The Cowboys brushed aside their Week 1 loss in a big way on Sunday. Without their starting quarterback and going up against the defending AFC champions, Dallas defied its 7.5-point home underdog status and beat the Cincinnati Bengals with a walk-off field goal.
The offense came out swinging, notching touchdowns on its first two drives. Noah Brown showed out once again, catching another five passes and leading the Cowboys in receiving yards for the second straight week (just as we all expected). And Cooper Rush extended his undefeated streak as a starting quarterback to two games.
But as anyone who watched the game knows, the offense was not the reason Dallas won on this day. Needing a last-play field goal to reach the 20-point plateau doesn’t seem like a great plan to beat a team that just made it all the way to the Super Bowl. Still, it was enough, because one unit dominated this game and swung it in the direction of the home team. And there’s one number that best describes how much of an effect it had on the Bengals offense.
That’s the number of plays that ended in the Cincinnati backfield. The Dallas defense combined for six sacks and two tackles for loss (plus one pass batted down at the line of scrimmage just for good measure). Oh, and the Cowboys also recorded three QB hits on Joe Burrow.
The defense lived in the Cincinnati backfield. In the first half alone, Burrow was sacked four times in 16 dropbacks. With all that disruption, the Bengals mustered a meager 85 yards at a rate of 3.4 yards per play. The second half wasn’t much better.
The main source of disruption came from the guy you’d expect it to come from. Micah Parsons added another two sacks to his early season total and now leads the NFL with four sacks. He had five QB hits on the day, bringing his season total to an NFL-high seven. Parsons has not slowed down one bit since his award-winning rookie campaign. Last year he led the NFL in ESPN’s Pass Rush Win Rate statistic, which measures how often a pass rusher gets by his blocker within 2.5 seconds of the snap. He didn’t have enough pass-rushing snaps to qualify for most of the leaderboards, as his position fluctuated throughout the year, but in the snaps he did get as a pass rusher, he put up numbers to rival those of Myles Garrett and Aaron Donald. Through two games, he has had even more opportunities to get after the quarterback, and the added pass-rushing snaps have not put a dent in his efficiency.
It’s still too early to start calculating “on pace for” stats—nobody really believes Parsons will reach 34 sacks in 2022—but at the same time it’s worth noting we’ve yet to see a decline in his production when his pass-rushing workload increases. In addition to his unanimous Defensive Rookie of the Year win in 2021, he tallied 10 percent of the votes for Defensive Player of the Year. Based on the early returns, that percentage figures to jump significantly this season.
The defensive pressure didn’t stop with the pass rush. The Cowboys left no space for Joe Mixon and the Bengals to get something going on the ground, which indirectly put another kind of “pressure” on Burrow. Cincinnati running backs (Mixon plus one carry from Samaje Perine) were held to under three yards per carry and twice were tackled behind the line of scrimmage. In the first half, Mixon carried five times for five yards. He started the second half with a 10-yard carry, but that was the only time he reached double digits. The Cowboys put eight or more defenders in the box to protect against the run on 36 percent of Mixon’s runs, according to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats. That’s nearly twice as often as they loaded the box against Leonard Fournette and the Bucs in Week 1, and the effect was noticeable. The coup was that these loaded boxes were able to get pressure on Burrow so quickly that the Cowboys didn’t really sacrifice much in the secondary.
The tackles for loss, the sacks, and the quarterback hits provided an especially fun day for Dallas fans, and one of the more miserable days for Burrow in his short career. Burrow is no stranger to pressure, but this pass rush was more than even he is accustomed to.
That was the third-highest sack rate Burrow has faced in the regular season, and one of the highest single-game sack rates of the past two years. There’s not much debate about this one: Dallas won this game in the trenches. Making eight plays behind the line of scrimmage is a recipe for success in the NFL. That’s what the Cowboys will have to do in order to compete in a wide-open NFC this season while their starting quarterback rehabs a broken hand. They have a great opportunity to keep that momentum going next Monday night as they face off against the New York Giants and Daniel Jones, who has already been sacked eight times. Will Jones get so frustrated by the Cowboys’ pass rush that he tells his coaches they can’t run any more empty sets? We can’t know for sure, but it wouldn’t be the first time.