If not for Tony Romo, this week’s return of defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence would be the most-anticipated debut of the season. He was arguably the team’s second-best defensive player last season, behind Sean Lee, and will be bringing his talent to it’s most beleaguered position.
The question is just how much Lawrence can help this anemic Cowboys pass rush. Can he really make enough of a difference?
After four weeks, Dallas’ defense is near the bottom of the league with just six sacks. Only five teams have less. For comparison, the top-ranked Broncos defense has produced 17 sacks. Most other teams have at least nine or more sacks this year.
Last season, DeMarcus Lawrence had eight sacks in 16 games. That’s certainly not a huge number, but you have to dig deeper.
Of those sacks, seven came in the last eight games of 2015. Still just a second-year player, Lawrence’s “light bulb” seemed to come on during that season-closing stretch. He would have had 14 sacks if that same production had applied the entire year.
Coming off a suspension instead of an injury, Lawrence should be able to hit the ground running. He’s been able to work out with the team and got to participate fully in the team’s offseason program, training camp, and preseason.
Even if there’s a touch of rust from a month without practices or games, Lawrence’s talent far outweighs any of the Cowboys other defensive ends. He will certainly be an upgrade.
However, will that be enough to make the pass rush effective?
Last year, despite having DeMarcus Lawrence and Greg Hardy, Dallas was still near the bottom of the league in total sacks. Hardy’s production fizzled as Lawrence emerged, leaving the team still relatively ineffective.
What’s more, Lawrence will likely be playing from a new position. Last year he was the “strong side” defensive end, going against other team’s right tackles. Now he will probably be playing on the other side of the line and facing the left tackles, often the far better pass blockers.
This isn’t to say that there’s no reason for hope. Lawrence’s return could be the catalyst for improvement across the line. The Cowboys will be hoping in the following:
- Tyrone Crawford’s move to the LDE will prove to be the right fit. He has two sacks this year already playing from the left edge.
- Lawrence’s presence on the outside will create more opportunities for Maliek Collins, Terrell McClain, and Cedric Thornton to disrupt the pocket from the middle.
- If Lawrence can draw some double teams, blitzers could find clear paths to the quarterback.
- Guys like Jack Crawford, David Irving, and Benson Mayowa can be more effective as part of a rotation than with heavy responsibility.
Even without pressure on quarterbacks, Dallas’ secondary has been performing better in 2016 than in the last few season. Any semblance of a pass rush could lead to more turnover opportunities; more of the ripple effect.
Obviously, nobody expects that DeMarcus Lawrence is going to suddenly turn this defense into the ’85 Bears. However, the Cowboys have managed to get to 3-1 despite their pass rushing woes. If Lawrence can bring any kind of consistent improvement to the pass rush, it could be enough to counter the improved offenses that Dallas will face as the season goes on.
Lawrence and the Cowboys will be tested over the next two weeks. The Bengals’ Andy Dalton is steady and efficient, with the potential for big numbers thanks to A.J. Green. It’s probably the best offense Dallas has faced all season.
The following week, Dallas will head to Lambeau for Aaron Rodgers. In their 2014 playoff matchup, the Cowboys’ inability to get to Rodgers was the real reason they lost that game. He should be much healthier this time around than he was then.
When Dallas goes into their bye week after that Green Bay game, we’ll have a pretty good idea of what to expect the reason of the season from the defense. Hopefully, Lawrence is ready to play to his full potential.
Otherwise, 3-1 could turn into 3-3 pretty darn fast.