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Spagnola: Defense Sacking Previous Perceptions

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FRISCO, Texas – Let me take you back to March 17, 2022, like 34 weeks ago when a bit of hysteria began circulating faster than this darn flu bug has over the past two weeks.

One hour that day, the Cowboys were announcing an agreement to re-sign defensive end Randy Gregory, who finished second on the team last year with six sacks.

But the next hour Gregory reneged, deciding instead to actually sign on the dotted line for relatively the same five-year, $70 million deal with the Denver Broncos.

What in the world would the Cowboys ever do? How could they ever reach that season's sack total of 41 ever again without the Rubber Band Man? Come on, those 41 sacks were the most in a single season for the Cowboys since the 42 of 2011, and those 42 matching the most since the 59 of 2008.

Those days of DeMarcus Ware, Charles Haley, Randy White, Too Tall Jones and Harvey Martin were long gone.

The Cowboys answer to that loss by the end of the day ­– while refusing the day before to come close to paying the 33-year-old Von Miller the six-year, $120 million deal, with the $51.4 million guaranteed the Bills did – was to re-sign the 25-year-old Dorance Armstrong to a two-year, $12 million contract, with $6 million guaranteed, creating a highly manageable $3.38 million cap charge.

Meh.

Right, remember that? Why, a whole bunch of those talk-show types began accusing the Cowboys of bungling the Gregory negotiation. Why, they just ruined this defense because other than Micah Parsons, his team-leading 13 sacks earning him NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year honors in 2021, who else was going to pose a problem for opposing offenses?

Well, well, what a difference eight months can make.

Look here, heading into Sunday night's game against the 4-7-1 Colts at AT&T Stadium, the 8-3 Cowboys have registered 45 sacks, the second most by an NFL team after 11 games over the past 20 years, trailing only the 2014 Buffalo Bills' 46 and two short of the franchise's all-time best after 11 games of 47 in 1985, the season the Cowboys set the team's single-season sack record at 62.

Well, boys and girls, the Cowboys currently are on pace to finish with 69.5 sacks … and still no Randy Gregory.

In fact, with Gregory missing most of the offseason with the Broncos following knee surgery after the 2021 season, then training camp after shoulder surgery, he has since been placed on injured reserve after the first four games this year needing meniscus repair surgery. So far he only has two sacks to show for his presence in Denver, and Broncos head coach Nathaniel Hackett saying of his return, "Randy is still up in the air. He might need a little bit more time."

So how have the Cowboys done what they have 11 games into this 8-3 season while sporting the seventh-ranked overall defense and No. 1 unit against the pass?

First, after foot surgery reduced DeMarcus Lawrence to just seven games last year, he's back to his old self, racking up twice as many sacks in 11 games than he had all last season, also providing 27 QB pressures too. Then there is Parsons, already with 12 sacks, just one fewer than the 13 he had as a rookie.

But really picking up the slack when it comes to sacks and pressures has been Armstrong, proving to be more than a capable replacement for Gregory. Why, Armstrong already has a career-high eight sacks with six games still to go, two more than Gregory ever had in any of his previous five seasons with the Cowboys.

"Once he was gone, I knew there was an opportunity for a spot for me or whoever earned it," Armstrong realizing after Gregory decided to move on. "But for me personally, I knew I wanted that spot."

So far Armstrong has started five of the 11 games, mostly at right defensive end, although already having played 365 snaps, 49.5 percent of the defensive snaps even though Parsons has started all 11 games, six at defensive end, the other five at linebacker. By comparison, last year Armstrong played 506 snaps in 17 games, 44 percent of the defensive snaps.

And Armstrong isn't just about sacks. He has 16 tackles, 14 QB pressures (fourth on the team), two recovered fumbles, one forced fumble and an oddity for a 6-3, 270-pound defensive end, two blocked kicks. His sack-caused-fumble was recovered by Lawrence and returned for a touchdown against the Rams on the first possession of the game. On the Rams' following possession, Armstrong blocked a punt. And darn if he didn't block a field goal attempt in the first Giants game.

All of this making Gregory a distance memory.

"It was more so like, me personally, I guess this was the moment you always wanted, the moment you always asked about. So with that being said, I just had to put in the work for camp, the season and up to now to keep going on."

This defense kept "going on" despite the loss of one of their best pass rushers in Gregory. Free agent Dante Fowler Jr. has added five sacks and even rookie Sam Williams another three to help pace the team.

That then brings us to Sunday, playing a Colts club already having given up 43 sacks, Ryan sent to the turf for 32 of those.

Ryan, at 37 and in his 15th season, is not as mobile as he once was when known as "Matty Ice" making clutch plays and leading the Falcons to the Super Bowl back in 2016 while playing for now Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn in Atlanta.

That is why holding Colts running back Jonathan Taylor, last year's NFL rushing champ, to a reasonable number of yards will be imperative. That then will force the Colts to throw the ball more, giving this vaunted Cowboys pass rush more opportunities to turn loose.

And Cowboys' seven-time Pro Bowl guard Zack Martin knows what's it like when going up against this defensive front unleashing a pass rush.

"We did so many like two-minute and fourth-down situations in training camp this year, so we saw these guys all the time," Martin says. "It is nice to see them have this success, so we were not crazy here. They're going to work.

"I think we have some incredible rushers, and I think DQ (Dan Quinn) and AD (defensive line coach Aden Durde) really have done an amazing job putting together rush plans because it really is a chess game. If guys line up in the same spot you can kind of set your protections to block the most dangerous guys. They have such a big rush plan, week by week, you can't really get a beat on them.

"It's tough."

Not only the sacks. The Cowboys defense has recorded 163 QB pressures/hits. These guys have forced 14 fumbles and when it comes to points, are giving up just 17 a game. Only three teams have scored more than 20 points against the Cowboys, having lost to the Eagles, 26-17, and to the Packers, 31-28, in overtime. And when it comes to giving up touchdowns, seven times opponents have scored no more than one in a game, twice none and just two touchdowns in another

Certainly a far cry from where many thought they were back on March 17.

"We couldn't rely on us losing a guy," Armstrong says of an excuse for falling off. "We couldn't, like, we had to add to the work with what we've got. We loved Randy to death and hate that he had to leave, but we've got to work with what we've got and still be able to accomplish the goals every day that we're trying to reach."

Well, this defense is gaining on those goals, swarming opposing quarterbacks with a relentless pass rush.

And here we are now, eight months and change removed from that March 17th date, and believe me, there is no more "meh-ing" going around.

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