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Cowboys' unknown pass rush has become unquestioned strength

FRISCO, Texas -- Coming into the season, some of the Dallas Cowboys’ biggest questions were about their pass rush.

Where and whom would it come from?

A year ago, the Cowboys recorded just 36 sacks, and their biggest attempt to improve the pass rush was drafting Taco Charlton in the first round, No. 28 overall. The Cowboys are still waiting for Charlton to get the first sack of his career. Last year’s leader, Benson Mayowa, who had six sacks in 2016, also has been shut out so far.

Yet the Cowboys have 25 sacks in seven games. An unknown has become a strength of the team.

“It doesn’t matter what the outside noise is, man,” defensive end Tyrone Crawford said. “I’ve been taking heat from a lot of people from the outside for a long time. I understand that. A lot of people, a lot of fans don’t understand what’s going on in here and the brotherhood we’ve got and then the type of work we put in. We’ve been good for the last couple of years. It’s just we haven’t been connecting, haven’t been able to get the sack when we needed it. This year we’re connected and doing that.”

DeMarcus Lawrence leads the NFL with 10.5 sacks. He has set a career high in seven games. He has had at least one sack in each of the first seven games. He had one sack all of the past season.

David Irving missed the first four games because of a suspension for violating the performance-enhancing drug policy. He has five sacks in three games.

Crawford has four sacks, one short of his career high.

Seven players have recorded at least one sack this season. A year ago, the Cowboys had 13 players record at least a half-sack.

They entered the season hoping a quantity-over-quality approach would work, but they have found that they had more quality in-house than many anticipated.

“Impacting the quarterback is one of the most important things you can do to play good defense, and quarterbacks in a comfortable environment in this league can really hurt defenses,” coach Jason Garrett said. “So what you’re trying to do is make them uncomfortable. And the first way to do that is by rushing them. If you can get your down guys to rush, your four pass-rushers, having an impact on the quarterback’s environment, you’re going to have some success. ... Not only have they pressured them, they sacked them, and particularly in the game [Sunday against the Washington Redskins] I think they caused some turnovers, which is the most important thing you can do on defense.”

The Cowboys sacked Kirk Cousins four times in the 33-19 win. Yes, the Washington offensive line was without three starters entering the game and lost two more during the game, but the Cowboys did what they were supposed to do: affect the quarterback.

“I think the D-line has done a great job getting a lot of pressure, strip sacks and making plays,” linebacker Sean Lee said. “You cause more pressure, and you cause turnovers.”

The Cowboys have recorded at least four sacks in four games this season. They had four or more sacks in four games all of last season. The Cowboys did not record their 25th sack in 2016 until Week 14. They are on pace for 57 sacks, which would be the most since they put up 59 in 2008, when DeMarcus Ware was the runner-up for defensive player of the year. Since moving from the 3-4 scheme that served Ware so well to the 4-3 alignment in 2014, the Cowboys have not had more than 26 sacks in a season.

Lawrence is doing his best Ware imitation. Irving has played better than expected off the suspension. Crawford has a sack in three straight games for the first time in his career. Maliek Collins, who has 2.5 sacks, has shifted to nose tackle with Stephen Paea’s retirement.

“Probably individually, with the experience they have, but maybe more importantly than that just playing together and playing off of each other,” Garrett said of the success of the pass rush. “Obviously, David Irving being back in the lineup has a big impact. Tyrone Crawford playing over at the right end spot has been a good home for him. I think he’s settled in over there, and I think he’s having an impact, both as a run defender and affecting the quarterback. DeMarcus has just played very well right from the outset. I think Maliek has done a good job transitioning to play more nose tackle here the last couple of weeks.

“Each of those guys has been good individually, but I think more importantly, it’s playing off of each other -- physically and technically, but maybe more so than anything else, emotionally -- having a nice, healthy competition to be productive in a ballgame. I think they’re spurring each other on in a real positive way for our team.”