Can the Dallas Cowboys survive without Demarcus Lawrence?
Demarcus Lawrence is on the shelf for at least the next six weeks, so how do the Cowboys stay in the hunt without the star defensive end?
After 2020, in which injuries and poor defensive play doomed Dallas to another season without playoff football, the Cowboys are already dealing with significant losses on both sides of the ball in 2021.
Wide receiver Michael Gallup is on injured reserve and out until at least October because of a calf issue, but a more impactful injury came in practice this week as defensive end Demarcus Lawrence suffered a broken foot.
Lawrence has since had surgery and will be sidelined for six to eight weeks, robbing the Cowboys of one of the more versatile defensive ends in the NFL.
Last season, Lawrence was the only edge defender in the NFL with a pressure rate of at least 20 per cent to cross that same threshold in terms of run disruptions. Lawrence's pressure rate was 20.1 per cent in 2020, when he disrupted a run 22.7 per cent of the time.
His absence leaves a massive void for a defense that gave up the 10th-most yards per play (5.87) last year and conceded 6.73 per play to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in their thrilling Week 1 loss.
Will be Back & Ready for War. Believe it.— DeMarcus Lawrence (@TankLawrence) September 15, 2021
The NFL is an offensive league and the evidence from Week 1, which saw Dallas rack up 451 net yards on Dak Prescott's return, indicates the Cowboys have the firepower to compete in the NFC.
But without Lawrence making a huge impact against both the run and the pass, can the defense do enough to make sure that impressive offensive production is not wasted, as was the case when Prescott was healthy?
Lawrence's potential replacements
With Randy Gregory on the reserve/covid-19 list, the options immediately behind Lawrence on the depth chart are not particularly intriguing ones.
Former Indianapolis Colts third-round pick Tarell Basham has just 7.5 sacks in his career and his pressure rate of 14.9 per cent for the New York Jets last season was below the average for edge rushers (16 per cent).
Should the Cowboys stick to their depth chart, he will likely split time with Bradlee Anae, who played in only three games in his rookie year before featuring on 10 snaps against the Buccaneers.
Though not the most impressive athlete for the position, Anae did produce during his time in college with Utah, his 2019 pressure rate of 21.4 per cent third among edge rushers with at least 100 snaps in the Pac-12.
But for a player of such limited experience to step into Lawrence's shoes is a tall ask, and the Cowboys may need to shuffle the personnel to be effective without arguably their premier defensive player.
The Parsons project
First-round pick Micah Parsons is already drawing significant praise one game into his NFL career, already looking like the player best placed to challenge Lawrence for the title of Dallas' top defensive star.
Yet the Cowboys have depth at linebacker with Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith also in the mix at the spot, leaving some to question whether Parsons could be deployed more frequently on the edge in Lawrence's absence.
Dallas experimented with Parsons in a designated pass rusher role in the offseason and he had the chance to soak up some knowledge from Lawrence during his preparations for his rookie year.
"Last week we were watching film of pass rush and D-Law came up to me and was like, 'You pass rush like that, rook?'" Parsons said back in June.
"I was like, 'Yeah, I used to be a defensive end.' He was like, 'All right, tap in with me.' Me and him have been getting closer."
Cowboys 2021 first round pick Micah Parsons was impressive in coverage in his first career game, forcing a tight window on 4 of his 6 targets as nearest defender.— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) September 10, 2021
His 4 tight window targets were tied for the most by any LB in a game since 2017.#DALvsTB | #DallasCowboys
And the Cowboys may be very tempted to use Parsons off the edge, the ex-Nittany Lion having prospered in that role across a small sample size in 2019.
In 33 edge snaps for Penn State two seasons ago, he registered a pressure rate of 24 per cent and a run disruption rate of 23.5 per cent, comfortably above the averages of 14.6 per cent and 8 per cent for those respective metrics for Power 5 players with at least 50 edge snaps.
To make the decision to ask Parsons to deliver similar production in the pros on a more consistent basis is a risky move, one that could backfire in two different areas if the rookie cannot rise to the challenge and Vander Esch and Smith prove ineffective at linebacker.
However, given the depth of talent the Cowboys have on offense, it is a gamble they may have the wiggle room to take.
Maintaining offensive pace
The Cowboys' offensive performance in Week 1 was a spectacular continuation of what Dallas had going for the opening four weeks on that side of the ball in 2020 before Prescott was lost for the season.
Dallas put up 509.5 net yards per game between Weeks 1 and 4 last year and their efforts against Tampa hinted they can again operate at a similar pace.
Dak Prescott has had 400+ pass yards in 4 games since the start of the 2020 season, most by any player in the NFL— NFL Research (@NFLResearch) September 10, 2021
Prescott missed the last 11 games in 2020 due to injury#Cowboys
Their hopes of doing so will be aided by their upcoming schedule. Having hung over 400 net yards on a defense that was sixth best in the NFL in yards per play allowed (5.12) in the opener, the Cowboys should be confident of doing similar to the opponents on the horizon.
Using the most optimistic timescale, Lawrence could be back to face the Denver Broncos on November 7.
Of the six defenses the Cowboys will face before that game, only the New York Giants (9th) finished in the top 10 in yards per play allowed. The Giants gave up 30 points to Taylor Heinicke and the Washington Football Team on Thursday.
History suggests the Cowboys should succeed moving the ball and scoring points consistently in the coming weeks, meaning the defense is unlikely to be in a position where it has to put the team on its back.
Prescott and the offense producing at early 2020 levels can help the Cowboys as they look to remain in a position to emerge from the NFC East without Lawrence at their disposal on defense.
And, when Gregory returns, if defensive coordinator Dan Quinn can harness the best out of him as well as Basham and Anae while intelligently using Parsons' pass-rushing prowess to an extent that does not have a detrimental impact on the play at linebacker, then the Cowboys may be able to welcome Lawrence back while sitting in an excellent position to push for a first postseason berth since 2018.
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