The Dallas Cowboys defensive front is absolutely loaded with playmakers. From a finally realized Randy Gregory to rookie phenom Micah Parsons, to the long-tenured but fearsome DeMarcus Lawrence to productive defensive tackles in Neville Gallimore and Osa Odihizuwa, the Cowboys have a near embarrassment of riches with which to punish opposing quarterbacks. Never mind productive rotational players like Carlos Watkins, Dorance Armstrong, and Tarell Basham, each of whom has had their own shining moments along the way to an 11-4 start.
Latest NFL Defensive Player of the Year odds, via @BetMGM:— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) December 28, 2021
1. T.J. Watt: +200
2. Micah Parsons: +225
3. Trevon Diggs: +700
3. Aaron Donald: +700
5. Myles Garrett: +1,200 pic.twitter.com/oVUVqs1tlf
The Cowboys top the NFL in takeaways with 33, led by Trevon Diggs and his franchise single-season record-tying 11 interceptions. They possess the stingiest third-down defense at just 31.2 percent conversion and are seventh overall in total defense. If it’s not a relentless, explosive pass rush, it’s a ball-hawking secondary and dynamic group of linebackers prepared to knock your block off, take the ball away, or both on a given play.
Were it not for Lawrence’s 10-game absence due to a broken foot suffered in practice at the start of the season, Dallas may not have found out so quickly just how versatile Parsons is as a pass rusher. Still, you can only wonder how good this unit, and really this team as a whole, would’ve been had it not been playing at partial health most of the year.
DeMarcus Lawrence is unreal. Imagine doubting him.— RJ Ochoa (@rjochoa) December 27, 2021
(via @NFL) pic.twitter.com/o4JJnNuLV9
Lawrence returned just in time for the start of the team’s current four-game win-streak, amassing 13 tackles, two forced fumbles, two sacks, a pick, and a touchdown. Hard to do much better than that in a month’s time.
While the defense has been a turnover machine all season, it was Lawrence’s return that kicked things into a new gear. Other contenders, such as the Packers, Rams, Bucs, and Colts, the latter of whom sits behind Dallas in the turnovers-forced department, might have similar defenses, but they aren’t as explosive and deep as the Cowboys. In truth, a team’s best shot against Dallas might be to grind out countless patient, methodical drives, avoiding the big risk while trying to continually hit the heart of the defensive front with the ground game. But while such a strategy might work for a handful of possessions, few teams can sustain such tactics over the course of an entire game—especially if the Cowboys offense is producing points of its own.
It's been so fun to watch Dan Quinn make serious adjustments in accordance with DAL's strengths on the defensive side of the ball.— John Owning (@JohnOwning) December 28, 2021
He's also been very flexible with his fronts and line movement, but the additional flexibility in his coverage calls has been awesome. #Cowboys
There are also wildcards to be considered yet on the defense. Rookie cornerback Kelvin Joseph made his first start of the season against Washington and stuck like glue to anyone he lined up across from all night. If not for a dropped interception in the third quarter, his night would have been flawless. Still, it was a pretty sensational first start for a player who hasn’t had many opportunities yet this season.
#Cowboys rookie CB Kelvin Joseph played 57 snaps in Week 16.— Marcus Mosher (@Marcus_Mosher) December 27, 2021
He "allowed" -2 receiving yards on five targets with one pass deflection, according to @PFF pic.twitter.com/slF4WP1NT9
Perhaps most importantly, this Cowboys defense isn’t content with all that it has achieved through 16 weeks. Parsons, wise beyond his years, continues to be not only incredibly quotable but grounded in his day-to-day approach, with his teammates following suit.
Cowboys LB Micah Parsons says team not satisfied. “We’re not alligators. We don’t get paralyzed after we eat.” pic.twitter.com/7aPOB4VGyX— Michael Gehlken (@GehlkenNFL) December 27, 2021
If the Dallas defense can stay healthy, and if Sunday night’s thrashing of Washington was a sign that the offense has once more come around, the Cowboys are officially the team nobody wants to see come January. They’re deep. They’re talented. They’re loaded with playmakers and game-wreckers. Most of all, they’re hungry. That in and of itself should lead to sleepless nights and plenty of hair tearing-out for opposing coaching staffs down the stretch.