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Pass rush remains a problem for Cowboys early in 2020 season

The Dallas Cowboys have had difficulty getting to quarterbacks during the first three weeks of the 2020 season which has made life difficult for the defense.
Credit: AP
Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson passes under pressure from Dallas Cowboys' Trysten Hill (72) and DeMarcus Lawrence (90) during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Sept. 27, 2020, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

The Dallas Cowboys will be heading back out on the field on Sunday looking to wipe the nasty taste of defeat out of their mouths. After falling behind late in the fourth quarter in Week 3, Dallas wasn't able to put the finishing touches on a comeback in Seattle and fell to 1-2 on the young season. 

Even while scoring 31 points on offense, the Cowboys lost to the Seahawks by 7 points. In their two losses this season, Dallas has been outscored by a total of 10 points with each loss coming down to a single possession game. Despite all of their issues in many facets of the game, they have had an opportunity to win in all three games. 

One of the reasons that Dallas hasn’t come away with those victories is because opposing quarterbacks have averaged 288 yards, a 66% completion percentage, 8.1 yards per attempt, and three touchdowns per game against this defense. The Cowboys have allowed an opposing passer rating of 114.1, which is second-worst in all of the NFL. 

Only the Jacksonville Jaguars have been worse off at defending the pass than Dallas. For the Cowboys, the need to generate more pressure up front to counteract their deficiencies on the backend has become paramount. 

It’s easy to point fingers at a banged up and untested secondary but, for Dallas, the problem starts with a veteran defensive line that has underperformed thus far. Now Dallas will welcome the 2-1 Cleveland Browns to Arlington. This could prove to be an opportunity for the Cowboys to recalibrate their woes when it comes to defending the pass. 

The prescription for the Cowboys on Sunday will be to get to the quarterback and disrupt the timing between Cleveland quarterback Baker Mayfield and a talented group of pass catchers for the Browns in Odell Beckham Jr., Jarvis Landry, Austin Hooper, and company. 

While Mayfield's numbers aren't earth-shattering – the Cleveland pass attack is 30th in the league at just 176.3 yards per contest – playing against this defense could be just what the doctor ordered for the Browns on offense. 

Conversely, the Dallas defensive line might be able to flourish against one of the weaker passing attacks if they don’t end up having their hands full with Cleveland’s ground game. The Browns rank third in the league with 170.3 yard rushing per game.

Nevertheless, it is certainly true that the Cowboys’ secondary is having trouble with coverage. That should not be a surprise. Part of the poor play stems from missing two starting cornerbacks and a longstanding dearth of talent at the safety position. Dallas is experiencing growing pains with rookie second-round CB Trevon Diggs, as expected. He is also giving the team hustle plays, and his overall availability has been a plus to the team. 

While it’s not shocking to see the secondary try to keep their heads above water, the defensive line had been molded in the offseason to serve as a strength on defense. Upfront, the Cowboys have DeMarcus Lawrence as the player most under the spotlight and he has come under fire from the fanbase. 

Lawrence has been dealing with a knee injury that he suffered in the Atlanta game, which has limited him in practice. Meanwhile, he has yet to record a sack this season after a year in which his sack total slipped to 5.0 from 10.5 sacks in the 2018 campaign. 

Sacks aren’t the only measure for a defensive lineman’s usefulness at disrupting the pass attack, however. According to Jon Machota of the Athletic, Lawrence has actually led the team in quarterback pressures with nine. 

The top player in sacks is newcomer Aldon Smith who checks in with an NFL-high 4.0. This setup seems similar to 2019 when Robert Quinn picked up 11.5 sacks playing on the opposite side of the line as Lawrence. Teams don’t want to let Lawrence beat them so he absorbs a lot of the focus when drawing up the game plan to beat Dallas. 

As a defensive line coach will tell you, "disruptions equal production." Lawrence needs to continue being disruptive, especially in the coming weeks. As far as the Browns are concerned, they don't give up a lot of pressure. Mayfield has been sacked just four times in three games while seeing pressure on 17.4% of drop backs. 

Smith, Lawrence and Everson Griffin will likely need to make a bigger impact. Linebacker Jaylon Smith also needs to be more productive on his blitz opportunities from a two-point stance. If the Dallas line can start to win from different angles, their effort can help out a depleted secondary. 

Otherwise, if the Cowboys continue to let the opposing quarterback feel comfortable, the team could be staring 1-3 in the face before they even get a crack at divisional play later this month. 

Do you think the Cowboys will be able to put pressure on Baker Mayfield and the Cleveland Browns on Sunday? Share your thoughts with Patrick on Twitter @PatSportsGuy.