If you’re waiting for the Dallas Cowboys to regain the pass rush prowess demonstrated over the past two seasons, it’s likely just a matter of time before you get your wish. The team is off to a slow start in that category, but it’s not for lack of effort. Currently tied for 23rd in the NFL with only five sacks through their first three games, the Cowboys are getting great penetration in the backfield and applying pressure to opposing quarterbacks — the main problem actually being the inability to get home consistently and finish the job with a sack.
There are reasons for this, of course, and one is that the defensive front four has yet to play with its full slate of starters.
Robert Quinn was absent the first two games due to NFL suspension, and returned in Week 3 to help DeMarcus Lawrence take on the Miami Dolphins without Antwaun Woods or key rotational rusher Tyrone Crawford. This puts a lot of pressure on rookies Joe Jackson and Trysten Hill to dominate in their first NFL season, but the latter also wasn’t on the field through the first two weeks — made a healthy scratch twice as he admittedly learned more about how to impact games at the professional level.
“I was glad I wasn’t out on the field [the first two games], because I needed to learn how the NFL works and learn the game a little bit more,” Hill said after helping gut the Dolphins. “I think I was really prepared when I came out today.”
The rookie second-round pick looked ready as ever in his debut, registering two quarterback hurries and joining Lawrence as having the team-high in that column. All in all, there’s something to be said for the Cowboys having to constantly shift bodies over the first two weeks due to either injury or suspension, but things should begin solidifying over the next several weeks.
Assuming Quinn can build upon an impressive Cowboys debut that included landing his first franchise sack and essentially being in the opposing backfield at will, the needle continues to point north on the team’s ability to rush the passer. For perspective, Quinn amassed seven quarterback pressures in Week 3 alone, and that’s only three shy of Lawrence; who has 10 on the season. One person who understands all of issues the Cowboys defensive front has faced, and more, is passing game coordinator Kris Richard — who calls plays for the defense as a whole.
The former Legion of Boom engineer says have no fear, because the sacks are near.
“It’s coming,” Richard said as the team readies to visit the New Orleans Saints, via DallasCowboys.com. “The ball is coming out fast. We’re getting a lot of max protection. And that’s what we can expect and anticipate.
“We have guys that can rush the passer. The big thing for us is to make sure is that we just continue to keep rushing and keep playing, and to not allow statistical facts — or non-facts, or whatever it may be — to become a distraction. At no point in time can we ever allow that to become a distraction for us, or to focus in on that. We just have to keep rushing — keep playing and keep doing right.
“The [sacks] will come, and they will come in bunches.”
That’s something a team like the Jacksonville Jaguars can attest to, having had just four sacks in their first two games before taking down Marcus Mariota a total of nine times in one contest. Richard feels like something similar is coming for the Cowboys, and he has reason to. Readily acknowledging that teams are using max protect more to disrupt the pass rush — along with more double teams having been sent Lawrence’s way due to lack of a dynamic counterpart on the right edge — Richard notes that can’t and won’t continue now that Quinn is on the field.
“It’s makes a huge difference for us,” he said of Quinn’s return. “Because that’s really what we’re trying to do. Each and every single snap that we have out there, we want to create as many one-on-one’s as possible to allow our guys to do their work.”
It’s also key to note that while the Jaguars are tied for most sacks in the NFL with 13, they have only five more QB hurries than Cowboys, proving once again that the pressure is being applied by Dallas. They simply need to finish when they get in the backfield.
As far as the addition of Quinn goes, Lawrence echoes Richard’s sentiment and praised Quinn’s bend at the edge — as only Lawrence can.
“Quinn has remarkable speed,” he said. “Coach [Rod Marinelli] called me the ‘racing lizard’, and now Quinn is the ‘snake’ because he doesn’t have knees or ankles. We got positive vibes and we feel good seeing him out there.”
While things are now sorted out on the edges, there’s still the matter of working out an interior that remains without Crawford and Woods for Week 4. Maliek Collins has played leveled up football in his contract year but, again, there’s a lot being asked of the young guard that includes Hill, Jackson and Dorance Armstrong along with newcomer Christian Covington. Each have shown an ability to get into the backfield quickly, but are still working on landing their first sack of the year.
In reviewing the film of their Week 3 win over the Dolphins, however, the Cowboys could’ve realistically finished the contest with six or seven sacks spread across three or four players, and that’s in spite of max protection used frequently from the Dolphins. Beginning the season with a 3-0 start that includes holding their first three opponents to an average of only 21.2 points per game speaks volumes to what the team can be in 2019, once they’re firing on all cylinders defensively; as they have been offensively. They’ll have their work cut out for them against the Saints and a mobile Teddy Bridgewater, and they’re well aware of what the former first-round pick can do.
Still, Richard feels it’s only a matter of time before the glass ceiling breaks for the pass rush — leaving only the sky as the limit.