Over the past couple of years, the Dallas Cowboys have been trying to bolster the pass rush. Getting after the quarterback has always been a key to Rod Marinelli's defenses. Dallas has used all the tools at their disposal to find help here. They drafted DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory in the second round in consecutive years. They took a risk signing Greg Hardy to a costly free agent contract, albeit with a lot of built in protection for the team. And they put a lot of cap capital into an extension for Tyrone Crawford. It has yielded less than spectacular results so far, but the team still needs to keep working the problem. There is no better evidence for this than the results of the NFL Conference Championship games just played.
Both winners, the Denver Broncos and the Carolina Panthers, made mincemeat of the opposing quarterbacks with relentless, extremely effective pass rushes. The Broncos eked out a close win in one of the best playoff games in recent memory, where the new extra point rules may have led to the turning point of the entire game. Meanwhile, the Panthers executed a total beatdown of the Arizona Cardinals where Cam Newton may have been the star, but the defense certainly set the table for him to shine.
Perhaps the stronger example was the Denver win. In a game matching two future Hall of Fame quarterbacks, the Broncos were at a disadvantage there as Peyton Manning is not the player he once was. Tom Brady is still playing at an extremely high level. Despite the Patriots having to use a mix-and-match approach with the offensive line, Brady had been getting good protection, and that was a key element in getting to the penultimate game of the season. The Broncos knew it, and made a commitment to making him uncomfortable in the pocket, perhaps the only effective way of stopping the New England Patriots. And it worked.
Brady emerged from the 20-18 loss in the AFC Championship game missing nice chunks of flesh on his left elbow after taking one of the worst beatings of his career. Brady was only sacked four times, but the Broncos officially hit Brady a whopping 20 times.
To put that in perspective, it was the most hits taken by any quarterback in any game this NFL season. Brady took 99 hits in his previous 17 games, an average of 5.8 per game. The most he had taken before Sunday was 12 against the Eagles last month. Brady had taken 19 hits in his last four games combined before Sunday.
The battered Brady was unable to work his accustomed magic most of the game. But he still managed to put the team into position to tie things up and pull it out in overtime with a late touchdown drive, only to see the two-point conversion attempt fail under one last ferocious pass rush, where Brady missed an open Rob Gronkowski and instead was picked off.
It was relentless, and the player-of-the-game designation for pass rusher and bump-and-grind stylist Von Miller was a fitting recognition of the role the entire pass rush played. More to the point, it was done almost entirely without bringing extra rushers.
The Broncos blitzed a season-low 17.2 percent of the time yesterday
— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) January 25, 2016
Of course, the challenge will be a bit more daunting against the infinitely more mobile and physical Newton. That matchup will be fascinating to watch in Super Bowl 50.
In the later game, the Panthers did not hit Palmer nearly as much, but the effectiveness was frightening. They only tallied three sacks and six quarterback hits in the box score, but turned that pressure into two fumbles and four interceptions by Palmer. Now they face Manning, who has limited mobility and is not able to do much in the way of deep balls.
This just validates the need for the Cowboys to continue to stock up on pass rushers this year. With Hardy's future uncertain as a free agent, they need to be looking at both free agents and the draft, which is deep in defensive line talent, especially tackles. With the expected compensatory picks, the Cowboys should have five selections in the first four rounds, and it would not be a mistake to use one or two of those to go after more rushmen for Marinelli. As the Broncos and Panthers demonstrated very clearly, you can never have too many.