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Cowboys defense will have to step up their game on the road against the Texans

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Have the “Hot Boys” cooled off just a little? Can the back end of this defense tighten up against Houston?

NFL: Detroit Lions at Dallas Cowboys Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

The Cowboys defensive line, or self-proclaimed “Hot Boyz,” have yet another matchup against a struggling offensive line when they visit the Houston Texans Sunday night. Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson has been sacked 17 times but also has been hit 43 times in the first month of football. Though Josh Allen of the Buffalo Bills has been sacked the most at 21, nobody has a higher combined sack-to-hits ratio than Watson. This certainly looks to be a favorable matchup for the Cowboys against an overmatched Texans line. Well, over the last two games, the “Hot Boyz” have cooled off from that six-sack night against the Giants. Those six sacks of Eli Manning occupy 43% of the season total of 14.

The NFL’s sack-leader, DeMarcus Lawrence, has 5.5 sacks and that makes up 39.3% of the total. The other defensive linemen on the roster have four sacks combined at 28.6%. The linebackers have the other 4.5 sacks, around 32.1%. Getting sacks is certainly a team effort, some come from great coverage on the back end, others, like a few picked up against Matt Stafford, were from twists or stunts by the defensive tackles.

Speaking of defensive tackles, the news isn’t getting better for Houston as David Irving likely makes his return. Irving may take some time to get acclimated after a four-game suspension. However, this is the same guy that returned in week five of last season and recorded six sacks in his first four games. Nobody will be happier to have Irving back in the rotation than Lawrence, who was a one-man show last week against the Lions. If they get good news regarding Maliek Collins too, they could be loaded.

Still, the Texans may look like prime rib for these hungry rushers but we thought the same thing about the Seahawks in week three.

At that time, Russell Wilson had been sacked a league-high 12-times in two games or roughly 15% of the time he dropped back to pass. With superb effort by Seattle’s tight ends chipping Lawrence and Wilson’s elusiveness, the Cowboys came away with seven QB hits but only two sacks. Against the Lions, Lawrence got three sacks but only one other “Hot Boy” registered a hit. Now, that was minor compared to a secondary that developed a habit of giving up chunk plays, but pressure is a related variable in this equation.

Our own, RJ Ochoa mentioned that the Cowboys are 32nd in the league in takeaways with just two fumbles and not a single interception. It’s been a trend for the Cowboys since their second-place finish in 2014 but they couldn’t get pressure to save their lives that season. The Cowboys have literally flipped that script, ranking third in sacks but dead last in takeaways. By not taking the ball away, pressure is the lifeline for this defense at the moment. The Cowboys got nine of their sacks in the first two weeks but only five in the last two. To be fair, they did just face two of the upper-echelon passers and it reflects in their defensive rankings since we last visited them:

2018 DEF Tot. Yds PPG Pass D Rush D DEF. Yds/Dr Pts/Dr DSR
Rank (Diff) 5 (-1) 7 (-4) 6 (-1) 12 (-1) 28.71 6 (-3) 1.90 (14) -8 .695 (15) -4

Even after giving up six passes of 20+ yards in two games, this defense hasn’t moved much in terms of total yards. They have seen a significant increase in points given up but still remain in the Top-10 there. In the Cowboys first two games, opponent’s averaged 14.5 points, but it’s jumped to 24 in each of these last two. The reason this is a tad concerning is because both opponent’s were averaging under 24 points on offense before they played the Cowboys.

Sure, we can hang some big plays on this secondary and this line has been thinner on the inside with a few injuries. With that said, the lack of consistent pressure is certainly a worthy contributor to these increases in big plays and points scored. So let’s revisit this week’s opponent, the Texans, and see how they matchup with the Cowboys defense overall:

NFL Ranks Total Yards PPG Pass Run 3rd Down Pct.
Cowboys Defense 5 (306.2) 7 (19.2) 6 (208.5) 12 (97.8) 26 (45%)
Texans Offense 5 (413.8) 14 (24) 10 (290.5) 9 (123.2) 16 (40%)

Houston’s offense is averaging 24 points per game, right where the Cowboys threshold has been in the last two weeks. The Texans also are a Top-10 passing and rushing offense which is something the Cowboys defense will have to be concerned with limiting. On top of that, both of the Cowboys losses were to teams with mobile quarterbacks. Now, let’s look at the Texans offensive drive stats versus the Cowboys defensive drive stats from Football Outsiders:

Drive Stats Yds/Dr Pts/Dr DSR
HOU Offense 30.08 (21) 1.54 (24) .677 (24)
DAL Defense 28.71 (6) 1.90 (14) .695 (15)

The Cowboys defense has clear advantages according to the drive charts but none of that matters if they can’t get them off the field in this game. This is only the second game the Texans have played at home, they lost the first one to the Giants 27-22. The Cowboys have uncharacteristically lost two on the road and won their home games.

Splits Games Played Avg. PPG Total Yards Avg. Avg. Sacks Avg. Pass Yds Avg. Run Yds 3rd Down %
Home HOU 1 22 451 3 392 59 41.6
Away DAL 3 20 328 2.5 194 134 45.7

These “Hot Boyz” are only averaging 2.5 sacks on the road and that has to change against a team like this. Another thing that has to change is that third-down percentage, the Cowboys can’t allow them to convert at that rate. The Texans’ offense is not nearly as bad as their record would indicate.

All of these tables show that the Texans offense is more than capable of racking up yards and points. Deshaun Watson is at his best when he can extend plays but he almost has to because of poor protection. This will also be one of the best receiving corps they have faced. They have DeAndre Hopkins in the Top-10 but also Will Fuller and Keke Coutee in the Top-100 in receiving this season. The Cowboys can’t allow Watson to do to their defense what Cam Newton and Russell Wilson did. This can’t turn into a Watson-to-Hopkins show either. They must get consistent pressure on this quarterback and it’s time for other Cowboys to step up and perform.