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FRISCO, Texas --  NFC Defensive Player of the Month and Cowboys All-Pro linebacker Micah Parsons has never shied away from pronouncing Dallas' defensive dominance. He declared that the 2023 Cowboys' unit could reach a tier of greatness occupied by the Seattle Seahawks "Legion of Boom" defenses and Pro Football Hall of Famer Ray Lewis' Baltimore Ravens defenses of the early 2000's. 

Through two games, it looked that way. The Cowboys had led the league in almost every key defensive metric: points allowed (10), takeaways (seven), total yards per game allowed (193.0), yards per play allowed (3.5), red zone touchdown percentage allowed (zero percent), sacks (10, tied with the Commanders), quarterback pressure rate (63.6%) and passer rating allowed (34.2). 

Then everything came crashing down in the team's 28-16 upset loss as 11-point road favorites in Week 3 at the Arizona Cardinals. Dallas allowed the Joshua Dobbs-led attack to rack up points on six of nine drives. If you factor in that the ninth drive concluded with kneel downs, it was actually six of eight. 

Even more egregious was what occurred on the ground: the Cardinals totaled 222 rushing yards, with two of their three touchdowns coming on the ground via a 45-yard sprint by wide receiver Rondale Moore and a five-yard plunge by running back James Conner. Conner finished the game with 98 yards on the ground and the score on 14 carries, averaging seven yards a pop. Quarterback Joshua Dobbs, making his fifth career start, amassed 55 rushing yards on six carries -- the first of which being a 44-yard scramble -- in addition to 189 passing yards on 17 of 21 passing. Sunday marked his first career victory as a starting quarterback. 

The 180 rushing yards the Cowboys allowed in the first half were the most allowed by any team in a first half this season, and the most the Cowboys have allowed in a first half since at least 1991. Dallas' first-half run defense was the worst since the Lions gave up 240 rushing yards to the Panthers in the first half of a 37-23 loss in Week 16 last season.

"We were beating ourselves," Parsons said Wednesday. "Obviously the penalties [four of them] and people coming out of their gaps, and stuff like that [were a factor], but everything's fixed, it's getting fixed and we're looking forward to proving it this week." 

Cowboys defense this season


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As Parsons noted, there may have been issues with technique and fundamentals, but what stands out the most to defensive coordinator Dan Quinn wasn't problems in those areas. It involved his unit's in-your-face attitude, which he said wasn't present Sunday.

"Saw a lot yesterday that upset me, and hurt as well," Quinn said on Monday. "But I think one of the things that probably felt like five fingers across the face was: 'Man, you guys didn't look like your defense.' The reason it probably hit me was that I felt that was right. We didn't play to the standards that we've seen and what our excellence looks like. I think we've seen that over the last couple of weeks.

"So, when it doesn't happen, you certainly feel [frustrated] about it. But I do know this about our guys, and I really know them well: this is a warrior crew. I certainly know that we'll grow from this. And I'm looking forward to seeing that. … We didn't play with that relentless energy. We didn't play how we were capable of. It was not up to the standard we've set for ourselves."

Given that Trevon Diggs' season-ending ACL injury occurred just three days before their defensive collapse, the vibes were not immaculate on Sunday in Arizona. 

"We're all humans, and we get affected by things, some people more than others ... it's just tough. The energy was off [last Sunday]," Parsons said. "We didn't play like we did the first two weeks, so it's something that we're looking forward to getting back to for sure. … It's super frustrating, especially when you look at the tape. When you strive for perfection and you're striving and striving and you're pushing forward and you say you want to be this and have this identity, … anyone can say it, but you have to go out there and do it. So when you don't do it, and you don't play up to the standard, it's not like who you want to be. You got to look yourself in the mirror and say, 'I got to be better in this phase. I got to do this in this phase.' And you got to go out there and change. If we don't change then we're never going to grow. 

"But if you look at the face of reality and say, 'Hey, this is who I am right now, this is who I want to be,' and I go out there and fix it, then you become a better person, player and man. So that's what we got to be. … The positives of failure is you always learn. You never want to take a double-L. You never want to lose and not learn. You always want to lose and learn and fix your mistakes."

