JS reporter Tom Silverstein and ex-Packers All-Pro safety LeRoy Butler analyze the Cowboys' play-action offense and look back at the Packers' opportunities in the game against Dallas earlier this season.
GREEN BAY – At the start of training camp David Irving might have ranked ninth or 10th on the Dallas Cowboys’ ordinary defensive line.
When the Cowboys meet the Green Bay Packers on Sunday in an NFC divisional playoff game, Irving probably is their best defensive lineman.
At least that was the opinion of two executives in personnel who have studied the Cowboys all season.
“He’s playing at a high level,” one personnel man said. “Done a nice job over the last month of the season. He’s been a one-man wrecking show in a lot of instances.”
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Eight defensive linemen logged more playing time than Irving on Oct. 16 in the Cowboys’ 30-16 victory at Lambeau Field. Irving, 6 feet 7½ inches and 285 pounds, made the most of his 19 snaps by forcing three fumbles (two by Aaron Rodgers, one by Ty Montgomery), tying the team record.
Before that game, Irving hadn’t been much of a factor. However, in the last five games, he has notched 14 of his team-high pressure total.
Irving usually plays left end in the 4-3 defense and tackle on passing downs. He needs a ton of work playing the run inside, but with 35 7/8-inch arms, 10¾-inch hands and 4.84-second speed the raw material is there.
“Not a real quick-twitch guy but he can cause problems just because he can bend for a guy that big,” said another scout. “Real nice body. Big and long.
“I just think the matchups inside for him are a little bit better because he’s not a speed guy. Not saying he can’t win outside, but the matchups and the height and the length make for more of an athletic mismatch against a guard.”
Irving was kicked out of his high school in Los Angeles and later was dismissed from the team at Iowa State. As a free-agent rookie in 2015, Irving was on Kansas City’s practice squad when the Cowboys signed him.
He played 199 snaps for Dallas last season, showing some promise with 14 pressures, before making steady progress this season. He also was ejected from the Cleveland game for fighting with Browns center Cam Erving.
It’s noteworthy that the Cowboys’ defensive tackles coach is Leon Lett. At 6-6 and 285, Lett also was an unheralded player in college who played 10 seasons in Dallas and won three Super Bowl rings.
More with less: Defensive end Benson Mayowa, who is with his third team, leads the Cowboys in sacks with 6. Probably the major question mark is if Dallas can win the Super Bowl without an exceptional pass rusher or defensive lineman.
“The reality is, there’s not really even a guy that would start for, say, 25 other teams,” one scout said. “Or 20 other teams.
“Mayowa brings some edge presence. He’s an athletic guy. He doesn’t scare me that much. Him against (David) Bakhtiari, it should be ‘shutdown city.’ ”
Under third-year defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli, the Cowboys ranked 19th in sack percentage. At the same time, they finished fifth in points allowed (19.1) and 14th in yards (343.9).
“I’m telling you, Rod Marinelli is a stud,” said one scout. “Not as a coordinator. I’m saying as someone working with players and motivating them. They get better. He will get the most out of them.”
The Cowboys took a hit last week when defensive end Randy Gregory, their second-round draft choice in 2015, was suspended for at least a year by the NFL. It was his third suspension.
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Gregory played 66 snaps primarily at right end in Games 15-16 and looked explosive. “This was a guy who could do some damage,” said one scout.
According to Sportradar, Irving and Tyrone Crawford leads in pressures with 21 followed by Maliek Collins (17), Mayowa (14), DeMarcus Lawrence (12), Terrell McClain (10), Jack Crawford (eight), Anthony Hitchens (eight) and Cedric Thornton (six). Irving leads with one every 23.3 snaps followed by Mayowa (one every 27.36) and Lawrence (one every 27.42).
Lawrence will return after a three-game absence with a back injury that probably will require surgery after the season.
How do the Cowboys generate pressure?
“They run a lot of stunts and twists, and they do them really well,” said one scout. “It’s more of the sum of the parts for that front.”
The Cowboys did lead the league in rushing yards allowed (83.5). It should be noted, however, that their opponents rushed the least number of times (340).
“They don’t strike me as run-stuffers,” said one executive. “Part of that is the complementary football that they play. You look at time of possession, they’re No. 1 (actually No. 2). Their offense helps them out by running the ball and by scoring points. It’s easier playing from ahead.”
