The Dallas Cowboys have yet to allow 20 points in a game this season, making this season-opening stretch the first time since 1973 and sixth time in franchise history that they have held their first four opponents to 19 points or fewer. Dallas has only given up four touchdowns in its first four games of 2022, joining the 1970 and 1972 Cowboys defenses as the only three units in franchise history to give up no more than four total touchdowns in the first four games of the season.
"You want your defense to be the thermostat because the thermostat regulates the game," Dallas Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy said on Tuesday. "They are clearly the thermostat for us, make no bones about it. They're going to keep us in striking distance because of just the way they're playing. … They are definitely our thermostat."
Dallas' points allowed total has decreased each week: 19 points allowed in Week 1 against the Buccaneers, 17 in Week 2 against the Bengals, 16 in Week 3 at the Giants, and 10 allowed in Week 4 against the Commanders.
"They're the reason we're winning, plain and simple," Cooper Rush, the first Cowboys quarterback in team history to win his first four career starts, said after the team's win against the Commanders on Sunday. "Allowing 10 points in the NFL is pretty impressive. They [Washington] had really good field position all day, and our defense just kept the ball out of the end zone and kept them off the field. As an offense, knowing they have our back like that, it's huge. … They walk the walk."
The path the Cowboys defense is walking on was last traveled by the Dallas "Doomsday" Defense that helped lead the team to two championships and five Super Bowl trips in the 1970s. Those units were loaded with talent like Hall of Famers like defensive tackle Bob Lilly and defensive backs Mel Renfro and Herb Adderley plus five-time All-Pro linebacker Chuck Howley, the first defensive player to be named Super Bowl MVP.
Today's Cowboys haven't advanced to the NFC Championship Game since the 1995 season, before their 2021 First-Team All-Pro selections linebacker Micah Parsons and cornerback Trevon Diggs were born. However, Dallas does have a defensive mind on its staff who knows what elite, championship defenses are supposed to look like: defensive coordinator Dan Quinn. He served in the same capacity for the 2013 and 2014 Seattle Seahawks, helping lead the "Legion of Boom" defense, headlined by linebackers Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright, cornerback Richard Sherman and safeties Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor.
In 2013, they led the league in fewest points (14.4) and yards allowed (273.6) as well as having most takeaways (39). Those Seahawks won the Super Bowl in dominating fashion, 43-8 against 2013 NFL MVP Peyton Manning, who had set the NFL's all-time, single-season passing yards (5,477) and passing touchdowns (55) records. The following year, they once again were the league leaders in total defense (267.1 yards allowed per game) and scoring defense (15.9). They won the NFC Championship again, limiting Aaron Rodgers' Green Bay Packers to 22 points despite their own quarterback, Russell Wilson, throwing four interceptions. The Seahawks came up just short of a repeat, falling 28-24 against the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl when Wilson threw an interception on the 1 with 26 seconds left to play.
Having that championship pedigree at defensive coordinator was something Cowboys owner Jerry Jones valued so highly, he almost fractured his own coaching staff. He insinuated McCarthy was on the hot seat after their Wild Card round playoff loss against the San Francisco 49ers last season while rumors flew after Jones talked about the idea of Quinn becoming the next Cowboys head coach during the offseason. Long story short, Jones did what he could to keep Quinn around as he interviewed with other teams about head coaching vacancies.
"I did something about that," Jones said, via the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "I did something about Dan in the offseason. That is why we got him today. I did something about that. I recognized he was important in the offseason. He is here. He didn't have to stay here. We are glad to have him here. We have done as good a job to have him here as you can do it."
When asked if he made Quinn the NFL's highest-paid defensive coordinator, Jones laughed, "I don't know but he got a raise."
How good is this Cowboys defense?
Quinn noted the importance of being well-rounded when asked what his criteria is for earning the respect that comes with being a strong defense.
"If you're going to be a good defense, you need to be good at all the spots," he said Monday. "That's third down, that's red zone, that's short yardage."
The 2022 Cowboys defense checks all of these boxes so far through the first quarter or so of the 17-game regular season, ranking either in the top five or 10 in the NFL in all of the critical metrics Quinn identified and more.
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Cowboys defense by the numbers
Opp Total YPG
QB Pressure Pct
Opp 3rd Down Pct
Opp Red Zone TD Pct
Another mark of a great defense, Quinn said, is consistent improvement in all areas as well as passing the eye tests with moments that make someone say "whoa!"
"There's usually a moment or two in those first 10 or 12 games that you answer the challenge, you deliver on it, something that makes you say 'whoa'" Quinn said. "You don't know what game it's going to be, but it's a performance that says 'this is what this group is capable of.' Then, you see it stay consistent throughout. The best teams get better."
However, Quinn is still waiting on his current defense to have that jaw-dropping play or plays.
"I've had excellent and tough, but not the 'whoa' moment yet," Quin said. "It hasn't gotten to the space where I think we can get to. What I have seen is the connection and communication with one another. How hard these guys are willing to play for one another, that's when you have the chance to do some really cool things. I'm looking forward to that 'whoa, hell yeah' moment."
One example of a "whoa moment" he gave from his Seattle days was four-time Pro Bowl safety Kam Chancellor's 90-yard pick-six of Carolina Panthers' quarterback Cam Newton to seal a 31-17 win in the 2014 NFC Divisional Round.
