FRISCO, Texas – Through four games, there's arguably no hotter unit in the NFL than the Dallas Cowboys defense. The stats alone offer proof: they have the second-most sacks in the league (15), they're allowing the third-fewest points per game (15.5) and they've held four straight opponents -- including Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady and the Cincinnati Bengals' Joe Burrow -- to a single touchdown.
A hot start, indeed, and Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy provided a fitting analogy Monday following the team's 25-10 victory over the Washington Commanders.
"You want your defense to be the thermostat because the thermostat regulates the game. And they are clearly the thermostat for us, make no bones about it," McCarthy said. "They're going to keep us in striking distance because of just the way they're playing. And you can really see this probably the middle of the season, end of the year last year, and now with another offseason and all our young guys are growing up and the combination of that draft class and the free agent class from two years ago, I think you're just seeing the fruits and the benefits are coming to light, too.
"They are definitely our thermostat."
Backup quarterback Cooper Rush's poise and 95.9 passer rating has been a major factor in the Cowboys' 3-1 start and three-game win streak during quarterback Dak Prescott's three-game injury absence (thumb). But Rush pointed to the defense as the catalyst for the team's collective success.
"They're the reason we're winning," Rush said. "…As an offense, knowing that they have your back like that is huge."
Despite their strong start, the defense believes there's another level they can reach.
"I think we've really got a chance to be the best defensive team in this league," linebacker Micah Parsons said. "The way we prepare and the way we calculate, the players we have -- everyone's hungry out here, and I think that's just been the key. … That's the type of standard, and (we're) hungry. Every week we've got to (keep) getting better. Each step we've got to keep getting better."
McCarthy on Monday identified two ways the offense can continue to improve: run defense and takeaways.
The Cowboys currently rank 27th against the run, allowing 137.5 yards per game. Washington piled up 142 yards on 27 carries on Sunday in a clear effort to balance out the offense for quarterback Carson Wentz, who was sacked nine times in Week 3 by the Philadelphia Eagles.
The Commanders had trouble sustaining and finishing drives, however, converting only 5 of 15 third downs. And Wentz (25-of-42, 170 yards, one touchdown, two interceptions) was still sacked twice and hit 11 times.
"You look at the four games we've played in, obviously people are challenging our run defense because frankly they probably don't want to deal with our pass rush on third-and-5 or more," McCarthy said. "We've just got to really stay focused on our run defense. I think that's going to be our biggest challenge moving forward. If I was playing against our defense, that's the way I would go. The better we play on first and second down obviously is really going to play to our strength on third down."
The Cowboys did get those two takeaways against Washington -- interceptions by cornerbacks Trevon Diggs and DaRon Bland -- which increased their season total to four, tied for the third-fewest in the league a month into the regular season.
It's still early, and Dallas did lead the league in forcing turnovers last year (34). Perhaps Sunday was a sign of things to come.
"There's a standard that's been set, and we just want to stay after it," McCarthy said.