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Dallas' D-Line Continues To Come Up Big

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Dallas' D-line continues to find success despite all the turnover and injuries. Photo by Donald Miralle/Getty Images.
Dallas' D-line continues to find success despite all the turnover and injuries. Photo by Donald Miralle/Getty Images.

Through seven weeks, four decisive wins, two very respectable losses and an endless merry-go-round of unpredictability, the Dallas Cowboys’ defensive line has rarely stepped out of the spotlight. Now, after a respectable performance against Philadelphia, the critical question involves whether the D-line can continue to win under random configurations.

From Jay Ratliff’s release to DeMarcus Ware’s first missed game in nine seasons, new and old injuries alike have reshaped the Dallas front. Every week, no-name defensive linemen are signed and called up to lend depth to players who, a month earlier, were no better known than the men backing them.

Even with Ware returning, is this group of starters, two of whom — George Selvie and Nick Hayden — didn’t play a down in 2012, a reliable unit? Can it find a more permanent rotation that can compete with the O-lines of playoff teams?

Much credit goes to defensive lineman coach Rod Marinelli. His players lack size; he counters with technique. Most lack experience, but Marinelli teaches the pure craft of rushing the passer, imbuing his men with an arsenal of twists, stunts, inside moves and edge rushes. He’s retrofitted Monte Kiffin’s scheme — which relies on steady quarterback pressure — to a random group of players. Their subsequent playmaking makes it hard to believe this defense was ranked 30th heading into Week 7.

Marinelli’s contributions have allowed the four-man rush to remain effective. And against Philadelphia, the secondary responded with blanketed downfield coverage and plays against the run. The result: The Cowboys held the NFL’s most prolific running back and most dynamic offense to three points.

They had help, but the defensive line’s ability to pressure Nick Foles — to hit him and disrupt his rhythm, to flush him from the pocket and force difficult throws — is the foundation of the defensive victory. Considering the unit’s laundry list of injuries in 2013, that kind of play against a division rival — on the road in hostile Philly — constitutes an astonishingly good performance.

Now, what about Detroit?

According to this story by Dave Birkett of The Detroit Free Press, the Lions’ offensive line has a more athletic look in 2013. It’s allowed an NFL-best nine sacks. Take away the Green Bay game, and Detroit’s front five averages less than one sack per game. Impressive, considering Matthew Stafford attempts 41 passes per game.

Per coach Jim Schwartz, the O-line has also contributed to a shored-up running game. These players are quick off the snap and excel at throwing downfield, second-level blocks. They got banged up in their latest loss to Cincinnati — both tackle spots are quite thin — but, altogether, Detroit boasts one of the better offensive lines in football right now.

The Cowboys ran more man coverage against the Eagles. Because they were getting to Foles and hurrying his throws, they had some success with it. But Detroit has Calvin Johnson, and man coverage isn’t going to prevail. Stafford is also more accurate throwing on the run and into tighter windows.

Johnson’s vertical threat is nicely balanced by a style that features a lot of “dink and dunk” plays designed to stretch the defense. It’s a quick-hit attack that exploits gaps and space left by the defense, and it’s proved a successful strategy against Kiffin’s scheme. Simply put, the Lions’ have the speed, range and personnel to author a winning effort against the Cowboy defense.

It looks like a shootout on paper, but so did Philadelphia.

We don’t know the outcome, but we do know Week 8 is another crucial test for the motley crew of Dallas’ defensive linemen. They’ve played well their last two games, but with Philly having a plausible chance to re-know the division against the Giants, this week’s game could easily be the biggest stage of the D-line’s regular season.