The mistakes piled up quickly in the first half, with the defense surrendering four runs that went for 20-plus yards. All of them involved runs to the left during which Cowboys defenders struggled to free themselves from blocks. But more so than anything, Quinn said, the players lacked energy.

"We had six missed tackles in the game, so it wasn't super sloppy in that sense. We just didn't play with that relentless energy that we have grown to know and appreciate about our group. When you go through a difficult performance, you do grow from them. I would like to say you learn a shit ton from 40-0 [the score of their Week 1 win against the Giants], but that's not the truth. You have to have some of the adversity go your way and come back out the end showing what you're capable of. You don't like it to happen as a coach for sure, but I also know it's part of it. I know these guys, this is a warrior crew. These guys will respond like crazy. That part I'm very much looking forward to."

As for which play Parsons would like back, it was the tone-setting first monster run of the day from Dobbs.

"Definitely the read option. I feel like usually tendencies, the quarterback just gives it out on the first read option. When he pulled it and ran for that long run, that's probably for me where I'm like, 'Man, I know I'm a player, but I try to go out there and make a play. I'm just going to go out there and just play my game and let the plays come to me because that's what it is'."

On a day full of mistakes, Quinn declared that only three Cowboys defenders played well: defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence, cornerback DaRon Bland and safety Malik Hooker. Hooker, however, appeared to be to blame for the biggest letdown on a coverage bust in the fourth quarter. Dallas shut out Arizona in the third quarter, which allowed it to get within 21-16 thanks to two field goals by rookie kicker Brandon Aubrey. Following Aubrey's final field goal, the Cardinals' first play from scrimmage went for 69 yards. A coverage lapse allowed Cardinals third-round rookie Michael Wilson to spring WIDE OPEN over the middle of the field with no one in his zip code. A few plays later, the Cardinals were in the end zone and up 28-16. Hooker was the closest defender, on the Wilson catch, but Quinn was adamant that play wasn't his fault.

"That was not his play. He gave us a chance to go make a stop. It was actually quite a good play by him. That's one we have done correctly many times," Quinn said. "You haven't seen us lose a coverage or lose one over the last few years, I don't think. So, to have that happen, that was a bummer for us."

Fellow safety Jayron Kearse had a simple solution to cleaning up a breakdown like that: talk more. 

"You meet more," Kearse said Wednesday when asked how preparation can change during the week after allowing a coverage bust like that. "You talk more with the guys that is going to have those types of communication responsibilities with each other. We have a group that has been together for some time now. We understand that was a small fix, and it's something where we can get in there and get that ironed out. I believe going further on down the line, even without Trevon, we won't see much of that."

As Dallas flips the page to Week 4 and focuses on the visiting New England Patriots, whose 17.3 points per game are the seventh-fewest in the NFL, Quinn's group is excited to put the lessons it learned from Week 3 into action this upcoming Sunday. 

"I'd love to say all the lessons are the same, wins and losses, but I think we all know that's not the case," Quinn said. "When you have these moments like this, to teach from and grow from, you better use it, otherwise the pain of yesterday wasn't worth shit. You might as well make it count and say, 'Let's get the lessons learned and get back to playing like we like to play.' For us, I want to make sure every time you watch us play, you see how we get it on. It's not specific to red zone or short yardage or goal line. I would hope you see our speed, our hitting, and the way that we run. That's what I hope you see when you watch us play again this week. That's No. 1, top of the pile for me."

While taking their lumps wasn't an enjoyable process for a proud defense like the Cowboys, it was necessary in order for them to have the proper outlook as the degree of difficulty continues to ramp up throughout the rest of 2023. 

"The coaches can only do so much," Parsons said. "They can put the scheme together, but it goes out to the players. I guarantee every person in that locker is hungry and ready to fix it because as soon as we lose, we're like 'Man, what happened? We're like 'This happened and how are we going to fix it? That's from everyone, all the leaders and even the guys just coming up. I think it kind of surprised some of the young guys because of how good we looked. I was like, 'This is the NFL, this is what happens any given Sunday. That's why you always have to come with everything you got.' I give it to all the guys, man. We want to learn, we want to get better and we want to become champions."