NFC East Reporter
The Dallas Cowboys know Sam Howell’s head will spin when he makes his first NFL start on Sunday (4:25 p.m. ET on FOX), and they know what they need to do. They must press him relentlessly. They need to constantly confuse him. They need to turn his head even more.
In other words, the Washington Commanders rookie quarterback should be an inviting target against one of the league’s best passing runs.
Of course, that’s assuming the Cowboys’ pass rush is still one of the best in the league.
That was once, but that was before Dallas’ defense — and its passing rush in particular — slipped into a month-long slump. In early December, the Cowboys led the NFL with 48 sacks in 13 weeks. But they’ve only had three sacks in the last four games and now sit third.
It’s an unthinkable drought for a team led by Defensive Player of the Year nominee Micah Parsons, who has 13 sacks this season but only one in five since Thanksgiving. Defensive end Dorance Armstrong (8 sacks) has just one in those same five games. And defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence hasn’t had a sack in the past six games.
When Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy was asked a week ago how worried he was, he replied: “I think the only people who have to worry about our pass rush are against who we line up.
Then Dallas came out and fired Titans quarterback Joshua Dobbs just twice in the first start of his six-year NFL career.
“The sack count wasn’t high,” Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said. “But we were able to pressure the quarterback and bring him down, create a takeaway and build momentum.”
The Cowboys hit Dobbs 10 times in that game, which was a huge improvement from the six hits in their previous three games – including the zero hits they had against Eagles quarterback Gardner Minshew a week earlier. But even Quinn admitted what defensive players often dismiss: sacks matter.
And the Cowboys just aren’t getting them right now.
“I don’t know if it’s a one size fits all to say every game we’d like to rip and go,” Quinn said. “But you want to have chances to finish on the QB because in those moments obviously yardage is a big deal, but also to have chances to knock the ball off the QB is really the icing on the cake. “
Dallas’ defense, without that icing, has also been in a rut. The Cowboys are 3-1 in the sack drought — with the only overtime loss on a six-pick thrown by quarterback Dak Prescott in Jacksonville — so it’s hard to say they’re in crisis. But the defense is definitely not the same. In the first 12 weeks of the season, Dallas was giving up 309 yards and 17 points per game.
But in the last four, without the same pressure on the quarterback, the Cowboys gave up an average of 397 yards and 24 points – a significant increase at the worst possible time of the year.
They should have a chance to turn things around against Howell, the fifth-round pick whose only NFL action came in the preseason. And it’s not just because he’s a rookie. Howell will also be behind an offensive line that has given up 45 sacks this season – seventh most in the NFL. That includes 13 in the last four games.
Additionally, Commanders coach Ron Rivera could also tinker with his offensive line in this game, giving some young players a chance to play. He specifically mentioned rookie goaltender Chris Paul, a seventh-round pick who would make his NFL debut.
All of that should line up nicely for a Cowboys defense that has pressured quarterbacks on 8.8% of their backstops this season, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com, and still ranks as the second-best run. of NFL assists according to Pro Football Focus — all despite the long slump. Maybe the chance to play with a rookie quarterback will shake up that talented defense.
Somehow, though, Quinn is confident that the Cowboys defense — and their passing rush — will be there when it matters most.
“Playing great defense is not easy,” Quinn said. “You have to go through the fire a bit. And it’s okay to go through the fire a bit. It would be nice if all the games were [ones in which] you tear ’em all up, kick everyone out, and get a bunch of takeout. But it’s not that. I think you learn from the ones that you really have to fight and scratch for.”
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Ralph Vacchiano is the NFC East reporter for FOX Sports, covering the Washington Commanders, Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants. He spent the previous six years covering the Giants and Jets for SNY TV in New York, and before that, 16 years covering the Giants and NFL for the New York Daily News. Follow him on Twitter at @RalphVacchiano.
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