One week ago, the Dallas Cowboys were desperately seeking a win while welcoming back star defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence to aid them in taking down the New Orleans Saints in Week 13, and that's exactly what he did. Despite having not played a snap since Week 1, Lawrence showed zero signs of rust and impacted the game from the outset and throughout. Now, as Dallas readies to visit the Washington Football Team, it is hoping for equal or greater impact from Randy Gregory and Neville Gallimore.
On Saturday, the Cowboys activated both defensive linemen from injured reserve to the active roster.
"We're getting a lot of great players back off the designated to return list," team exec Stephen Jones told 105.3FM the Fan on Monday. "... This week we should get back, barring a surprise, certainly Randy Gregory and [Neville] Gallimore. So, we're getting our guys back. We just got to continue to work at this, and hopefully these guys will start to play well and play fast together."
So, there you have it.
The Cowboys get the defensive band back together on Sunday, and for the first time in 2021. For while Lawrence hadn't played since Week 1, Gallimore hasn't played a down all season after he suffered a severely hyperextended elbow in preseason play. In all, Gregory has been on the field with Lawrence only once this season (the opener) and neither have taken the field with Gallimore in 2021, evidence as to just how ravaged the Cowboys defense has been by injury along with how impressive it is to see them ranked in the top five in the league in several categories -- despite such adversity.
The latter is a testament to breakout seasons by players like rookie phenom Micah Parsons and interception-machine Trevon Diggs, but also to Dan Quinn, who has managed to make it all succeed in only his first year of inheriting what was one of the worst defenses in franchise history last season.
He's already getting images of sugarplums dancing in his head as he thinks about his defense finally being healthy, and at the perfect time, as the Cowboys try to mount momentum in December they hope can carry them through January and into February.
"It does make me think about the whole crew and where we were [in] our third block of the season," Quinn said on Monday. "There's excitement with that. And I think we've had 33 defensive players who have had meaningful snaps so far. If you had told me that back on Sept. 1, that we would play 33 guys, I might have said, 'Oh sh-t.'
"Now that it's happened, I was more like, 'Oh, shit, that's pretty cool.' There is some cool trust built and some confidence that happens when sometimes what you think might be the worst thing, losing guys for an extended time, winds up being the best thing because now we've got a big crew that is ready to roll in hard for this block of the regular season."
It's a valid point made by Quinn, the emergence of safety Jayron Kearse as a playmaker in the absence of an injured Donovan Wilson, as one example. And there's another, bigger one, that has seen one player in particular take the NFL by storm with his added opportunities.
"Maybe we don't have that moment where we put Micah into some different spots," said Quinn. "Now that we have that part of his game, it does allow the package to extend more. I'll certainly be looking forward to getting Randy and Micah and Law all together. I think if you had told me the three of those would have been together on the field for only 28 snaps heading into whatever it is, Week 13 or 14, that's not going to go good.
"But at the end of it, having guys play multiple roles and doing different things, I think that only adds value to what you're doing. We'll continue to add to the package with those guys."
As an important aside, they'll also see the return of defensive lineman Trysten Hill, who served a reduced one-game suspension in Week 13 for a post-game altercation that occurred the week prior. Hill came on strong in his late-season return from the team's PUP (physically unable to perform) list, where he began the season after suffering a torn ACL in 2020.
Sitting at 8-4 on the season and in first place in the NFC East with the No. 1 seed in the conference still in reach, the Cowboys defensive unit went from having depth concerns prior to the season to welcoming back star players to tandem with backups who have often proven themselves capable of being starters themselves. It's a potent concoction being mixed in Dallas following a forgettable November, and uniting Parsons with Lawrence, Gallimore and Gregory (who was a terror himself prior to suffering a calf strain) as early as this Sunday paints a picture no opposing quarterback wants to think about.
But, again, it's all about the latter two staying on track these next few days.
"[Gallimore and Gregory have] had a great couple of weeks," Jones added. "They've got to go out there and they'll take another step this week with full practices. Unless there is a setback, which we certainly don't expect. We're preparing them to play in the game, but they got to certainly continue to progress, which they have every step of the way.
"But they've got to finish the full body of work, which is the full preparation for the game against the Washington Football Team."