Defensive success in the NFL is very much predicated on a defense’s ability to get pressure on the quarterback. More than pass coverage and stopping the run, disrupting and making quarterbacks uncomfortable is the most important thing a defense can do to have success in a game or over the stretch of a season. When the Cowboys have been at their best this season, whether in a half or throughout a game, it’s when they’ve been able to affect the quarterback.
The Dallas Cowboys defense has found a lot of success in getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks this season. They’ve done a good job making life difficult on the quarterback and last week against Daniel Jones and the New York Giants their deployment of DeMarcus Lawrence, Robert Quinn, and Michael Bennett at the same time made a huge difference in the outcome of the game.
Kirk Cousins has been one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL through the first nine weeks of the season. His passer rating of 112 is third in the NFL behind Russell Wilson and Patrick Mahomes. He’s thrown the fifth-most passing touchdowns and has thrown only three interceptions.
An area where the Dallas Cowboys could find success is in the fact that Kirk Cousins holds the ball an average of 2.86 seconds, which is the longest time to attempt among quarterbacks with at least 195 dropbacks per Pro Football Focus. Cousins has been equally good when throwing in less than 2.5 seconds and throwing in more than 2.5 seconds.
According to Pro Football Focus, Cousins has been at his worst when under pressure but has been very effective against the blitz. His passer rating when under pressure is just 86.1. However, when Cousins is blitzed his passer rating is 108.6. Cousins has been under pressure on 40.7% of his dropbacks per PFF, the fourth-highest rate in the league among quarterbacks with at least 196 dropbacks.
One thing that the Dallas Cowboys have in their favor is that they are able to get penetration with their front four and get pressure quickly. Per Seth Walder of ESPN Analytics, the Dallas Cowboys are the best in the NFL when you compare their pass rush win rate (frequency they beat their blocker in less than 2.5 seconds) and their blitz rate. The Dallas Cowboys are beating their blockers approximately 55% of the time, but are sending an extra rusher around 23% of the time. They’ve been so good at rushing just four that they haven’t had to send extra pressure this season. Whether it’s been Robert Quinn or DeMarcus Lawrence or the most recently acquired Michael Bennett, the Dallas Cowboys defensive line has been winning their matchups.
On Sunday, that will be a huge factor for the Dallas Cowboys.
Blitz rate (x) by pass rush win rate (y). Top left (low blitz, high win rate) is best so…the Cowboys. (ESPN stat, NGS data)
Because the Dallas Cowboys have been able to get pressure without having to send extra rushers very frequently, the defense will be able to drop extra players into coverage. The addition of Michael Bennett was very noticeable last week and should have another big game this week. Now that the Cowboys have three legit pass rushers, the Cowboys don’t have to send blitzer, but when they did last week, the blitz affected the play.
It’s imperative that the Dallas Cowboys provide effective pressure on Kirk Cousins on Sunday Night Football. They have to make him move off of his spot on his drop back and disrupt his timing. If the secondary can prevent any easy completions, the pass rush should be able to get to Cousins in time to affect his pass attempts if not bring him down for sacks.
Though he’s played pretty well this year, you can tell that he’s not been perfect when you look at his adjusted QBR from ESPN.com, Cousins is just 14th in the NFL at 54.3. For comparison’s sake, Dak Prescott is second in the NFL at 77.6. Meaning, a lot of Cousins’ success isn’t solely because Cousins has been good, but because the players he’s been throwing too have made things happen after the catch.
Per Next Gen Stats, Kirk Cousins ranks 19th in Intended Air Yards, which measures the average air yards a quarterback throws the ball downfield. On average, Cousins attempts a pass 1.5 yards short of the first down marker (Air Yards to the Sticks), which ranks 23rd in the NFL. He’s been very reliant on yards after the catch from Dalvin Cook and Stefon Diggs and that brings us back to the importance of getting pressure on Cousins with just four rushers.
If the Cowboys are forced to send more than four on a regular basis on Sunday night, it leaves fewer players at the second and third levels of the defense to be available to cover and tackle in the event a catch is made.
By acquiring Michael Bennett, the Dallas Cowboys assured themselves that they’ll have at least one Pro Bowl rusher on the field at all times and sometimes they’ll be able to roll out three Pro Bowl pass rushers. As we saw on Monday Night Football against the Giants, that takes this defense to another level in terms of talent and effectiveness. For the Cowboys to come out victorious this week, this group will have to be just as formidable against arguably the best offense they’ve faced in 2019.