The best laid plans often go awry, but sometimes they go exactly to plan, and that was certainly the case on Sunday when the Cowboys had their most impressive overall team performance since 2014. Coming into the season everybody knew the Cowboys defense was not the most talented, especially along the defensive line. Despite suspensions to Demarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory the team did not do much to address the defensive end position aside from signing little known free agent Benson Mayowa, a player with only two career sacks over three seasons, and drafting Charles Tapper at the top of the fourth round. The defensive tackle position was more stable with veterans Tyrone Crawford, Terrell McClain, and Cedric Thornton, although McClain was coming off a 2015 season where he only played two games while rookie Maliek Collins had missed almost the entire offseason with a foot injury. Orlando Scandrick was the team leader in career sacks coming into the season and it wouldn’t have been a stretch to say that the Cowboys had one of the five worst defensive lines in the league.
With that said, the Cowboys were confident in their defensive line for two reasons: Rod Marinelli’s ability to get the most out of his players and develop an effective rotation where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and the potentially dominant offense and running game on the other side of the ball, which would hopefully build leads and shield the defense. The faces weren’t all the same on Sunday with Tony Romo and Dez Bryant out but that plan worked to perfection, and with the return of Lawrence it certainly looked like the decisions made by the Cowboys front office and coaching staff during the offseason were at least somewhat validated.
The Cowboys offense jumped out to a quick 14-0 lead and the first quarter was over before the Bengals even had their second possession. The running game was utterly dominant all game long, with Ezekiel Elliott and Alfred Morris averaging a gaudy 7.95 YPC against an excellent Bengals run defense that hadn’t allowed a rushing touchdown or 100-yard rusher all season. Armed with a lead and facing a team attempting to come back from a large deficit, the defense, and the defensive line especially, began to lean on an unbalanced Bengals offense that was forced to pass.
With the return of the only bona fide edge rusher on the roster Rod Marinelli was finally able to unleash the rotation envisioned during training camp and the results were stunning. Eight defensive linemen were active for the game and all eight made significant contributions.
Terrell McClain had 1.5 sacks and was disruptive against the run. Cedric Thornton had a sack, so did Benson Mayowa. Jack Crawford had half a sack and forced a holding penalty from All-Pro Andrew Whitworth, Tyrone Crawford did not register a tackle or sack but played more snaps than any lineman except Maliek Collins and was disruptive as he continues to grow into his newfound role as the starting left defensive end.
Ryan Davis had an impressive sack nullified by a defensive holding penalty, as well as a tackle for loss against the run where he showed great hustle down the line. He also forced a holding penalty that killed a first half Bengals drive where he had a free run at the quarterback (left side of the formation) and the right guard was forced to more or less tackle him:
For the second game in a row Maliek Collins led the defensive line in snaps played and continues to prove himself as a real find at the top of the third round. Like Tyrone Crawford and Lawrence, Collins did not register a tackle or sack against the Bengals but he was disruptive as seen here on Terrell McClain’s sack:
McClain got the sack in the box score, and he definitely showed impressive speed as he presses the outside shoulder of the guard then loops back around through a huge gap to get to the quarterback, but Collins deserves at least as much credit if not more here. It’s the speed and quickness of Collins as he beats the center that opens up the gaping hole for McClain to loop back through untouched for an easy sack.
Later in the game McClain returned the favor, this time facilitating a sack by Benson Mayowa with an effective stunt that kept Andy Dalton in the pocket with nowhere to go. Mayowa did a great job against the All-Pro Whitworth on the left side of the play but without McClain’s initial pressure that cut off Dalton’s escape route on the other side Mayowa would not have registered the sack:
These two sacks exemplify what Marinelli’s slogan for the year, “Four Equals One”, means. The collective must work together to raise the level of the whole beyond the talent of its parts and that definitely happened on Sunday as all active linemen had an impact on the game.
With that said, the return of Demarcus Lawrence played a big role in the defense’s success. Lawrence only played 17 snaps, the vast majority of which were in the first half when the game was still in doubt, but his presence was certainly felt. The defensive line performed admirably over the first four games but there is no substitute for pure edge rush ability as seen from the left side of the formation on back to back plays to end the first half:
And a carbon copy on the very next play:
Lawrence showed some rust in not being able to finish either play with a sack but both plays resulted in incompletions, which ended a potential Bengals scoring threat, and the pressure Lawrence got was a big part of that.
Lawrence was also strong against the run, a great sign to see when you consider his mysterious back ailments and the fact that the team primarily wanted to start him off playing only in pass rushing situations early on. Lined up on the right side of the formation, he does a fantastic job getting into the backfield here and blows up a run play that was eventually finished off for no gain by Tyrone Crawford and Sean Lee.
Of course the hope is that the coaching staff will ramp up Lawrence’s snap count as the weeks go on because the defense will most certainly need more from him as the games get tougher, the weather grows colder and the team isn’t playing with two or three touchdown leads. I suspect Lawrence would have played more snaps had this been a closer game, but there’s no reason to push him too hard in his first game back when the score is 28-0 early in the second half.
Despite this performance, expectations must be tempered as the talent on the defensive line is still clearly lacking when compared to top units like the Vikings, Seahawks, Broncos, Rams, Eagles, and so forth, but I think it is clear that this is not one of the worst units in the league as some may have thought coming into the year. Lawrence and Collins are looking like strong building blocks, Tyrone Crawford has been solid, just not at the position most would have expected, and McClain and Jack Crawford are both worthy of extensions if the price is right. While Thornton has been something of a disappointment as he hasn’t been able to supplant McClain as the starter, that is more because of how well McClain has played and not because of poor play from Thornton, who has been effective as a part of the rotation. Benson Mayowa hasn’t impressed as much as hoped either; he played less snaps against the Bengals than Ryan Davis who only signed with the Cowboys a month ago, but you can’t complain about two sacks over five games from a player with a $1.8 million cap hit.
What is also clear is that the 2016 Cowboys defensive line certainly looks like it has at least enough to replicate the performance of the 2014 Cowboys defensive line, which only had 20.5 sacks during the regular season and was really only made up of about a six man rotation due to various injuries throughout the season. The current line already has eight sacks through five games and looks to have better depth with a rotation of at least eight, or even nine if necessary once David Irving returns. Injuries here and there are inevitable, but unless true calamity hits I think this line is at least up to the task of performing similarly to the 2014 unit with the potential for more.
And to be quite honest, if Cowboys fans were offered that before the season started, the vast majority would have taken it.