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Spagnola: Pressure In Seattle Is The Answer


FRISCO, Texas – On Aug. 16, a little more than two weeks after the Cowboys reported for the start of training camp, they signed Pro Bowl defensive lineman Everson Griffen.

If allowed, there could have been a parade down Main Street out here.

This 11-year veteran's arrival was met with, how in the world … Just seemed things defensively were falling in the Cowboys lap, with the exception of veteran defensive tackle Gerald McCoy being lost for the season suffering a torn quad tendon in the first camp practice.

Yet still, with what the Cowboys acquired and what they already had, caused me to label the presumptive defensive front the Dream Line. Now, not exactly the Fearsome Foursome or the Purple People Eaters or the Steel Curtain or Doomsday, but certainly having the potential to meet those lofty, sleep-conceived elevations.

Because look, Griffen, a four-time Pro Bowler.

Aldon Smith, 42 sacks in his first 43 games, although had not played since Nov. 15, 2015.

DeMarcus Lawrence, two-time Pro Bowler, highest paid guy on the defense.

Tyrone Crawford, the ninth-year player capable of playing inside or outside, and now with both hips repaired.

Dontari Poe, two-time Pro Bowler, although those in 2013-14, he, too, coming back from offseason quad surgery.

And let's not forget on-the-come, second-year defensive tackle Trysten Hill, last year's second-round pick but first for the Cowboys.

Sure all sounded good. Looked good, too, through training camp.

But two games into the season, haven't seen it.


And sure be a good time, as the old saying goes, to shake a leg.

Like Sunday.

Like 3:25 p.m.

Like the first time the hottest quarterback in the NFL sets foot on CenturyLink Field in downtown Seattle.

One Russell Wilson, the guy Cowboys owner Jerry Jones says, "He just gets better. … He's got unique ways to frustrate defenses. … Uncanny ability to be accurate with his deep throws."

Yep, all that and then some in these first two games of the 2020 season, racking up a lofty 140.0 QB rating, already having thrown nine touchdown passes, while completing 82.5 percent of his passes, and not a bunch of these dinks and dunks, either. We're talking averaging 9.8 yards per attempt.

Consequently leading a 2-0 Seahawks team having scored 73 points in two games, an average of 36.5 points per game heading into this matchup with the 1-1 Cowboys giving up a skosh under 30 points a game.

And if all that is not problematic enough, let's further complicate Sunday's defensive task for a Cowboys team that somehow recovered from a 20-0, first-quarter deficit this past Sunday against Atlanta and having given up 39 points by game's end to actually win, 40-39.

The Cowboys last Saturday placed starting cornerback Anthony Brown – either outside or in the slot – on injured reserve with a rib injury.

Then on the Falcons' final field goal, starting left cornerback Chidobe Awuzie suffered a hamstring injury severe enough for Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy to term a "multiple-week" injury and will not play on Sunday.

Plus, they received this scare on Wednesday, now starting rookie corner Trevon Diggs not practicing with a shoulder injury sustained in the Atlanta game, but is good to go after fully participating in Thursday's practice.

Then combine all that by raising the headache level of covering the likes of Seattle receivers Tyler Lockett and DK Metcalf with Wilson throwing to severe migraine.

We are talking a Cowboys defense allowing opposing quarterbacks a 103.1 QB rating over two games now having to contend with an offense averaging 414.5 net yards passing a game. A game!

Giving new reason Saturday night to SleeplessIn Seattle for the Cowboys.

To me, even with a healthy secondary, or one loaded with Pro Bowl players, covering that passing attack all game long is a losing proposition. Can't do it.

Without help.

And that help must come from the awakening of the Cowboys pass rush, you know, the one initially in training camp with dreamy presumptiveness, but just not what we expected so far.

While the Cowboys go into Sunday's game with the No. 2 offense in the NFL, the defense goes in 24th, and 23rd against the pass. And a big reason for teams averaging 401 yards against the Cowboys and converting an unacceptable 50 percent of their third downs has been the inability to apply pressure on opposing quarterbacks.

That Cowboys defense only has two sacks in two games, one each against the Rams and the Falcons, and those teams threw the ball a combined 68 times. That's just not going to get it. More pressure is needed.

"This is a new group, a new coaching staff, so I feel like we're jelling. I feel like it's all coming together. We had a good day of work (Wednesday) out there at practice," said Griffen, who has 75.5 career sacks, including eight last season. "I felt like guys flew around. I felt like we executed our assignments better. We got lined up better and I feel like we've got to carry that over to the game each and every week."

Griffen has given the Cowboys the ability to play defensive end and also at 6-3, 273 pounds give the Cowboys some push inside at the 3-technique defensive tackle spot. Why, it was his sack on Atlanta's final possession that eventually led to the punt giving the Cowboys the chance to drive down for the winning field goal. He also leads the team with five quarterback pressures.

And, he says, he's going back to his old ways of lining up outside exclusively in a three-point stance. Cowboys new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan has been dabbling with his defensive ends standing up in a two-point stance, giving them a clearer view of the play behind the line of scrimmage and more of a running start at the quarterback.

"It's a big difference," Griffen says. "I've been doing it with my hand in the dirt for the past 10 years now, and standing up a little bit … I feel like I'm going to go more back to my three-point stance, that's where I'm more comfortable at. And I'm going to come off the ball, and I'm going to strike."

Exactly what the Cowboys need. And from Smith, who registered the Cowboys one sack in the season opener, along with two quarterback pressures, totaling four now, along with 19 tackles in two games, second on the team.

Would also help if defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence is ready to go. Lawrence suffered what appears to be a minor knee injury in the first half against Atlanta, limiting him to just 28 snaps in the game, only a few of those in the second half. Lawrence did, though, finish with five tackles.

Lawrence only worked with the rehab group early in the week, and from all indications his status will be a game-day decision since he moved up to "limited" in Friday's practice estimation and is listed as "questionable" for the game.

The Cowboys also must not neglect the importance of stopping the run, Seattle averaging 119 yards a game, boosted by 154 in the win over New England. That also means making sure Wilson does not escape the pocket under pressure. He has added 68 yards rushing to the Seahawks 238-yard total.

If the Cowboys don't stop the run, they don't earn the right to rush the quarterback, and get this: Seattle is not pass-predictable. All five of Wilson's touchdown passes against the Patriots came on either first or second down.

"It's going to be a big challenge for us," McCarthy said of dealing with Wilson. "He's had a number of big-time dime throws, so I think the big thing is trying to keep the big plays to a minimum."

And to do that, you need pressure.

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