It has been a phenomenal 2016 season for the Dallas Cowboys as they sit atop not only the NFC East, but the entire NFL.
Rookie quarterback Dak Prescott is at the front of this new Cowboys era, dominating not only as a passer but also in the ground game. Ezekiel Elliott is literally chasing records. Their offensive line is receiving (and deserving) the highest of praise. Dez Bryant is fully healthy and not even the loudest stars can slow him down.
So what could possibly slow down this Dallas Cowboys team from making a deep postseason run? The simple answer is their lack of a consistent pass-rush. They currently do not have a player in the top 60 in sacks. As a team, they are tied for 25th with just 20 sacks all year. That’s just three sacks more than the two teams in last place: the Oakland Raiders and Cleveland Browns.
While sack totals are always great, the overall key is quarterback hurries (pressure!). Tyrone Crawford has had a nice season, tallying 4 sacks, 3 more quarterback hits and 32 total quarterback pressures. On 347 total pass rush attempts, he’s been disruptive on 9.2 percent of them, an extremely solid rate. To put that in perspective Von Miller, arguably the NFL’s best overall pass rusher, currently has a disruption rate of 18.6 percent.
The key problem is outside of Crawford, the Cowboys have gotten very little production. A gigantic disappointment has been DeMarcus Lawrence, who has only 11 total quarterback pressures on over 200 pass-rush attempts since returning from a 4-game suspension.
Terrell McClain and Jack Crawford have held their own against the run, but bring very little heat on the quarterback. Between the two they’ve combined 22 quarterback pressures while both having well over 200 pass-rush attempts.
One situational player that has flashed quite a bit is second-year defensive lineman David Irving.
At 6-foot-7, Irving has rare length up front. His versatility to rush from multiple alignments can be a weapon down the stretch and he’s proven to be productive in the snaps he’s been given with a disruption rate of around 8 percent (15 pressures on 190 attempts).
Another intriguing option is situational edge rusher Ryan Davis, formerly of the Jacksonville Jaguars who was a surprise cut this year. In the Cowboys last two games, he’s had 26 pass-rush attempts and has registered 4 pressures with one quarterback hit.
Just two seasons ago, once again in a limited role, he compiled 26 total quarterback pressures with 6.5 sacks. Davis makes the most of his reps and might have to temporarily take on the role former second-round pick Randy Gregory was once expected to thrive in.
The Cowboys defense has held their own all season and growing pains are expected when youngsters like Maliek Collins are seeing significant snap totals, but they are legitimate Super Bowl contenders right now. Even with a makeshift pass-rush, they’ll need to find a way to disrupt the pocket as their postseason run could potentially include quarterbacks like Russell Wilson, Matt Ryan, Matthew Stafford or Eli Manning. They might have a front filled with a bunch of ‘no names’ to the casual fan, but the Cowboys have a group of role players that can get the job done.
All advanced stats courtesy of Pro Football Focus Premium