Week 3 couldn't have been more painful for the Dallas Cowboys defense after they surrendered 222 rushing yards, 180 in the first half, in a stunning 28-16 upset defeat at the Arizona Cardinals. Their Week 4 performance back home at AT&T Stadium wiped the stain of that disappointment off with a dominant, defensive downpour against the New England Patriots in a 38-3 victory, the most lopsided loss of Bill Belichick's career as an NFL head coach. Dallas' energy returned on defense as it forced three takeaways, two of which went for touchdowns. As far as takeaways go for the Dallas defense, when it rains it pours.
"It's all about the bounce back," Dallas Cowboys linebacker Micah Parsons said postgame on Sunday. "When things hit you in the face, it's about adversity and coming back from it. That's what true champions are better at. Anyone can come in and win games, but once you face adversity and look in a man's eyes and say 'we're going to get better.' ... adversity makes true champions."
That collective buy-in for the Cowboys entire unit to be willing to grind and not blame any specific individual for the Week 3 letdown is why they were able to come back and look like their assertive selves in Week 4, according to defensive coordinator Dan Quinn.
"Yesterday [on Sunday], that was us," Quinn said on Monday. "The energy, the hitting, the ball-hawking, flying around and creating that speed. That is us. That felt more like our style and attitude. That felt really cool to see. I said to you last week this is a group of warriors that I am certain will respond in the best way, and I saw that in a lot of instances and a lot of areas. One thing I respect about them is there was never time to point a finger at anybody else. We were all upset, myself included, but it was with ourselves, not one another. That part we took very seriously, and I was certain we were going to have a better performance.
"We didn't have a lack of confidence, we were just so bummed with how it went," Quinn continued. "I was certain we would respond the right way. I liked how practice looked, I liked getting into the game, the mindset to go. You never know how a game is going to go. To get a takeaway and a score was one of the game-changers. The energy, the hitting, the speed. I knew that part would be right. It was good to see that for sure. It gave us confidence and reassurance that every time we go that has to be the way we go with the speed and effort and finishing. That's the part that makes being part of this group so fun."
|COWBOYS DEFENSE||WEEKS 1-2||WEEK 3 AT CARDINALS||WEEK 4 VS. PATRIOTS|
Total Yards Allowed
Rush Yards Allowed
QB Pressure Rate
* Led NFL
The Cowboys' current defense joined the "Iron Curtain" Pittsburgh Steelers (1972-1974) as the only defense since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger to lead the NFL in takeaways in consecutive seasons (2021-2022), and they certainly looked like it on Sunday. Defensive end Dante Fowler Jr. strip-sacked Patriots quarterback Mac Jones, and the football rolled into the arms of linebacker Leighton Vander Esch, who returned the fumble back 11 yards for a touchdown. On the ensuing extra point attempt, holder Bryan Anger hit Cowboys lineman Chauncey Golston for a wide open two-point conversion on the fake, running the Dallas lead up to 18-3.
Two drives later in the second quarter, the Dallas defense buried the Patriots for good. New England quarterback Mac Jones got away with a cross-body throw on the first drive after the Vander Esch scoop-and-score as cornerback DaRon Bland, Trevon Diggs' replacement on the outside after his season-ending ACL injury, knocked that throw down. Jones wouldn't get so lucky on the throw back to the left side of the field where Bland was lurking. He tried again to the left sideline in an attempt to connect with receiver Kendrick Bourne, but Bland was waiting for it and seconds later he was jogging into the end zone for a pick-six.
"He got an early one across the field," Bland said postgame on Sunday. "I couldn't let him do that again. I saw the open field when I saw the ball. Nobody's catching me from here."
Just like that, the score was 28-3 with a minute remaining in the first half.
"He has the football smarts to remember a formation, remember a situation, to go do that," Quinn said. "I think that came through yesterday. … He wasn't sitting back, waiting; he was going to go attack it. That's his nature."
The Cowboys are the only team this season with multiple games involving multiple non-offensive touchdowns. There were only five such games across the NFL all of 2022.
After that sequence, all quarterback Dak Prescott had to do was take care of the football, which he did. He threw for 261 passing yards, one passing touchdown and no interceptions on 28-of-34 passing.
"Just to sit back and watch the defense do that, it's awesome," Prescott said postgame on Sunday of the defense's second-quarter avalanche. "It's awesome. It makes my job a lot easier. Trust me, I love to get out there and throw it over and over and be back and forth. But I sit back and cross my legs and wait another five, six minutes or so for them to allow me to get on offense. If they want to score, keep doing it."
Thanks to getting their swagger back on Sunday, the Dallas defense once again leads the NFL in points per game allowed (10.3), quarterback pressure rate (55.6%, no other team is above 45%) and passer rating allowed (55.2, no other team has a rating allowed under 65). They rank second in the league in total yards per game allowed (259.8), passing yards per game allowed (148.0) and rank tied for second in takeaways (10).
"There was nothing that anyone had to stand up and say," Parsons said. "We all came in saying 'that was not acceptable.' We all knew the standard and we all knew that [the performance against the Cardinals] wasn't us. We all said we were going to come out here and dominate. That's exactly what we did. The sky's the limit. It just shows when we prepare and we come into these games with our energy and who we are, we can be a dominant football team," Parsons said. "But when we come out soft and underestimate guys and don't play to our standard, anything can happen. I know we have a great chance at winning football games if we play together."
The limits of their greatness will be tested in Week 5 when they face their playoff nemesis, the 4-0 San Francisco 49ers. The Cowboys' last two seasons, both of which were 12-win campaigns, came to an end against the 49ers come playoff time. First there was the 23-17 defeat in the 2021 NFC wild-card round at AT&T Stadium. Last season, it was a 19-12 slip-up in Santa Clara, California at Levi's Stadium in the divisional round. The 2023 49ers only have one giveaway this season, tied for the fewest in the league through the first month of the season.
They also have Pro Bowl running back Christian McCaffrey rolling on a historic, MVP pace. He is the third player in NFL history with 600 or more scrimmage yards (600) and seven or more scrimmage touchdowns (seven) through his team's first four games to start a season. He is now the third member of that club along with Pro Football Hall of Famers Jim Brown (1958 and 1963) and Emmitt Smith. Smith took home the MVP in that 1993 season while Brown claimed the award in his first such season with that hot start back in 1958.
"They have a big line, two strong backs, so we thought that was one of the ways they [the Patriots] would attack for sure," Quinn said. "That has been the formula for San Francisco, you can see the effectiveness of their [4-0] start just in the run game, scoring and finishing. [Christian] McCaffrey is at the top of that list for sure. We have a lot of work cut out for us for sure. Still getting into the planning, but it's going to be a lot of fun."