Finding a home for David Irving

Dallas Cowboys

The Dallas Cowboys have two game-wreckers on their defensive line. One is DeMarcus Lawrence, who I have highlighted before here on FanSided, and the other is David Irving. Lawrence is a prototypical left defensive end who can beat right tackles with his power and his length. He’s been one of the premier pass rushers in the NFL this season as he has already racked up 8.5 sacks in just five games. Now that he’s finally is healthy, the Cowboys have a true star on the defensive line.

But David Irving is a budding star as well. In his last four games (including the 2016 season), Irving has accumulated five sacks and has been one of the more unblockable defensive linemen in the league. When he is on, he is absolutely on the same talent level as Lawrence and his “ceiling” may even be higher, given his physical gifts. He’s got the ability to swing games by himself.

After missing the first four games of the season due to a substance abuse suspension, Irving returned in Week 5 to dominate the Green Bay Packers. On 27 pass rushing snaps, Irving totaled five pressures, two hurries, three total quarterback hits and two sacks, according to Pro Football Focus. He was one of the few bright spots on the defensive side of the ball that day.

Despite Irving’s marvelous return, Dallas has a problem that needs to be solved. Irving is a dominant player, but what is his best position? Many would argue that it’s at left defensive end, but that just so happens to be where Lawrence plays and excels. Last year in Week 15, Irving dominated on the left side while Lawrence was nursing a back injury.

For most, the game sealed the thought that Dallas ought to leave Irving at left defensive end and move Lawrence to the right side. To understand why he was great in that game, let’s take a look at his performance that night to examine how he wins as a defensive end.

Unlike most traditional defensive ends, Irving doesn’t win on the edge by bending around the edge. While he does have the athletic ability to rush from the outside and capture the edge, his best football comes when he can use his power to drive back defenders or when he can use his length and athletic ability to win on stunts. That’s how he was able to get his first sack against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Because he’s just so much bigger and more athletic than everybody, he’s able to throw the tackle off-balance and then close on the quarterback on the stunt. There’s not a ton of technique that he uses on this play, but that’s okay because it won’t be often that he can’t win with just pure athleticism.

But that doesn’t mean he’s not a polished player, either. Irving knows his strengths and weaknesses, and he doesn’t try to fool himself as to what kind of rusher he is. On the play below, Irving just uses blunt strength to win on the outside.

On the play above, the running back tried out to “chip” Irving, but what he really was doing was trying to just protect the edge. On the previous plays before this sack,  Irving beat the right tackle numerous times to the outside and eventually drew a holding call. Anytime Irving can use his power to attack inside as a rusher is when he becomes a dominant player.

One thing is clear with Irving, he is at his best when he lines up closer to the quarterback. Even when he lines up at defensive end, his best work comes when he is stunting or using inside counters.

That is why in Week 5, the Cowboys decided to use Irving inside as Lawrence occupied the left defensive end spot. Against the Packers, all 47 of Irving’s snaps came as an interior rusher. According to Pro Football Focus, 23 snaps came as the right defensive tackle and 19 came as a nose tackle. The other three snaps came as a left defensive tackle.

How did Irving fair as an interior player? Well, he was the team’s best defender on that Sunday. One of the reasons that Irving plays so well inside, especially on passing downs, is because of his insane quickness and flexibility. On the snap below, Irving got off the ball so quickly that he destroys the play before the offensive line even knows what happened. Many will say this is just a blown blocking assignment, but it was Irving’s quickness that actually made the play.

One of the things that Irving doesn’t have is natural leverage. At 6’7″, Irving should theoretically struggle to get underneath blockers given his height. Some of the best interior players in the league in Aaron Donald and Geno Atkins are under 6-foot-1 and they use that height “advantage” to walk back interior offensive linemen. But Irving’s arms are so long and are so powerful that he can get defenders off-balance. That’s exactly what happened two weeks ago:

For the rest of the season, expect the Cowboys to move David Irving around the defensive line depending on the opponent. And with the recent news of Stephen Paea retiring, that likely means the Cowboys will need to use more of Maliek Collins as the 1-technique and more of Irving as the penetrating 3-technique.

As long as DeMarcus Lawrence is healthy, most of Irving’s snaps should come inside, especially when the team goes to their “Deacon” defense that employs just three defensive linemen.  As a nose tackle in a three down linemen formation, Irving can be a major mismatch problem for opposing centers.

At just the age of 24, Irving’s stock is dramatically rising and he is one of the most important pieces on the Cowboys’ defense heading into the second half of the season. They will need Irving to continue to dominate if they want this defense to improve in a hurry. Dallas knows that Irving and Lawrence are two of their best defensive players, so look for defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli to find ways to put both of his “war-daddies” in positions to make plays.

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