The pass rush of the Dallas Cowboys has suddenly disappeared. After leading the league in sacks entering week 14, the defense has only mustered one measly sack over their past three games. While the Cowboys have won two of those three games, suffice it to say, it hasn’t been easy. In each of them, the Cowboys were trailing late in the game and had to mount a go-ahead scoring drive. In each of them, their opponents had one final attempt to score and drove the ball into Cowboys' territory. Twice their opponents failed, once they were successful, but in each event, their opponents had life because the Cowboys' pass rush just couldn’t generate enough pressure to end things before they got hairy. And it brings the question, what’s different now?
As we try to figure out this conundrum, we decided to examine each game this season and look for commonalities. Was it something their opponents were doing differently? What has changed now compared to earlier in the years? Looking over the data, we have three theories that might have something to do with the Cowboys' pass-rushing disappearing act.
Teams are countering against the pass-rushing stunts
Dan Quinn loves to run pass-rushing stunts. With an assortment of weapons, including the extremely versatile Micah Parsons, he can do a lot of different things. Quinn will attack the path to the quarterback in a multitude of ways constantly challenging the offensive line to be sharp on their toes picking up all the moving parts. Teams that aren’t able to handle the stress end up buckling, and the result has been large sack numbers for the defense.
After the defense racked up a season-high seven sacks against the Minnesota Vikings en route to a 37-point blowout win, opponents had to take measures to fend off the Cowboys' fierce pass rush. And surprisingly, they’ve been rather successful. We are now seeing more quick passes, outside runs, and misdirection plays to punish the defense when they are out of position. The sacks have dropped off quite a bit.
The number of times the Cowboys' defense has gotten more than three sacks in a game:— Dan Rogers (@DannyPhantom24) December 26, 2022
Their first 10 games = 7 times (70% of games)
Their last 5 games = 0 times (0%)
And they have just one measly sack over their last three games combined. Where have the sacks gone?
They are calling off the dogs
The Cowboys are 8-0 this year when they have employed pass-rushing stunts over 45% of the time, but they are just 3-4 with running 45% or fewer stunts. When they are able to cut loose, they win and they usually win big. When they have to back off a bit, they find themselves in closer games, most of which they end up losing.
- Their average margin of victory with at least 50% pass-rushing stunts = 20.6
- Their average margin of victory with fewer than 50% pass-rushing stunts = 0.4
This may seem rather self-evident. Clearly, when teams are in favorable game scripts, the defense can pin their ears back and go after the quarterback in a variety of different ways. But taking a closer look at what went down in each of those games might shed a little more light on the situation. Here is a breakdown of Cowboys games and their pass rush stunt % sorted by highest to lowest (stats courtesy of pff.com/subscribe).
If you look at some of those games where the pass-rushing stunts haven’t been as plentiful, you can see some good reasoning for it. Teams like Green Bay, Tampa Bay, and Jacksonville all ran the ball well against the Cowboys. Even Chicago put up a season-most 240 yards against them where the defense had to reduce their pass-rushing stunts. The Week 6 loss to the Eagles featured more rushing yards than passing yards as they were using all kinds of misdirection to neutralize Micah Parsons.
Three games since the Week 10 contest against the Vikings have seen the pass-rush stunts under 45%. You wouldn’t think teams like the Texans, Jaguars, and Giants would allow the Cowboys to stress the opposing offensive line with more pass-rushing stunts, but the defense has backed off a bit to avoid being gashed for big plays when they are caught out of position. In short, the Cowboys are sacrificing their pass rush strategy to prevent against big plays.
Better offensive lines are giving them fits
This year, the Cowboys have been fortunate to face some of the weaker pass-protecting offensive lines in the league. The Bears and Colts are atrocious, the Giants are all kinds of a mess, and even the once-strong Rams are vulnerable. Whether it’s from lack of talent or being laced with injuries, the team has feasted against the poor offensive lines in the league.
Conversely, the Cowboys haven’t been as sharp against the better pass-protecting offensive lines in the league. If you look at the sack percentage of each of the Cowboys' opponents, you can see that three of their four losses have come against offensive lines that are in the top eight in sack percentage (stats courtesy of teamrankings.com). Additionally, they have beaten every team they have faced at least once who is outside the top eight in sack percentage.
Is it possible the Cowboys' pass-rushing success was inflated due to playing against weaker offensive lines earlier in the year and things have become more difficult against better offensive lines? Stronger offensive lines do a better job fending off pass-rushing stunts, and how many times have we seen teams throw extra blockers at Parsons?
Sacks are drive killers. When the Cowboys get home, it means trouble for the opposing teams. When they don’t, the chains keep moving, and the Cowboys' defense ends up surrendering a bunch of yards. They have lost three of five games when giving up 340 or more yards and are 9-1 when giving up less than 340, with their lone loss being the Cooper Rush/Philly game.
It’s also important to point out that sacks are components of several things, including how long it takes the quarterback to get rid of the ball, so let’s reassess strictly based on the percentage of times a quarterback is under pressure (stats courtesy of pro-football-reference.com).
Using that metric, we can see that all four of the Cowboys’ losses this year have come against QBs ranked inside the top 10 for the fewest percentage of times pressured.
This is unsettling for a big reason. If better offensive lines are giving them fits, then that could be a problem in the playoffs. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are most likely going to be the Cowboys' opponent in the first round. As unimpressive as the Bucs have looked recently, they have the lowest sack percentage allowed in the league and Tom Brady is under pressure at the lowest rate. The San Francisco 49ers are also in the top 10 in sack % and they could also be a potential playoff opponent. And even though the Eagles aren’t great in sack percentage, they are a run-heavy team with a powerful offensive line.
The Bucs have already beaten the Cowboys this year, the 49ers bounced them from the playoffs last year with an assortment of offensive tricks, and the Eagles have already shown they can move the ball against this defense. All these things could present challenges for this Cowboys’ defense moving forward.