Everyone knows that the Dallas Cowboys have all kinds of offense. Ezekiel Elliott led the league in rushing. Dak Prescott had the best statistical season by a rookie quarterback, ever. They had the fifth-ranked offense in terms of points scored, fifth in terms of yardage gained, third in terms of scoring percentage, second in time per drive, and fourth in points per drive.
But did you know that the defense was the number one rushing defense in the league? That they gave up less than four yards per rush attempt? That while they were near the bottom in passing yardage given up, they were tied for 11th in yards per attempt against and tied for 13th in sacks? It was a surprising unit in many ways. In this week off, as the team prepares for it’s playoff run, we take a look back at what has to be considered one of the biggest surprises of the year.
It’s odd that "waves of rushmen" was not uttered much this year, because that’s finally what happened. Nine different defensive linemen garnered a sack, and they accounted for 29 of the team’s 36 sacks, their best ever under Rod Marinelli. More importantly, however, the pressure has been fairly consistent from this group, and they have kept QBs making quick throws and prevented them from going deeper into their progressions. This has led to Dallas performing well in 20+ (7th in NFL) and 40+ (8th in NFL) yard passes allowed. Much comparison was drawn between this team and 2014’s, but perhaps nowhere is the difference so stark as in the depth and consistency of the defensive line. In 2014 the Cowboys line only notched 20.5 sacks, which is over half a sack a game less.
Tyrone Crawford once again failed to break out, again being asked to prepare for one position and play another and again being dinged up. Yet he still led the team in sacks until the last two games, during which he has been resting to recover from those dings. He also finished the year first on the team in hurries and tied for 16th in the league according to Sporting Charts. DeMarcus Lawrence similarly disappointed, spending most of the year bothered by a back injury, and only managed a single sack. Benson Mayowa struggled early but really turned it on in December, notching 3.5 sacks in the final five games to lead the team for the year with six. Latecomer Randy Gregory added a sack and several nice rushes in the final two games of the season. Jack Crawford was his usual English Bulldog self, stubborn and relentlessly plugging in at all four line positions with some effect. Terrell McClain showed much promise but again was limited by injury, though he played much more this season than he has. Cedric Thornton provided less pop than was hoped, but still proved a valuable player. Newcomer Richard Ash ate a lot of snaps against the Eagles and may have a future here.
But without question the big stories out of the defensive line this year were the young breakout players, Maliek Collins and David Irving. Collins notched three sacks in December to take over second place on the team sack roster and had solid penetration all year long. He looks like a real find and, as I have noted before, he was the 67th-overall pick in the draft — taken just seven spots behind Randy Gregory — so he’s not without expectation. Still he looks to have a very bright future. Irving, on the other hand, has all but exploded into everyone’s consciousness these last three games. After flashing potential both last season and earlier in 2016, Irving played 38 snaps against Tampa Bay and absolutely wrecked their line. In the final three games Irivng had 3.5 sacks, a forced fumble, and two batted passes and is looking like a much needed addition to the team’s pass rush.
There’s really only one story, here. The other players have all been adequate, with Damien Wilson flashing some ability, Anthony Hitchens holding down the fort for the most part, and Justin Durant filling in admirably in emergencies. Kyle Wilber, Mark Nzeocha and Andrew Gachkar provide much needed depth (and Wilber coming up with a key fumble recovery as well as some nice special teams play). But Sean Lee has been masterful. On a defense where the defensive line merely plays the run on the way to the quarterback, Lee pretty much cleaned up the rest. He finished the season with 145 tackles — only three players in the NFL had more and two of them only passed him because he sat out the last game. And that may be the thing Lee was most proud of this year. After years of being derided as "made of glass" and "injury prone", Sean Lee missed one defensive snap in the first 15 games, and only because of a coach’s override did he not play the final game. Despite being benched, Lee spent the game on the sideline, helmet and gloves on, ready to play at any moment, leadership and accountability personified.
Without question, he is the reason for Dallas having the number one run defense in the NFL. You probably knew that Dallas did not allow a single 100-yard rusher all year. What you might not know is they only allowed one to go over 80 (Darren Sproles went for 86 in the first Philly game). Teams averaged a mere 83.5 yards a game against Dallas and 3.9 yards per carry. While it seemed at times that Dallas was being gashed in the run game, this was illusory — likely caused by the fact that it happened so rarely that it stood out when it did. It turns out Dallas allowed only six runs of over 20 yards all year long. They allowed no 40 yard rushes at all, which is something only three other teams can say: Seattle, Washington, and the New York Giants. Sean Lee was really the only reason this happened. That he is not in the Pro Bowl simply confirms the bankrupt legitimacy of that selecting body.
