The Dallas Cowboys are in the driver's seat in the NFC, and it's because they have embraced their identity. The roster was built from the offensive line out, and after drafting Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott, now presents a running threat that no other NFL team can match. The Cowboys produce big plays on the ground, threaten opponents downfield with Dez Bryant, and shorten games. If a team punts to Dallas when the Cowboys have the lead, they could find themselves down seven points and seven minutes of clock the next time they get the ball.
Left undiscussed, however, is Dallas' defense—low on talent, highly dependent on being healthy, but stitched into a whole that is more than the sum of its parts by defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli, who has relied on an old school formula of solid tackling, keeping plays in front of them, and benefitting from all that time the Cowboys' offense chews up.
Question is, can that same formula hold up in the playoffs?
Ironically enough, Dallas has made recent heavy investments on defense via the draft and free agency. But the results have been star-crossed.
When a failed drug test left Nebraska edge rusher Randy Gregory available in the second round of the draft in 2015, the Cowboys pounced. He played 12 games in his rookie season, but has been suspended for 14 games for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy. He'll be eligible to come back late in the season. When a career-threatening knee injury left teams unsure that Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith would ever play, Dallas also took him in the second round. Despite talk of his progress, he hasn't practiced for the Cowboys yet and won't play this season. Dallas hit paydirt on one of their reclamation projects when linebacker Rolando McClain broke out in 2014, but McClain has also run afoul of the league's substance abuse policy, and is currently suspended indefinitely in Roger Goodell's post-transparency world. The best pass rusher on Dallas' defense, DeMarcus Lawrence, also missed four games on substance abuse policy this year.
You get the picture. The Cowboys love to take chances on talent, and they've been burned by doing so. A lot. The less said about Greg Hardy, the better.
Dallas' strategy seems to be a reaction to the team's 2014 offseason, in which the Cowboys were widely derided for having a wildly untalented defense after DeMarcus Ware signed with the Denver Broncos. Better to gamble and hope to hit the jackpot than to settle for mediocrity,right?
And yet: Dallas' current defense is defined by safe, solid, no-frills play. Linebacker Sean Lee has been a demon against the run since he returned from injury, accounting for 16 percent of the team's defensive stops in 2015. Meanwhile, a Dallas team that was middle of the pack in broken tackles in 2015 threw chief offender Barry Chuch (18 broken tackles in 2015) into a reduced role. So far in 2016, the Cowboys have missed just 60 tackles per Sports Info Solutions, the fifth-lowest rate in the league. That has been a boost to their run defense—they're sixth in run defense DVOA through Week 12's games. (DVOA is a play-by-play measurement of success, adjusted for the strength of a team's opponents.)
Last year, Dallas ranked No. 29 in the league by that measure. The Cowboys' improvement should help create third-and-longs against run-heavy potential NFC playoff opponents like Tampa and Seattle. Only that brings up the big, unanswered question about Dallas heading into the postseason. How will they stop the pass?
The key to playing the kind of defense that Marinelli would prefer to play is both simple and difficult: pressuring opposing quarterbacks with four-man rushes. Through Week 12, the Cowboys haven't been able to make that work. Dallas has an overall pressure rate of 15.8 percent per Sports Info Solutions, 26th in the NFL. They're middle of the pack in Adjusted Sack Rate at 5.9 percent, 18th in the NFL. Those numbers should both climb a bit after we factor in what happened in Minnesota on Thursday, but it's almost unfair to pretend anything that happened against a Vikings offensive line comprised of backups and journeymen has any predictive power.
At some point in this year's playoffs, Russell Wilson or Matt Ryan or Kirk Cousins is going to drop back on third down, and the coverage isn't going to be great. And at that point, the Cowboys are going to have to rely on the results of their earlier personnel gambles.
Lawrence has been excellent after his suspension, notching 10 hurries and a sack in three starts. Tyrone Crawford leads the team in sacks, at 3.5, as an interior defensive tackle. But beyond those two, someone will need to step up at the right time. David Irving, a second-year undrafted free agent end, is probably their second-best edge rusher at this point. He has one sack and 11 hurries in 248 snaps this year. Rookie third-round pick Maliek Collins, finally healthy after missing most of training camp with a broken foot, was able to pick up two sacks against the Vikings. Again, is that transferable?
Then there's Gregory. Will he have taken enough of a step forward to be relied on at that point? Will he even be on the field?
So far, the Dallas defense has been able to do just enough. It, uh, helps that they have the second-highest average lead of any NFL team per drive, at 6.36. They have a few more weeks to figure out how best to use the pash rushing talent on hand. Moreover, only Atlanta has shown the kind of passing game consistency to really worry the Cowboys.
Still, the best hope for the rest of the NFC against Dallas is to have a high-percentage passing game repeatedly win in the red zone. And that dovetails with the Cowboys' one weakness. Dallas is still paying for its failed gambles chasing the pass rush. In January, that could leave the Cowboys chasing a team from behind.
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