DeMarcus Lawrence represents everything Rod Marinelli wants out of a defensive player.
Two things standout when Marinelli thinks of his most talented pass rusher on the Dallas Cowboys – Lawrence suiting up last season even though he’d require back surgery in the off-season and the 2014 playoff victory over the Detroit Lions when Lawrence redeemed himself with a strip-sack to end the game seconds after fumbling away another fumble.
“That showed great character,” Marinelli said. “Most guys might have went in the tank and sat on the sidelines with a towel over their head. He came back ready to go. To me, that always meant something special. Great character.”
So Marinelli is pleased to see Lawrence back healthy and doing damage. Lawrence had two sacks, a tackle for loss and two quarterback pressures in the season-opening victory over the New York Giants.
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Lawrence stood out on a night when the entire defense shined, limiting the Giants to three points and 35 rushing yards. The goal is to carry that forward into Sunday's game against the Denver Broncos.
“It was very huge [to start with two sacks], just to let me know I’ve still got it,” Lawrence said. “It means a lot going into this season, really getting those sacks and more to come. Once you get one, they just pile on.
“But we can’t judge ourselves off one game.”
That is true.
Still, Week 1 is an early indication that the Cowboys’ defense continues to grow and thrive under Marinelli’s tutelage. He has gradually added pieces in place to maximize what he wants to do with the Tampa 2 scheme.
The pass rush is better suited with Maliek Collins and Stephen Paea inside, and a healthy edge rusher such as Lawrence and Benson Mayowa on the outside.
The secondary has been overhauled so the Cowboys can run more zone coverage instead of relying more on press-man players.
Byron Jones is a true centerfield free safety now, and there is more speed with the likes of second-year corner Anthony Brown (4.35-second 40-yard dash) and rookies Chidobe Awuzie (4.43) and Jourdan Lewis (4.55), who is expected to return after missing the opener with a hamstring injury.
“Every year, these young guys we’ve brought in the last couple of years, they’ve got some speed and you can see that,” Marinelli said. “A lot of people have speed and they don’t use it. These guys are using their speed. So we’ve just got to keep growing.”
The longest pass play the Giants had was a 31-yard connection from Eli Manning to tight end Evan Engram. Most of Manning’s passes were underneath routes to running back Shane Vereen (nine catches for 51 yards) and slot receiver Sterling Shepard (seven catches for 44 yards).
“Guys are understanding more what they’re doing so they’re able to play faster,” Jones said. “I think that’s the difference.”
The pass rush and secondary complemented each other in the opener, and must do so again Sunday.
The Broncos have elite receivers on the outside with Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, and a running game led by 224-pounder C.J. Anderson and shifty Jamaal Charles.
Plus, quarterback Trevor Siemian has proven to be a winner who makes the right decision more often than not.
“We’ve got our hands full with this team,” Marinelli said.
The Broncos feel the same way about the Cowboys’ defense. There aren’t many household names on the unit, but they’ve been better than most expected.
It’s only one game so far, as Lawrence said, but people have noticed around the league. It’s easy to see from afar that Marinelli gets the most out of his units.
“They have guys that are playing hard,” said Sanders, the SMU product who has posted three straight 1,000-yard receiving seasons with the Broncos.
“Sometimes big time players are the ones that are lackadaisical, knowing they’re good, and you can catch them. Those guys that are trying to make a name for themselves, those are the dogs. That’s what they have, they have a lot of hungry dogs. They have a lot of guys who want to make plays, that are playing physical and trying to be that Pro Bowl or All-Pro player.
“They’re working that way to make a name for themselves. I think that’s what I’m seeing the most on film and that’s what makes them so dangerous.”
The Cowboys’ defense has been one of the early storylines this season. Marinelli has thrown out the goal of getting 40 takeaways even though that hasn’t been done in the league since 2012.
Marinelli, of course, was the defensive coordinator when the Chicago Bears had 44 takeaways in that 2012 season.
The Cowboys had only one takeaway in the opener, and 40 seems far-fetched. But make no mistake, this unit expects to play at the level they showed against the Giants.
“We don’t have a bar. We go play our style of defense every week,” said defensive lineman Tyrone Crawford, who was credited with two tackles and a QB pressure.
“That’s what we’re supposed to do. We’re supposed to go out there and play like that. That’s what coach Marinelli demands and that’s what I hope we can continue to play like. There’s no excuse for us not to be able to.”
Added Jones: “Definitely an every week thing because we work out there every day. Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays are always intense for us. We’re always running to the ball, we’re always trying to get turnovers, we’re always trying to create strips. For us, it better be an every week thing or we’re going to hear from coach Marinelli.”
Cowboys at Broncos
3:25 p.m. Sunday, KDFW/4