Cedric Thornton, Tyrone Crawford, Jack Crawford and DeMarcus Lawrence have combined for 26 career sacks.
None of them have double-digit sacks in their careers, let alone in a season. But that was the Dallas Cowboys’ first-team defensive line during Tuesday morning’s walk-through and it marked the most experienced front four they’ve fielded since opening training camp.
Crawford returned for the first time since complaining about a back issue on Day 1. Thornton also returned after missing a couple days with flu-like symptoms, as did reserve defensive tackle Terrell McClain.
I love to be underrated. For me, it’s great motivation.
Cowboys defensive end Jack Crawford
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That served as a highlight for a group that is facing many questions heading into the season.
Will this no-name bunch be able to pressure the quarterback?
Can they finish better than their rank in the league last season — 25th — in sacks?
“I love to be underrated,” Crawford said. “For me, it’s great motivation.”
Like other teams, the Cowboys preach the importance of getting to the quarterback. It’s something they tried to improve in 2015 by making a controversial signing (Greg Hardy) and drafting a risky prospect (Randy Gregory) to no avail.
They didn’t make any impact splashes in that regard this off-season, opting for lesser names such as Benson Mayowa and banking on internal players to have significant jumps such as Ryan Russell.
And they’ve endured a seemingly endless list of blows to the unit. Lawrence, the team’s sack leader last season with eight, is suspended for the first four games. Gregory is also facing a suspension and might not play at all this season.
It’s fun to have a chance to get guys and mold them into the values we want as a team and how hard we want to play.
Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli
Injuries have hit the group hard, too, with Crawford, Mayowa, McClain, Thornton and rookie Maliek Collins all missing time.
“You challenge the other guys to take advantage of this opportunity. That’s what happened on the defensive line the last few days,” coach Jason Garrett said. “We have gotten a chance to see some younger guys that played more snaps than maybe we thought they would.
“That’s good for them and good for our team. But it’s also good to get the other guys back to get them back to work.”
Getting the projected starters back doesn’t mask the reality that cornerback Orlando Scandrick is the team leader with 9 1/2 career sacks.
This is the most inexperienced group defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli has coached in his 21 years in the NFL.
Marinelli, though, isn’t complaining and likes the upside of what he described as a “raw” unit.
“You come out here and you coach these guys hard and you see who has it,” he said. “It’s fun to have a chance to get guys and mold them into the values we want as a team and how hard we want to play. It’s exciting as all get out.”
Having three Pro Bowlers would be nicer, right?
“That we developed,” Marinelli said, chuckling.
Despite their unproven track record, the defensive line isn’t lacking confidence. There has been talk about “shocking the world” and exceeding outside expectations.
Crawford didn’t have a particular number of sacks the team would like to reach, but it’s more than the 31 the Cowboys put up last season. The organization hasn’t recorded more than 40 sacks in a season since 2011, and hasn’t had a double-digit sack player in a season since Jason Hatcher had 11 in 2013.
“We definitely want a number higher than last year,” said Crawford, who was plagued by a shoulder injury much of last season. “We don’t talk about the numbers, though. We just go out there and try and work our rushes. Four equals one.”
As the Denver Broncos showed last season, a pass rush is essential in making a championship run.
And Garrett acknowledged that it hasn’t been good enough the past two seasons. They could stomach it better in 2014 with the defense producing more takeaways, but they couldn’t in last year’s 4-12 campaign.
“You want sacks. You want sack fumbles, you want those kinds of plays because they make a big difference,” Garrett said. “We haven’t done a good enough job of that, registering those negative plays for the offense. We’ll continue to try to help these younger pass rushers develop and grow, technically understanding our system, playing emotionally the right way over the course of a game.
“The best rushers I’ve been around keep coming, keep coming, keep coming. Emotionally they’re really strong. They have a relentless spirit about them and oftentimes you have to teach young rushers that, how to do that, how to keep coming, that consistent effort and intensity and relentless spirit.
“We’re trying to do that as a coaching staff and our team has responded well to that so far.”