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Dallas Cowboys defensive depth on display in win over Texans

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Young, talented play-makers are driving the Cowboys defense.

NFL: Preseason-Houston Texans at Dallas Cowboys Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s start with the disclaimers. First, it was a single preseason game. The Cowboys and Texans who will decide each team’s 2019 fortunes either sat out completely or barely saw the field Saturday night. Second, the Houston Texans’ offensive line is bad, like criminally bad (something DeShaun Watson is going to be thinking every time he drops back). Third, it was a single preseason game - this cannot be stressed enough as rarely do such games reveal the true character or makeup of either team.

Having said all that, there are lots of reasons for Cowboys fans to be excited about what the defense accomplished last night. The Dallas defense absolutely destroyed the Texans; they physically abused them from opening whistle to final play. What was most impressive is it was the Cowboys’ depth players doing most of the damage, not the starters. Let’s look at each group.

Defensive Ends

Here are the snap counts for the team’s edge rushers:

Green = high number of snaps
Yellow = intermediate number of snaps
Red = low number of snaps

There’s a lot to unbundle here. First, Taco Charlton and Kerry Hyder played only 31 combined snaps. They made the most of those snaps, racking up a combined four sacks, five QB hits, two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery, a tackle for loss and a pass defensed. That’s nine splash plays on 31 snaps. In short, these two terrorized the Houston offense on every play.

Taco Charlton seemingly made more plays in his 19 snaps than he has his entire career thus far. Here he shows a motor and relentless spirit we haven’t seen in the past:

Many of Taco’s big plays came as a result of hustle and continuing to work. Hyder, by comparison, seemed to be blowing up and dominating blockers on every play:

Taco coming out was a bit of surprise and makes the calls to trade or cut the former first-round pick seem premature. Hyder, by comparison, has been a disruptive force throughout camp. Now, were these two dominating All-Pro blockers? No. But they were dominating those assigned to stop them and that isn’t something we’ve seen from backup Cowboys defenders in recent years.

Realize, the top four Cowboys edge rushers didn’t see a single snap against the Texans:

  • DeMarcus Lawrence
  • Robert Quinn
  • Tyrone Crawford
  • Randy Gregory

Now add the fact that second-year player Dorance Armstrong and rookies Jalen Jelks and Joe Jackson also looked good when they took the field and have received praise throughout the preseason. Add it up and this group of edge rushers is easily the deepest, most talented group the Cowboys have fielded in years.

Sidenote: those with good memories will remember back to August of 2015 when Cowboys coverage was filled with numerous articles hyping that group of defensive lineman as the best, deepest, most talented in years. DeMarcus Lawrence was supposed to combine with Randy Gregory, Greg Hardy and Tyrone Crawford to create a devastating starting unit that would be augmented by “promising” youngsters such as Ben Gardner, Ken Bishop and Ryan Russell. Whoops. Turned out Hardy wasn’t as good as hoped for and all of the “promising” players were more hype than anything else.

So, we’ve been here before. Still, I never saw that group issue an unmitigated beatdown of an opponent - any opponent - the way the Cowboys dismantled the Texans Saturday. Even recognizing 2015, I have great faith in this current unit.

Defensive Tackles

Unlike the end position, the Cowboys’ defensive tackle starters saw the field, if only briefly. Maliek Collins has reportedly been one of the best players in camp and he showed it with a devastating tackle for loss (that unfortunately resulted in Lamar Miller tearing his ACL). Also watch Antwuan Woods dominate his man on the same play:

This sequence from Collins is drool-worthy:

Beyond Collins and Woods, we saw a group of youngsters who suffocated any Texans running attempts and penetrated into the QB’s face on seemingly every dropback. This group doesn’t have quite the talent level as on the edge, but it’s probably the best group Rod Marinelli has had during his Cowboys’ tenure.

Our own Tom Ryle ably documented the dominance of the entire defensive line:

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.

Again, all of that without DeMarcus Lawrence, Randy Gregory, Tyrone Crawford or Robert Quinn. Wow.

