In DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory, the 2018 Dallas Cowboys have a pair of defensive ends that are playing excellent football right now and trending up as they head into their matchup with the Seattle Seahawks and Russell Wilson this week.
DeMarcus Lawrence is one of the best 4-3 defensive ends in the NFL and finished the season with 10.5 sacks according to Pro Football Reference. Though the sack numbers are down from a year ago, when he finished second in the NFL in sacks, he remains one of the more dominant defenders in the NFL.
Per Pro Football Focus, among defensive ends Lawrence finished the regular season with sixth in the NFL in tackles, tied for seventh in forced fumbles, fifth in "stops," which is a play that resulted in a loss for the defense. Pro Football Reference had Lawrence graded the seventh best EDGE player in the NFL this season.
Randy Gregory finished the 2018 season, his first season where he played more than 12 games, with six sacks. All six of those sacks came from week six on. He's come on strong down the stretch, totaling 15 quarterback pressures over the last four weeks, which is 20th in the NFL in that time span, but the same amount as TJ Watt, more than DeMarcus Lawrence, and one behind Joey Bosa. Over the last four weeks, Gregory's been graded better than JJ Watt and DeMarcus Lawrence as a pass rusher by Pro Football Focus.
We know who DeMarcus Lawrence is at this point in his career and this offseason, he's going to be paid like one of the best 4-3 defensive ends in the NFL, as he should be. Randy Gregory has been the player this season that the Dallas Cowboys thought he could be when they drafted him in the second round of the 2015 NFL draft despite failing a drug test at the NFL Scouting Combine. Both players had rocky starts to their career, Lawrence because of injury and a suspension, and Gregory's suspension issues, but both are rewarding the Cowboys patience this season.
It feels like it's been forever since the Dallas Cowboys could boast two very good to great pass rushers on the edges like they have in DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory this year. They'll have a difficult challenge ahead of them this week as they face Russell Wilson. Though he was the fourth highest sacked quarterback this season, he's still one of the more difficult players to get to because of his mobility and improvisational ability.
Russell Wilson's a quarterback who is used to playing under pressure as the Seattle Seahawks have boasted some terrible offensive lines over the last few years. Wilson is a quarterback who handles the pressure well. According to Pro Football Focus, among quarterbacks with at least 374 drop backs this season, Wilson had the fourth highest quarterback rating when under pressure at 86.2.
The Cowboys defense will have a tall task in front of them this week as they face one of the better quarterbacks in the NFL. In DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory, the Cowboys finally have a defensive end duo that is going to be able to keep Wilson contained and to put effective pressure on Russell Wilson.
Cowboys Wishlist: 3 Things I Want to See in Kellen Moore’s Offense
The Dallas Cowboys offense will mostly remain the same in terms of players. However, a big change is coming with new offensive coordinator Kellen Moore taking over the talented unit. In a special edition of Cowboys Wishlist, I'll share the three big things I want to see in Moore's offense in 2019.
Let me know what you want to see in the comments section below or tweet me @MauNFL!
Wish #1: Frequent Read Option
Despite Dak Prescott's skills as a runner, rarely did we see the Cowboys run read option plays. For a team that seems to have the perfect duo for these plays, they certainly seemed to have wasted it over the last few years. This is an offense that has plenty of talent to be struggling as much as they did in the red zone last year.
Imagine being concerned about Ezekiel Elliott getting the ball and Dak Prescott keeping it at the same time? Not to mention the play action threat with a group of receivers led by Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup and Randall Cobb... oh, and a veteran tight end in Jason Witten who might be older but whose hands are very reliable.
The Athletic's Bob Sturm pointed out Prescott's average of 4.46 yards per carry and 18 touchdowns in the red zone between 2016 and 2018. The league average for all players is 2.64 and there's no one close to over four yards and over 10 touchdowns in the league. Dak has been dangerous when using his legs and yet, the Cowboys haven't used the read option as much. I hope that changes with Kellen Moore taking over.
Wish #2: Use Tight Ends More
I'm still impressed by how little the Cowboys utilized their tight ends in 2018. In fact, as Bobby Belt noted on Twitter a few months ago, this has happened consistently in Scott Linehan's career.
One thing you consistently see when Scott Linehan takes over an offense is a drop in the starting tight end's production. Randy McMichael, Byron Chamberlain, and Jason Witten all saw drops in yards per catch, receptions per game, and yards per game once Linehan took over.
Last year, Blake Jarwin had only three games with more than three targets. In those games, he racked up 56, 45 and 119 yards. This makes me wonder if the real problem at tight end last season was more about how they were utilized rather than the players at the position.
With Jason Witten back, Jarwin and the future Hall of Famer could split the snaps. Hopefully, Kellen Moore gives them a more active role on the offense. I really think we'll see way more from them.
Wish #3: Pre-Snap Motion
Pre-snap motion is truly a thing of beauty. The simple fact of getting a player in motion before the ball is snapped can go a long way to keep a defense in its toes and cause confusion to set up a successful play. In Boise State, Moore ran an offense that heavily relied on pre-snap motions.
The first year offensive coordinator won't turn the Cowboys into the new L.A. Rams but he can add this kind of trickery to help Dallas take the next step offensively. Dak Prescott will be playing his fourth year of professional football and adding this to the offense will only help the young QB by making his reads even easier.
