakness is his memory. The total package is still pretty darn lethal.
That said, there's no denying that the Cowboys were vulnerable through the air. They finished 2016 ranked 26th in yards allowed (4,167) and 24th in opponents passer rating (94.1). Some of that is scheme-based; Rod Marinelli allows teams to chew up yards but then tries to choke them out in the redzone. Dallas was near the top of the league in denying opponent touchdowns.
If the Cowboys are really going to change the narrative about their pass rush then it's going to take a lot more. Last year they had four games in which the team only had one sack and two games with none. That's almost a third of your season with only four sacks; you won't move up the NFL leaderboard with those numbers. The production has to stay more consistent, and obviously we can't know that after just one game.
A big part of making that happen is for one or two individual players to take the lead. You've never heard of a great pass rush that didn't have at least one key player at the forefront, usually a guy with at least 10 sacks or more. “Spreading the wealth” doesn't work; there needs to be a guy who commands the focus of the blockers and opens up things for teammates. This is especially critical in those clutch moments when one play can swing a game.
If you really want to get excited about what happened Sunday, DeMarcus Lawrence could be your focus. Credited with two sacks against the Giants, Lawrence did something in Week 1 that only one Cowboy did all of last season. Only Maliek Collins had a game with two or more sacks; Week 9 against the Cleveland Browns. The most any other Cowboy had in a single game was 1.5 sacks, which happened a few times.
As I've written about more than once, DeMarcus Lawrence has the potential to be a catalytic player on this defense. He showed that in 2015 with a late-season tear that produced seven sacks in the final eight games. Unfortunately, that same guy didn't show up in 2016 due to a four-game suspension and nagging injuries.
If Lawrence can finally live up to his potential then the Cowboys will have something they haven't had since another DeMarcus played here. For several seasons, Dallas has been trying to produce sacks without that one guy who demands extra attention. That is a tough way to make a living in the NFL, which is made clear by our repetitive complaints about the team's pass rush.
A breakout season for DeMarcus Lawrence would do wonders for the entire defensive front. Now couple that with David Irving's potential when he comes back in Week 5, second-year development from Maliek Collins, new weapons like Charles Tapper and Damontre Moore…..
Yes, there's reason to be excited. This Cowboys pass rush may finally stop being a weakness. But one week against an awful offensive line is too soon to know. A larger sample is needed, and we'll get another case study this Sunday in Denver.