FRISCO, Texas -- The theme took hold in October after the Dallas Cowboys beat the Los Angeles Rams.
Micah Parsons had two sacks of Matthew Stafford, but the star linebacker wasn’t the only story of their defense. Defensive end Dorance Armstrong had a sack/fumble that led to a DeMarcus Lawrence touchdown on the first drive. On the next series, he blocked a punt. Defensive tackle Osa Odighizuwa had a sack, four quarterback hurries and two tackles for loss. Cornerback Jourdan Lewis had a sack. Safety Malik Hooker had an interception. Six defenders were credited with at least five tackles.
“Everybody is 'him',” Armstrong said after the game. “If it's not the same guy this week, it's a new guy. That's the good thing about our defense -- we've got guys that can actually go.”
Everybody is "him." Everybody is a playmaker. Everybody can get the job done.
Parsons is the headliner of the Cowboys’ defense, leading the team with 12 sacks. Trevon Diggs, an All-Pro selection last season at cornerback, will not have the same interception totals as last season (11 in 2021, 3 in 2022), but opposing quarterbacks don’t go his way often. Lawrence is the longest-tenured defender and has made plenty of big plays at big moments, like a goal-line stop in Sunday's 27-23 win over the Houston Texans.
But the defense is more than those three. And the other "hims" are a big reason why the Cowboys' defense is ranked third in points allowed (17.6), fifth in yards allowed (310.9), second in sacks (48), fourth in yards per play (4.85) and fifth in third-down defense (34.9%).
“Just having a complete defense that you can actually go out there and actually find a comfort zone to your style of play,” Lawrence said. “I think it’s wonderful and it’s the first time I ever been on a defense like this, so I’m going to cherish it.”
Last week’s "him" was Leighton Vander Esch. The minebacker had more IVs (three) than practices last week (one) because of an illness. He had 14 tackles, nine solo, the most by a Dallas defender this season. As he sat at his locker after the game, there was no color in his face, except for the blood that trickled down from his lower lip.
“He was just on it, and you can tell at the end when somebody has totally emptied their tank. And that was Leighton in this game,” defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said. “There's blood coming off the lip. He's gassed and, just, you know one of those games where you are like, 'I gave everything I had.'”
Quinn can go from position group to position group to find key contributions from those not named Parsons, Lawrence and Diggs. Armstrong has a career-high eight sacks. Safety Donovan Wilson has four sacks and is second on the team in tackles behind Vander Esch. Rookie DaRon Bland has three interceptions and has played well in the nickel spot after taking over for an injured Lewis. Rookie defensive end Sam Williams leads the Cowboys with three fumble recoveries and has three sacks.
Jayron Kearse, Dante Fowler Jr., Israel Mukuamu, Carlos Watkins, Anthony Barr, Damone Clark, Johnathan Hankins and Quinton Bohanna have all had moments of brilliance.
“That is one of the fun parts about our defense,” Quinn said.
And it’s one of the nightmares for opposing offenses.
“I feel like that just adds a degree of difficulty for anybody that has to go against us,” Odighizuwa said, “because they have a little bit more game planning to do, a little bit more film to watch, just a little bit more people to be mindful of on our defense.”
Wilson’s sack in Week 13 against the Indianapolis Colts was a perfect example. He was lined up over an interior offensive lineman with Lawrence and Armstrong standing up to his right. When the ball was snapped, the guard and tackle moved to their left to block the pass-rushers. So did the running back, giving Wilson a free shot for a sack of Matt Ryan.
“That’s what having five 'hims' do,” Wilson said. “If you have five 'hims' in the front, somebody is going to come free. That’s all my teammates.”
Wilson’s four sacks are tied for the most in the league by a defensive back. With one more sack, it would be the most by a Cowboys defensive back since Bill Bates had five in 1984.
Wilson asked Parsons to come up with an animal nickname for him.
“I told him he’s a jaguar because he fly around, he can jump, he does everything, he goes in for sacks, he goes for picks,” Parsons said. “I mean, he’s not afraid to go into that deep water and get himself an alligator, you know what I’m saying? Don-O, man, he’s just a dog, and I respect him so much because he’s one of the most quietest people, but he works so hard at what he do and he’s been nothing but a great teammate.”
Quinn’s defense is now getting stretched. Lewis and Anthony Brown (Achilles) are out for the season. Hankins is out until the playoffs with a pectoral strain. While Bland has filled in nicely for Lewis, Kelvin Joseph remains mostly untested filling in for Brown. The Cowboys added a big body to the practice squad with Anthony Rush after Hankins’ injury.
Quinn does not pare down his system, but he makes sure the new players are comfortable.
“We really try to raise the floor and say, 'Hey this is the standard,’” Quinn said.
The standard is everybody is "him."
“That speaks to the unselfish nature of the group, and it speaks to the entire crew and how deep and how we roll together,” Quinn said. “Knowing that it may be somebody different next week to be counted upon in certain roles, and I thought that was a pretty accurate description by [Armstrong]. They all can be that."