Sometimes, a little jolt of embarrassment can do a football team some good. There were some circumstances to consider about the trip to Denver and some excuses that could be made. But overall, the best summary for that Week 2 performance we broke down in this space was just not good enough. Sure, the Dallas offense could do better to take some heat off the defense, but Denver's offense was never as good as the Cowboys helped make them look. There was poor tackling, poor team defense, poor effort at times and a very poor result.
The defense was challenged to respond.
They were again miles from perfection Monday night in Arizona. You surely do not want to give up seven explosives in one night, and you also don't want to let a Cardinals offense that was missing its star running back, deep threat at wide receiver, left tackle and left guard move the chains 22 times on you and convert eight third-down opportunities, but all in all, the Cowboys' defense did respond.
It put together a ridiculous six-sack night and dominated the second half on the way to a key road win in a game that was there to be lost. Six sacks is a threshold that is very rare -- the last time a Cowboys defense did that was 2013, and they haven't done better than that since the 2008 defense that led the NFL in sacks did it twice.
Dallas so ferociously destroyed Arizona's offensive line, often times with a three-man rush, that people now are starting to see what a talent DeMarcus Lawrence truly is. The group around him that includes Maliek Collins, Benson Mayowa, Tyrone Crawford, Stephen Paea, rookie Taco Charlton, Damontre Moore and, soon, David Irving, is not too shabby either.
They have built a deep group that is already at 11 sacks, which ranks second in the NFL -- behind Jacksonville -- three weeks into the season.
Every week is going to be a challenge, but this one developed into an impressive show of pass-rushing force as the night unfolded.
WEEKLY DATA BOX
If you read this every week, you know my regard for Lawrence. It took a bit to sell me on him during his rookie year, but after watching his dominant 2015 -- something that evidently was missed by many Cowboys fans who tuned out that season -- I was pretty sold on his future. I don't mind people finding something better to do during a disastrous season, but if you do, perhaps don't accuse the guy of "finally doing something" for the first time here in 2017. He played his butt off in 2015 and led the team in splash plays. That, and then a few big games in 2016 -- at Pittsburgh is the one that always comes to mind -- were evident, despite his suspension and back issue. He should have people recognizing that he is right where you would hope he might be in Year 4 and at age 25 instead of stirring up claims that he is an athlete who is only now performing his best because of his contract expiring. That shouldn't apply here, but I realize I am not going to be able to stop that discussion from being prevalent.
I am not letting Lawrence get away, and if they talk extension now or later, the price tag is only going to go in one direction -- and guys like him are extremely expensive. Guys his age who hit free agency coming off a big year are going to start at $14 million per year. Four years, $58 million (Minnesota's Everson Griffen) to five years, $85 million (Olivier Vernon of the New York Giants) is the range, so get ready to pick your jaw up off the ground.
But look at the pace he is on in splash plays:
SPLASH PLAYS - WEEK 3 - AT ARIZONA
As usual, if you think I missed any or credited someone incorrectly, drop me a note. Accuracy is the real objective here.
2017 SEASON TOTALS
CARSON PALMER THROW CHART
I think this should be said about Carson Palmer's performance: He was really, really good and stood tall and courageous in the face of a fantastic pass rush. He never let his eyes drop to the pass rush and never made a business decision. That is tough to do, and despite his line problems, he gave them a really nice performance with several explosive plays down field -- most to Larry Fitzgerald.
It is interesting to look at the roles the Cowboys have for their defensive players on a week-to-week basis. Especially in the front seven, where there will be weeks when Charlton or Jaylon Smith have lots of opportunities and weeks when much of Smith's work goes to someone like Justin Durant.
We also have seen Moore cut into the snaps that Taco might receive, and now that the Cowboys seem to enjoy rushing three men -- at least in this Arizona matchup -- perhaps that will make D-line rush options more and more challenging to get on the field and make it a necessity to create plays when they are out there.
OK, let's look at some plays -- both good and bad from Monday night.
If you follow this team closely, you have, without doubt, started to hear about the "Deacon" package that was on full display Monday. The Cowboys employed a lot of three-man rushes, and while we counted 12 of them in this game, you may be surprised to know they actually did more of this last season. According to my guy, John Daigle, "they topped Monday's total (12) three times last season -- 20 vs. Chicago, 16 in Pittsburgh, 19 vs. Washington."
It is interesting to see that number and it makes you wonder if they earmark it for specific matchups, then put it away for weeks at a time. Why do they call it the "Deacon" package? Well, two reasons. 1) Kyle Wilber was the original linebacker in this mix and he went to Wake Forest, and 2) "Deacon" starts with "D," and football coaches love their opportunities for alliteration to help everyone remember which "dime" package they want. Anytime you want to know about a football term, odds are the first letter is the key. WILL means weak side. SAM means strong side. In a pinch when the bullets are flying, they try to use terms that are easy to communicate. Deacon is one of their dime looks.
