The Cowboys may be using a rookie defensive back as one of their primary blitzers in 2017. He’s not going to lead the team in sacks but very well could in blitz attempts.
Contrary to popular belief, the Dallas Cowboys like to blitz. Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli may not blitz as often as other defensive coordinators, but blitzing still represents a vital part of his playbook. He knows strategically throwing in a blitz here or there can have a significant impact on the game.
One element that separates Rod Marinelli and the Cowboys’ blitzing from the rest of the NFL is who he likes to blitz. While many defensive coordinators lean almost solely on their linebackers for that extra attacker, Dallas uses their defensive backs just as much as their linebackers.
It’s not that defensive backs are better pass-rushers than linebackers — quite the contrary. It’s that when making pre-snap blocking assignments, offensive lines often overlook defensive backs. That’s why the Cowboys used Orlando Scandrick as a blitzer so often last season.
now the Cowboys finally have a defensive back capable of blitzing.
Scandrick, often lined up over the slot receiver in the Cowboys nickel coverage scheme, usually appeared to be in press coverage close to the line of scrimmage. But when blitzing, instead of jamming the slot receiver, he passed him off to a teammate and attacked the pocket.
In a race to the quarterback the unblocked player wins every time. That’s why Rod Marinelli loves to blitz his defensive backs.
Unfortunately, Scandrick was horrible when met with an actual blocker. Whether it was an offensive lineman, tight end, or running back, Scandrick made zero effort to fight through blocks. I tracked Scandrick’s success rate for most of the season. He was used upwards of three times per game as a blitzer, but once his success rate dropped into the single digits, I gave up tracking and actively started lobbying for a change of philosophy altogether. It wasn’t working because Scandy just wasn’t good at it.
But the drafting of Chidobe Awuzie got me excited.
Rod Marinelli isn’t going to stop blitzing his defensive backs. It’s a part of him and since it worked a couple times late in the season, his play-calling behavior was reinforced. But I’m excited because now the Cowboys finally have a defensive back capable of blitzing.
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Chidobe Awuzie was a feared blitzer from the slot at Colorado. Unlike Scandrick, he wasn’t afraid to fight through blockers and continue his attack.
His ability to crash the backfield may be his single biggest asset. And it’s an asset that the Cowboys are sure to use.
What specific position Awuzie plays this season remains to be seen. And based on recent talk it may mirror that of Byron Jones in his rookie year and be a fluid role.
But one thing should be clear – Chidobe Awuzie will be used as a blitzer often.
What About the Linebackers?
The greatest competition for lead blitzer in 2017 will be from the linebackers. Sean Lee is adequate as a blitzer, but he’s a star in coverage. I’m not expecting the Cowboys to pull him from a strength and use him in something he’s only average in.
If Jaylon Smith was back 100% he’d be the best bet by far. Blessed with the best pass-rush ability on the entire team, he’d be the obvious choice as the most commonly used blitzer in 2017. But I’m not convinced he’ll be much more than a role player in 2017.
Damien Wilson has pass-rushing skills we’re sure to see this season. But he’s facing suspension and even when he’s back it’ll be as the SAM so he’s only going to be on the field roughly 40 percent of the time and those will usually be running downs.
While it’s no mystery Marinelli prefers to rely on his front four to apply the pressure, lack of a dominant rusher forced the Cowboys to blitz in 2016. Given their love to use defensive backs in this capacity, I predict Chidobe Awuzie to lead the secondary and quite possibly, the team, in blitzes this season.