Dallas ranked 27th in blitz rate at 20.1%, according to Sportradar.
He’s back: The Packers caught a break in October when wide receiver Dez Bryant sat out for a third straight game with a knee injury. The snap counts at the position were 51 for Brice Butler, 43 for Terrance Williams, 30 for Cole Beasley and 15 for Lucky Whitehead.
Bryant returned in Game 7, stayed healthy and finished with career lows for a full season in receptions (50), yards (796) and touchdowns (eight). In four appearances against the Packers he has 24 catches for 286 (11.9) and two TDs.
“When the season (started) I didn’t think he was in sync with (Dak) Prescott,” said one executive. “It’s hard to say it but he was almost a detriment. I think he’s kind of fallen into place.
“He was maybe the most physically gifted receiver I have ever scouted. Or right behind Calvin Johnson. Thing he doesn’t do, he’s not a detailed guy.
“Can he dominate against (LaDarius) Gunter? Yes. That’s a big mismatch. He still has it.”
Dallas dropped the fewest number of passes (18) of any team, according to Sportradar. Beasley led with four. Tight end Jason Witten, who dropped three, has the lowest drop rate (4.2%). Bryant dropped three (5.7%).
Bye helps: Four starters and three situational substitutes sat out the Cowboys’ meaningless 27-13 loss at Philadelphia in Week 17 because of injury. Now all seven, given the weekend off, are expected to play Sunday.
The Packers will encounter a deeper and probably stronger secondary than three months ago.
In that game, left cornerback Morris Claiborne departed after 25 snaps because of a concussion. Orlando Scandrick, the veteran nickel back, returned the week after the Green Bay game following a four-week absence due to injured hamstrings and is rounding into peak form.
Claiborne’s return is a bit iffy. His first practice was Friday after missing Games 8-16 with a pelvis injury.
If Claiborne is available, he could start ahead of Anthony Brown, who has enjoyed a solid rookie season, spell him or play in a four-cornerback alignment against the Packers’ spread formations. Veteran Brandon Carr is effective on the right side.
Free safety Byron James has the speed (4.42) and skill to cover some wide receivers. Strong safety Barry Church stops the run.
“If they have Claiborne back, that secondary is pretty deep,” said one scout. “Carr, Claiborne, Scandrick, Brown. At safety you have Church, Jones, (J.J.) Wilcox. Maybe they don’t have a top-end stud but Carr played well against Detroit (Dec. 26).”
Men up front: Left tackle Tyron Smith, one of the Cowboys’ three Pro Bowl offensive linemen, missed the last 1½ games with a knee injury. He hasn’t been quite as dominant in his sixth season due in part to a bulging lumbar disc that the medical staff has been managing all year.
Could Clay Matthews disrupt the Cowboys’ offense at the expense of Smith?
“No,” replied one scout. “That’s not a shot on Matthews. But Smith is pretty good.”
Right tackle Doug Free, a graduate of Manitowoc High School, is a seven-year starter and, at 33, isn’t as limber as he once was.
“He’s had his moments where guys have gotten up-field on him,” one personnel man said. “It’s not where you say, ‘Hey, we’ve got to go after this guy, he’s a weak link.’ They’re all big and physical. (Free) would still be a starter on pretty much 31 other teams.”
Another scout said Free has showed no signs of falloff as he prepares to face Julius Peppers. “That matchup is the Packers’ best chance,” he said.
Behind running back Ezekiel Elliott and their prized line, the Cowboys have converted 27 of 33 (81.8%) on third- and fourth-and-1. In contrast, the Packers during the regular season were 15 of 25 (60%).
“Elliott is pretty damn good,” said one scout. “He’s helped by the offensive line but sometimes that can be an overused narrative.
“People say, ‘Anybody can run behind that offensive line.’ But you watch Darren McFadden, who rushed for 1,000 yards last year, run behind that line and it’s a little bit different. Or Alfred Morris.”
Going strong: Prescott’s first interception came in Green Bay when he made a terrible throw to Witten and was picked by safety Morgan Burnett. Prescott still finished with a passer rating of 117.4, a glossy number but one that he exceeded in six other games.
Through 12 games, Prescott had a rating of 108.6. His mark of 91.7 in Games 13-16 left him third for the season at 104.9.
“I haven’t seen any (slippage),” one executive said. “You still see the poise. He’s not going to carry them but he’s still been pretty efficient.”