Cowboys’ Everson Griffen admits pass rush is struggling, will make specific adjustment to ‘generate pressure’

Every NFL team has its own distribution center full of offseason hype attached to moves and acquisitions, but it’s always that much more pronounced when said team happens to be the Dallas Cowboys. It was an offseason filled with massive amounts of change for owner Jerry Jones and Co., parting ways with longtime coach Jason Garrett and moving in Mike McCarthy, the latter then making sweeping changes in the coaching staff that included swapping out Rod Marinelli for Mike Nolan as defensive coordinator. The club then went on to make a slew of nontraditional signings — from Aldon Smith to Gerald McCoy to Dontari Poe — to revamp their defensive line, adding Everson Griffen just before losing McCoy to injury and releasing him.

Still, even without McCoy in tow, it’s a defensive front that boasts the aforementioned names along with All-Pro pass rusher DeMarcus Lawrence, and combining that level of talent with a known defensive line guru in Jim Tomsula rightfully sent the hype machine into overdrive. It seemed a foregone conclusion the Cowboys would have one of the most disruptive pass rushes in the entire NFL, but that’s not the case through the first two weeks of football.

They have two sacks and seven quarterback hits through eight quarters of football, often leaving Jared Goff and Matt Ryan plenty of time to deliver passes during their 1-1 split to start the year, the latter taking full advantage with several deep throws that threatened to send them to 0-2 with each heave.

So where is this dominating Cowboys pass rush we’ve all been told to expect? Griffen has an idea or several, and he’s not shy about admitting the team needs to improve in that area, and immediately, considering they have Russell Wilson on the menu this Sunday.

“First and foremost, I feel like us as a group we have to get lined up correctly,” Griffen told media in a Zoom call on Wednesday. “We have to get lined up correctly. We have to play our gaps correctly and we have to not beat ourselves. We cannot beat ourselves. 

“We have to get lined up correct, make the tackles and make the calls. We’ve got to get the ball back for offense. Our goal for this week is keep Russell in the pocket, don’t let him scramble and we have to do that by getting back there — generating pressure. These past two games, we haven’t been generating pressure that well to be honest with you guys and I feel like we’ve got to do a better job at generating pressure. 

“If that’s putting big guys in the middle to get more push in the pocket, if that’s switching it up, doing whatever we have to do to generate that push in the middle, whatever we have to do.”

To be fair, the Cowboys offseason isn’t like most others. Although none of the 32 teams had a minicamp or preseason, and were strapped with a truncated training camp, Dallas is one of a handful of teams with a new coaching staff tasked with installing new schemes without the benefit of a traditional offseason — one that would’ve started two weeks prior to the rest of the league on April 6, if not for the COVID-19 pandemic. That means, logistically speaking, the first couple of games or so could be viewed as preseason games for the Cowboys in the realm of trying to figure things out in live game situations with a slew of new coaches and player personnel trying to settle in, but without the benefit of the games being inconsequential as they would be in August.

Those realities aside though, and to Nolan’s own admission this week, Griffen knows there isn’t a ton of time to get the pass rush rolling as October rapidly approaches. Nolan’s goal is to install a hybrid defense that sees edge rushers like Lawrence, Smith and Griffen go from playing with their hand in the dirt to standing up pre-snap — on the fly — and while that’s tantalizingly unpredictable, it takes time to get used to when said edge rusher has made a living in a three-point stance.

That’s likely the issue for Lawrence at the moment, and also for Griffen. 

“I think it starts with the fundamentals — going back to the fundamentals of a game, getting the call, getting lined up, getting in the right position, coming off the ball, executing assignments, getting off the ball and playing fast,” said Griffen. “I think it’s just the fundamentals. This is a new group here, a new coaching staff, so I feel like we’re gelling. I feel like it’s all coming together.”

That said, Griffen isn’t bluffing when he says he and his d-line compatriots will do “whatever it takes” to start generating pressure up front. Both McCarthy and Nolan noted this offseason they’d acquiesce to whatever their pass rushers felt most comfortable with — be it three-point stance or standing — as things got fleshed out, and Griffen is one who’ll immediately get back to doing what he does best. He’s going to put his hand back in the dirt and, mostly, keep it there. 

After all, he’s amassed 75.5 career sacks and 88 tackles for loss operating primarily with his hand in the dirt for the Minnesota Vikings, which includes three double-digit sack seasons and tacking on eight sacks to his resume just last season. 

“Oh, 100 percent [prefer the three-point stance],” Griffen said. “That’s what I am more comfortable at. I was trying to work it in and out and seeing where my comfortability was, trying to see, ‘Do I like the two-point? Do I like the three-point?,’ and I’m a three-point man. 

“I’m going to make sure I get down in my three-point where I can be more powerful with my hands and then my feet, and I can get on guys quicker and be able to attack and move by feet better and go out there and execute my assignment and get the job done. … It’s a big difference. I’ve been doing it with my hand in the dirt for the past 10 years now. Standing up a little bit, it’s a little different, but I’m going to get the hang of it. 

“I feel like I’m going to go more back to my three-point stance. That’s where I’m more comfortable at. I’m going to come off the ball and I’m going to strike. And I’m going to do it at a high level to be able to go out there and get this victory for my team.”

It’ll be calling all cars in Week 3 against Wilson, and if those cars perform better in dirt than on pavement — so to speak — so be it.

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