For all the talk about how suspect the Cowboys defense, particularly their defensive ends, will be this season, you’d think that the entire unit was a lost cause. That outside of the known Pro-Bowl caliber players on offense, this team is full of duds.
That’s simply not the case, especially on the interior of the defensive line.
The return of (we hope) a fully healthy Tyrone Crawford as well as the additions of free agent Cedric Thornton and third round former Nebraska Cornhusker Maliek Collins have created a lot of hope for fans like me who put a lot of faith in these tackles. Faith that they will be good enough to overcompensate for the questionable talent at defensive end.
The forgotten man of this interior group is actually the guy who can make this whole d-line click. The key to the success of the Cowboys defensive front may be sixth year veteran, Terrell McClain.
Riddled with injuries during his stint in Dallas so far, McClain has become an overlooked asset on this defensive line. With the amount of money and years given to Thornton as well as an early third round pick spent on a 1-technique, even the Cowboys seemed to be looking over McClain.
McClain has only played a full sixteen games once in his entire career, and missed virtually the entire 2015 season in Dallas. While durability has been an issue, size and talent certainly have not been.
Standing at 6’2″ and over 300 pounds, McClain is the typical 1-technique. While he is a big body who is clearly tough to move off the ball, McClain is not slow or lazy in his get-off. His size and strength give him advantage enough to be a formidable defensive tackle, but when combined with active hands and his range to make plays, McClain can be a real force as the starting 1-technique in Dallas.
But you just signed Cedric Thornton to do that job?
Yes, they did. But having too many talented defensive tackles is never an issue. Plus, Thornton’s versatility and athleticism give the Cowboys a chance to try something different, and possibly overcome DeMarcus Lawrence’s suspension during the first four games.
McClain cannot move out to 3-technique and play there with much consistency, but we do have reason to believe that Thornton can. Playing both of these guys at the same time on 1st and/or 2nd down and possibly on short-yardage 3rd downs would give the Cowboys as strong an interior run defense as just about anyone else in the league. Of course, it doesn’t give you much of an option in terms of pass rush, but it would serve as a formidable run defense.
What do you do with Tyrone Crawford on those downs?
This is where the “overcoming Lawrence’s suspension” part comes into play. We don’t know what the Cowboys have at defensive end for those first four weeks. The young guys may come out and out-athletic people off the ball, Ryan Russell may have perfected his spin move, and everything may be A-Okay. Or, these young defensive ends could struggle both against the run and the pass.
Enter Tyrone Crawford.
By playing Crawford at defensive end on these early downs, you give yourself a chance on each play. The Cowboys would now have three of their best available defensive linemen in the game, instead of having only two, with one watching from the sidelines.
Inside The Star’s Brian Martin detailed why moving Crawford to defensive end would be the wrong move for the Cowboys earlier this year. Overall, I believe Brian is right. Playing a guy out of position, regardless of what his role may have been in college, is usually not the best move to make. He doesn’t have the pass rushing moves or skills that most polished, full-time defensive ends have, and will struggle if put into those situations.
However, Crawford does have some position versatility, and if any of these linemen can do it, it is Crawford. No it would not be ideal, but it might be the best the team can do at this point. Like I said earlier, it is not a great option in terms of pass rush, but it would be a great option in running situations.
It might be a long shot, but I do think playing these three guys at the same time is something for the Cowboys to at least consider.