EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Micah Parsons admires the NFL’s historically great defenses. During training camp, he mentioned the Ray Lewis-led Baltimore Ravens and the more recent Legion of Boom Seattle Seahawks. Those teams won Super Bowls largely because of how great they were on that side of the ball. He wants the Dallas Cowboys to have a legendary Super Bowl-winning defense mentioned among that group.
They played to that level Sunday night in their season opener, dominating the New York Giants 40-0 at MetLife Stadium.
“I believe (we played like one of those championship defenses),” said Parsons, the front-runner for NFL Defensive Player of the Year. “The turnovers, the relentlessness, the effort by all 11, even the guys that came in in the fourth quarter and helped finish the shutout. All across the board, I think everyone is locked in and committed to this team.”
Getting a division win over the Giants is nothing new for the Cowboys. They have now won their last 11 over New York when franchise QB Dak Prescott starts the game. But many of those previous contests were competitive. This was a statement-type performance, sending a message to the rest of the league that they are improved from the Dallas teams that have fallen short in the playoffs the last two seasons.
“I think we’re making a statement that we’ve been trying to make,” Parsons said. “We’re the best defense in the National Football League.”
Did Cowboys DE DeMarcus Lawrence feel like they made a statement?
“That’s for y’all to write,” he said. “Only thing we do is go out there and play the game. If y’all feel like a statement was made, go ahead and put that mug on the front page, bold letters. I definitely feel like we did our job to the maximum of our ability. And I feel like we can still learn and get better from it.”
Dak Prescott: “I’ve talked about it all spring through training camp, understanding the pass rush that we’re going against in practice. And just watching that come alive against another team and another quarterback, it was exciting, made it easier for us on our side.” pic.twitter.com/ltAe093LTB
— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) September 11, 2023
For a starting defensive unit that didn’t play in the preseason, it wasn’t a surprise that they looked rusty early, allowing the Giants to open with an 11-play drive. But they held New York to a field goal attempt, which was blocked by Juanyeh Thomas and returned 58 yards for a touchdown by Noah Igbinoghene.
The Giants’ next possession was a three-and-out, highlighted by a Parsons sack on third-and-10. New York’s third possession also ended on its third play, a huge hit by CB Trevon Diggs on Giants RB Saquon Barkley that popped the ball out of his hands and into the arms of Cowboys CB DaRon Bland, who returned it 22 yards for another touchdown. With just over two minutes left in the first quarter, the Cowboys were already ahead, 16-0.
“We stayed on them,” Parsons said. “We didn’t let them breathe. We smothered them.”
Another Giants three-and-out was then followed by an interception on the first play of their fifth possession. This time, veteran CB Stephon Gilmore recorded the 30th pick of his career, but his first since the Cowboys traded a fifth-round pick to the Indianapolis Colts for him in March.
“Stephon looked like that at practice every day,” Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy said. “He’s an incredible route reader, just the pattern of concepts and understanding of the stems. The way he sees the game is exceptional. I look back at Charles Woodson and some of those guys that had that special trait, and he definitely has that.”
The impressive diving grab by Gilmore was made after Parsons and LB Leighton Vander Esch provided the pressure on Giants QB Daniel Jones.
A lot of what happened Sunday night looked like training camp. But in that setting, Parsons and company have to run by the quarterback. On Sunday, they could physically punish Jones, who finished 15-of-28 passing for only 104 yards, two interceptions and a 32.4 passer rating, the lowest of his career. He was sacked seven times and hit 12. DT Osa Odighizuwa and DE Dorance Armstrong each had two sacks. Parsons, Lawrence and DL Chauncey Golston had the others.
According to NextGen Stats, the Cowboys generated pressure on 23 of 37 dropbacks (62.2 percent), the fourth-highest pressure rate in a game since 2019. Parsons, DE Dante Fowler and Odighizuwa each had six pressures. Armstrong had five and Lawrence three.
“I think that’s who we are,” McCarthy said. “I clearly feel we’ve taken another step. You could see that in training camp. I would say you look at the way teams are going to try to play us. You look at their first series. They’re going to try to pound the ball and challenge our run defense over and over again and try to soften up the pass rush.
“But yeah, the pass rush was relentless tonight. We gave up contain a couple of times early, but after that, clearly was in total control of the game.”
Dallas’ first-team offense didn’t play in the preseason, either. That group didn’t look nearly as sharp as their defensive teammates. The rain was a factor, and it was McCarthy’s first game calling offensive plays with the starters. Prescott only threw for 143 yards and no touchdowns, but more importantly, he never turned the ball over. Running back Tony Pollard and wide receiver KaVontae Turpin scored all three offensive touchdowns on the ground. CeeDee Lamb led all receivers with four catches for 77 yards. WR Brandin Cooks caught two passes for 22 yards in his Cowboys debut.
That group will get better the longer they work together with McCarthy calling plays. And the toughest defense they see all season might just be the one they face during the week in practice. Prescott said after the game that a lot of good things came from Dallas’ offense going against its defense throughout the offseason and training camp.
“Whether it was speeding me up, making me check it down quicker, making my feet move, making my decisions faster,” he said, “sometimes, it might have been a sack but allowing us to extend the play, play after the 2.3 (seconds). Just because they got back there in practice doesn’t necessarily end that rep of that play, so a lot of good came from that. I can tell you that after a lot of the plays and things that happened at practice, I was thankful for a lot of those guys being on our team.
“I said it many, many times tonight watching them go after the other quarterback.”
Micah Parsons pic.twitter.com/9xx4Y21w5t
— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) September 10, 2023
Parsons looked a little more fired up than usual before the game, crawling on the ground when he entered the field for pregame warmups and dancing when the stadium speakers blasted 50 Cent’s “I Run N.Y.” He said last week that every team Dallas faces “gets the same smoke,” that nothing about this game would mean more than any other. But he sensed they were ready for a big defensive showing against the Giants.
“I saw it before anybody,” he said. “I said I can’t wait to get to New York. I already knew it was coming. When preparation meets execution, I don’t think there’s anyone that can beat it.”
And how did Parsons think he played individually?
“I came out (of the game) healthy,” he said. “I feel good. And I get to go against the great Aaron Rodgers next week.”
(Photo of Micah Parsons: Mitchell Leff / Getty Images)
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