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After further review: Cowboys defense improved in second half despite absence of a pass rush

After re-watching the game, we can better understand what went wrong with the Cowboys pass rush.

Dallas Cowboys v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

The Dallas Cowboys were on the short side of a 38-31 shootout against the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday. It was a back and forth game with the pass protection playing a big role in determining the victor. After re-watching the game, it’s a little more clear as to what happened in the trenches. Earlier, we looked at the Cowboys offensive line, but now we’ll examine what went wrong with the defensive line.

In a game like this where Russell Wilson had too much time, what exactly went wrong?

Looking at the tape there are a handful of contributors, and while the Cowboys defensive line played their part, part of it was how the Seahawks approached their blocking assignments. Sometimes they overloaded their blockers, giving them a huge advantage in numbers for their protection. In those instances, the Cowboys chose to concede their pass rush for additional resources in coverage. Sometimes that worked where you saw Wilson dance around for a while before realizing nobody was open, forcing him to take off running. But sometimes it didn’t, and giving Wilson that much time is just inviting him to pick apart any lapse in coverage that gives his man the separation needed.

And finally, there was no way around it - the Cowboys defensive line didn’t win enough of it’s one-on-one matchups with the Seahawks offensive line. All these things together created quite the mess for the Cowboys pass defense.

Here are a few things that stood about when the Seahawks went back to throw.

Passing off defenders

Seattle’s offensive line was so sharp in handling their assignments. Several times they would counter stunts by the Cowboys defensive line and pass off the pass rushers seamlessly. Their blockers stayed in perfect position to square up and handle the rusher. It was just an outstanding job by their unit. And even when the Cowboys secondary had everyone covered, Wilson just scampered off for positive yards.

Spacing out and re-positioning

The Seahawks offensive line did a fantastic job of spacing out their blockers to give Wilson so much room to operate. They would push defenders as far apart as they could, opening up so many holes in case Wilson needed to take off running. In some cases, it formed a well-spaced wall of protection for their quarterback.

They also did a good job of moving their offensive linemen around. Using play-action, they had a lineman going right towards the direction of the “run” only to turn completely around and help provide a double-team on Aldon Smith. That is just outstanding usage of their blocking resources.

Another thing that created the illusion of complete dominance in the trenches was when the Cowboys defenders started pulling out of the rush and backing off into coverage. The edge rushers were mindful of the Seahawks running backs when they swung outside, but all that did was just limit the effectiveness of the pass rush even more. And I don’t know who’s brilliant idea it is to have the defensive tackles back off into coverage, but how is that going to be helpful? Is Dontari Poe really the guy you want roaming around in the secondary?

With more pass rushers sloughing off into coverage, it just meant even more time for Wilson, and that’s just not going to work.

Just couldn’t win

It would be nice to say that the Cowboys defensive line was just out-schemed to where a coaching adjustment might fix things about, but we can’t escape the reality that even when they were in one-on-one matchups, seldom could they generate any pressure. That is not good. Without the ability to get after the quarterback, the Cowboys secondary is a sitting duck.

The Aldon Show

We’ll finish this thing off on a positive note. While the line as a whole was not good, it was nice to see Aldon Smith show up early in the game. There is nothing like starting things out with two nice plays out of the gate, and that is exactly what Smith did on Sunday. First, he beats the tackle to the inside and recognizes Wilson is looking for the quick slant, so he had the awareness to get his hands up to knock down the pass. Then, on the very next play, Smith again uses his left arm to shove the blocker to the outside, only to cut inside and have a clean shot on Wilson for the sack. Smith put on a clinic of how to use the inside arm to push the tackle off balance to open up a path to the quarterback. He really makes it look easy.

When Smith dominated games back during his All-Pro season in 2012, he averaged 1.22 sacks per game. This season with the Cowboys, he is averaging 1.33 sacks per game so far. It’s early, but that’s a good sign, right?

CONCLUSION

The Cowboys coaching staff backed off of throwing extra rushers at Wilson as they didn’t want to gamble with him escaping and turning it in to a big play. That’s understandable, but the pass rushers they did use were ineffective outside of Smith for the most part. The Seahawks coaching staff was better prepared to give their quarterback time to make plays, and that’s all Wilson is doing this year is making plays.

So, should we be worried going forward?

Yes. It’s hurting this defense not being able to get after the quarterback. If it doesn’t improve, this team just won’t have the ability to hang with the tougher teams in the league. Is it catastrophic? Not completely. We should give them credit for hanging in there, especially considering how banged up their secondary is. As bad as it’s been at times, the defense has given their team a chance to win the game in the second half of each of the first three games. That’s something. There are some positives to take from the defense that shouldn’t be swept under the rug. For example:

  • The Seahawks have the second-highest scoring offense in the league, yet the Cowboys forced them to punt seven times on Sunday.
  • There was a span of nearly 28-straight minutes in the second half that the Seahawks offense never scored.
  • Two of the Seahawks five touchdowns were points off of turnovers where the Cowboys offense gave them the ball back on a short field.

Looking at everything as a whole shows a defense that isn’t quite as “red carpet” as it seems. They do make plays. It’s just not enough right now, and the lack of pass rush is part of the problem.