Linebackers

Remember when the Cowboys’ defensive fortunes seemed ever-dependent upon Sean Lee’s hamstrings? And how when they inevitably got stretched or pulled or whatever suddenly the defense couldn’t stop anyone? Yeah, those days are over. Obviously, the dynamic duo of Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch get the bulk of the credit and deservedly so. But the depth at this position is outrageous.

Sean Lee is the third linebacker, who will see limited snaps. Behind him is Joe Thomas, who would be starting for just about any other team. All he did Saturday was this:

Thomas also made a great read on a pass that he should have intercepted but had the ball bounce off his hands. You’ll recall that Thomas also had a great training camp and preseason this year. Camp observers tell us he was constantly making plays in California. Linebacker is a punishing position; having quality depth is a luxury many teams simply do not have. The Cowboys are not one of those teams.

Cornerbacks

In today’s pass-happy NFL you can never have enough cover guys but the Cowboys are challenging that notion. One reason Taco Charlton and the rest of the Cowboys pass-rushers had opportunities to track down the mobile Texans’ QBs is there apparently weren’t many open receivers.

The Cowboys are in good shape at the top of the cornerback depth chart with Byron Jones, Chidobe Awuzie and Anthony Brown. Jourdan Lewis is another player who would be starting for many other teams. He’s the Cowboys fourth cornerback. Now, we can (fairly) confidently pencil in C. J. Goodwin and Donovan Olumba at the fifth and sixth spots. Goodwin has drawn raves throughout camp and made a classic ballhawking interception against the Texans:

Olumba did not make any highlight reels but also has had a solid camp. When you have Lewis, Goodwin and Olumba as your fourth-sixth cornerbacks, you’re in very good shape. With Jones’ injury still keeping him off the field, it’s likely players like Lewis and Goodwin will see time this year.

Safeties

At this time last year there was great concern about the state of the Cowboys’ safeties. You had Jeff Heath set to start with an unproven, former sixth-round draft pick (Xavier Woods) with only Kavon Frazier as depth.

Well, things have changed. You still have Heath but Woods now has a year under his belt and the third-year pro is seen by many as a breakout candidate. And behind him the Cowboys can choose between the experience of Frazier and/or the talent of 2019 sixth-round pick Donovan Wilson. Wilson is another name that has drawn praise throughout camp. Saturday he showed the kind of playmaking that has been sorely missed by Cowboys secondaries in recent years:

Both Woods and Heath were healthy through most of 2018, but if one were to miss some time, the Cowboys are better prepared to withstand their absence than in the past.

Final Thoughts

Again, every team is full of optimism this time of year (well, every team other than the Indianapolis Colts). Every “promising” player is a future star and every “much improved” veteran is going to have a career year. Beating up on the Texans’ second- and third-teamers won’t mean much when real games that count are played.

But there is real excitement about this group. They have proven top-shelf talent (Lawrence, Smith, Vander Esch, B. Jones). They have solid veterans (Crawford, Quinn, Heath). And they have talented, young depth like we haven’t seen in years.

Looking at this group I’m reminded of being in Austin, Texas for the 1992 training camp. The Cowboys had come off a year where they won 11 games and reached the divisional round of the playoffs but gave up 341 passing yards, three passing touchdowns and 38 points to someone named Erik Kramer in a devastating 38-6 shellacking at the hands of the Detroit Lions. The Cowboys defensive line had been utterly ineffective at either getting to the QB or stopping Barry Sanders.

The next summer in Austin, there were a couple practices when the defensive line seemed unstoppable. Charles Haley had been added to Jim Jeffcoat and Tony Tolbert. Inside you had Tony Casillas and Russell Maryland, but the kid everyone was marveling over was an unknown rookie, Leon Lett. This group was so deep that Chad Hennings couldn’t break the 8-man rotation.

This isn’t to even remotely say that this 2019 unit is as good as that Super Bowl winning unit that led the league in defense. Still, it kind of reminds one of that group: young, talented and deep.

Time will tell if this optimism is well-founded, but there are many good signs.