It was a stunning performance in a “meaningless” game. The Dallas Cowboys trounced the Detroit Lions 42-21 in a game where a loss would have had no effect on the Cowboys, but was something the Lions very much needed to avoid. Offensively, Dallas was strong from the opening drive. But for the first half, it looked like the defense was just not ready to play the game. They were uncharacteristically vulnerable to the run, but the big problem was that Matthew Stafford was running a relentless no-huddle attack with impunity. However, starting with a sack by David Irving and Benson Mayowa in the second quarter, the pass rush woke up, despite by that time missing defensive linemen DeMarcus Lawrence, Cedric Thornton, Tyrone Crawford, Terrell McClain, and Ryan Davis. That left them with only Irving, Mayowa, Jack Crawford, Maliek Collins, and Randy Gregory, just returned to action from his suspension, to play the line. Yet with that limited crew and some absolutely brilliant coaching from Rod Marinelli, they completely shut down Stafford and company in the second half, adding three more sacks, a forced fumble, and pressuring Stafford into an interception that was the beginning of the end for the Lions. The offense was highly impressive in scoring six touchdowns, but the game ball this week has to go to the rushmen for outstanding performance under very trying circumstances.
This was not just a single game’s performance, but the continuation of a four-game trend going back to the Thursday night game against the Minnesota Vikings. Over that time, the Cowboys have accumulated thirteen sacks. After struggling to get any pressure on quarterbacks over the first half of the season, Dallas has suddenly developed a consistent pass rush, and it is largely tied to the emergence of Irving and Mayowa. Both were forces again, each getting one and a half sacks, while Irving added a forced fumble on his solo effort and also knocked down a pass. (The fourth sack came from rookie Collins, who is often overlooked as he plays well above his draft position because of the spotlight on those other two rookies you may have heard about.) Most importantly, Irving and Mayowa have been doing most of their damage of late, bringing a level of consistency to the pass rush that the Cowboys sorely need.
But some of the credit also has to go to Rod Marinelli, who is finding ways to make things work no matter what. The defense as a whole has also been performing excellently, and helped carry the team through a stretch in late November and early December when the offense was having a few struggles putting points on the board. Against the Lions, Marinelli may have done his best job ever in adjusting to the situation. Short on linemen, he went with the dime package utilizing three of them and two linebackers. He threw in a variety of blitzes at times, and the effect was that Detroit was frequently confused in their pass protection. On Mayowa’s solo sack, he only had one blocker to defeat, despite no linebackers blitzing on the play and the Lions keeping extra protection in. In addition to the sacks, the pressure was moving Stafford out of the pocket most of the game, leading to inaccurate throws and stifling drives even when he was not taken down. And these were not coverage sacks and pressures for the most part, as Stafford appeared to have very little time before the pressure was getting to him.
This bodes well for the playoffs, because most NFL offenses live and die with their quarterback’s performance. If Marinelli can get that kind of pressure on the passer, then the Cowboys have the capability to shut down just about any offense they face. Stafford has been a very hot quarterback in getting Detroit so close to making the playoffs (they can still qualify with a win over the Green Bay Packers in their last game). Dallas absolutely punished him in the second half. Marinelli should have more to work with as he gets some of the injured players back and healthy. And Gregory played a lot of snaps tonight despite his long layoff. He recorded two tackles and one of the nine quarterback hits for the Cowboys.
Back before the season started, the biggest issue outside of having to go with a fourth-round rookie at quarterback was the apparent lack of a pass rush. Now, at just the right time, the Cowboys seem to have found or invented one, however you wish to look at it. With an offense that is also looking like it is peaking as January draws near, the Cowboys may have the key elements they need to make a deep run in the playoffs.
The second half of the Lions win was perhaps the most impressive job done by the pass rush this season, especially in light of how few rushmen were left able to take the field. But that did not overwhelm them. They played with great effort and a winner’s attitude. One of them put it this way.
David Irving, on DL playing short handed: "When you're in hell, don't stop -- go through it. And take your opponent through hell with you."— David Helman (@HelmanDC) December 27, 2016
With that kind of approach, nothing may be too much for this group. It earned them this week’s game ball. Easily.