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A Closer Look At Cowboys Defensive End Randy Gregory’s Return

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Gregory had an up-and-down performance in his first game back in nearly a calendar year.

NFL: Detroit Lions at Dallas Cowboys Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Ed. Note: Animated GIFs ahead, load times may vary!

The last time we saw Randy Gregory it was January 3, 2016 against the Washington Redskins. The Cowboys were playing out the string at 4-11 while the Redskins had already clinched the NFC East and were preparing for a playoff game the following week. The other defensive linemen playing for the Cowboys that day included names like Greg Hardy, Nick Hayden, Jeremy Mincey, and Casey Walker.

Needless to say a lot has changed since then, but that was the last time we saw Randy Gregory play football, and judging by Jerry Jones’ comments after the game the upcoming Eagles game may be the last time we see him for another lengthy period. So while we have the opportunity let’s take a look at how the high-risk, high-reward prospect that the Cowboys spent the 60th-overall pick in the 2015 draft fared in just his 13th NFL game.

Generally speaking, it was what you’d expect out of a player who missed all of training camp, the entire preseason, the first 14 games of the regular season, and has barely practiced with the team in months. He exclusively lined up at right defensive end, only played 23 snaps, good for 32% of the team’s defensive snaps, and while he flashed speed and some pass-rush ability on occasion it was mostly an uneven performance where he looked off-balance and even slightly injured his oblique at some point in the first half.

On just his second play of the game Gregory did a nice job of converting speed to power when he pushed rookie left tackle Taylor Decker into the lap of Matt Stafford:

First Quarter Pressure

You can see how wide Gregory lines up on the right side of the screen, he consistently does this in order to take advantage of his impressive speed. There isn’t another defensive end who lines up this wide on the roster. This play doesn’t look like much but Stafford gets the ball out of his hand quickly, and if the secondary had bought the pass-rush another half second it’s likely that Gregory would’ve forced Stafford off the spot. Not bad for just his second play back in a year.

Of course lining up this wide has it’s disadvantages, as seen on this run play where Gregory is completely walled off by a tight end:

Gregory vs. the run

Now, it’s clear that Gregory is attempting to set the edge, which he does to an extent, but it’s not good when a tight end turns your defensive end to the point where his back is parallel to the sideline. A top defensive end could contain the edge, shed the tight end (a backup tight end at that), and make the tackle for no or little gain. Gregory has never been particularly strong against the run so this is no surprise after an extended time away from the game.

Here are two early fourth quarter plays where it’s clear that Gregory’s strength and balance just isn’t there yet:

Gregory blocked to the ground

He gets caught up here on a stunt with Sean Lee that doesn’t go to plan, but Lee is able to maintain his balance and continue to pursue the quarterback. Gregory on the other hand gets rag-dolled to the ground. Not what you want to see.

Off-balance against the run

As soon as the rookie left tackle gets his hands on Gregory he jolts him back a few yards and takes him completely out of the play.

It certainly wasn’t all bad though, and this was probably Gregory’s most impressive play of the game, also from the fourth quarter:

Fourth Quarter Pressure

This play is more a function of effort and Gregory’s impressive closing speed (and good downfield coverage) than any kind of refined pass-rush technique, but it was nice to see the work rate and the speed in the fourth quarter of his first game back.

He also flashed against the run on the play before:

Gregory TFL

Gregory obviously comes in unblocked on this play, so that has to be taken into account, but it’s nice to see him finish the play off with aggression and explosion.

Those six plays account for a little over 25% of Gregory’s snaps against Detroit, and all in all you’d have to be pleased with his effort and the fact that his impressive speed is still evident after such a long layoff. Rust is to be expected, especially after a rookie season where he didn’t even play a full 16 games, but there isn’t much you can do about that. The real question is, if he’s available for the playoffs, do you carry him to game day as your ninth lineman if the rest of the defensive linemen are healthy?

Normally you won’t see more than an eight-man line rotation, and if DeMarcus Lawrence and Cedric Thornton are ready to go, that’s eight when you add in David Irving, Terrell McClain, Tyrone Crawford, Maliek Collins, Jack Crawford, and Benson Mayowa.

It sounds like McClain and Crawford will most certainly be ready, but if Thornton and Lawrence are as well, do you carry nine or think about deactivating Jack Crawford who has been a versatile part of the rotation all season?

Personally, I’d have to see a little more against the Eagles before doing that. However, the decision may be made for the team if Gregory is indeed suspended again as Jerry Jones seemed to hint could happen, or if Lawrence’s murky health situation doesn’t get resolved in the next two weeks.

Either way, it’s good to finally see Gregory playing football again, let’s just hope we don’t have to wait another year or more following the Eagles game this Sunday.