Ed Note: Heavy GIFs coming...be patient.
This is starting to become a trend.
A week after perhaps their most impressive performance of the season against the Giants, the Cowboys defensive line followed it up with arguably an even better one against Tampa Bay. Starter DeMarcus Lawrence and key reserve Cedric Thornton were inactive due to injury, while the starter opposite Lawrence at defensive end, Tyrone Crawford, was limited to just 25 snaps due to various injuries suffered during the game. Despite missing nearly half of the rotation, the remaining linemen were able to come up with consistent pressure, key stops, and turnovers that in many ways won the game. That’s all on top of the excellent run defense that we have become accustomed to; Tampa Bay gained only 52 yards on 20 carries for the game.
First, I’m not even going to get into the performance of David Irving. Everybody saw what he did Sunday night and there’s no use in rehashing something that has been discussed repeatedly. In short, it was one of the most dominant single-game performances I’ve seen from a defensive player on the Cowboys in the last 15 years. If he can manage to play at even 80% of that level on a somewhat consistent basis the Cowboys will finally have a bona fide presence off the edge. Let’s hope it doesn’t take two months for another excellent performance out of Irving, as it did following the Packers game.
So let’s move on to how the rest of the contributors along the line fared. Most notable is Benson Mayowa, the unheralded free agent signing from Oakland. Coming into the year he was penciled in as the starter at right defensive end, but mid-way through the year he was benched, a healthy scratch on more than one occasion. He was inserted back into the line-up against Minnesota and since then he has done an excellent job, with sacks against Minnesota and New York, including a forced fumble, along with strong run defense. He flashed that run defense twice again against Tampa Bay.
Here is the first play after the Jason Witten fumble late in the 4th quarter, a first and 10 inside Cowboys territory:
You can see Mayowa on the right side of the screen, he’s lined up across from Leonard Wester, a back-up tackle who is brought in as an extra lineman in a run-heavy formation. It was also Wester who replaced Gosder Cherilus at right tackle after repeated abuse at the hands of Irving, but I digress. At any rate, this is a run play designed to go to the left of the screen (to the right side of the Tampa offensive line). Irving and Terrell McClain get very good penetration to disrupt the timing of the play, but it is Mayowa who uses his outside arm to hold off Wester, eventually knocking him to the ground, and work his way down the line to tackle Doug Martin for a loss. Huge first play coming off the turnover.
Here is another example of strong run defense from Mayowa in the third quarter:
You can see Mayowa do an excellent job of setting the edge against left tackle Donovan Smith, then disengage to make the tackle once the running back tries to bounce it outside. You also have to give a lot of credit to Zach Moore, a guy called up from the practice squad just a few days before and playing in his first game as a Cowboy. He is number 76 and lined up over the center, you can see him control the center, keep his eyes on the ball carrier, and maintain his inside leverage, which forces the runner outside, where Mayowa cleans up the play.
A month ago most were thinking Mayowa might not have a future in Dallas past this year, now he is second on the team in sacks and has been playing like a man possessed over the last three games.
The defensive ends weren’t the only ones to come up with big plays Sunday night though. Arguably the two most consistent linemen for the Cowboys this year have been tackles Terrell McClain and Maliek Collins, and that was no different against the Bucs as those two played more snaps than any other defensive linemen.
The two of them combine for the first huge play of the night for the defense with this McClain strip sack of Jameis Winston to start the second quarter:
You can see McClain just absolutely maul Tampa’s center Joe Hawley with his speed and quickness, and then close on Winston in a flash. Collins does a great job of tracking down a bouncing ball and making the recovery in traffic, which is not an easy thing to do as Byron Jones can attest.
Then it was Collins who had his own strip sack on the Bucs’ last drive of the game:
This was more of a coverage sack than anything but you see great hustle here from Collins, as well as Jack Crawford and Ryan Davis who all work their way back to the quarterback after not getting initial pressure.
Even though the Cowboys didn’t recover this fumble it was probably the biggest play of the final drive. It was second and 10, two plays after Winston started the potential game-winning drive off with an 11-yard pass to Cameron Brate. There was 1:14 remaining when the ball was snapped, but thanks to the fumble and ensuing scrum, the clock wound down all the way to :43. That’s over 30 seconds run off the clock thanks to a forced fumble, as opposed to maybe six to eight seconds on an incompletion. After this play you had to feel like the game was over as there was no chance Tampa Bay was going to drive 80 yards in just 43 seconds with no timeouts.
As an aside, I believe the play of Maliek Collins is going somewhat unnoticed. On the year he has played more snaps than any defensive lineman except for Tyrone Crawford and he is second on the team in sacks with four, which is an impressive sack total for any defensive tackle, let alone a rookie. He isn’t always the most consistent run defender but considering the fact that Dallas leads the league in rushing yards allowed per game, and is 10th in the league in YPC allowed, he’s clearly doing something right considering the amount of snaps he plays.
It’s understandable that he’d be overshadowed given the once a decade story that is Dak Prescott/Ezekiel Elliott, but I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that Collins is having perhaps the best rookie performance for a Cowboy defender since DeMarcus Ware in 2005 or Sean Lee in 2010. The mere fact that Collins can even be mentioned with those two should make any fan giddy.
But back to the defensive line as a whole. Certainly the Vikings, Giants, and Bucs are not as capable offensively as teams like the Falcons, Patriots, or Raiders. Their offensive lines are not particularly good, their running games don’t scare anybody and their quarterbacks are not elite. Still, those are three teams that were fighting for their playoff lives going into their respective games against Dallas. If the playoffs were to start today the Giants and Bucs would both be in, and yet the much-maligned defensive line has been absolutely dominant during that three game stretch. Not above average, not good, not even great, they’ve dominated their opponent for three straight weeks.
Next Monday night will be the final contest before the calendar turns to January, and the importance of the games and the caliber of the opponents will only continue to rise. Let’s hope the play of the defensive line continues right along with it.