Almost any NFL team can have a bad day or a good day. There are many examples of a team that rises up and plays over its head against a team with better talent and coaching. A little bit of an off day by the better team, and we have one of those upsets that make the league so interesting.
But the key to getting into the playoffs and having success is not having a good game, or for the most part having a hot streak, the last two Super Bowl victories by the now-winless New York Giants notwithstanding. It is consistency of play, with hopefully some steady improvement in the weaker parts of the team.
The Dallas Cowboys are, by and large, still working on consistency. They did get most things together in the 31-7 walloping of the St. Louis Rams, but special teams, which had been one of the most solid parts of the team, fell down, with a muffed punt and a very rare Dan Bailey miss on a field goal attempt. Dez Bryant is having to fight constant double teams, except when he is in the left corner of the end zone, and Miles Austin's tweaked hammy showed up and apologized for missing training camp. The offensive line is still figuring out the best guard combination. Morris Claiborne has been picked on a bit at cornerback, and Will Allen was benched in favor of J.J. Wilcox. DeMarco Murray has been wildly up and down, the linebackers have shown a bit of a weakness to short passes, and Tony Romo is suspected of being too quick to audible out of the run.
But one part of the team has been there from the very beginning performing at a high level. Literally on the first snap of the season DE DeMarcus Ware snatched an Eli Manning pass from the air and the defensive line has continued to excel. (Of course, at the time we did not realize that everybody was going to be intercepting the New York Giants' quarterback this season, but it was still a very nice play.) In the loss to the Chiefs, and the crushing of the Rams, they were the constant.
How good have the Cowboys' Rushmen been? Let us count the ways.
Pro Football Focus ranks all players at equitable positions. Of the starters for Dallas so far, Ware is at 3 for 4-3 DEs. Jason Hatcher is the number 3 DT/NT in the league. We expected the first, and were hoping for the second.
But did anyone at the start of the season think that George Selvie would step in and be tied as the tenth highest graded 4-3 DE? That's right, three of the four starting Rushmen are in the top ten for their position. The only man not in such a high position is Nick Hayden, who is 46 on the DT/NT list. He is only playing at a level comparable to, say, Sharrif Floyd, who sits at 42. Just thought he was a good comparison since he could have been drafted by the Cowboys and all.
The idea behind the Rushmen was that they would go after the passer first, and play the run on the move. This was seen as a possible problem area, making the Cowboys vulnerable to the run. How has that worked out?
The rushing the passer thing has been pretty danged outstanding. The Cowboys have 13 sacks, second in the league behind the Kansas City Chiefs, and 10 of those are from the front four. Ware has 4, Hatcher has 3, Selvie has 2, and Kyle Wilber got his first against the Rams. But pressure is also important, and there the numbers really start to pile up. According to PFF, the Rushmen have accumulated 11 (legal) quarterback hits, and 43 hurries. PFF has some statistics of its own, and one it looks at is pass rush productivity. Here, the Dallas starters are again among the elite. Hatcher is number 2 among DT/NTs with Hayden a respectable 23, while Ware and Selvie come in at 6 and 9 for 4-3 DEs (all numbers for players who take at least 25% of the snaps for their team). That is a load of pass rush from the front four. If you look at all players regardless of snaps, Wilber shows up at 27.
And how has the run defense gone? Well, PFF has a run stop percentage score (again, these are filtered to show only players who have taken at least 25% of the snaps). And here, Hayden is one of the elites, coming in at 9. Hatcher, of course, is ahead of him at 5. Add in Selvie at 6 for 4-3 DEs and Ware at 16, and it is no wonder Dallas is second in the league in rushing yards allowed per game at 66.3. It looks like that react to the run on the way to the quarterback is a viable option. (Stopping the run is also a responsibility of the linebackers, so you should spread a little credit out there, as well.)
It is exactly what DC Monte Kiffin and defensive line coach Rod Marinelli wanted. It is what they preached from their arrival with the Cowboys, and it is exactly what they and Leon Lett are teaching these players to do. And you cannot overstate the importance of the coaching here. Remember, Jay Ratliff is still rehabbing. Anthony Spencer has seen a handful of snaps in one game. Marinelli is the key here. There is some kind of magic involved when he starts working with pass rushers. He has been described as more of a teacher than a coach, and that seems to be what is making this all work. Kiffin acknowledges how good he is with players that are not normally seen as NFL material.
"These are guys who were cut by other teams. I think one of them was home watching the sitcoms or something on the couch. I love coaching guys like that. Rod and I both do. We love taking guys like that - free agents, whether it be draft picks coming out of college or let go by other teams. We definitely look at people like that."
Kiffin said Marinelli also has a way of getting top performance from top players like DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher. He said Marinelli has a meticulous style of preparing players.
It is rather dumbfounding to many. I'm talking about all those who laughed or sneered when they heard Jerry Jones and Kiffin talking about the defensive line being a strength of the team. The ones who raged about the team trading back when they could have drafted Floyd. I think there might have been a "rue the day" or two thrown out about that last part.
I don't think there is much ruing going on right now. The Rushmen have been the one dependable unit on the Cowboys for all three games. They have been so effective that the ongoing health issues of Spencer, who was arguably the best defender for Dallas in 2012, have become something that is of little notice. With the performance so far, the deep concerns about what his absence might mean are now largely ignored. The team is now reported to be planning to sign Drake Nevis to add to the available personnel on the line and my basic thought is this: Give him to Marinelli, and he will be a success. That is what Kiffin, especially, knew that we didn't when he said this was a strength of the team. Marinelli doesn't find pass rushers. He makes them.
It was interesting that the big message from Hatcher's much-discussed meeting with the team was the need for consistency. Well, he certainly had credibility on that. The Rushmen have delivered.