It feels like a never-ending journey for the Dallas Cowboys when it comes to sacking the quarterback. You have to go back eight years to find the team finishing in the top 10 in sacks as they racked up 42 of them in 2011. Of course, almost half of those were courtesy of future Hall of Fame defensive end DeMarcus Ware, who tallied 19.5 sacks that season. No other player on the team had more than six.
The Cowboys have improved in the sack department, but they still can’t crack the top 10. The team finished with 39 sacks last year, good enough to rank right in the middle at 16th overall in sacks. In each of the last five years, the team has shown a gradual improvement in sack production each year.
These numbers mirror the type of growth the team has had on the defensive line as players are starting to develop into bigger threats. Led by the charge of DeMarcus Lawrence and his merry crusade of Rushmen, the Cowboys have an opportunity to do some damage in the trenches. But how are they going to get the job done? Looking at the top three teams in the league, here are a few different ways the Cowboys defense can become one of the top quarterback-sacking teams in the league.
A talented arsenal from the edge
Modeled after the Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs had a talented group of pass rushers last season and got great contributions from several different players. Kansas City employed a 3-4 defense so their defensive ends weren’t always rushing on the edge, but between them and their outside linebackers - they collapsed the pocket. The tandem of Chris Jones, Dee Ford, Justin Houston, and Allen Bailey collectively compiled 43.5 sacks, that’s 84% of the team’s total sacks.
Do the Cowboys have the arsenal along the edge to pull that off?
That’s a lot to ask from the Cowboys defensive ends, but there are some reasons to be optimistic about what they can do this season. The acquisition of Robert Quinn could bring a second double-digit sack guy to help DeMarcus Lawrence. Those two together have 25+ sack potential. And if Randy Gregory is cleared to play, he could bring another seven or so sacks to the table. All it would take at that point is for one more guy to step in get half a dozen sacks. The team has a few wild card players including Kerry Hyder, Dorance Armstrong, and the “when is he going to breakout” candidate Taco Charlton who all have upside.
Big push from inside
Modeled after the Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers have good edge rushers in T.J Watt (13 sacks last season) and Bud Dupree (5.5 sacks), but they also have some beef in the middle that cause all kinds of trouble. Cameron Heyward, Javon Hargrave, and Stephon Tuitt each made a strong contribution in the middle of the defensive line. All three range from 295 to 303 pounds in weight, so while they are big, they’re not just giant blobs just taking up space. These players move very well for guys their size. The power, the motor, the foot quickness - it’s all there for the Steelers interior defensive line.
Pittsburgh didn’t just happen upon this group of pass rushers as every single one of these guys are homegrown and required the use of a premium draft resource. Watt and Dupree are first-round picks along with Heyward. Tuitt was selected in the second round, and Hargrave was picked in round three. The Steelers invest in pass rushers and it’s paid off.
Do the Cowboys have the interior power to pull this off?
The trio of Maliek Collins, Tyrone Crawford, and rookie Trysten Hill should be entertaining to watch this year as it’s been a long time since the team has been this strong at defensive tackle. A healthy Collins can yield a half a dozen sacks. While it’s unclear how the coaches will use Crawford, he’s had the most success playing inside at the 3-tech position. And the team is super excited about the potential of Hill as they are hoping he becomes the special interior pass rusher this team has been lacking for so long.
Balanced attack with a blitzing linebacker
Modeled after the Chicago Bears
The Bears use a total team effort to get after the quarterback. They have good players along the edge, and they have good players in the middle. But despite having star pass rusher Khalil Mack, this defensive line unit would just be average if it wasn’t for the contribution they get from the other cast mates on defense. Six different defensive backs recorded a sack for the Bears, but the biggest non-DLine contributor was linebacker Roquan Smith. The 8th overall pick in last year’s draft not only had 121 tackles his rookie season, but he knocked down five passes, had a pick, and sacked the quarterback five times.
Do the Cowboys have a linebacker than can rush the passer?
Yes. Yes, they do.
Jaylon Smith demonstrated he can be effective at rushing the quarterback. He finished with the second highest pass-rush grade for all linebackers according to Pro Football Focus.
It was great to see Jaylon Smith back to health last season with the Cowboys as he finished with the 2nd-highest pass-rush grade among LBs pic.twitter.com/lEpbazwPiS— PFF (@PFF) May 10, 2019
Smith finished the year with four sacks and should be able to continue to help the team pad their sack total. He’s just getting started.
For the Cowboys, they have some intriguing pass rushing candidates across the board. They have the potential to get disruption from the edge and from the middle. They also have a quick linebacker group that can get to the quarterback as well. It’s certainly possible that this could be the year the Cowboys defense finds itself back in the top 10 again for sacks.