Cowboys relying on pass rush to take the next step

The Cowboys defense only sacked opposing quarterbacks 28 times last year, finishing as the fifth-worst in that category across the NFL. Their lack of potency at pass rushing was unequivocal in the divisional playoffs against the Green Bay Packers when a hobbled Aaron Rodgers was able to carve up the defense for 24/35, 316 yards, and three touchdowns.

In 2015, Dallas is hoping all the additions along the defensive line will improve their ability to pressure opposing passers.

"We've got a bunch of young guys that came in," defensive tackle Nick Hayden said. "The addition of Greg [Hardy] and having Randy [Gregory] come in and help us out, it's going to be fun year for us. We got a good vibe. We work well together and we're just excited for this year to start."

Dallas will be without the services of Hardy, the 2013 Pro Bowler, as he serves a four-game suspension to start the season for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy.

"Next person has to step up," said defensive tackle Terrell McClain. "Somebody has to fill the void. You want to make it easier for him to come back. You don't want to slack off. You want to come here and work. Everybody be here having a good time making plays, and as soon as he comes back, he adds to it and keeps that momentum going, going, going."

The Cowboys have a host of talent to fill Hardy's void for the next four games. Second-year defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence gained confidence in the playoffs last season as he earned two quarterback sacks and recovered two fumbles. Playing on the other side, for now, will be Jeremy Mincey, who led the club with six sacks last year and is considered a veteran leader in the unit. Gregory is a second-round pick from Nebraska who earned two sacks against preseason opponents' first-team offenses. Then, there's defensive tackle Tyrone Crawford, who inked a five-year, $45 million extension on Saturday.

Cornerback Brandon Carr, who was beleaguered last season in coverage until the final weeks of the season, is hopeful the pass rush will make the secondary job's less difficult.

"Hopefully, it will help us out a ton in the back end," said Carr. "We have guys up front, their energy, their motor is to get off the ball, get back and sack the quarterback for the whole entire down. Quarterbacks are going to feel that pressure and it kind of eliminates things they can do on offense. And hopefully these guys can get after the quarterback like we know that they can and we can cover the back end."

Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli, now in his second year in the role, doesn't really have specific time in mind for how long his secondary must cover until the pass rush arrives.

"The number is if the rusher is really good, he's going to be effective," Marinelli said. "If the rush isn't good, he's not going to be effective. It may not be the sack. It may be the fast hit, the pressure in his face, the quickness to get there. Everything that we do on the back row, we have to have the rush to match it."

"That rush means everything to us," sixth-year safety Barry Church said. "If that quarterback doesn't have an opportunity to get from his first look to his second look without somebody hitting him in his face, I mean, it makes our job a lot easier. It means we're out there covering for four seconds instead of eight seconds."

According to Marinelli, 65 percent of all takeaways start in the pocket. Regularly not a man of statistics, Marinelli only cares about one stat.

"It's about what we do. And at the end of the day, what can we do as a defense to impact? Not stats. I don't care. It's how do we help this team win? And if they say the number one stat in football is takeaways, that should be at the high point."

With an aggressive pass rush, the concern is the front seven will over pursue and expose themselves to big runs. But second-year defensive tackle Ken Bishop sees stopping the run and rushing the passer as concurrent.

""I say 1A and 1B just because you stop the run on the way to the passer," Bishop remarked. "So, with our defense, they'll be able to penetrate and stop the run on the way to the quarterback."

Dallas gets their first shot at rushing the passer against the New York Giants and quarterback Eli Manning Sunday night at AT&T Stadium. The Cowboys defense has sacked Manning seven times in the past four games, though Manning did go unscathed in the teams' first meeting last October. With the Giants' battered offensive line, the task of pressuring Manning should be easier than recent seasons.