How Will Coaching Changes Impact Cowboys’ Backup QB Battle?
There has been a big shakeup on the Dallas Cowboys' coaching staff in 2019. Scott Linehan is out, Kellen Moore was promoted to Offensive Coordinator, and Jon Kitna was hired as the new Quarterbacks Coach. What impact will the changes have on the QB position, and especially when it comes to the battle for the backup role?
The contenders remain Cooper Rush, a third-year player who joined Dallas as an undrafted free agent in 2017, and 2018 fifth-round pick Mike White. Rush was the backup QB last season, but had a major experience edge over his rookie competition. That playing field will be more level now in White's second season.
The changes in the coaching staff even things out all the more. There is a new OC with new ideas and things to learn, and new QB coach with his own style and preferences. Rush and White are starting over together, in a way, with this new personnel.
Jon Kitna is especially intriguing in this conversation. Moore was here last year but Kitna brings a fresh set of eyes to the QB position. He also brings the resume of being an exceptional backup quarterback during his playing career, understanding what it takes to be a success in the role.
Kitna may see and appreciate things that neither Kellen Moore or Scott Linehan could.
For example, what made Cooper Rush take a backward step in his play from the 2017 preseason to last year? He was the undrafted underdog that took the backup QB job away from Kellen Moore two years ago, but last year was the incumbent trying to hold on to his spot against a new prospect.
Did Mike White being a drafted player get in Rush's head?
Jon Kitna spent a long time fighting off younger options. He may be able to help Cooper deal with that pressure.
Or perhaps it will go the other way; Kitna's fresh perspective could help push White up the depth chart. From the new QB coach's own lips, he's approaching this situation without preconceived notions:
"For me, it’s more of a clean slate. I just want to come in and help those guys and help them progress in their careers. If you get the best out of them, that’s going to be good for us at an organization.”
A few months ago I was pushing for Dallas to sign a veteran backup. With the Super Bowl in reach, I don't want to see the season go down the drain if something happens to Dak Prescott. It'd be nice to have our own Nick Foles ready to go.
While it doesn't appear the Cowboys will go that route, I'm at least comforted by having Jon Kitna's voice in the room. He could have a tremendous influence on Cooper Rush and Mike White, and perhaps upgrade the QB2 position even without a roster move.
If nothing else, I'm going to be more confident in the backup quarterback decision knowing that Kitna was involved in making it.
Despite Changes, Cowboys Offense Still Runs Through Ezekiel Elliott
We've talked a lot this offseason about the changes at Offensive Coordinator and slot receiver, or how Jason Witten's return will impact the tight end position. But while all of these will impact the Dallas Cowboys' offense in 2019, the constant feature remains Running Back Ezekiel Elliott and the rushing attack.
From 2016 to 2018, since the Cowboys drafted Elliott, Dallas has ranked 1st, 3rd, and 10th among NFL teams in "run vs. pass" play calls. That's only logical; you don't spend a fourth-overall pick on a RB and then not make him the featured player in your offense.
Zeke has certainly rewarded Dallas' decision; Elliott has led the league in total rushing two out of three years, and he led in yards-per-game in 2017 while dealing with his suspension.
Leaning on Elliott has been smart business based on his effectiveness, plus the investment in the offensive line over the last several years.
Dallas has now sunk three first-round picks (Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, Zack Martin), one second (Connor Williams), and now two thirds (Chaz Green and Connor McGovern) on building up their front wall. They've spent a lot of money to keep their All-Pro guys around, plus La'el Collins.
Some would try to paint the run-heavy approach as how the team is trying to hide the weaknesses of Dak Prescott at quarterback. But in 2014, with DeMarco Murray at RB and Tony Romo at QB, the Cowboys were still 3rd in the league in rush vs. pass attempts.
This isn't about Zeke or Dak, or any other specific player. This about a team philosophy that starts at the top with Jason Garrett, and that isn't going to change even with Kellen Moore taking over as the new Offensive Coordinator.
We're all excited to see what new wrinkles comes from getting rid of Scott Linehan. We highly anticipate the development of Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup in the offense, coupled with the addition of Randall Cobb. We're salivating at what Blake Jarwin might become under the tutelage of the great Jason Witten.
Heck, maybe we'll see fullback Jamize Olawale's receiving skills put to more use. Perhaps gadget guys like Tavon Austin or rookie Tony Pollard will be deployed in more creative ways.
And yes, Dak Prescott's growth is another major factor in Dallas' 2019 success. It's especially interesting, and even concerning, as talks are ongoing about his long-term contract.
But make no mistake, this is still the Ezekiel Elliott show. Even if a few more of his carries become receptions in Moore's scheme, Zeke should still get the lion's share of the touches.
That's why this week's news about his incident in Las Vegas is so troubling. It probably won't lead to a suspension, but we saw what happened in 2017 when Elliott was missing for over a third of the season.
While Dallas should be better able to withstand losing Zeke now than it was two years ago, it may still be more than Prescott, Cooper, and the rest could handle. It definitely wouldn't put the Cowboys in good position to compete for a Super Bowl.
In the end, the 2019 will still come down to how well Dallas runs the ball. It's the engine; nothing else matters if the rushing game doesn't set everyone else up for success.
Don't ever take it for granted. This is still Ezekiel Elliott's offense.
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