We know it’s only preseason, but these games are one of the most useful ways to gauge what teams might be when things start to count. For the Dallas Cowboys, the 34-0 drubbing of the Houston Texans was full of really good indicators. The offense put 27 points on the board. The special teams had a couple of big plays including a touchdown of their own, plus a not-insignificantly perfect night from Brett Maher. The defense was strong. That includes the entire unit, but one group went above and beyond. That was the defensive line, which for the entire game was about as impenetrable as you are ever going to see.
Eight sacks, involving eight different players. All linemen. Three forced fumbles, again all from the line. Seven quarterback hits, contributing greatly to just giving up a measly 88 yards passing - only 50 when you subtract those sacks. Five tackles for a loss, and you guessed it. The line again. They helped hold the Texans to a paltry 3.9 yards per attempt on the ground.
But the really telling number is how many tackles each part of the defense had. In case you haven’t notice, in most NFL games, linebackers rack up the biggest number of tackles, followed by the defensive backs, with the DEs and DTs coming in last. Most of the time, their job in the running game is to clog things up and funnel the runner for LBs and DBs to clean him up. Pressure on the passer helps create incompletions and interceptions (which they certainly did). On this night, however, it was a very different story. The linebackers had 10 total tackles, while the secondary added 10 more.
The defensive line totaled 25 combined tackles.
That is just not what happens.
There is a big caveat. Houston has a bad offensive line. Really bad. We’re talking about being similar to what the Indianapolis Colts had for the first seven years of Andrew Luck’s career - which we now know is all there is, as he has decided to retire after the continual beating he has taken, sapping the joy of playing and crushing his desire to keep fighting back. But still. This was an epic performance, preseason or not.
Don’t overlook that both teams came out with their available starters to have the traditional “dress rehearsal” game. (That is an idea that needs to go away, as the Texans and Lamar Miller, who suffered a reported ACL injury, can attest.) That idea did not survive past the first series for Houston, as they wisely yanked Deshaun Watson after the first series, which ended with him being sacked and stripped of the ball by Taco Charlton. They wisely determined that their offensive line was doing a fantastic Swiss cheese impersonation and decided to make sure Watson lived to fight in the regular season.
However, the operative word in the first sentence of the preceding paragraph is “available.” The Cowboys were without DeMarcus Lawrence, Robert Quinn, and Tyrone Crawford. The first two are presumptive starters for the real games, and the third is the man who is expected to fill in for Quinn during his two-game suspension.
They played the entire game with what were expected to be backups at end, and got Maliek Collins and Antwaun Woods out of harm’s way in the first quarter. The remarkable performance by the line was almost all with depth players.
They sure didn’t look like it. Kerry Hyder, who had two sacks on back-to-back plays, and worked at both end and tackle, may be nearly as important a free agent acquisition as Quinn. Christian Covington showed he may not be far behind in that category. Dorance Armstong had a, um, strong night. Rookies Joe Jackson and Jalen Jelks led all linemen with four tackles each, tied with LB Justin Phillips for the overall lead. Shakir Soto is just a camp body, but he had a couple of tackles and a sack against the bottom of the Texans’ depth chart. Trysten Hill flashed a little something with half a sack. Daniel Wise and Ricky Walker didn’t do anything to make the final cuts easier by showing up on the stat line.
But no one did more to state his case than Charlton, who played like a man possessed. He was finishing plays all over the field, something he has not done well in the past. He had three tackles, two of them sacks, two QB hits, two forced fumbles, and recovered one of the loose balls.
It is just preaseason, again. You have to wonder, however, if he has played himself into being that replacement starter while Quinn is not available.
There is only one preseason affair left, and we know the starters will be taking that night off. It will be interesting to see how Charlton is handled. The team could elect to give him some more playing time. That seems unlikely, though, with Charlton leaving the game not once but twice with what we all hope are minor injuries. It means that the game on Thursday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will probably not give us a true indication of just where Charlton stands in the depth chart.
Even with his situation being unclear, the overall picture of the defensive line is highly encouraging. The depth appears very real. The Bucs also have another suspect offensive line for the Cowboys to work against.
For that matter, there are some questions concerning the offensive lines of the opponents in the first two regular season games, the New York Giants and Washington. The Cowboys expect to have Lawrence and Crawford back for those.
It seems unlikely that the level of performance on display against the Texans can fully continue. But it’s not impossible.
There is an old adage that the correct way to build a football team is from the lines out. We all know what the Cowboys have done with the offensive side of things, led by the three All-Pros. Now they may have done the same thing on defense.
Walls can work both ways, it appears.