This week, the most talked about story for the Dallas Cowboys has been whether or not Tony Romo will get into the final game of the season against the Philadelphia Eagles. It is creating quite the stir, especially since the most recent rumors contradict earlier statements about the veteran leader’s role in a game that affects, well, nothing. But Romo taking something of a risk to get a few snaps behind a patchwork offensive line is most likely (we hope) going to have little real impact on just how far the Cowboys can go in the playoffs. The most meaningful story right now doesn’t deal with the quarterback position or the offense at all. It is the surprising and sudden emergence of a real pass rush for Dallas. It may well be the difference between a short stint in the postseason and a real shot at a Lombardi Trophy.
It is not only an unexpected development, it is something of a paradoxical one. The sack totals have started to swell as the available pass rushers have declined. Going into the Detroit Lions game, the Cowboys only had seven healthy defensive linemen, and by halftime, injury had reduced that to five. And the situation is not looking much better this week.
Ruled out for Eagles game: Tyron Smith, DeMarcus Lawrence, Tyrone Crawford, Terrell McClain, Cedric Thornton, Justin Durant, Mo Claiborne— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) December 30, 2016
That is four past starters missing from the line, and Durant and Claiborne have also started games this season. The Cowboys have had to sign Richard Ash, a defensive tackle, off the practice squad of the Jacksonville Jaguars, with the anticipation that he will see action in Philadelphia. They have little choice - he brings the number of available rushmen only up to six.
And yet, this much-reduced group has been doing the best work of the season. As Bob Sturm detailed in his weekly Marinelli Report, the change has been dramatic. On Thanksgiving, the Cowboys were 25th in the league in sacks. Now, with one game to go, they are 12th. They made that jump by tying with the San Diego Chargers for the most sacks in the league over that four game stretch, with 14. A lot of the improved production is due to the emergence of David Irving and Benson Mayowa - but they may have gotten the chance to excel mainly because the team had run out of options. Both seemed to have been in Rod Marinelli’s doghouse earlier in the season, with Irving’s snaps kept very low, and Mayowa actually being benched for several games. Now, forced to rely on them, the Cowboys have finally gotten some production from two players they put a lot of faith in coming into this season. Along with Maliek Collins, they absolutely beat up Matthew Stafford.
What is very interesting is how effective the Cowboys have been using a dime package, where they put six defensive backs in coverage and deploy only three down linemen and two linebackers. Generally this is only going to be a formation that will work well when the opponent has largely committed to the pass, but that is exactly the situation Dallas strives to create for opponents every week. Once the defense got itself righted against the Lions last week, they had Stafford exactly where they wanted him - dropping back to pass. Detroit would only run the ball eight times in the second half, while throwing it 26 times.
Marinelli took something he was forced into doing and turned it into a positive. Normally averse to the blitz, he has been very creative in bringing linebackers and defensive backs to get extra pressure, and perhaps even more effective in faking blitzes, then pulling back into coverage. There were plays where Dallas only had the three linemen rushing with six players providing protection, yet one of the rushmen was only facing a single blocker. It certainly looked like the pass protection scheme was not handling the Cowboys rush well.
When a team gets a sack out of a dime defense, it is usually a coverage sack because the quarterback has to hold the ball too long as the receivers struggle to get open against the extra corners and safeties used. But there were also several plays against Detroit where the pressure came right away even when Dallas only sent the three linemen. And counter to normal expectations, the Cowboys’ rushmen seemed to have more energy and burst as the clock wound down. That is when the offensive line usually wears a defense out, but it certainly looked like the opposite was happening. Given that Irving and Collins both played in excess of 90% of the defensive snaps, this is remarkable, and perhaps a testament to superior conditioning by Dallas.
The Cowboys will be shorthanded again versus the Eagles, but should get most if not all of the injured defenders back for the divisional round of the playoffs. But does that mean that the team should stop using the dime package as much? It is one of the chicken and egg things. Did the dime package work so well because a couple of players really stepped up, or did those players excel because they were put in the right defensive package? Dallas has already made the nickel package the de facto base defense, replacing one of the normal 4-3 linebackers with an extra DB more often than not. Now is it time to consider moving even further away from the classic Marinelli alignment? A lot of the recent evolution in NFL defenses has been in answer to the growing reliance by most teams on throwing the ball, with many all but abandoning a meaningful running game altogether. Half the teams in the NFL have less yards running the ball than Ezekiel Elliott has all by himself. Third and two is seen by many offensive coordinators as purely a passing down, with the quarterback lining up in the shotgun - which means that the offense now has more yards to gain just to get back to the line of scrimmage than they had to go from the line to the first down marker. It is also not uncommon to see teams go with an empty backfield on third and short. Why not load up in the secondary against teams like that?
One thing that does seem to be more required with a dime package is blitzing. Normally, Marinelli doesn’t like to do that, but he was sending a variety of extra pressure last Monday. He did not just show an ability to use the dime defense, he used it very, very well. It is possible that this will continue to be a more important part of his defensive plan into next season. But that is not the concern now.
It is certainly the ideal time for the Cowboys to finally get their pass working effectively. And that has made the entire defense function well. Once it was clear that Dak Prescott was able to keep this team performing at a high level on offense, the biggest concern became whether the defense could hold up its end of the bargain. Over the past month of the season, they have done more than that, and arguably won a couple of games (against the Vikings and Buccaneers). And it is not a bad thing that the emergence has come so late in the season - there is a lot less video out there for playoff opponents to study of Irving and Mayowa than if they had been playing a larger share of the snaps.
This is a case of the entire Dallas team peaking at the right time, which is partly why the coaching staff is really trying to get the mix of playing and sitting right for the last game. They want to minimize injury risk while maintaining that winning edge. But for the pass rush, it is not going to be hard to figure out who plays, since there are barely enough bodies as it is. Now to see if they can also keep up the high level of play. The Cowboys will need it in January.