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Denver and Arizona like to bring the heat; will the Cowboys and Dak Prescott be ready for it?

Dallas gained 392 yards against a very good Giants defense in week one, and now faces two more top defenses on the road. Can either team slow the Cowboys offense down?

NFL: Indianapolis Colts at Denver Broncos Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Denver’s and Arizona’s defenses thrive on putting pressure on quarterbacks

The Cowboys next two opponents — the Denver Broncos and Arizona Cardinals — who the team faces on the road where crowd noise will also be a factor, finished first and second last year in bringing pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Pressure means more than just sacks.

Sacks are often the gold standard of measurement for pressure, but simply hitting a quarterback while he's in his throwing motion can stall a drive just as well, or even lead to an interception. Pressure brings a lot more value than just sacks. Even ignoring sacks, passers under pressure in 2016 lost roughly 2.0 yards per throw, saw their completion rate drop by 23.5 percentage points, and had their touchdown-to-interception ratio cut in half.’

Here’s more on Denver’s pressure defense.

For the second year in a row, Denver had the NFL's highest pressure rate. The 32.2 percent figure almost matched 2015's 32.7 percent, so it was another stellar year for Wade Phillips' unit in the coordinator's swansong with the team. We'll see how Joe Woods fares as a first-time coordinator, because Phillips has a long history of creating excellent pass-rushing defenses. Woods' background is coaching defensive backs, but he can feel good about his results with Denver's "No Fly Zone" secondary over the last two seasons. Perhaps the most impressive number in this table is the fact that Denver still produced negative DVOA (-8.8%) when there wasn't any pressure. The league average was 33.5%. That is a testament to how well the Broncos can cover.

Arizona was no slouch either.

Arizona also had a strong pass rush again, finishing second in pressure rate and first in DVOA with pressure. The trade for Chandler Jones worked out [though Arizona is now without Calais Campbell, who signed with Jacksonville as a free agent.]

In the sacks department, Arizona led last year with 48 sacks, while Denver was third with 42 sacks. Arizona also led in team sack percentage, at 8.07%, while Denver was fifth, at 7.07%. The Cowboys defense last year ranked 13th in sacks, with a sack percentage of 5.65%.

These pressure numbers helped push Denver and Arizona near the top of Football Outsiders’ defensive efficiency ratings last year, with Denver ranking first with a -18.3% DVOA, and Arizona third with a -13.6% DVOA. Interestingly, the New York Giants ranked second in defensive DVOA last year, at -14.5%, so the Cowboys are facing arguably the top three defenses in their first three games this year. The Cowboys defense in 2016 ranked 18th, at 1.1% DVOA.

Arizona and Denver also finished first and third last year in defensive drive stats. Arizona surrendered just 25.25 yards per drive, while Denver came in at 27 yards per drive. By comparison, Dallas ranked 23rd at 33 yards per drive.

Of course, these are all 2016 numbers, and 2016 is not the same as 2017. We mentioned Arizona's loss of Calais Campbell above. Denver lost Wade Phillips as defensive coordinator, and DeMarcus Ware retired. Arizona and Denver each got only one sack in their opening games this year, while Dallas got three sacks, and was robbed by an official’s missed call of a fourth. Denver and Arizona also slid backwards on defensive drive stats to 27.36 and 26 yards per drive, respectively, while Dallas jumped to eighth at 25 yards per drive. In defensive efficiency, Denver fell to 15th, at 3.3% DVOA, while Arizona fell to 20th, at 13.5% DVOA. Dallas jumped up to 10th, at -16.5% DVOA after one game.

Nonetheless, if you watched the Broncos-Chargers game on Monday night, Von Miller didn’t look like he’s lost a step, and Phillip Rivers was definitely under pressure. So you can still expect both teams to bring it against Dak Prescott and see if they can rattle the second-year quarterback.

How should we expect Dallas to respond?

The first question is: how does Dak Prescott do under pressure? We only have a year of data to go by, and it looked very good. In 2016, according to Football Outsiders, Dak had a pressure rate of 29.4% (151 of 513 plays), yet had the fifth highest DVOA under pressure, at -30.5%. With no pressure, he was better, ranking third at 77.4% DVOA.

Football Outsiders had this to say about Dak:

As for quarterbacks who did qualify for single-season rate records, only Colin Kaepernick and rookie Dak Prescott managed to avoid throwing a single interception while under pressure in 2016. The Cowboys controlled most games last season, but the 49ers often trailed; that's further evidence that Kaepernick, who remains a free agent, played better than his reputation. As for Prescott, he ranked just 24th in pressure rate despite the reputation of his offensive line. However, he had the fifth-best DVOA when pressured (-30.5%). He was also third when not pressured (77.4%), making him the only quarterback to rank in the top five in both categories last season. Tom Brady was the next closest at sixth with pressure, second without it.

So far, so good.

The Dallas offensive line may also be stepping up its game from last year. Against the Giants, the Cowboys allowed only one five-yard sack of Dak, and three quarterback hits.

Pro Football Focus ranked the offensive line in pass blocking after one game as follows:

  • Tyron Smith, 7th tackle, 85.1
  • Zack Martin, 9th guard, 84
  • Chaz Green, 13th guard, 81.1
  • Travis Frederick, 3rd center, 79.2
  • La’el Collins, 32nd tackle, 70.5

That’s two in the top PFF tier, one in the next tier, and two in the third tier. No team is likely as consistent across its front as the Cowboys.

Finally, the Cowboys also have a powerful run game to rely on. Denver’s defense ranked 21st in rushing defensive efficiency last year, while Arizona was 7th.

These next two games should be interesting matchups. If Dallas can run this defensive gauntlet - NY, Denver, Arizona - and come out with three victories, it should give the team confidence it can handle the rest of the defenses they will face in 2017. Not that the Cowboys offense is lacking in confidence!

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