After recapping and breaking down the offense last week, we jump into breaking down the defense and special teams this week.
Defensive end Demarcus Lawrence finally put it all together this year registering 14.5 sacks to go along with four forced fumbles and 58 tackles earning his first Pro-Bowl appearance. The Cowboys would be wise to resign him ASAP but that’s for a different day. What isn’t, however, is the fact that at times it seemed as if Lawrence was the only linemen on the field. When healthy tackle David Irving made an impacting notching seven sacks of his own to go with 22 tackles and a forced fumble. Defensive ends Tyrone Crawford and rookie Taco Charlton combined for just 46 tackles and seven sacks, huge disappointments for both men. The Cowboys as a team totaled 32 sacks with half of those coming from one man.
Just like the offensive line, you could grade the linebacking core in two different ways; with Sean Lee and without Sean Lee. Lee, when healthy, is one of the best linebackers in the league. In another season where he missed games due to injury, he still managed to rack up 101 tackles. Anthony Hitchens, like Lee, can’t seem to stay on the field for long finished with 84 tackles while Jaylon Smith finished his much-anticipated debut season with 81 tackles, one sack, and two forced fumbles. All three are solid linebackers. All three are also injury risks and Hitchens impending free agency doesn’t help matters. Depth is the other problem with this group. Reserves Justin Durant, Damien Wilson and Kyle Wilber combined for 58 tackles and one sack. With the number of snaps the reserves played this year this just doesn’t cut it.
This is a group that I feel like received a lot of flack for things out of their control. The Cowboys went DB heavy in last years draft and as result started up to three rookies at a time. There’s no better teacher than experience and that’s something that the unit didn’t have a lot of this year. Cornerback Orlando Scandrick once again battled injuries and showed that he is better suited for safety at this point in his career then cornerback. Cornerback Chidobe Awuzie and safties Xavier Woods and Jourdan Lewis all had strong rookie seasons with Woods looking like the hard-hitting safety the Cowboys have been missing. Anthony Brown was a disappointment this year after a strong rookie season a year ago as a nickel back. In an expanded role Brown was picked apart at times and is probably best suited as a nickel back. Saftey Byron Jones led the secondary with 82 tackles and safety Jeff Heath finished with 71. With Kavon Frazier also receiving an expanded role and proving himself worthy notching 33 tackles this a position that has a ton of upside and can only improve with time.
Mr. Reliable Dan Bailey was certainly not that this season. The most accurate kicker in NFL history uncharacteristically hit 14 of his 20 field goal attempts including 3-of-5 from both 30-39 yards and 50+ yards. Mike Nugent, who field in for an injured Bailey for part of the season, hit seven of his nine attempts none of which were longer than 49 yards. Punter Chris Jones averaged an impressive 44.1 yards per punt downing 34 of them inside the 20-yard line. Rookie wide receiver Ryan Switzer made an immediate impact as a return man taking a punt for a touchdown and totaling 600 kick return yards including a long of 61 yards.