On paper, Sunday afternoon's game between the Washington Commanders and the host Dallas Cowboys should be another statement game for the Dallas pass-rushing tandem of linebacker Micah Parsons and defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence. Parsons' four sacks (two in each of first two games) are tied for the second most in the NFL while his quarterback pressures (19) are the most in the NFL, and Lawrence's three sacks are tied for the eighth-most in the NFL, all of them coming on Monday Night Football against the New York Giants in Week 3.
Against the Philadelphia Eagles last week, Washington Commanders quarterback Carson Wentz went 25-for-43 passing with 211 yards, one fumble and a career-high nine sacks taken in a 24-8 defeat. Eagles defensive end Brandon Graham earned NFC Defensive Player of the Week honors for the standout effort against Wentz's Commanders with 2 1/2 sacks and a forced fumble.
However, Dallas Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy made clear on Thursday that he isn't assuming any kind of automatic pass-rush success against Washington come Sunday afternoon.
"You have to watch yourself in division games, I was watching the game on TV, I saw the [first half] score of 24-0, and it didn't feel that way to me watching it live," Dallas Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy said. "Definitely didn't look that way on the coaches' tape. I'm a big believer in guarding against false confidence. I'm not one to say 'hey, they gave up nine [sacks], we're going to get 12 [sacks]'. To me, what happened last week makes no difference on how you want to play because it's so hard and difficult to win a game week in and week out. I'm not trying to play mind games here, but you have to stick to that approach. …You can't get caught up on last week's game, every game is a new game. … We're aware of what happened [last week] and how it happened in previous games, but I'm not a huge copycat coach."
McCarthy's "mind games" are working as linebacker Micah Parsons essentially echoed McCarthy's message at his media availability on Thursday.
"I truly believe that in the NFL, people don't tend to make the same mistakes. … The name of the game is execution," Parsons said, via DallasCowboys.com. "Are we going to meet the same Commanders [that lost to the Eagles]? No. The Commanders might play us differently than they played the Eagles -- different game plans … It's a completely different game."
Even though McCarthy isn't looking for his team to rest on its laurels, the Commanders, who are currently 1-2 and in last place in the NFC East, are starting to sound a little anxious, making sure blame for last week's performance is spread evenly around their locker room.
"I'm not worried about Carson [Wentz]," Commanders head coach Ron Rivera told NBC Sports Washington. "Carson's going to bounce back. He's a very resilient young man. And I loved his press conference, accepting responsibility. And he put it on himself and he tried to make sure everybody understood that this is a team game, we're all culpable. And I don't disagree with him. We are all culpable, myself included.
"But there is a sense of urgency. There is a 'gotta have it,' a 'gotta go out and get it done' type of mentality. It was the same thing last week. We wanted it. We worked to do it, and we're going to do it every week that way. It's just sometimes, it doesn't work your way."
Wentz, who had entered Week 3 tied for the NFL lead in passing touchdowns, was sacked three more times last week against the Eagles than he had been across his first two games combined.
|Wentz||Weeks 1-2||Week 3 vs PHI|
Those 15 sacks taken through the first three weeks were tied for the most in the NFL through the first weeks with Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow, who seems to be perpetually under siege every time he drops back to pass. It's understandable for McCarthy to attempt to play the classic coach's mind games of "each opponent is unique and is a tough matchup every game," but the numbers don't lie: The Cowboys have the early-season crown as the NFL's top pass rush (13 sacks) while Washington's offensive line is fighting for their lives when Wentz drops back to pass.
|WAS Offense||DAL Defense|
A good portion of the early-season success can be attributed to the Cowboys being in their second season of defensive coordinator Dan Quinn's defense after he joined their staff in 2021 following six seasons as the Atlanta Falcons head coach, which included being an overtime away from winning the Super Bowl.
"It is an early sample size, but I do feel like we started faster because of the connection of the players earlier, knowing we could put people in different roles," Quinn said on Tuesday. "Last year, it was 'let's experiment, let's try that and see what that could look like' to now it's 'you're going to go here, you're going to go here and this is what we're going to do.' The assistant coaches and the players have really found their rhythm in doing that. It may change week to week. …That's the fun part of playing each team. I know it's a small sample size, we have a lot to improve on, but I am pleased with the gains we are starting to make with running stunts and being involved in our pressure packages."
To Quinn's point, things have fluctuated weekly as the two-time Pro Bowl defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence got to New Giants quarterback Daniel Jones three times, tying his single-game career high in sacks, after not recording any in the first two games of the season. There's plenty of reasons why Lawrence could stay hot this week since he has a sack in four consecutive games against Washington.
|Lawrence||Weeks 1 and 2||Week 3 (at NYG)|
* Tied a career high
"I was really pleased with D-Law. People thought he was a forgotten man around here, but I promise you inside this building he is not forgotten," Quinn said. "That was such a cool thing for him to go and speak to the versatility of the group. When you're trying to play good defense, it's not just one thing you're after. … Having different guys step up with different roles is what I love about this group: They're unselfish and love to battle with one another. I'm going to keep pushing us hard to see our standard of where we can get since we have a lot of room to grow."
Even when Lawrence wasn't putting up noticeable numbers, Quinn went out of his way to note Lawrence's presence both on and off the field is invaluable no matter what the box score says.
