FRISCO, Texas – Back with three quick topics as the Cowboys (8-4) begin the home stretch of the regular season with a two-game lead on Sunday's opponent, the Washington Football Team:
- Micah's Chess Move
- The Run Game
Micah Parsons' linebacker/chess analogy in training camp turned out to be prophetic.
"You want to kind of be like the queen on the board," Parsons said back in Oxnard, California, as the Cowboys were wrapping up their third week of camp. "You never want to be a rook, where you can only go straight or you can only go sideways. You want to be able to go diagonal. I think that's what makes the queen so strong. I just kind of want to be the queen of linebackers."
Parsons knew then that he'd be asked to moonlight at multiple spots as a rookie: off the ball, on the line of scrimmage, covering, defending the run, rushing the passer. He, and maybe even defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, didn't know just how much the Cowboys would need his versatility.
DeMarcus Lawrence broke his foot the second week of the season and spent 10 games on IR. Randy Gregory missed a game in COVID-19 protocol and the last three games with a calf injury. Dorance Armstrong missed four games with an ankle injury.
If not for all those absences, "maybe we don't have that moment where we put Micah into some different spots," defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said.
"Now that we have that part of his game, it does allow the package to extend more. I'll certainly be looking forward to getting Randy and Micah and Law all together. I think if you had told me the three of those would have been together on the field for only 28 snaps heading into Week 14, that's not going to go good. But at the end of it, having guys play multiple roles and doing different things, I think that only adds value to what you're doing."
Those lineup challenges didn't just highlight Parsons' gifts as an edge rusher. It placed him firmly in the conversation for NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
T.J. Watt and Myles Garrett are rightfully getting the most DPOY buzz -- they're leading the league with 16 and 14 sacks, respectively, -- but you can argue that in some ways Parsons is doing more with less (snaps, that is).
According to Pro Football Focus, Watt has 16 sacks, 40 pressures and 9 quarterback hits in 286 pass rush snaps. Garrett has 14 sacks, 59 pressures and 9 hits in 364 pass rush snaps.
Parsons? He's got 10 sacks, 50 pressures and 12 hits in only 236 pass rush snaps. He's also tied with Watt and Nick Bosa with a league-high 16 tackles for loss.
Parsons is merely a part-time rusher, playing linebacker more often than not, and used situationally as a blitzer while also playing the run and covering tight ends and backs. And yet, his 10 sacks are tied for eighth in the entire league and approaching Jevon Kearse's rookie-record 14.5 with five games left in the regular season.
That chess-like flexibility is why Cowboys senior defensive assistant George Edwards compared Parsons to two linebacker greats whom he used to coach: LaVar Arrington and Hall of Famer Junior Seau. Both similarly played SAM linebacker in base defense, MIKE linebacker in sub-packages and rushed on third down.
The pass rush production is what's garnered national attention, and that's typically what wins DPOY honors. Nine of the last 10 winners have been elite rushers. The exception was ex-Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly in 2013.
Parsons plays both positions, and he's been the best player on a vastly-improved defense that ranks fourth in DVOA ranking, according to Football Outsiders.
DPOY? Maybe not. But he certainly should be on the short list.
I Have No Idea…
how to tie the recent run game struggles into a nice little Christmas bow. It's likely more complicated than that.
The offense did take a step forward against the Saints. They averaged 6.1 yards per carry and gained 146 yards, the most since Oct. 10 against the Giants (201 yards) and their fifth-highest total of the season. It was the only their second 100-yard performance in the six games since the bye week.
The flip side: Take away Tony Pollard's 58-yard touchdown and CeeDee Lamb's 33-yard screen/carry, and the offense rushed 22 times for 55 yards last Thursday night. It was tough sledding against one of the league's best run defenses, and it's been tough sledding for weeks. In the last six games, they've averaged 93.7 yards per game and 4.1 yards per carry.
Why, exactly? Again, there's probably multiple reasons.
Right guard Zack Martin said defenses have seen the offense's early success in the run game this season and countered with more pre-snap movement that has been an adjustment for the offensive line. "You just have to be on top of it to react and kind of change some of your combination blocks on the fly," he said.
Establishing the line of scrimmage has been a challenge lately, but so has continuity. The line had three different starting combinations during this recent stretch of three games in 12 days. Running back Ezekiel Elliott has been able to play through a painful knee contusion, but his snaps have been managed the last few games while Tony Pollard has had a slightly larger role.
And when teams load up to stop the run, as has often been the case since the Denver game a month ago, the best solution might be a big-play passing game that throws them -- literally -- out of that blueprint. Yet, the offense hasn't found consistency there, converting only 10 of 41 third downs and producing only eight pass plays of at least 20 yards over the last three games.
Amari Cooper is back in the lineup next to CeeDee Lamb and Michael Gallup, and his snaps should rise significantly moving forward after playing only 24 in the Saints game. That should only help quarterback Dak Prescott, provided he's getting solid protection up front.
"You're not going to go smooth sailing for however many weeks we've gone, 13 straight. There's going to be a few ups and downs," offensive coordinator Kellen Moore said. "I feel great with where we're at. Kind of getting those guys back into the groove. I think the importance of just having some continuity, practice together, spend time together. I think we got a great opportunity to get this thing going in a special way in December."