The conversation of late around the Dallas Cowboys – who enter their Thanksgiving matchup with the Washington Redskins at an NFL-best mark of 9-1 – has not been about whether this is a team good enough to win a championship, but rather which of the team’s candidates is most deserving of the most valuable player award.
Is it surprise fourth-round rookie quarterback Dak Prescott, owner of the league’s best passer rating? Fellow rookie and No. 4-overall draft pick Ezekiel Elliott, who has led the NFL in rushing yards? Or should voters get creative and award the MVP to the Cowboys’ entire offensive line, which has been one of the most dominant units in the league?
But while focusing on the positives is certainly justified based on the team’s performance so far, the Cowboys have a hidden weakness in one critical area that could cause them trouble down the line. And we might get a sneak preview of its disastrous potential against the Redskins on Thursday.
The Cowboys’ lack of pass rush is a major concern
Pro Football Focus grades every NFL player on every snap, and when isolating only players’ pass-rush grades (their ability to beat blocks to disrupt a QB’s dropback, which also factors in how long a QB has to hold the ball and how quickly the defender can apply pressure), the Cowboys rank second-to-last in the NFL.
They also rank second-to-last in pass-rush pressure percentage, affecting opposing QBs with a sack, hit or hurry on just 24.3 percent of dropbacks. That’s well below the NFL average pressure rate of 33.4 percent. (The Colts are the only team worse than the Cowboys in each of the categories.)
This is no small concern in a league that skews as heavily towards the passing game as the NFL currently does. And it doesn’t even fully capture the depth of the team’s struggles in their front seven.
Of their current starters in their base 4-3 and nickel formations, only linebacker Sean Lee has a PFF grade that doesn’t qualify as “poor” in our system. Lee has a grade of 81.7, and the next-best is linebacker Justin Durant – at an abysmal 50.1. Their defensive end rotation has been of particular concern, as Tyrone Crawford (48.3), DeMarcus Lawrence (44.9) and Jack Crawford (41.9) have all graded out among the worst in the NFL at their position.
Thursday’s matchup with Washington should tell us a lot …
OK, Cowboys fans might respond, fair enough: But what difference does it make if the front seven has been that bad and they’ve still won 90 percent of their games so far?
The answer to that is that their two closest losses of the year have come against teams – the Redskins in Week 2, and the Steelers in Week 10 – that feature quarterbacks who have excelled when throwing from a clean pocket this season. Washington’s Kirk Cousins ranks eighth in the NFL in passer rating on dropbacks not under pressure this season, while Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger ranks fifth.
What we’ll get to see Thursday is a playoff-caliber opponent with a quarterback who has earned his five highest grades of his year in his last five games. As good as the Dallas secondary and offense have been, potential playoff matchups with Washington, Atlanta (QB Matt Ryan ranks first in passer rating from a clean pocket) and Seattle stick out as problematic against a defense with the issues up front that Dallas has.
… but the team Cowboys fans should really be worried about is the Seahawks.
Speaking of Seattle, it has come on strong of late, and loom as the biggest challenge to the Cowboys in the NFC. The Seahawks have a major weakness of their own – an offensive line that ranks dead-last in both pass-blocking and run-blocking grades – but it’s one that the Cowboys are ill-suited to exploit, given their struggles in their front-seven.
The Seahawks rank in the top five of both run-defense and pass-coverage grades, meaning they would pose a tough test for the Cowboys’ offense. As impressive as Prescott has been, he still ranks just 13th in PFF quarterback grades at 81.4. His performance drops off significantly when put under pressure (his passer rating from a clean pocket ranks third league-wide, while his passer rating under pressure ranks 14th), and he attempts just 7.9 percent of his throws 20 or more yards downfield – the lowest rate in the NFL.
That’s not to knock what has been one of the most impressive performances you’ll ever see by a rookie quarterback, much less one drafted in the fourth round who was forced into starting action right away, but Prescott hasn’t yet proven he can take over a game and make the type of difficult throws required against a defense like Seattle’s. That issue would be amplified when the No. 2 QB in PFF grades, Russell Wilson, is on the other team, going up against a defense that can’t apply pressure with any level consistency.
Cousins isn’t Wilson, but he is playing like one of the league’s better quarterbacks at the moment – which is why it’ll be interesting to see how the Cowboys defense holds up.
Cowboys fans have a lot to be thankful for heading into this holiday matchup, and the long-term outlook of the team is one of the best in the league thanks to the arrival this year of Prescott and Elliott. But an issue they’ll have to address over time is a front seven that ranks among the league’s worst – and it’s an issue significant enough that it could wind up interfering with their potential championship run.
Jeff Dooley is the Editor in Chief of Pro Football Focus and a contributor to The Washington Post’s NFL coverage.