Way back at the beginning of the season, the legions of Cowboys observers who opined that the Cowboys were doomed in 2014 (I'm man enough to admit that I was one of these feckless souls) pointed out two places where they would struggle: at quarterback and along the defensive line. These are the two positions, you may recall, where soon-to-be Hall of Fame coach Jimmy Johnson used to maintain that his winning teams got their advantage.
After the season's first month, when Tony Romo's good health and then obvious dominance began to come into focus, one of these key areas, QB, ceased being a primary concern. The play of the defensive line was a different matter, however. After Dallas' first three games, the D-line had registered only one sack. By season's end, they had demonstrated evident improvement, tallying a total of 20.5 quarterback bags (or 19.5 in the last thirteen games).
But here's what's both interesting and important about their improvement: it has taken a distinct upward trend. Let's look at the Cowboys defensive line sack totals by month:
One key step in this steady progression occurred when the Cowboys decided to move Tyrone Crawford inside to tackle on a permanent basis (it seems like a long time ago when he was getting significant snaps at strongside DE, doesn't it?). As an end, he didn't possess the quickness to succeed on the edge consistently. Inside, however, he has an exceptional blend of speed and power, and had been increasingly disruptive as he has become acclimated to the inside. Alongside Henry Melton and, when healthy, Terrell McClain, Crawford became part of a strong interior presence; as a group, they notched nine sacks on the season.
The Cowboys were able to move Crawford inside in no small part because of the emergence of Anthony Spencer, who began to make plays as his confidence in his surgically-repaired knee grew. Against Seattle, Spence made several athletic plays that helped keep Russell Wilson in the pocket when he wanted to roll out or to escape pressure. Still, he was inconsistent from game to game (after shining against the Seahawks, for example, Number 93 had a couple games where he was nearly invisible) and hadn't regained the explosiveness that made him the team's best defensive player in 2012.
At weakside end, the Cowboys had more questions than answers. Rookie end DeMarcus Lawrence was still rehabbing a broken foot; Jeremy Mincey appeared to be an athletically-limited, try-hard type, and George Selvie, who many thought was the best candidate on the open side, had gimpy shoulders that prevented him from keeping rival offensive tackles off of his body. At mid-season, in other words, a strong case can be made that the Cowboys' weakest position - and the spot most likely to derail what was proving to be a terrific season - was defensive end.
This changed in December. The above chart shows that Dallas' defensive line notched 10 sacks in the season's final month and the one playoff game versus Detroit. Of those, seven were by the defensive ends: Mincey, 4; Selvie, 1; Spencer, 1; D. Lawrence, 1.
In particular, their work against the Lions was spectacular. On Friday, the fine folks at Pro Football Focus published a piece in praise of their work in the Wild Card round, where Spencer and Mincey were their top ranked 4-3 defensive ends overall as well as in pass rushing grading. To wit:
Spencer (+5.0) played 40 snaps against the Lions en route to a +3.1 pass rushing grade, his best as a professional 4-3 defensive end. With 7 pressures on 29 opportunities, Spencer’s 19.0 Pass Rushing Productivity was a marked improvement from his 5.4 regular season figure.
Mincey (+4.8) had some big games this year but his +4.0 pass rushing grade against the Lions is his best since Week 9 of 2011. Mincey’s PRP improved from 9.9 during the regular season to 19.8 during the Wild Card game.
Thanks to their performances, PFF notes, the Cowboys are the first team this season to have a pair of 4-3 defensive ends deliver pass rush grades above +3.0 in the same game. That's some special sauce - and a desperately needed development as the team heads to Green Bay, with a signal caller in Aaron Rodgers who absolutely carves up defenses when they blitz him (since 2008, he has 91 touchdown passes and 18 interceptions against the blitz).
So, when our own Dave Halprin wrote about not blitzing Green Bay, or a guy like Todd Archer writes a piece telling us not to look for the Cowboys to blitz Rodgers on Sunday, know that part of that is due to the fact that its not in Rod Marinelli's DNA. But it's also because the Cowboys defensive ends are, just now, at this crucial moment, when it's most needed, able to fulfill his prime defensive objective: get pressure on the quarterback with only the front four.
If the Cowboys are to advance to the NFC Championship game, Spencer, Mincey and Co. will have to continue the upward curve they've been etching out on the defensive ends' collective performance graph. Better sharpen your pencils, boys...