So far this season, the Dallas Cowboys have lurched back and forth between two extremes.
The Cowboys have been anemic on offense and prone to giving up big plays on defense in three road losses, starting with the season-opener in Carolina and following the pattern on Weeks 3 and 5 in Seattle and Houston.
Then they have returned home to be more efficient with the ball and stingier on defense in even-week victories against the Giants and Lions.
After a frustrating overtime loss at Houston on Sunday night, the trend swings back in Dallas’s favor as it hosts Jacksonville on Sunday afternoon.
Another quirk of the Cowboys’ season has been that they’ve been defeated by dual-threat quarterbacks, while handling pocket passers.
However, Jaguars QB Blake Bortles throws a bit of a wrench in the predictability of that pattern. While he doesn’t have as many rush attempts as Houston’s Deshaun Watson or Carolina’s Cam Newton, Bortles has run more than twice as much as Seattle’s Russell Wilson and he has outgained Newton in rushing yards so far this season, 166 to 165.
So is Bortles a dual-threat QB or a pocket passer? And, if so, how can the Cowboys disrupt him?
“Like you try to disrupt the rhythm of every quarterback, I think it starts up front,” Dallas coach Jason Garrett said. “You have to somehow, some way try to affect him with your pass rush. Rush and cover work together. Really important for us to guard the guys in the back end, not give him easy places to throw the football.”
Cowboys defensive end Demarcus Lawrence is more of a menace for less-mobile quarterbacks. He sacked the Lions’ Matthew Stafford three times and brought down Eli Manning of the Giants once. But Lawrence has a total of 1.5 sacks against the three dual-threat quarterback the Cowboys have faced.
And Lawrence couldn’t catch Watson on Sunday night.
The difference in defending a pocket passer versus a mobile QB is amplified by Dallas’s success against the run and Jacksonville’s struggle to keep running backs healthy so far in this campaign. Leonard Fournette is battling a hamstring injury and third-string RB Corey Grant has been placed on injured reserve with a foot injury. In response, the Jaguars signed free agent Jamaal Charles on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, Dallas ranks 11th in the NFL rushing defense and has allowed just one running back to gain more than 55 yards this season — Seattle’s Chris Carson gained 102 on 32 carries.
Both the Cowboys and Jaguars rank in the top 10 in the NFL in total defense. So, if this becomes a defensive slugfest, Dallas needs to keep Bortles from being the X-factor.