Arizona Cardinals pass rush vs. Dallas Cowboys: How bad was it, really?

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Revisiting the Cardinals' defensive formations and pass-rush effectiveness in their maligned performance against the Cowboys.

After revisiting the Green Bay game, it's time for the Dallas match-up. Considering some of the post-game comments and PFF's grades, the defense did a better job than anticipated. The perception that the Cardinals have "no pass rush" seems to be weighted on a handful of plays rather than their overall performance.

We'll start with some slides for the reading impaired explaining the Cardinals' defensive formations. It's not going to be an in-depth look but is more to familiarize everyone with some of the new names and numbers on the team and give you an idea of who is lining up where.

This is the Cardinals' core defensive front. Normally, Dan Williams would be playing where 96 (Ronald Talley) is. As the big slow guy in the middle of the defense, that player typically gets subbed out a lot, especially in passing downs, when the team prefers quicker pass-rushers.

Here is a link that talks about the basic concepts of the 3-4 defense. While the article is specific to Notre Dame's two-gapping style, the Cardinals' base 3-4 and one of their nickel packages are similar to what is described there. Acho fits the description of the "Dog" quite well.

Sometimes the "proper" nose tackle (Dan Williams or, in this case, Ronald Talley, 96) will even sub out in the basic 3-4 defense. Here, Darnell Dockett takes over the nose so the team can bring on an extra defensive end (91, Matt Shaughnessy).

As you can see, in the Cards' basic nickel package, the nose tackle (96) has been taken off the field. Dockett and Campbell should be an effective interior pair when it comes to getting to the passer. The outside linebackers (53 and 91) are fairly interchangeable as their main duty is rushing the passer in this particular front.

This is barely worth mentioning because it's functionally identical to their 2-4-5; the only difference is that the one end (91) has his hand in the dirt instead of standing up. Having Campbell and Abraham (53) together should put a lot of pressure on the left side of the offensive line but Campbell would probably be more menacing as the defensive end lining up over the right tackle instead. The Cards have solid depth in the front seven and some flexibility so we'll probably see them do more with this in the coming weeks.

Knowing how they lined up, let's talk about how they actually played.

The first quarter saw some of the points I made in the Green Bay analyses come to fruition. Ronald Talley, after a monster showing in his first game, got the start at nose tackle. Matt Shaughnessy, who struggled to impact the Packers from his outside linebacker spot, saw time at 3-4 defensive end in this game, and the defense looked better for it. Shaughnessy's lack of speed was exposed coming off of the edge in Green Bay, but he has the size and power to hold up as a defensive end while Lorenzo Alexander and John Abraham lined up at outside linebacker and put their speed to use.

Alexander, though he again didn't see that much time on the field, showed that he may just be the underrated gem of a player we were promised. He finished the game with a hit and a hurry and flashed good speed rushing the edge, as well as the ability to counter inside to get to the quarterback. He made a statement against Dallas, and the statement was, "Start me!"

John Abraham had a similar showing, coming up with a hit and an additional hurry. Age hasn't slowed him down much and he's living up to the pass-rushing expectations he was signed for. With he and Alexander blitzing from the edge, the starters actually played pretty well. Dockett looked invigorated after an underwhelming Green Bay game, knifing through gaps and generally beating single blocks. Campbell got good penetration when he wasn't being double-teamed, at one point busting through the line almost untouched and forcing a hold by the offensive line.

Dallas utilized a quick passing game that frequently neutralized the Cardinals' individual defensive wins. Tony Romo was usually able to get the ball out before the pocket collapsed on him, though there were a few plays where blitzers noticeably lost to single-blocks, something that the defense will need to do a better job with in the future. If you only have one man assigned to block you, that means one of your teammates has two on him; it's up to you to create pressure. When they weren't able to do that, the Cowboys picked up their biggest gains.

Sam Acho had another quiet day. Though he is tasked with dropping into coverage on nearly half of his snaps, he needs to do a better job getting after the quarterback when he gets the chance. He was on the field for the majority of Dallas' troubling second-half drives, where they had subbed in Kyle Orton and a handful of other back-ups and were able to execute nine plays in a row with no pressure at all from the Cardinals' starting defense. In fairness, there's only so much you can do as a pass-rusher when the quarterback gets the ball out before you have time to take two steps. At that point it's up to the secondary to step up, and this time, they did, coming up with interceptions on two of Dallas' three drives.

Nonetheless, Orton's pockets were entirely too clean (read that however you like) in the second quarter. Even when the Cardinals blitzed their inside linebackers, they couldn't come up with pressure. It goes back to beating single blocks: Acho struggles with this, Dockett has struggled with it throughout the preseason (he was better against Dallas, but was part of the problem during these particular drives), and even Campbell and Abraham, who have been playing mostly to their potential, weren't able to get anything going.

If your defense can't generate pressure with only four rushers, it puts pressure on the secondary. The solution is either to take defenders out of coverage and blitz with them, or to cover effectively for a longer period of time. Neither solution is ideal. Having seen the good and the bad side of the defense against the Cowboys, this is probably more an issue of preseason doldrums than a long-term problem, but it's something to keep an eye on this as the starters play into the third quarter against San Diego.

There's one guy who appeared with the starters we haven't really covered yet: Ronald Talley. Was he able to take advantage of his new role? Mostly, yes.

Against Dallas' starters, Talley was able to hold his own. Playing mostly nose tackle at that point he was thrown up against quite a few double teams, which limited his impact. He didn't get a lot of push or penetration but he wasn't routinely getting blown out of plays, either, which is about all you can ask of your nose tackle. Later in the game, and against the Cowboys' back-ups, he played more defensive end, and was much more disruptive, fighting through blocks and disengaging efficiently to clean up run plays. He even flashed a little quickness, once beating the left guard off the snap and flying past him into the pocket for a hurry. Since his biggest impact came against back-ups, however, I'm not sure how much the game helped or hurt him. He's still in the mix, and was more consistent than David Carter for the second week in a row.

There was one other player of note in the game: Alex Okafor. In his first appearance for the Cardinals, Okafor was a brute. It didn't take long for him to prove his signature bull-rush works at the NFL level and he did a great job using his hands to keep blockers from latching on to him, repeatedly batting them away and charging nearly untouched into the pocket. He very well may have cost the Cowboys' back-up right tackle his job. Okafor is too much for tight ends and runningbacks to handle on their own, as evidenced by his sack in the third quarter where he brushed off TE James Hanna as though he weren't even there. Aside from one play late in the game where he lost containment on a run play, Okafor got off to a very promising start.

Bonus slide:

It took me a minute to figure out what I was seeing when they trotted this formation onto the field. I won't tell you how many times I recounted the linemen. Practically a goal line defense, this should be a rare sight -- it's just something I picked out that, apparently, they're working on.

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