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Searching For Cowboys Rushmen: Why Position May Be Increasingly Irrelevant On The Defensive Line

The NFL is always changing, with evolution on offense met by counter-developments on defense.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys Rookie Minicamp Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

The seemingly endless quest for an effective pass rush continues in 2017 for the Dallas Cowboys. Although there is a general perception that the team has not invested sufficiently in finding an answer, the reality is more about misfires. They have seen players they hoped to contribute suspended for various reasons (Greg Hardy, Randy Gregory, David Irving), while others have fought various injuries that have limited their productivity (DeMarcus Lawrence, Tyrone Crawford, Charles Tapper). This season, they hope to have the latter three healthy, plus they hope Irving’s absence will be far less than Hardy’s or Gregory’s. They finally sunk a first round pick this year in Taco Charlton, and added a possible reclamation project in Demontre Moore. Now, with the long dry spell until the beginning of training camp just two weeks away, we once again are hoping they can find that most elusive of all defensive players, the right defensive end to attack the quarterback’s blind side.

But is that really what they are seeking? The limited information coming out of the OTAs has indicated that they are engaging in the Rod Marinelli practice of moving players around, including pairing Tapper at end and Charlton as a tackle on one side of the line (which Tapper described as “freaky”). While this is typical of Marinelli, it may also reflect a new evolution in the constant arms race between NFL offenses and defenses.

Andy Benoit of Sports Illustrated’s MMQB addressed this, offering a theory that the focus on attacking the blind side may be a thing of the past. He observed that in the past few seasons, the big sack production has actually been coming from the left side of the defense, attacking the right tackle. To explain this, he offers several things:

  • With the growing move away from traditional tight ends to players that are more really tall slot wide receivers, the distinction between strong and weak sides on the offense is no longer applicable.
  • A rusher coming at the quarterback’s front can disrupt the throw by making him react, and has a better chance of hitting his arm/hand to cause interceptions and fumbles.
  • More and more snaps are being taken from shotgun or pistol formations, which opens up the quarterback’s vision and reduces the “blind” aspect.
  • Placing the best offensive linemen in the left tackle position makes it harder to get home from there, which may make having your best pass rusher coming at the right tackle more profitable.

Benoit states a good case for a decline in the emphasis on finding that stud RDE, with things shifting to just putting your best pass rusher where he has the biggest chance of getting home for a sack. This seems to dovetail nicely with Marinelli’s approach. This may be a case of Marinelli being ahead of the trend, or at least keeping up with things.

Dallas also may be trying to put more emphasis on pressure up the middle. Last season, Maliek Collins was number two on the team in sacks from his DT position. This may be why Marinelli was visibly excited by the selection of Joey Ivey in the seventh round, as well as fitting the Tapper/Charlton combo mentioned above. This would also help utilize a healthy Crawford. With more and more offensive sets where a tight end is either not on the field or going immediately into a pass route, the four down linemen are only facing five blockers, meaning three of the rushers only have one man to beat. Empty backfields also are frequently used, meaning there is no protector for the QB. And even when a running back is on the field, they often go right into a pattern as well in passing situations.

Additionally, if the interior line can get a strong push back into the quarterback, they can force him out of the pocket for the ends to clean up. Offenses seek to counter this with quick releases, but pressure can make those less accurate, offering opportunities to intercept the ball. And good coverage can lead to failed completions, those that do not get a first down. That is another way for the defense to win, especially in third and long situations.

The Cowboys have several players who they hope can rush from the interior, as well as end, including Crawford, Irving, and Stephen Paea. In the current group of linemen, only Cedric Thornton and perhaps Jordan Carrell seem to be purely one techs who are primarily there to stop the run. The rest all seem like players who will be used in Marinelli’s approach of playing the run on the way to the quarterback.

This does not mean that the Cowboys do not need to find one or more really effective pass rushers with bend, power, and speed. It just means that they can use that kind of player in more than one place, and it may not be where you would expect based on past perceptions. It also means that the search for those players is a bit wider than we might have thought.