"There's a lot, and I think sometimes it doesn't show up on the stat sheet because I promise you he [Lawrence] wasn't forgotten here," Quinn said. "I know he's not forgotten in the other buildings of the people we are playing. There's also a standard for a 30-year-old defensive end that is about competing and toughness, and performing. DeMarcus does that, he has the edge, a really tough-minded spirit about him. That can be contagious to other guys to keep rising to that standard with his practice habits and the way he goes about, sometimes just as an encouraging voice, sometimes as a stern voice. To me, there are the things that show up on the stat sheet and then the things that are harder to show up on the stat sheet, but they are super important to us as coaches is that leading and showing a young player this is how we do things. He has a great command of how to play the position, a great command of what it takes, and it's a great way for him to pay it forward for the ones that show him the way. ... He is tough and he is going to bring it every single time. Toughness is a talent too and he has that in a large amount. Other people feed off that too."
Like Lawrence, Dallas' defense also feeds off Parsons' energy regardless of his individual numbers. Seeing Parsons have a zero in the sacks column in Week 3, after getting four in the first two games, may be puzzling on the surface, but between battling a stomach virus leading up to the Cowboys contest with the Giants, and New York game-planning to prevent him from wrecking their offense, no one in the Cowboys organization is pressing the panic button.
"I just want to leave it all out there on the field because when I step on the field, I'm here to play, I'm here to be great, I'm here to give people what they want to see and give it everything I got," Cowboys linebacker Micah Parsons said on Monday. "I want to die out there on the field. Sickness doesn't phase me. I could have a stomach virus, pooping my pants and I would still want to play. That's just me. If I'm out there, I'm fully capable and I just want to just go."
Parsons quickly clarified that no bodily functions occurred out on the field at MetLife Stadium last Monday.
"I wasn't pooping myself this week. I live to play the game, that's what I live for. I don't really have much else that gets me up to this level of excitement and thrill I get from playing football. I just want to take advantage of my once-a-week opportunity. Me at 60 percent is better than most people's 100 percent."
Fighting through playing at his 60 percent earned Parsons even more credibility with his coaching staff for simply taking the field last Monday.
"You all know the competitor that he [Parsons] is, so it would be hard to hold him out of just about anything," Quinn said. "He's always ready to go, sometimes you have to tell him to settle down going into practice. He wasn't limited but coming off a sickness can affect your weight and hydration, but he did a really good job pushing himself to get ready to play, so we all appreciate that."
Parsons acting as a decoy of sorts against the Giants highlighted the Cowboys' whack-a-mole-like ability to continue to pressure opposing quarterbacks whether or not that pressure is coming from the usual suspects, in large part thanks to the looming shadow Parsons casts when he lines up for each play.
"Not just for him [Lawrence], but [Micah's presence helps] everybody," Quinn said. "When you have that, where one person is getting chipped, you'll have some moments for someone else. There will be some games where you get extra attention and some where you may not. It's our job within the game as coaches to look at that and figure it out to see what goes. Sometimes the balance of the game changes."
This week, Parsons' health has changed for the better, making him much more up to the task of getting back in the box score against Washington, something his teammates have been teasing him about throughout the week.
"Physically, this is the best I've felt since college," Parsons said Thursday, via The Athletic, noting the flu he dealt with last week is gone. "I feel great. …That's the expectation [getting a sack each week], that's the high expectation. I'm just ready to get on to the next one. I'm not even thinking about [Monday] no more."
The balance of where Parsons has lined up this season has changed in comparison to his Defensive Rookie of the Year season in 2021, thanks to his rapid development as pass rusher after being drafted as an inside linebacker out of Penn State as the 12th overall pick. The Cowboys positioned him in the traditional linebacker spot over half the time (55.2% of his snaps) last season, but they seem to have acknowledged how valuable his ability to fluster opposing quarterbacks is since he has spent about three-fourths of his snaps in his second season as a traditional edge rusher (74.7% of his snaps).
|Parsons' snap alignment percentage||2021||2022|
"It is fun, we just want to make sure we can go attack each week because this week might be different than how we did it in Week 1 or Week 2, having different guys to do that with is fun," Quinn said. "I know Micah gets a lot of 'where is he going to play and what is he going to do', but I would recommend to everybody to enjoy how he plays, not where he plays. He's not going to be the same each week, but it's more fun to watch how we attack each game than how we deploy guys because I don't even know where that's going to be yet, but I have time since the game isn't until the weekend."
Another factor in Parsons' dramatic snap alignment shift this season is the offseason pick up of four-time Pro Bowl inside linebacker Anthony Barr, a former top 10 overall draft pick (the ninth player taken in the 2014 NFL Draft) who spent his first eight seasons with the Minnesota Vikings. The Cowboys were able to sign the 30-year-old to a one-year, $2 million deal in early August after a torn pectoral muscle (2020) and knee injuries (2021) caused Barr to miss a combined 21 games across the last two seasons. When healthy, Quinn saw a player who could take his defense to another level.
"I had been bothering just about everyone in the organization -- Mike [McCarthy], Will [McClay], Stephen [Jones] for Anthony [Barr] -- for a long time," Quinn said. "Pre-draft, post-draft, I definitely had a plan. He [Barr] has exceeded. … I knew he had physical traits to play, but what I didn't know was that this was like another coach on the field: his instincts, his awareness, his way to play. Anthony brings toughness in a different way with his knowledge in the movements, knowing where to go, and getting someone else lined up. Having that type of size [6-5, 255 pounds] we thought would add another rush element to say 'can a [running] back block him [Parsons] or is that a matchup we can win with?' so that's how we tried to pull it. It didn't necessarily involve more end or more linebacker [for Parsons], it just involved more matchups."
Quinn having more alignments to manipulate throughout his defensive game plan likely means one thing for opposing quarterbacks, Wentz specifically this week: Parsons, Lawrence and the Cowboys pass-rush is coming from all angles. Whichever quarterback faces the Dallas defense will need to possess the ability to think and throw fast. Otherwise, that quarterback will probably spend a lot of time on the ground and will likely walk away from matchups with the Cowboys with quite a few aches and pains.