The Cowboys had a historically bad defense in Mike McCarthy’s first season as head coach. No one would even call the Mike Nolan era an “era.” It was embarrassing, and it was preventing the team from capitalizing on its franchise quarterback.
Fast forward three years, and Dallas has a unit that does this to opposing offenses:
The Cowboys shut out a decent divisional rival, on the road, in their opener. Outside of the opening drive, they didn’t let the Giants take a single breath. They registered a pressure rate of 67 percent, far and away the top mark in league through Week One. The franchise has been intentional, focused, and deliberate in the way it has turned around this group, and the results are undeniable: this is the best defense in the NFL.
The Cowboys just took a team with a quarterback making $40 million a year to the woodshed and produced a score that looks a lot more like a Week Zero college football score than a highly anticipated NFL matchup. And they did this because they have a monster in Micah Parsons, who only had to play 41 snaps on account of the blowout. He spent 15 of those on the left side, 18 on the right side, one at nose tackle, and the other seven playing the actual linebacker position in the box. That’s about as versatile as it gets, and it goes back to Dan Quinn. We are witnessing one of the better player-coach symbiotic relationships we will ever see in Dallas.
But the Cowboys also did this through depth. No Donovan Wilson? No problem: Juanyeh Thomas filled in masterfully, without even considering his game-changing blocked field goal on New York’s opening drive. Stephon Gilmore was fantastic in his Cowboys debut, with an interception and two more pass breakups. DaRon Bland built upon his surprisingly impressive rookie season with a pick of his own, solidifying his spot as the nickel corner of the present and future.
Whether they are top-flight, blue-chip first-round picks, undrafted free agents, fifth-round picks, or veterans acquired by trade, the members of this unit just produce. Time and time again. It is a testament to the front office and scouting department’s efforts over the last few years. It is a testament to Quinn’s innovative approach to defending modern NFL offenses.
I’m not sure how any offense truly thrives against this defense. With the addition of Gilmore to what was already a strong secondary last year, the best answer might be to just run the football, something the Giants were never really in a position to do at any sort of sustained level but perhaps another team could be. Of course, that is not exactly the most efficient way to score in 2023, either. Eliminating the easiest way to move the football puts the opposition in a serious bind.
On the other side of the ball, we did not learn much about the offense and how it will operate differently with Mike McCarthy and Brian Schottenheimer at the controls. We didn’t have to. But this was a nice piece of business that potentially illustrates that the offense might be maximizing its talent in a manner different than prior years:
When a quarterback completes 14 passes and a team gains 265 yards, it’s going to be hard to draw any grand conclusions about a team’s changed disposition. But we did see that Rico Dowdle has entrenched himself as a solid backup to Tony Pollard. We did see that KaVontae Turpin will be getting carries. We did see that Deuce Vaughn is not just an afterthought. We did see that the wideouts will be deployed in a number of different ways.
And most important, at least for one game against a pretty stout pass rush, we saw that a banged-up version of this offensive line can hold its own. Depth up front was a major concern heading into this season, and should remain as such. But with Tyler Smith sidelined, free agent acquisition Chuma Edoga had to step in at guard, and was fine. Again, the fact that Edoga had to play, and this wasn’t a major issue for the operation, is a win for the personnel department.
I’m not here to make the case that several games without Tyler Smith, or Tyron Smith, or any other member of the offensive line is sustainable. But the Cowboys got through it for a night, surrendering a pressure rate of just 25 percent. Prescott didn’t need to drop back much, but when he did, life was relatively easy.
There will be days when it isn’t, when the offense will have to hold up its end of the bargain to win games, and we don’t fully know if they are capable of that yet. There were encouraging signs, but the sample size was too limited by the way the contest unfolded. Everything we believed going into this one still applies: Prescott has a very solid group of skill position players to work with, and at least for now, seemingly, depth up front.
What we know for certain is we saw a dominant defensive effort, and that isn’t going anywhere. The Cowboys have elite talent starting on that side of the ball and rotational waves of very good talent behind them. That is uncommon. Times are good when there isn’t much drop off in production in the fourth quarter of a blowout.
If you put Micah Parsons on the bus every week, you have a chance to suffocate the opposing offense. Which means your offense just needs to be good enough. And if they can be better than just good enough? This team is going to be very, very fun.