"Kam Chancellor would've been part of it because of the level of hitting that he did, he had an 80- or 90-yard interception in the playoffs against Carolina and took it back all the way," Quinn said. "I remember seeing in that moment, saying 'that's it … that's what championship defense looks like.'" The way he finished through the end zone, it was such a remarkable play. There were a lot of consistent performances from that group. Him [Chancellor] or Earl Thomas would've been part of it, making plays that make you say 'normal people can't do that'. That's what separates them as different and special because they make plays that change the course of a game. They happened to do it on a regular basis."
Parsons and Diggs would be the likely players to provide that type of moment for this year's Cowboys, considering Parsons ranks as a top pass rusher, and Diggs leads the NFL in passes defended (9) to go along with interceptions in each of the last two games.
Micah Parsons: 2022 statistics
Even though Diggs led the NFL in interceptions last season with 11, three away from the NFL's single-season record of 14, he also allowed the most passing yards in coverage last season (1,016) according to Pro Football Focus. The Cowboys have seen noted improvement from their third-year corner, most notably after he knocked away all three passes that came his way last week against Washington while nabbing an interception.
"I think he's playing very well, I thought he was huge in our last game with the two big fourth down stops," McCarthy said. "I think it's like anything in this league, once there's video on you, people know your tendencies. You need to know your tendencies, know what you've put on film and have a higher understanding and expectation of how people are going to attack you. I think he's definitely making that progress. He's super instinctive and smart. His anticipation skills are top notch, I think he's been outstanding."
Up next: Facing defending Super Bowl champion Rams
The Cowboys head west this week to square off against the Super Bowl Champion Rams at SoFi Stadium where they'll be tasked with the tough task of slowing down the defending NFL Offensive Player of the Year and Super Bowl MVP: Rams wide receiver Cooper Kupp.
Last season, Kupp totaled the second-most receiving yards (1,947) on the second-most catches (145) in a single season in NFL history, while also leading the NFL in touchdown receptions (16) and targets (191). Kupp's 2021 has a great case as the best single-season performance by a wide receiver, as he became one of four to win the receiving triple crown (lead the NFL in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns in the same season) in the Super Bowl era joining Steve Smith (2005), Sterling Sharpe (1992) and Jerry Rice (1990). This season, Kupp leads the NFL in targets (54), receptions (42), while ranking fifth (402) in receiving yards. His 42 catches are tied with New Orleans Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas' 42 in 2018 as the most through the first four games of a season in NFL history. Kupp only needs six catches to have the most by a player through the first five games of a season.
"Ooh man," Quinn sighed when asked how to contain Kupp. "If there was a key, not many people have unlocked that door. It's him, but it's also [quarterback] Matthew [Stafford] as well. Getting them into plays, they motion and check … we'll have our work cut out for us from a disguise standpoint. They can feel like one thing and then play something different. His [Kupp's] ability to run option and choice routes where he can break off of leverage or use his quickness is just remarkable. Their connection, you can feel how tight they are … That's one of the things that stands out.
One thing the Cowboys could do to slow down Kupp is to limit the time Stafford has to get his go-to guy the football. Stafford was sacked seven times on "Monday Night Football" by the San Francisco 49ers, tied for the second-most sacks he has taken in a game during his 14-year career. Monday's 24-9 loss also marked the second time this season he was sacked seven times, which also occurred during the Rams' season-opening loss against the Buffalo Bills. His 16 sacks taken this season are tied for the third-most in the NFL.
As a result, the Rams have the worst pass-blocking grade in the NFL according to PFF (49.9). Parsons, DeMarcus Lawrence, and the rest of the Cowboys defense have earned the second-highest pass-rushing grade in the NFL, per PFF (81.1). Los Angeles has lost three starters from last year's championship offensive line, one due to retirement (left tackle Andrew Whitworth) and two due to injury (center Brian Allen and left guard David Edwards). However, those departures haven't changed Dallas' approach to Sunday's game.
"The opportunity for us doesn't change, it's about us running our scheme and plays right and getting the job done," Lawrence said Thursday. "It doesn't matter who we line up against. We feel like the ones who can stop our defense is us. Once we hone in on our details and communicate as a group, we'll be OK."
On Sunday, the Cowboys will not be lining up against the Rams' No. 2 or No. 3 wide receivers from last season: Odell Beckham Jr. and Van Jefferson. Beckham Jr. remains a free agent while working his way back from a torn ACL in the Super Bowl, and Jefferson is on injured reserve, working his way back from offseason knee surgery. Their absence has dramatically altered Stafford's production when throwing to players not named Kupp in his second season as the Rams quarterback.
Matthew Stafford last 2 seasons: Non-Cooper Kupp targets
Knowing how heavily dependent the Rams passing game is on Kupp places an even bigger premium on the Cowboys needing to limit his ability to get open, something they may choose to do by having Diggs shadow him all around the field.
"Yeah, he [Kupp] lines up in a bunch of different spots, we're certainly not going to give away the game plan today, you'll have to wait a little bit until then," Quinn said. "At the end of it, he [Kupp] does deserve the attention. He's that kind of player, makes those kind of plays, and we'll have to do a really good job on our disguises to make sure they don't get all the information before the ball is snapped and some after."
After facing off against the NFL's most productive wide receiver, Quinn and his defense will find out exactly how good they can be.