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.
Leave a comment below to discuss anything in this article, or email me your thoughts on the Cowboys' defensive line at Sean.Martin@InsideTheStar.com!
WR Randall Cobb Named Cowboys “Surprise Standout” for Offseason
NFL teams have wrapped up their offseason activities with the close of OTAs, especially where the players are concerned, and await the start of training camps next month. In reviewing the last few months, ESPN had their local reporters each pick a surprise standout from their team's practices. Todd Archer, who covers the Dallas Cowboys full time, selected veteran receiver Randall Cobb.
Cobb is in his first season with Dallas after signing as a free agent last March. He's spent the last eight years with the Green Bay Packers and was a Pro Bowler in 2014, but has struggled with injuries the last few seasons.
Here were Archer's observations on how Randall is doing so far with the Cowboys:
Normally a player with Cobb's résumé -- 470 catches for 5,524 yards and 41 touchdowns during his career -- would not be considered for a category like this. But injuries limited him to only nine games and 38 catches for Green Bay in 2018, and it was hard to know what the Cowboys were getting in the veteran receiver.
If the offseason work is any indication, they have found a replacement for Cole Beasley. Cobb's versatility can expand the offense for others, such as Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup. Cobb looked quick in and out of his breaks and fast enough to make plays down the field. Will he put up the 1,287 yards he had in 2014? No, but he gives Dak Prescott a security blanket in the slot who can turn a small gain into a big one.
The notion of Cobb replacing Beasley is a big one. While we'd like to think that Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup will provide plenty of firepower for the Cowboys offense, Dak Prescott has enjoyed a reliable threat from the slot position since he arrived.
Randall Cobb, when healthy, can do more than just make clutch catches. He has good run-after-catch skills and perhaps bring more big play potential than Beasley did.
If Cooper and Gallup do emerge as a dangerous starting duo on the outside, Cobb should have even more opportunities to punish defenses than Beasley did.
If nothing else, it's very encouraging to hear that one of the Cowboys' few 2019 free agent moves is already reaping benefits. Cobb still needs to bring it over a full season to really justify the move, but these early reports are cause for excitement.
BREAKING: Cowboys TE Rico Gathers Receives One-Game Suspension
Tight End Rico Gathers already had an uphill climb to return to the Dallas Cowboys' 53-man roster in 2019. But that climb just got even steeper; the NFL handed down a one-game suspension to Gathers today for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy.
If he does make the team this year, with Dallas or anyone else, Rico will have to sit out Week One of the season without pay.
Cowboys TE Rico Gathers is suspended without pay for the first game of the 2019 regular season for violating the NFL's policy and program on substances of abuse. This is from his arrest in 2018 for marijuana possession.
Gathers' chances of returning in 2019 were already hurt by Jason Witten's reversed retirement. He dropped to fourth on the TE depth chart behind Witten, Blake Jarwin, and Dalton Schultz, and Dallas only kept three tight ends last year.
The Cowboys also added Codey McElroy as a developmental player during the offseason.
While the suspension is news, the incident that led to it is not. Dallas already knew about the arrest, which occurred in early September of 2018, and have kept Gathers around up until now.
The NFL's substance abuse system is pretty formulaic, so the Cowboys likely anticipated this suspension all along. This may not change anything about how they value Rico Gathers for the 2019 season.
Nevertheless, a player who can't help you in Week One and is a liability for ever longer suspensions down the road is definitely a red flag against Gathers' job security.
Antwaun Woods: Cowboys DT is Just Getting Started
Antwaun Woods went undrafted in 2016 coming out of USC. After two years with the Tennessee Titans, he would only see one game of action. In May of 2018, the Cowboys signed Woods to a two-year contract worth 1.05 million. Probably seen as nothing more than a practice squad guy, Woods would quickly show he was much more than that.
The newly acquired Woods started his climb to stardom in Oxnard during training camp, and not for making plays. One day during practice he got into a friendly game of fisticuffs with All-Pro Center Travis Frederick. The team even posted the video on social media, which had fans buzzing and wanting to know who he was.
All-Pro Running Back Ezekiel Elliott echoed those thoughts when he saw Woods during camp. "Honestly, when we first got him, we were like, 'Who is this guy?'. He was giving Travis Frederick, one of our best players, hell all camp. Just trying to figure out where this guy came from," Elliott said.
Once the regular season started it was clear the Cowboys had found a hidden gem. Although the sack numbers won't dazzle you, seeing as he only registered 1.5, you could forget about running the ball anywhere near him. Woods has amazing quickness for a 300 pounder which allows him to extend his arms before offensive lineman can get a hand on him.
How significant is that? It becomes that much easier to bull rush and blow running plays up in the backfield.
When you can get your hands on an offensive lineman immediately when the ball is snapped, he's basically under your control. You can move him around like a puppet on a string. Essential for a 1-technique nose tackle. With that being said, there should be no surprise the Cowboys finished fifth against the run in 2018 with Woods manning the middle.
Woods draws a lot of double teams, and he handles them well. Having the ability to take on multiple linemen frees up your other playmakers. As the anchor in the middle, Woods made life a lot easier for not only his fellow defensive linemen but the team's two young star Linebackers Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch. Allowing them to roam freely like Lions in the Serengeti makes running backs essentially Zebra's carrying the ball, cooked food. So much so that both tallied over 120 tackles and were the only teammates in the NFL to rank in the top 15 in that category.
There's nothing but upside with Antwaun Woods. He's only had 18 games of experience in three years. He's already a stud, but with limited snaps, it can only mean he'll be even more formidable going forward.
The Cowboys have a loaded defensive lineman group with around 15 bodies, plenty of competition. All signs point to him remaining the starter, but it's not guaranteed. Even with that being said I don't expect a complacency from Woods, especially with DeMarcus Lawrence and Robert Quinn looking like the only sure starters on the defensive line. Plus this is a contract year for him, so you know he'll be even more motivated as he tries to maximize his dollars. We've only seen the tip of the iceberg from this raw talent, setting up for a potential breakout year for him in 2019.
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