This, to me, was the story of the year. If I had told you before the year that Dallas would repeatedly and successfully play a dime group that consisted of Orlando Scandrick, Brandon Carr, Byron Jones, Barry Church, J.J. Wilcox, and Jeff Heath, you might have simply walked away. If I had told you Morris Claiborne would be the team's best defensive back and arguably best defensive player when on the field, you would’ve laughed. But if I had told you that Orlando Scandrick would be matched by sixth-round rookie Anthony Brown, you might have began to fear for my sanity and your safety. Yet all of these things happened, and more as the Cowboys secondary has played extremely good football this year. The Cowboys had 12 secondary players credited with passes defensed, and six of them had 5 or more.
Jerry Jones specifically mentioned getting Claiborne back for the playoffs during his Tuesday morning interview with 105.3 the fan this week. He was audibly excited at the prospect. With no small reason. Morris Claiborne was astoundingly good in pass defense before a groin injury sidelined him and he finally looked like the player the Cowboys traded up for. Byron Jones led the team with 10 passes defensed and came up with his first career interception. Barry Church had two key picks and would’ve likely come up with more had he not been wearing a cast.
But perhaps that’s the biggest news of all. Church, Wilcox, Scandrick, and Claiborne all missed significant time, but the secondary never faltered. Brandon Carr played solid football all year long and Anthony Brown simply stepped right in as if he were a veteran starter rather than the 189th-overall pick in the draft and played well enough that he started 10 games for the Cowboys this year. Jeff Heath continued to play solidly and is well on his way to becoming a nice NFL player. But what a difference a few weeks makes for one J.J. Wilcox.
In the preseason game against Miami, Orlando Scandrick gave speedster Kenny Stills a free release on a play-action. Wilcox took one step forward and it was over. Touchdown Miami. People were howling for his head. Everyone expected him to be cut. Everyone but Jason Garrett who reacted with genuine surprise to the notion when asked at a press conference shortly before the final cuts. While Wilcox was demoted with the movement of Byron Jones to free safety, he responded by taking every opportunity he had and boy howdy did the teams fans take notice. He delivered multiple big hits and very few coverage breakdowns. He defended six passes successfully and got a very timely interception off a Brandon Carr deflection. But perhaps the most surprising thing of all was hearing fans wonder when he would be back healthy. It’s been at least three months since I’ve heard an angle joke.
The linebacker situation is the clearest. Sean Lee seems to be growing into his role. Though he is now hitting 30, Dallas should be able to get several more good years out of him and, ironically, thanks to his injuries, the wear on his tires is fairly low. Jaylon Smith, of course, is a major wild card and we will all be anxious to see what he brings to the table. Anthony Hitchens and Damien Wilson make for solid depth as Mark Nzeocha continues his development and Kyle Wilber remains a valuable Swiss army player. I think Gachkar and Durant will likely not re-sign unless there’s an emergency.
The defensive line is interesting, filled with hope and worry both. David Irving and Maliek Collins make some nice anchors going forward. Jack Crawford is a strong enough rotational player that I believe he comes back again. But everything else is up in the air. Can we pick a position for Tyrone Crawford? And will his shoulder ever again survive an NFL season? What is happening with DeMarcus Lawrence’s back? With Randy Gregory’s drug issues? Is Terrell McClain worth bringing back despite his continued health issues? There are some answers, and some questions, as usual, but those four players are all extremely talented and the way their stories unfold will dramatically impact the defensive line.
Then there’s the defensive backfield. The safety position appears to have solidified greatly, but there’s a hitch: both J.J. Wilcox and Barry Church are free agents. Do you bring back either one? Both? Or run with Jeff Heath and the untested Kavon Frazier beside Byron Jones? And then there’s cornerback. Anthony Brown is a revelation and he and Orlando Scandrick are both playing well right now. But they are the only solutions at corner under contract right now. Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne have both played well. Again, a case could be made for keeping both, either, or neither. My gut feeling would be to bring back Wilcox, Claiborne, and Carr on the theory that Wilcox would be younger and cheaper than Church, that Brandon Carr might not cost too much for the opposite reason, as corners past 30 don’t command too much cash, and that Morris Claiborne’s injury history might make him affordable as well. But what I most suspect is that the Cowboys will let all these players test the market, and re-sign the ones who provide the most value.
But regardless of the future, the 2016 Cowboys defense has been a stout unit and is well on its way to making this a championship caliber team.