The Dallas Cowboys come out of their bye week with a lot of “good problems to have.” For example:
- Deciding between Dak Prescott and Tony Romo.
- Finding a role or trade partner for Darren McFadden.
- Not wanting to take CB Anthony Brown off the field.
At 5-1 and with arguably the most momentum of any team in the NFC, the Cowboys don’t have much to complain about. However, there is one large problem that could stand in the way of championship aspirations. Unfortunately, it’s also a very familiar one.
The Cowboys defense is still one of the worst at rushing the passer. As our last trip to the playoffs proved, this can be a fatal flaw.
Many point to the bad call on Dez Bryant’s near-touchdown catch as what cost Dallas their 2014 playoff game in Green Bay. However, the defense’s inability to get to Aaron Rodgers was the far larger culprit. Rodgers had clean pockets to work from and carved up the Dallas secondary throughout the game, despite playing with a lower leg injury.
Two weeks ago, the Cowboys again faced Aaron Rodgers at Lambeau Field. The same lack of pressure was there, but they got away with it as Rodgers was having a bad day in an atypically rough season.
It is unlikely that the Cowboys can survive three or four playoff games without pressuring quarterbacks. If they meet Rodgers again, or the likes of Russell Wilson and Matt Ryan, those quarterbacks can make plays and counter Dallas’ ball-control offense with quick answers and matching touchdowns.
Is 10 games enough time for Dallas to find a solution before the playoffs?
You have to go back to 2011, with Rob Ryan and the 3-4 defense, for a time that Dallas wasn’t in the bottom half of the NFL in sacks. DeMarcus Ware had 19.5 that year and was helped by Anthony Spencer and Jason Hatcher.
Since then, the Cowboys have ranked 20th or worse in sacks every season. The transition from the 3-4 defense to the 4-3 has had mixed reviews, but the glaring negative has been less ability to attack quarterbacks.
Right now the Cowboys have just 11 sacks, a little less than two per game. They are allowing opposing quarterbacks to have an average passer rating of 95.0, another bottom-half number in the NFL. It’s especially bad when you consider that Aaron Rodgers is the above-average QB that they’ve faced so far this season.
These problems are especially frustrating given the many failures in personnel moves. You can’t say Dallas hasn’t invested in the pass rush. The problem is that they’ve been risky investments.
The signing of Greg Hardy was the Cowboys’ single biggest, and most risky, attempt find improve. Hardy debuted with a bang but quickly went silent, and his personal problems and poor character did far more to hurt the organization than help. He was gone after one year.
Dallas spent their 2014 and 2015 second-round picks on defensive ends DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory. Lawrence just recently returned from a PED suspension and Gregory is out until Week 15 for repeated drug violations. Neither is a lost cause, but so far the returns have not been good.
Dallas has even been pass-rush focused with their defensive tackles. They gave Tyrone Crawford a long-term deal on the faith that he would blossom as a disruptive DT under Rod Marinelli. Crawford has yet to be a consistent force and now has one of the worst contracts on the team.
Thought not on the same scale of investment, the Cowboys recently gave Benson Mayowa a solid contract paying roughly $3 million per year despite his limited opportunities with the Oakland Raiders. They thought he could emerge with a larger role, but Mayowa has yet to do so.
The Cowboys’ best hope is that DeMarcus Lawrence will come out of the bye week ready to live up to the hype. Lawrence had seven sacks over the final eight games of 2015, but that was with Greg Hardy drawing attention. Lawrence has to emerge as the catalyst now for his teammates.
Dallas’ Week 5 win over the Cincinnati Bengals gives some hope for this. Despite not having a sack himself, Lawrence’s presence seemed to open things up and allowed the Cowboys to get four sacks on Andy Dalton.
Another possibility for help is a trade. The deadline is next Tuesday and the Cowboys have a piece in Darren McFadden that some RB-needy teams could be interested in. They also could look at moving tight end Gavin Escobar, another former second-round pick, if there’s a team that still remembers him fondly from the 2013 draft.
Even if teams don’t want these players, future draft picks could also be moved. The Cowboys could look to bring in a quality, veteran pass rusher from a struggling team for a 2017 pick. With championship potential now very much in the conversation, the Cowboys wouldn’t be foolish for pulling from these future assets.
The worst thing the team could do is get complacent about their pass rushing issues because of current success. The 2014 Dallas Cowboys were 12-4 and went into the playoffs with plenty of hope and confidence, only to get tossed out two weeks later.
The 2016 Cowboys are on a similar trajectory; pushing for the postseason while overcoming a critical flaw. But even if it doesn’t come until facing Tom Brady or Ben Roethlisberger in the Super Bowl, the lack of pass rush could easily prove fatal once again.
“Dak Prescott or Tony Romo” may be the team’s biggest question right now, but either answer is a positive. Still, even if Romo comes back and plays at his MVP-level best, or if Prescott continues to grow and put together one of the great rookie seasons of all time, it could all be for nothing.
There’s no question about it; Dallas has a big problem on defense. If they don’t fix it, arguing about which QB could take us to the Super Bowl may be a moot point.