ARLINGTON, Texas –When defensive tackle Cedric Thornton brought down Andy Dalton in the second quarter of Dallas' 28-14 victory over Cincinnati it was the 28-year old's first sack of the season and only the fourth of his career.
His first reaction after the game was to credit his fellow defensive linemen who had been reassuring him the past few weeks that his sacks and his production would come if he kept patient.
Most notably, though, he credited the return of DeMarcus Lawrence for the Cowboys' effective pass rush against the Bengals.
Lawrence made his 2016 debut on Sunday after serving a four-game suspension for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy. According to Thornton, Lawrence approached the rest of the defensive line earlier in the week and let them know that with his return, the entire unit was expected to get pressure on the quarterback.
"His expectations were very high," Thornton remembers. "He motivated us all week long."
The message was clearly received. The Cowboys sacked Dalton four times on Sunday, after recording just six sacks in their previous four games. Lawrence was unable to take down Dalton in his return despite having him by the jersey at one point in the second quarter before Dalton managed to squirm away. Even so, his presence on the field, along with Dallas' ability to grab an early lead, were likely factors in Thornton, Terrell McClain, Benson Mayowa, and Jack Crawford all recording sacks and keeping Dalton on the run.
Lawrence's role in the defense will only increase in the next few games, as the Cowboys were careful not to overwork him in his first game back.
"We wanted to limit his snaps," head coach Jason Garret said. "We were selective. Some third down situations, some two-minute type situations. It really looked like he was comfortable."
Lawrence's snaps came from both sides of the quarterback, as he alternated between lining up on both the right and left defensive end position. Lawrence claims the back and forth is something to expect from him as the season goes on. "Whatever the team needs. They can put me at [nose] tackle. I don't care."
[embeddedad0]Tyrone Crawford had been asked to generate a lot of the Cowboy's defensive pressure in the first four weeks, and it wasn't lost on him how valuable it was to get someone like Lawrence back onto the field.
"DeMarcus had a great impact," Crawford said. "He's our elite pass rusher. He brings a lot to the table because teams have to focus on him. They know he's out there.
Dalton and the Bengals were never able to get in any sort of offensive rhythm and managed most of their yardage after falling down 28 points. Crawford credited the defensive backs.
"The secondary played incredible," Crawford said. "That's a big part of the reason that we were able to get the pressure that we got. [Dalton] had no looks half the time."
Meanwhile, cornerback Morris Claiborne turned around and gave the credit right back to the front seven.
"[The pass rush] was great," Claiborne said. "The quarterback didn't have all day to just sit back there and scan through the field."
It's a chicken and the egg-type argument, but there's no question that the Cowboys' pass rush made strides this week, and Lawrence's return played some part.
"He did make a difference," Jerry Jones claimed after the game. "But I don't want to take anything away from the line across the board. The happiest guy in that locker room is Rod Marinelli. What he preaches came to bear out there."
To the defensive line, it's less about one player on the field than it is a unit being together. "It's important to be together [on the field] as a D-line," Crawford said. "We do a lot of stuff together just off the field. We just try to keep our chemistry tight. Now that most of us are back together we're doing better."
The most noteworthy link of that chain returned and the results were promising. In fact, Lawrence wanted to know how many sacks the Cowboys had after the game ended. When someone told him that they recorded four sacks, his answer was immediate.
"We need more."