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Position Group Analysis: Cowboys DL could not pressure Jets QB Sam Darnold when needed most

The Cowboys had many reasons for losing to the Jets but the Cowboys defensive line was a great contributor.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at New York Jets Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

[Each week we will look back at the game to focus on a single position group and how they performed. Whether it’s high-praise for the Cowboys biggest contributors to another victory formation, or the scapegoats for any potential losses, we’ll spotlight one personnel grouping for review.]

The Cowboys defensive line has been showing breakage for several weeks. Green Bay easily moved tackle Maliek Collins out of his gaps, creating rush lanes for Aaron Jones. This past week, the Jets offensive line showed they weren’t the weak unit many believed them to be. The Jets line protected pretty well though they did give up a couple of sacks. Due to the lack of consistent pressure coming from the Cowboys defensive line, Jets QB Sam Darnold hammered the defense to the tune of 338 passing yards, two touchdowns, and a 113.8 passer rating. Prior to this game the Jets were among the worst in protecting the quarterback, they seemed to iron out those issues.

The Cowboys defensive line has been anything but consistent and more bad news came down the pike this week. It was announced that versatile defensive lineman, Tyrone Crawford, is done for the season. Crawford will have season-ending hip surgery. Antwaun Woods returned against the Jets but he’s still playing at less than 100%. DeMarcus Lawrence has been playing through quite a few nagging injuries. Dorance Armstrong left Sunday’s game with a neck injury. The Cowboys top draft pick Trysten Hill hasn’t shown enough to even remain active. Suddenly, what was once thought to be a deep and talented defensive line is now a line with big question marks.

My colleague, DannyPhantom, so eloquently points out in his tweet above that something’s wrong with this front four. Robert Quinn leads the team with five sacks, he’s earning his spot. DeMarcus Lawrence hasn’t had the big numbers many expected for the mega-contract he signed this offseason. However, he’s faced more and more double-teams that have allowed Quinn to get loose. Both edge setters, Lawrence and Quinn are two of the best on the team and nitpicking their stat lines isn’t necessarily the issue for Dallas. As John Owning mentions , Lawrence’s play isn’t just about sack numbers and he hasn’t been as disappointing as some would have you believe:

It’s true that Lawrence hasn’t had as productive of a start to the season as he’d like in terms of rushing the passer, and he’d be the first one to tell you so, but it’s also true that his production hasn’t been poor either, as the sixth-year defensive end has been credited with 19 total pressures, per PFF, and 2.5 sacks for a pass-rush productivity (PRP) of 7.2.

What’s interesting is that even though Lawrence hasn’t had as fast of a start to this season as he did in 2017 and 2018 (11.8 and 9.4 PRP, per PFF), he’s actually been more productive in the first six games of 2019 than the last six games of 2018. In the last six games of 2018, Lawrence had a PRP rating – “a formula that combines sacks, hits and hurries relative to how many times they rush the passer,” per PFF – of 5.4 compared to a 7.2 PRP in the first six games of this season, per PFF, proving that the regression narrative is foolish.

The Cowboys problems lie with the supporting cast, or lack thereof. For one, the Cowboys defensive rotation stat line from this past week was atrocious. Robert Quinn had the only two sacks in the game but that so happened to be the only two tackles for loss the Cowboys made. Quinn was also the only defender to register QB hits. That’s pathetic when your line isn’t producing any tackles behind the line or even sniffing the quarterback.

Maliek Collins was one of the most disruptive players in training camp and the preseason, he played 77% of the defensive snaps and had one tackle. Collins also cost the Cowboys with this horse-collar tackle on 3rd and goal:

The Cowboys defense in the current state has fatal flaws all over, but if you can’t pressure the quarterback you’ll get carved up each and every week. What we’ve seen thus far tells us that this Cowboys defense was way over-hyped. What good is the talent if it’s underachieving at a colossal level? Something has to give because this defense has no excuse when it has six former Pro Bowlers. Someone needs to step up and start pulling some weight opposite of the two starting ends because right now, the Cowboys are sinking fast. This defense is desperate for a playmaker of any kind to show his face.

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