One of the fiercest rivalries in the NFL will be renewed in week 3n into week 3 when the 2-0 New York Giants play host to the 1-1 Dallas Cowboys in Monday Night Football.
This match looked like it was going to be tough and a likely setback for the Giants when the schedule was released. So the Cowboys traded wide receiver Amari Cooper, lost several major offensive players, and their attack stumbled out the gate. However, there is more to the Cowboys than a powerful attack. Last year they also fielded the seventh scoring defense in the standings, powered by linebacker Micah Parsons, the Defensive Rookie of the Year, and cornerback Trevon Diggs, who led the NFL in interceptions last season with 11.
The Giants were able to do enough on offense to allow them to win their first two games, but the sledding was tough. What can the Giants expect from the Cowboys defense in 2022?
Micah Parsons is a bad man
Much of the Cowboys season so far has been very positive Not went according to plan. They couldn’t have planned to lose quarterback Dak Prescott, left tackle Tyron Smith and wide receiver Michael Gallup to start their season.
But one thing that exceeded expectations, if anything, was the play of second-year linebacker Micah Parsons. Parsons is the first favorite to win defender of the year, and for good reason. Parsons plays a double role in the Dallas defense, lining up both as a defender on the front pass and as an off-ball linebacker. He is, by far, the NFL’s most dangerous pass rusher at the moment, leading the NFL in sacks (4.0), QB hits (7), total pressures (13) and tackles for a defeat (4) over two Games.
But while he only has a half-sack lead over Khalil Mack, Parsons leads ESPN’s 13-point Pass Rush Win Rate metric with an absurd 59% win rate.
[ESPN’s Pass Rush Win Rate measures the percentage of pass rushes in which the defender beats his blocker in 2.5 seconds or less.]
While the 59 percent win rate will certainly regress over the course of an entire season, it’s still 16 points ahead of Myles Garrett (43 percent win rate). Garrett led the NFL last year with a 28 percent win rate in the season.
Parsons has a dangerous combination of traits as a pass rusher. He has tremendously explosive lower body, elite speed, the ability to convert that speed into power, solid technique and great flexibility. All of this is combined in a compact frame that doesn’t have a lot of surface to exploit for ascenders. Parsons is also very competitive and can be relentless in pursuit of him.
As previously mentioned, Parsons wears more Dallas defense hats and is at least proficient in every role he is asked to play. He has so far not been targeted in cover, nor has he yielded a missed tackle (for Pro Football Reference).
The Cincinnati Bengals struggled to find an answer for Parsons and he ruined their plans for much of the day. We’ll likely see the Giants lean on the heavy packs they used against the Panthers’ Okie and Tite fronts in the fourth quarter.
Parsons can be moved to the Cowboys front and will present a tough bout for rookie Evan Neal or the internal offensive linemen of the Giants should he be pushed into an internal gap. Using groupings of 21 or 12 people would give the Giants another potential blocker for Parsons chips. Similarly, we might see the Giants rely more on reading options than the first two games to try and slow down the Dallas defense.
Can the Giants rely on the running game?
Speaking of the Giants leaning into the running game and reading options, Dallas has a good defense beyond just Parsons. They are built for speed and aggression at all levels of defense.
Dan Quinn has adapted his philosophy from his time as Seattle Seahawks’ defensive coordinator and now runs primarily a Cover 1 defense. Cornerbacks Trevon Diggs and Anthony Brown have thrived on covering the aggressive man. They also mostly run a 3-3-5 defense, with their 4-2-5 package as a complement.
While Parsons is the best passing runner in the NFL, only the Cowboys (“solo”) rank fifth in ESPN’s team’s quick passing win rate. On the other hand, they rank 27th in the Run Stop Win Rate at 26%. While Dallas features a massive (6-foot-4, 360-pound) nose Quinton Bohanna in the middle of their defense, the rest of their defensive line is relatively underpowered but explosively athletic.
DeMarcus Lawrence, Dorance Armstrong, and Dante Fowler Jr. are all around 6-3 and 260 lbs. Their other primary defensive tackles (Osa Odighizuwa, Trysten Hill, and Neville Gallimore) are all explosive penetrators rather than block eaters. Odighizuwa is 6-2, 280 lbs, but he plays with great leverage and explosiveness. Gallimore and Hill are also athletic, but a little bigger at (approximately) 6-3, 305 pounds each.
Their linebackers are just a little smaller than their side defenders.
As you might expect, the Cowboys gave their best when defending racing in the area. Their speed and ability to shoot in empty spaces allows them to blast the area in the backfield or set them aside. On the other hand, they struggle to defend the tracks using man gap blocking schemes or by pulling linesmen. Their smaller linemen struggle to keep up with larger blockers and allow their linebackers to flow towards the ball.
In fact, this year the Giants have given their best using the concepts of human gap, power and traction. These blocking patterns, combined with the Giants’ use of pre-sprint motion, allow them to slow down defenses and create a numerical advantage on the playing side of the ball.
The Panthers frustrated the Giants’ running game by lining up in the TITE fronts, making it difficult for the Giants to get double teams that made their running game work well in week 1. Mike Kafka countered by using heavier staff packages, encouraging the Panthers a uses multiple four-man fronts, opening them to double teams.
We’ll see if the Cowboys try to lean on the TITE fronts and rely on their athletic linebackers if the Giants use heavy packs.
Will the Dallas defense receive offensive support?
The Cowboys defense is, for the most part, undersized and athletic. This isn’t the ideal way to build a defense if you’re expecting to trade shots against a team that has their entire playbook open. However, it’s a fantastic way to build a defense if you’re anticipating an attack that is racking up points and pressing the opponent’s attack.
Last year Dallas fielded the best scoring bout in the NFL, averaging 31.2 points per game. That kind of offensive exit puts a strain on the opposing team’s attack to keep up, often forcing them to lean into passing play. This opens them up to the Cowboys’ athletic passing runners and creates opportunities for takeaway food.
So far the Dallas offense has struggled: lose the franchise quarterback, start the left tackle and catcher number two will. Cooper Rush played acceptably against the Bengals, but the Cowboys still have only 23 points from two games. Kellen Moore shouldn’t be underestimated as an offensive coach, but we should expect Wink Martindale to throw the kitchen sink at Rush to prevent Dallas’ attack from finding a rhythm.
The Giants are 2-0, but those have both been far wins and the offense has largely gibbered. One of the concerns regarding the Giants attack is whether they could mount enough offensive power to keep up in a shootout. New York’s best bet to thwart the Dallas defense is if they are able to stick to their game plan and continue to lean on Saquon Barkley. The Giants have questions about the wide receiver and concerns about pass protection. And while Daniel Jones has a 70% season completion rate, he has so far taken eight layoffs and pitched several reckless passes. Allowing Jones to continue running the games could be key to preventing Parsons and the company from taking control of this game.