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Football

Here’s How Much History the Cowboys’ Defense Made Against the Giants

This was no ordinary level of dominance.
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Stephon Gilmore and Trevon Diggs were two of many Cowboy defenders making big plays on Sunday night. Vincent Carchietta, USA Today Sports.

In what Dallas fans hope will be a sign of things to come, the Cowboys absolutely mollywhopped the New York Giants on national television in their season opener on Sunday night. These teams are coming off of seasons that ended in the divisional round of the playoffs, with hopes that this year they would take another step toward bringing home a Super Bowl. But after only the first drive of the game—a drive that ended with a blocked Graham Gano field goal attempt that was returned 58 yards by Noah Igbinoghene for the Cowboys’ first touchdown of the year—it became clear that one NFC East rival was superior. That blocked kick became the first of many unique events in what would become a game for the ages (or a game for the dark ages, if you’re a Giants fan).

That’s why the number to know for Week 1 of the Cowboys’ 2023 season is, well, 1.

The long and short of this game, and the reason it really was “1 of 1,” can be summed up best by this post from OptaSTATS:

But it’s not just the Giants who need to be discussed here, because it always takes two to tango. Their opponent had to be firing on all cylinders to get this kind of production.

Yeah, the Dallas defense really is this good.

Let’s start from the top: since 1999, there have been 105 regular-season shutouts in the NFL. On only 14 of those occasions has the victor dropped at least 40 points. The Cowboys were the first team since the 2009 Patriots to put up at least 40 in a shutout against a team that made it to the divisional round of the playoffs the previous year. (New England beat the Titans, 59-0, in 2009.) OK, it wasn’t the biggest blowout in recent memory, but it came pretty close.

One thing the Cowboys had on Sunday that none of the other dots on that graph have? They blocked a field goal and returned it for a touchdown.

Speaking of touchdown returns, then there was the defense. Somehow, in 2022, not one of the 16 interceptions fielded by Dallas defenders was taken back for a score. The Cowboys were the only team last year with at least 16 picks that didn’t house one of them. This season is already different. A mere 12:38 elapsed before DaRon Bland picked off Daniel Jones (with an assist from Trevon Diggs, who delivered a jarring tackle that separated receiver from ball) and ran it back 16 yards for the score. Bland became the first Cowboy with a pick-6 in Week 1 since Brandon Carr did it in 2013 against … the Giants. Time is a flat circle.

That interception was the first of three takeaways by the defense. New addition Stephon Gilmore had an interception later on in the first half, while Diggs forced a fumble that was recovered by Israel Mukuamu early in the fourth quarter. Although these takeaways weren’t returned for scores, they did share another unique quality: both came on the first play of a Giants drive. The last time Dallas had two or more takeaways that came on the first play of an opponent’s drive was in 2021, also in Week 1, against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The final piece of this remarkable string of firsts came from what everyone should know by now is an area of strength for the Cowboys: the pass rush. Dallas won the sack battle by a ridiculous margin, taking down Jones seven times. Meanwhile, Dak Prescott was pressured on only six of his 24 dropbacks, per Pro Football Focus, and was hit on only three of those occasions. The last time a road team had at least seven sacks while its offense didn’t allow one was in Week 11 of last year when, wouldn’t you know it, the Cowboys did so against the Minnesota Vikings.

While the Giants’ offensive line isn’t exactly a top-notch unit, this Dallas defensive front still put on a clinic that not many other teams can match. Per ESPN’s Seth Walder, four Cowboys ranked in the top 10 in pass rush win rate at their position in Week 1: Dorance Armstrong, Chauncey Golston, Dante Fowler Jr., and Sam Williams. That metric is based on how often a player gets around his primary blocker in under 2.5 seconds. Pressure rate, a more basic statistic, tells the same story: four Cowboys registered a pressure rate above 20 percent. No other team had more than two.

The other side of this coin—the one about how Prescott was kept clean—is also backed up by these stats. Dexter Lawrence was the only pass rusher of consequence for the Giants, registering four of his team’s six pressures. The only starting quarterback in Week 1 with fewer dropbacks under pressure than Prescott was the Raiders’ Jimmy Garoppolo, who faced pressure on four of his 29 dropbacks (per PFF). Even though Prescott had modest statistics, the Cowboys thrived in so many other areas that the only thing that really mattered was that he didn’t turn the ball over. Everything else went right.

The NFL has existed for more than a century. It’s tough to break some records. But the Cowboys played so well—especially on the defensive side—that they added a footnote to the league annals. For the first time, we have seen a team get shut out and lose by at least 40, lose the sack battle by at least seven, lose the turnover battle by at least three, and have an interception and a blocked field goal taken back for a TD, all in the same season.

The Cowboys needed only 60 minutes to make the Giants a dubious part of league history.

Author

Dan Morse

Dan Morse

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Dan covers the Cowboys for StrongSide. He is a Pacific Northwest native & self-described nerd who has been covering the…
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