Over the last two years, the Cowboys have invested heavily into their defensive line. Perhaps not as heavily as they did into their offensive line, but heavily nonetheless.
They spent a second and a third to move up to take DeMarcus Lawrence with the 34th overall pick in 2014 and then followed that up by investing another second in Randy Gregory a year later. They also signed defensive tackle Tyrone Crawford to a 5-year, $45 million contract extension in 2015 and brought in defensive end Greg Hardy for roughly $9 million on a one-year deal in 2015.
Yet despite their efforts, the Cowboys haven't made much progress in their sack totals, going from 34 in 2013 to 28 in 2014 and 31 in 2015. In their desperation to get more pressure on the QB, the Cowboys even started blitzing more late in the season, most effectively in the first game against the Redskins, when the Cowboys kept pressure on Kirk Cousins all night with a barrage of pressures from linebackers and safeties that ultimately limited the Redskins to 266 yards and a 4.4 yards average per play and gave the Cowboys their final win of the season.
But Rod Marinelli hates blitzing. His defensive scheme is predicated on a four-man rush getting pressure on the QB, which leaves seven players to play pass coverage. If the scheme works, QBs can find themselves in big trouble, but if the pass rush can't get to the QB, the pass defense is in big trouble. Because then the QB has more time to go through his progressions and find open receivers.
With this backdrop, and as the draft and free agency approaches, there's once again talk about bringing in more edge rushers, perhaps by bringing back DeMarcus Ware or signing Olivier Vernon in free agency, or possibly using the Cowboys' top draft pick on an edge rusher like Joey Bosa.
But are more edge rushers really the solution to the Cowboys' pass rush woes?
Over the last 10 drafts, more defensive ends were selected in the first round of the draft than any other position group except defensive backs. Yet defensive ends have the lowest percentage of Pro Bowl players of any position group selected over the last 10 years, as the table below shows:
|First-round picks by position group, 2006-2015|
|# of Players||6||8||13||23||29||58||26||31||36||41||48|
NFL offenses are increasingly adapting to fast, elusive edge rushers by developing more athletic offensive tackles and by getting rid of the ball faster. Peyton Manning, who has all the elusiveness and mobility of a block of cement, is the NFL career leader in sack percentage with 3.1%. Bob Sturm, in an article from 2013, explains why.
As I have written many times, nobody has managed to preserve their own health like Peyton Manning. He is the industry-leader in avoiding sacks and big hits and you just can't punish him physically because he doesn't have the ball long enough for your pass rush to impact him. And when you blitz him, he can get the ball to a winnable matchup in under 2 seconds. And no matter how good your pass rushers may be, it is difficult to get to the QB in 2 seconds unless they forget to block you altogether.
Among the many gifts Peyton has, and among the few gifts his younger sibling has, the ability to scramble is a gift neither was given. Yet Eli is not far behind his brother in sack percentage, ranking fifth among all active QBs with 4.8%. Their quick release has a lot to do with this, but so does their ability to avoid pressure. While neither is a good scrambler, both are very good "shufflers", for lack of a better term. Sometimes all it takes is two small steps up or two small steps to the side to avoid the pass rush - as long as the pocket holds. Eli and Peyton both do this really well.
If all a QB has to do to avoid the pass rush is step up in the pocket, and you can't bring pressure up the middle, then all the outside pass rushers in the world aren't going to be much help.
It used to be that all defensive tackles had to do was stop the run, take on double teams and anchor to hold their ground. And that's pretty much what the 1-technique in Marinelli's defense still does to this day.
What the 1-technique in Dallas doesn't do is collapse the pocket and force the quarterback to move around, allowing his ends to come in and finish the job. But in many defenses today, that's exactly what defensive tackles need to do. They can do this with brute strength and explosion to overpower their opponents or they can do it using their quickness - both lateral and vertical - to get off the snap and squeeze through gaps. What they can't do anymore is just lumber around and try to stop the run.
Interior pass rushers are becoming more and more important, especially as offenses are increasingly adapting to the more traditional outside edge rushers. Last year, there were 11 players who notched 11 or more sacks in the league. Five of them, or almost half, were interior defensive linemen. J.J. Watt (17.5 sacks), Muhammad Wilkerson (12), Geno Atkins, Aaron Donald, and Kawan Short (all 11).
Yet despite their low sack totals, it's not all doom and gloom for the Cowboys. DeMarcus Lawrence turned a lot of heads with his eight sacks last year, Randy Gregory showed promise, Jack Crawford surprised with four sacks, and Tyrone Crawford notched five sacks despite effectively playing with just one arm for most of the season. And opponents have taken notice, at least according to Troy Aikman, who gave an interview on KTCK-AM 1310 The Ticket and said some coaches he talked to thought Dallas' front seven was best they'd seen all season:
There's some pieces in place that can give this defense a chance. When I travel around and talk to other general managers, other personnel people, coaches ... there were a number of coaches this year that felt Dallas' front seven was the best front seven they'd faced all season. But you gotta go out and you gotta do it. That's the challenge for Dallas; that's the challenge for every team.
If you're in the Cowboys front office and looking to improve the Cowboys' pass rush, what do you do? Do you sit tight and hope the young guys continue to develop, do you continue to go after edge rushers, or do you look to add talent to the interior defensive line?