One of the easiest ways to disrupt an NFL offense is to generate pressure up the middle with your interior defensive lineman. When you examine the upcoming schedule you will notice that the Cowboys will line up against most of the top defensive tackles in the league not named Aaron Donald. They will take on five of PFF’s top-seven interior defensive linemen entering the 2021 season. Let’s take a look at the top five toughest DT matchups:
No. 5 – Fletcher Cox – Eagles – Week 3 and 18
Cowboys fans are well aware of who Fletcher Cox is, as the six-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle enters his tenth season with the Philadelphia Eagles. While he’s not the dominant force he was in his prime, he was still highly effective last season even as the Eagles struggled as a whole. Cox wrapped up 2020 with 41 tackles (nine for a loss) and 6.5 sacks, showing he still has some gas left in the tank as he enters his early thirties.
No. 4 – Vita Vea – Buccaneers – Week 1 @Tampa Bay
Vita Vea is a true physical freak with a rare size/speed combination you rarely see from someone weighing in at nearly 350 pounds. Vea went down with an injury in week five and missed the majority of the 2020 season, but he looked completely healthy and dominant when he returned for the Buccaneers playoff run. Vea routinely draws double teams, yet is still one of the best in the league at generating a pass rush from the nose tackle spot. The Cowboys’ offensive line will have to be on its A-game right from the start in 2020, as they will match up with Vita Vea and the Buccaneers in week one.
No. 3 – Leonard Williams – Giants – Week 5 and 15
Leonard Williams finally had the full breakout season we were waiting for in 2020, finishing with a career-high 11.5 sacks which ranked 7th in the NFL. You don’t have to look back too far to remember the last time Willams made his impact felt against the Cowboys, as he dominated the Giants Week 17 victory over Dallas with seven tackles, three sacks, five quarterback hits, and three tackles for a loss. The Giants also added one of the most talented pass rushers in the 2021 rookie class in Azeez Ojulari, who should make an immediate impact and give Williams more room to operate right away.
No. 2 – Grady Jarrett – Falcons – Week 10 @ Dallas
Grady Jarrett has been one of the most dominant interior defenders in the NFL over the past few seasons. He is a two-time Pro Bowler that is still getting better, as he generated a career-high 57 pressures in 2020. While that only translated into four sacks, Jarrett had 21 QB hits so he was on the brink of producing an absolute monster stat-line if a few of those close plays would have broken his way. In the Falcons 2020 loss to the Cowboys Grady Jarrett was busy all game long, finishing with five tackles, one for a loss, and a fumble recovery.
No. 1 – Chris Jones – Chiefs – Week 11 @ Kansas City
Chris Jones is widely regarded as the second-best defensive tackle in the NFL behind Aaron Donald, and it’s easy to see why. In a year that can be considered down by his lofty standards, Jones still came away with 7.5 sacks, 36 tackles, and four passes defended. While he’s yet to replicate his 15.5 sack in 2018, he still had 44 pressures and a 24.5% pressure rate which was second to only, you guessed it, Aaron Donald. Simply put, his impact on the game goes way beyond the box score. Chris Jones is 2nd in the NFL in sacks and QB Hits since 2018, and he will enter 2021 with added motivation after Kansas City’s tough Super Bowl loss.