It employs six defensive backs, of course, but also three D-linemen and two linebackers. Their base dime is six defensive backs with four D-linemen and one linebacker. This gives them more mobility in the underneath stuff and we saw Denver attack with C.J. Anderson enough to know the Cowboys don't want to be exposed there every week. So, they add mobility underneath, but it sure looks like they want to run a lot of 2-Man behind it. This is two deep safeties -- just like a Cover 2 -- but with man underneath it instead of zone. That means Sean Lee is chasing the running back, with Durant as either the spy or rat in the hole. I imagine that depends on the opposing quarterback. Clearly, he also rushes on a delay when he sees the opportunity, which presented itself several times Monday.
This first play is not that at all. But it might be what made the Cowboys shift their approach:
This is the opening-drive touchdown to Jaron Brown. The coverage appears to be Cover 3 and the center fielder, Jeff Heath, gets pulled to Fitzgerald and gives up the deep center. Anthony Brown has outside leverage and is too wide, but I assume he is expecting help from Heath. To be honest, I have no idea what Heath is doing here. He looks like he is the only one not running the Cover 3 (on that side of the field at least), so he may not have gotten the call or adjustment. I could be seeing this wrong, but that is my guess. He seems to think he has Fitzgerald and Anthony Brown is expecting him to play that high safety role. Either way, they look very confused.
Look at Palmer step up in the pocket and Lawrence actually get to his chest as the ball is thrown.
The 15:00 mark in the second quarter -- this is the pivotal play of the game. Palmer hits Jaron Brown for what appears to be a second touchdown and a 14-0 Arizona lead. The Cardinals want to attack Xavier Woods (No. 25) underneath with a crosser where Fitzgerald is used as a diversion and Jaron Brown is pulled across. This looks like Deacon and you can see the delayed rush from Durant (No. 52). As you know, there was a holding call on the right tackle here and the play comes back.
Fair holding call on Jared Veldheer (No. 68) against Lawrence, but we have definitely seen that not get called in the past. The Cowboys are fortunate that was spotted and the Cardinals miss the field goal, too. Still 7-0. Huge sequence.
Here is a great look at this Deacon rush with the coverage behind it. Two deep, man under, three-man rush and the linebacker spying, then rushing on a delay.
Look at two O-linemen go toward each defensive end, leaving Collins to feed on the overmatched center right up the gut. You can't double-team everyone. Five should be able to block three, but that wasn't happening Monday in Arizona.
You can see the issues this causes. You have seven guys covering and there isn't anywhere to go with the ball. It really frustrates the quarterback to see only three rushers and still face pressure while nobody is uncovering down the field. Two safeties deep make this extremely sound if you can still get home.
The 1:11 mark in the second quarter -- this is a Lawrence sack that was nullified because of Lee's illegal contact. Lee was flagged for making too much contact with Brittan Golden (No. 10.) It didn't look like much.
But man, Veldheer has no chance on his own against Lawrence. I have heard people say Veldheer is a backup. That is not true. He has been an eight-year starter at tackle. Not a great player, but he is no practice squad guy.
The 1:06 mark in the second quarter -- the very next play. Here comes the Deacon again and the same result, with no flag this time. Look at that coverage behind it. Three rush, linebacker spies, 2-Man behind it. I think you have to go with the rub routes and some underneath stuff to chase Dallas out of this if you can. Because nobody is open again and you have two safeties up top.
Crawford gets this sack, but watch it close in. You can also see Durant waiting for the right guard, Evan Boehm (No. 70), to turn his head before darting in to chase the quarterback down.
The 11:41 mark in the third quarter -- here is another sack, but this one is just a bonus. Four-man front and it is just a second-and-5. But Lawrence is playing so well that, even on a simple play action, he is back there before Palmer can do anything with the ball.
They are trying to sell the run-action, but that requires Lawrence to be blocked by the tight end, Jermaine Gresham. That wasn't happening on this night.
The 4:52 mark in the fourth quarter -- the Cowboys have a lead and are now pouring it on. Deacon package again, same result. Cardinals insist on getting five out in routes, leaving five to block three. Again, this seems like a reasonable request, but they simply can't slow down Collins (No. 96) and friends. Lawrence isn't even on the field. But Moore and Crawford are causing the havoc, and Collins finally beats that poor center again to clean up the play.
Collins is a wonderful player in situations like this. Again, watch Durant (No. 52) in his spy role -- the Cowboys actually call it "shark." He is darting around, and I am sure they hope Smith can do this soon.
The 2:24 mark in the fourth quarter -- here is sack No. 6. I swear, most of these have been the exact same defensive call. Arizona just can't block it and insists on getting five out in routes. Same coverage, same result.
Does any of the Cardinals' O-linemen have a good snap here? Poor Palmer must be sore this week. Unreal work from the Cowboys' defense with what amounts to be the same call over and over again.
Six-sack games are rare around here. Monday night was quite a show. I am not sure if this Deacon package is the next big thing, or if it's a sign that Arizona is in big trouble on the offensive line, but I am sure we will find out soon. It seems like the recipe for Green Bay in two weeks, for sure.
I think it is fair to say the Cowboys want to run this to protect their safeties. I don't think they feel great about single-high right now and prefer the safer two-deep. But boy, did it yield results because they have an awful lot of long and active pass rushers right now. Some of them are even really good, it appears. And Irving is one Sunday from rejoining this group.