Even with rookie phenom Micah Parsons, Cowboys' defense 'ain't about one player

FRISCO, Texas -- Micah Parsons was not credited with a solo tackle in last week’s win against the New York Giants. He had his sack streak end at six games. And yet, the Dallas Cowboys rookie linebacker/defensive end still made a play everybody wanted to talk about.

With the Giants threatening near the end zone in the first quarter, Parsons was lined up wide on running back Devontae Booker. As Booker motioned inside, Parsons went with him and at the snap, Booker set a pick on cornerback Anthony Brown, who was lined up in front of $72 million receiver Kenny Golladay.

Instinctively, Parsons stopped and turned to run with Golladay, and quarterback Mike Glennon’s pass fell harmlessly to the ground.

“Sometimes you may with two DBs [say], ‘Hey, let’s play this in and out,’” Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said. “There’s some technique that you can do when you do that. You don’t often do that with a DB and a linebacker but we did it in that play and I think that kind of shows to [Parsons'] awareness. It was the best play that didn’t get a lot of stats with it.”

Almost all of the rest of the stats in the win against the Giants went to other on defense. Despite Parsons’ inactivity on the stat sheet, the Cowboys' defense did not allow a touchdown, created four takeaways (they are tied with the Colts for the NFL's most takeaways at 31) and had a sack and five quarterback hits or hurries.

“It ain’t about one player when you come play the Dallas Cowboys,” defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence said. “You got to play all 11 of us and if you think you’re just going to single out one player, then you’re wrong.”

As much as Parsons, the sure-fire Defensive Rookie of the Year and potential Defensive Player of the Year, and cornerback Trevon Diggs, the NFL’s interception leader with 10, garner most of the attention, the Cowboys’ defense, which ranks seventh in points allowed per game (20.93), is built upon a strength in numbers.

The Cowboys have had 31 players record some kind of defensive stat. With safety Malik Hooker’s interception in the fourth quarter against the Giants, eight different Cowboys have recorded a pick this season, the most in a Dallas season since 2018. With Jourdan Lewis’ first-quarter interception, the Cowboys have three cornerbacks with at least three interceptions in a season for the third time (1983, 1967). Twelve different defenders have recorded a sack, led by Parsons’ 12.

Quinn, who was coordinator in Seattle and head coach in Atlanta, said he's never had the waves of players he has been able to use on defense.

But he still wants more.

“Before I went to sleep [Sunday night], the thoughts that keep me up were, ‘How do we play faster? How do we play cleaner? How do we play more aggressive,’” Quinn said. “And yes, that is probably a sad state of affairs for my sleep pattern. You guys are thinking, ‘What the hell is he thinking like that?’ but I really feel like we can get a lot better.”

The Cowboys knew they needed to fix the defense after the 2020 debacle, when they allowed 29.6 points a game (ranked 28th). But they knew they had better players in-house than what was on display last season.

Lawrence was expected to be a force at the start of the season but missed 10 games after breaking his foot in practice in Week 2. After working in slowly the first week, he is ‘the full-time D-Law right now,” coach Mike McCarthy said. Against the Giants, he was disruptive from the beginning and forced the first lost fumble of Saquon Barkley’s career. With Randy Gregory, Parsons and Lawrence, the Cowboys have a solid pass-rushing trio that gives opponents difficulties with matchups.

“I believe I told y’all this once, if I’m one-on-one, I feel like I’m going to win every time,” Lawrence said. “Being able to have those guys, they get one-on-ones, too, so I have to win faster now. It’s amazing to be out there with a group of guys that loves ball as much as you do.”

McCarthy believed Diggs was going to make a big second-year leap, but Lewis and cornerback Anthony Brown have brought a stability the Cowboys have not had in their top three corners (all three rank in the top 17 in the league in passes defended). Linebacker Leighton Vander Esch has been on an uptick of late as well, with nine tackles in the past two games after 12 in the previous five.

The Cowboys used their first six 2021 draft selections on defensive players. Parsons has been otherworldly and second-round pick Kelvin Joseph has found a major special teams role. Defensive tackle Osa Odighizuwa, one of three third-round picks, has outperformed expectations, although he's currently on the reserve/COVID-19 list.

In free agency, the Cowboys were judicious with their spending, yet they have received more production than they could have expected.

Safety Jayron Kearse (one year, $1.127 million) leads the Cowboys in tackles. Safety Damontae Kazee (one year, $1.127 million) has been steady as a starting safety. Defensive tackle Carlos Watkins (one year, $1.75 million) had an interception return for a touchdown that sealed the win against the New Orleans Saints. Linebacker Keanu Neal (one year, $4 million), defensive end Tarell Basham (two years, $5.5 million), defensive tackle Brent Urban (one year, $1.75 million but is out for the year following triceps surgery) and Hooker (one year, $920,000) have been versatile pieces for Quinn.

“At the end of the day we’re here to win, we’re trying to win a Super Bowl. So if [Parsons and Diggs] are getting the attention, they’re getting the attention,” Kearse said. “If we win a Super Bowl, we’ll all get a ring, not just those guys. So it really doesn’t matter to the rest of the guys in the locker room that’s going out there and doing their job and playing good football but may not be getting the recognition. ... You just continue to play good ball and let everything take care of itself.”