If you spend any time talking about football with a die hard Dallas Cowboys fan, eventually the conversation will come back to the great Cowboys pass rushers. With a history dotted with guys like Harvey Martin, Ed "Too Tall" Jones, and DeMarcus Ware it is easy to come to believe that sacks are an important part of a defensive unit's arsenal of weapons. We have been spoiled by having dominating pass rushers in the past, and not having one does feel a little strange.
One legendary Dallas defensive player would disagree with the whole premise. Speaking on The Afternoon Show With Cowlishaw And Mosley on KESN 103.3 FM, Darren Woodson made it clear that, in his opinion, sacks are an overrated means to evaluate a defense.
"I've always been a guy that felt like sacks are overrated. Sacks are great when it's a key moment and you really need it. ... I've always been a guy that (focused on) third down efficiency and points against. If you can hold a teams to under 17 points, 20 points - 17 points a game is how we used to do it - but getting out on third down is huge. - Darren Woodson
Clearly this is not the way we have been programmed to think, but the more thought I put into Woody's statement, the more I tend to agree. Any team that can consistently limit opponents to 17 points or less is going to have a very successful season regardless of how they manage to do that. Like Woody stated, sacks at key moments of the game are a big help, and they can be real momentum shifters, but they are not the be all and end all of defensive football. If you sack a Peyton Manning on second down, and on the following play he hits Wes Welker for six, what have you really done? Nothing! On the other hand, If you hold his team on third down and force a punt you have won the battle.
If your third-down efficiency is there and you're at high clip, I think that's more important than the sack totals. Pressures are huge also. Getting pressure on the quarterback and getting off the field on third down, that's where I would lean."
[EDIT] The Cowboys are allowing a third down conversion rate of 41.7 this year, which ranks them 17th in the league. The reason they are achieving this rate despite missing sacks and especially those third down sacks, is that Marinelli has his defense playing smarter. [End Edit]
They are playing to opponent's tendencies on every snap of the ball. This means two things; one that the Cowboys are doing a good job of scouting their opponents, and two that the coaching staff is doing a good job of communicating what they have learned to the players. This is why we are seeing so many guys fly to the point of attack and making the critical stops that allow the defense to get off of the field. That too is a trend that Woody has observed.
"I think the one thing you've seen, they're pretty basic. They're very simple as far as their defensive scheme. I think the one thing that I really like about them is they're playing to tendencies. So they're knowing on first down how teams want to attack them. They know what's coming on third down. They understand the weaknesses within the defense, and you can see it. ... They know what's coming their direction, especially on third down. They're playing the sticks. They're just playing extremely smart football."
As I said earlier, great defense without a dominating pass rush is a concept that I have had some trouble wrapping my mind around. I have seen the proof on the football field over the past several weeks, but it took Woody's comments to really make things clear to me. This defense is winning the battle week after week, if the trend continues they will eventually win the war.