One of the fiercest rivalries in the NFL will be renewed in Week 3 and Week 3 as the 2-0 New York Giants will host the 1-1 Dallas Cowboys on Monday Night Football.
This game looked like it was going to be tough and a likely loss for the Giants when the schedule was released. Then the Cowboys traded wide receiver Amari Cooper, lost several important offensive players and their offense stumbled out of the gate. However, there is more to the Cowboys than a potent offense. They also fielded the seventh-ranked scoring defense last year, powered by linebacker Micah Parsons, the Defensive Rookie of the Year, and cornerback Trevon Diggs, who led the NFL in interceptions last season with 11.
The Giants have been able to do enough on offense to allow them to win their first two games, but it’s been tough sledding. What can the Giants expect from the Cowboys’ defense in 2022?
Micah Parsons is a bad man
Much of the Cowboys’ season so far has decidedly not gone according to plan. They couldn’t have planned on losing quarterback Dak Prescott, left tackle Tyron Smith, and wide receiver Michael Gallup to start their season.
But one thing that has, if anything, exceeded expectations has been the play of second-year linebacker Micah Parsons. Parsons is the early frontrunner to win Defensive Player of the Year, and for good reason. Parsons plays double-duty in the Dallas defense, lining up as both a pass rushing edge defender and an off-ball linebacker. He is, far and away, the most dangerous pass rusher in the NFL at the moment, leading the NFL in sacks (4.0), QB hits (7), total pressures (13), and tackles for a loss (4) through two games.
But while he only has a half-sack lead over Khalil Mack, Parsons is leading ESPN’s Pass Rush Win Rate metric by 13 points with an absurd win rate of 59 percent.
[ESPN’s Pass Rush Win Rate measures the percentage of pass rushes in which the defender beats his blocker in 2.5 seconds or less.]
While that 59 percent win rate will surely regress over the course of a full season, he’s still 16 points ahead of Myles Garrett (43 percent win rate). Garrett led the NFL last year with a 28 percent win rate on the season.
Parsons has a dangerous combination of traits as a pass rusher. He has a tremendously explosive lower body, elite speed, the ability to convert that speed to power, solid technique, and great flexibility. All of that is combined into a compact frame that doesn’t present much surface area for blockers to exploit. Parsons is also very competitive and can be relentless in his pursuit.
As I mentioned above, Parsons wears multiple hats for the Dallas defense and he is at least competent in every role he’s asked to play. So far he hasn’t been targeted in coverage, nor has he surrendered a missed tackle (per Pro Football Reference).
The Cincinnati Bengals struggled to find an answer for Parsons and he wrecked their plans for much of the day. We’ll likely see the Giants lean into the heavy packages they used against the Panthers’ Okie and Tite fronts in the fourth quarter.
Parsons can be moved around the Cowboys’ front and he will present a tough matchup for rookie Evan Neal or the Giants’ interior offensive linemen should he be rushed against an interior gap. Using 21 or 12-personnel groupings would give the Giants another potential blocker to chip Parsons. Likewise, we could see the Giants rely more heavily on read-option plays than they have in the first two games to try and slow down the Dallas defense.
Can the Giants lean on the running game?
Speaking of the Giants leaning into the running game and read-option plays, Dallas has a good defense beyond just Parsons. They’re built for speed and aggression at every level of defense.
Dan Quinn has adapted his philosophy from his time as the Seattle Seahawks’ defensive coordinator and now primarily runs a Cover 1 defense. Cornerbacks Trevon Diggs and Anthony Brown have thrived in aggressive man coverage. They also primarily run a 3-3-5 defense, with their 4-2-5 package as a complement.
While Parsons is the NFL’s single best pass rusher, the Cowboys only (“only”) rank fifth in ESPN’s team pass rush win rate. On the flip side, they rank 27th in Run Stop Win Rate at 26 percent. While Dallas features massive (6-foot-4, 360-pound) nose tackle Quinton Bohanna in the middle of their defense, the rest of their defensive line is relatively undersized but explosively athletic.
DeMarcus Lawrence, Dorance Armstrong, and Dante Fowler Jr. are all around 6-3 and 260 pounds. Their other primary defensive tackles (Osa Odighizuwa, Trysten Hill, and Neville Gallimore) are all explosive penetrators as opposed to block eaters. Odighizuwa is 6-2, 280 pounds, but plays with great leverage and explosiveness. Gallimore and Hill are athletic as well, but a bit larger at (roughly) 6-3, 305 pounds apiece.
Their linebackers are only a bit smaller than their edge defenders.
As we might expect, the Cowboys have been at their best when defending zone runs. Their speed and ability to shoot gaps lets them blow zone runs up in the backfield or string them out to the sidelines. On the other hand, they struggle to defend runs using man-gap blocking schemes or pulling linemen. Their smaller linemen struggle to hold up to bigger blockers and allow their linebackers to flow to the ball.
As it so happens, the Giants have been at their best this year using man-gap, power, and pulling concepts. Those blocking schemes, combined with the Giants’ use of pre-snap motion, allow them to slow down defenses and create a numerical advantage on the play-side of the ball.
The Panthers frustrated the Giants’ running game by aligning in TITE fronts, making it difficult for the Giants to get double-teams that made their running game work well in Week 1. Mike Kafka countered by using more heavy personnel packages, encouraging the Panthers to use more four-man fronts, opening them back up to double-teams.
We’ll see if the Cowboys try to lean into TITE fronts and rely on their athletic linebackers if the Giants use heavy packages.
Will Dallas’ defense get offensive support?
The Cowboys’ defense is, for the most part, undersized and athletic. That isn’t an ideal way to build a defense if you’re expecting to trade body blows against a team that has their entire playbook open. However, it’s a fantastic way to build a defense if you’re anticipating an offense that’s putting up points and pressuring the opposing offense.
Last year, Dallas fielded the best scoring offense in the NFL, averaging 31.2 points per game. That kind of offensive output puts stress on the opposing team’s offense to keep up, often forcing them to lean into the passing game. That opens them up to the Cowboys’ athletic pass rushers and creates opportunities for takeaways.
So far the Dallas offense has struggled — losing their franchise quarterback, starting left tackle, and number two receiver will do that. Cooper Rush played acceptably against the Bengals, but the Cowboys still only have 23 points in two games. Kellen Moore shouldn’t be underestimated as an offensive coach, but we should expect Wink Martindale to throw the kitchen sink at Rush to keep the Dallas offense from finding a rhythm.
The Giants are 2-0, but those were both narrow wins and the offense has largely sputtered. One of the concerns regarding the Giants’ offense is whether they could mount enough offensive output to keep up in a shoot-out. New York’s best bet to counter Dallas’ defense is if they are able to stick with their game plan and continue to lean on Saquon Barkley. The Giants have questions at wide receiver and concerns in pass protection. And while Daniel Jones has a 70 percent completion rate on the season, he’s taken eight sacks so far and has thrown several ill-advised passes. Allowing Jones to continue to manage games could be crucial to prevent Parsons and company from taking this game over.