The Dallas Cowboys defensive line has outperformed expectations through two games, amassing four total sacks through two weeks. Help is also on the way for this group, as Ryan Davis could see the game day active roster for the first time this week, and DeMarcus Lawrence will return from his suspension in week five.
Working with what they had in the Washington win on the road, Rod Marinelli was able to do a lot of creative things with some of his more versatile players to create pressure on Kirk Cousins.
Particularly, a shakeup at the defensive tackle position – where the Cowboys have the most depth defensively – saw third-round rookie Maliek Collins get plenty of meaningful snaps at the three-technique, flexing veteran Tyrone Crawford to left defensive end.
I went back and watched every defensive snap from this game, and here are my thoughts on each position along the defensive line – and who should be seeing the majority of the snaps at them.
Right Defensive End: Benson Mayowa, Ryan Davis
Unfortunately, the Cowboys severely lack proven pass rushers when it comes to guys that can line up and make big plays at the right rusher position. Benson Mayowa did record a sack in the opener against the Giants, but the play spoke more to the coverage on the backend, allowing Mayowa to eventually run around the left tackle and finish.
In the first year of a new three year deal, Dallas has to be patient in watching Mayowa try to make the most of the vast majority of the snaps at RDE. As you’ll also see in this scouting report, Ryan Davis can bring some pressure off the right side as well, but he will likely be asked to move all around the four front as the season goes on.
Three-Technique Defensive Tackle: An Overwhelming Strength
Things get a lot more interesting when you break down the names the Cowboys can utilize at this under tackle position, a spot of utmost importance in this scheme.
The first guy you have to mention is certainly Tyrone Crawford, who was paid to be here for a long time holding down that spot. As mentioned, Crawford was lined up more as a LDE as the game went on against the Redskins, after struggling once again to provide any real push at the three-technique.
I actually really liked what I saw from Crawford at the defensive end spot, and think that him playing there consistently could do a lot to help this line overall.
Tyrone Crawford: After games when I play under tackle I feel like I got hit by a bus. After playing DE, “I feel like a fricken butterfly.
Last week, it was mainly Maliek Collins that played in this spot next to a rotation of Cedric Thornton and Terrell McClain – this team’s best defensive lineman through two weeks. When watching the tape on Collins, I saw a player that was explosive through the gap, but one that played with little gap discipline or overall awareness.
While too many run plays were able to extend past Collins at the point of attack, the skill set he provides as a pass rusher are absolutely valuable to the Cowboys.
Not only will this front four improve against the run with Tyrone Crawford holding down the LDE spot, allowing Collins to be exposed less in this regard, but it will allow a plethora of other players to chip in next to Collins and play at their natural position.
Most notably, Jack Crawford and David Irving can revert back to playing on the inside, where both players can play either defensive tackle spot and be a force against the run. Based on what I’ve seen from Jack Crawford early in this season, I would like to see him lined up more as the three-technique if being kicked back inside.
One-Technique Defensive Tackle: The Underappreciated Terrell McClain, Cedric Thornton’s Presence
Finally healthy, Terrell McClain has been the Dallas Cowboys’ most disruptive defensive lineman – a point worth driving home once again. As we build the ideal defensive front here, we have already added to the available pool of talent at defensive tackle by moving Jack Crawford and David Irving to the inside.
Part of the reason these players can be so disruptive is because of how well McClain has played thus far, consistently driving through tough double team blocks, or pinning inside to allow a player like Collins to try to run free at the quarterback.
What fans should also be excited about is the versatility that first-year Cowboy Cedric Thornton can provide, as a powerful one-tech DT that can also play as the three at any given moment.
For this plan to work, Maliek Collins is going to need another consistent play maker with range to play next to him on the inside, and I think the Cowboys have plenty of those guys – starting with their two true one-technique players.
As guys get comfortable in their new roles, Marinelli could also flash the tough-to-handle David Irving at this spot, and wreak havoc with him, Collins, and Crawford all playing at the point of attack.
Left Defensive End: One New Face, and One Familiar
We’ve already touched a lot on Crawford’s move to this position as part of this plan, which will of course be effected by the return of DeMarcus Lawrence. Lawrence should instantly resume his duty at this team’s starting left defensive end, and one that won’t come off the field much at that. An improved player against the run in 2015, Dallas can feel comfortable leaving Lawrence on the field in any situation.
Tyrone Crawford would then go back into the middle rotation at defensive tackle, likely taking snaps away from either Maliek Collins, Jack Crawford, or Cedric Thornton.
Whatever the case may be, all of these players can be used to help keep #98 fresh, allowing him to hopefully start to resemble that disruptive player that we all have come to know.
As a unit, it will also be up to the defensive tackles on this team to allow Lawrence to work against single blocks, where he can thrive beating right tackles that struggle to match up with his freakish combination of size, speed, and athleticism.
The Dallas Cowboys may not have anyone on the defensive front that single handedly scares opposing teams, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. Instead, offensive coordinators must prepare for a wave of different looks on any given snap, based on the down-and-distance or formation.
With this proposed rotation, I think the Cowboys would put their best run-stopping players on the field at any given time, while playing to the strengths of every single one of their defensive lineman – down to the rookie Maliek Collins, who is going to be asked to handle a lot after missing basically all of training camp.
In short, the Cowboys defense needs to continue to bend but not break, but they could begin to hold up a lot better than expected as the defensive line play sorts itself out under the guru that is Rod Marinelli.