FRISCO, Texas– Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli called an audible at halftime last Sunday.
The Washington Redskins had just kicked a field goal with 31 seconds remaining in the first half at FedExField and were set to take possession at the start of the third quarter, trailing by three. Marinelli moved his veteran leader on the defensive line, Tyrone Crawford, from tackle outside to end where he began his career but has seldom practiced since 2014.
"I had him make sure he was on top of all that stuff and I felt at halftime, it was something I thought we could do to help us win," Marinelli said. "And he did a real solid job for us."
The adjustment worked. Crawford got his first sack of the season rushing from left end on the final drive, and Cowboys won 27-23 due in large part to the defense holding the Redskins to six points on three straight red zone trips and forcing two straight turnovers on downs to end the game.
Did the defense find a combination that clicked in the second half of the Washington game with Crawford rotating at end with Jack Crawford, Benson Mayowa and David Irving, and rookie tackle Maliek Collins getting more snaps in a rotation with Terrell McClain and Cedric Thornton?
"The thing I've told the guys is I'm just going to keep mixing and matching until I find the right matches," Marinelli said. "I'm looking at guys in different spots."
The approach makes sense given the Cowboys' lack of cohesion on the defensive line since training camp. Tyrone Crawford, McClain, Collins and free-agent signing Benson Mayowa – a starter at right end in the first two games – all missed preseason practice and game time. Last year's leading sack leader DeMarcus Lawrence and last year's second-round pick Randy Gregory are starting the season on the Reserve/Suspended list.
And, admittedly, the depleted defensive line didn't get enough pressure on Eli Manning in a Week 1 loss to the Giants. The Week 2 win at Washington was an improvement.
"I thought we did a really good job as a team in the fourth quarter," head coach Jason Garrett said. "I thought our guys fought hard. I thought we were in really good shape, I thought our body language and our demeanor throughout our team was really, really good. I thought that was reflected by the defensive linemen – they were coming off the ball, they were affecting the quarterback, they made a couple big plays sacking the quarterback and forcing him to throw the ball sooner than he wanted to."
Marinelli prefers a deep rotation of defensive linemen, and he had seven healthy players active in the first two games. Last week the team signed Ryan Davis, a three-year veteran with 11 career sacks, but he has yet to be active.
The Cowboys know the pass rush must keep progressing Sunday at AT&T Stadium against the Bears whether Jay Cutler, who has not practiced the last two days with a right thumb injury, or backup Brian Hoyer starts at quarterback for Chicago.
That's why Marinelli will keep "mixing and matching" combinations.
"They know guys that play good, I mean, you're on an interview every week. Unpack everything except your toothbrush," Marinelli said. "I like these guys. I've said that from the beginning. They really work at it.
"What you're looking at right now is just trying to get the right four. Whoever it is, wherever it is. And it's really the right seven. They've all got to be able to come in and help us."
Take a look at some of our favorite photos from practice at Ford Center on Thursday, September 22.