Mick Shots: Christmas Coming Early For Defense

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FRISCO, Texas – Not sure what your guys' feelings are on this but seems to come up round this time every year, whether it's OK to open presents before Christmas morning.

Big no, no for me.

Well, Christmas is still more than two weeks out, but Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn just received a big ol' Christmas gift that he just might be able to unwrap this coming Sunday.

Why, the potential ability to line up DeMarcus Lawrence at left defensive end, Randy Gregory at right defensive end, Neville Gallimore at defensive tackle and be able to line up rookie Micah Parsons primarily at linebacker but also anywhere else his heart desires.

Yep, because on Wednesday the Cowboys moved Gregory from injured reserve to IR-designated to return, meaning he is practicing for the first time since suffering a calf injury in practice prior to the Atlanta game four weeks ago. Gallimore was out there for a second week of practice. Lawrence for a third, but first full one since the Cowboys were practicing for the previous two games from Thursday to Thursday.

There seems to be some optimism Gregory could be ready to play on Sunday. If so, bet Quinn can't wait to rip that ribbon off this fortuitous gift.

"We'll certainly be looking forward to be getting Randy, and Micah and 'Law' all together," Quinn said on Monday. "If you would've told me the three of those would have been on the field for only 28 snaps heading into Week 13 or 14, that's not going to go good.

"At the end of it, having guys play multiple roles and doing different things, that only adds value to what's were doing. We'll continue to add to the package with those guys."

That's right, just 28 snaps, all in the season opener against Tampa Bay. And you can include Gallimore in there, too, since his dislocated elbow occurred during the preseason, and he has yet to play a game this season. So, in that opener, no Gallimore, Parsons making his NFL debut, Gregory starting a season opener for the first time in his now seven-year career and Lawrence starting and playing 43 snaps before fracturing the fifth metatarsal in his foot the following week during practice, which required surgery and would cause him to miss the next 10 games.

Yet here the Cowboys are, 8-4, first place in the NFC East, and owning a two-game lead over the Washingtons heading into Sunday's game.

Quinn is right about packages. There exists the possibility as we saw at times during training camp of having all four of those guys rushing the quarterback in nickel situations with the ability of having Lawrence and Gallimore inside, and Gregory and Parsons on the edges. Or, as the Cowboys experimented with, having Gregory and Parsons standing up in the middle of a four-man line in definite passing situations, with Lawrence at one end and either Dorance Armstrong or Tarell Basham at the other. And don't forget Trysten Hill, back from his one-game suspension.

Yeah, Merry Christmas, Dan.

  • Oh, That Line: That being the Cowboys offensive line. Offensive coordinator Kellen Moore pointed this out. COO Stephen Jones pointed this out. So did owner Jerry Jones. The Cowboys must get improved play from the offensive line if this offense is to get back to playing at an expected high level. They all talk about the need for continuity. Well, from the sounds of things, they just might be starting the same five guys for a second consecutive week, from left to right, Tyron Smith, Connor McGovern, Tyler Biadasz, Zack Martin and La'el Collins. And with former sometimes right tackle starter Terence Steele (seven at right, three at left) back from Reserve/COVID, Jerry Jones suggested both right tackles playing, somewhat inferring the Cowboys using Steele in two-tight end situations for blocking purposes. "It's important we have continuity on the offensive line and throughout our offense to get ourselves going," Moore said. "The more these guys are together, the more we practice, get back to the traditional week for the next few weeks, all that stuff is going to piece together and give us a great opportunity to get this going. I think we're close." This line needs to be there for this final five-game stretch.
  • Quiet Anger: Very silently, Cowboys punter Bryan Anger is on pace for a franchise-record performance. So far, Anger is second in the NFL with a 44.5 net punting average. The franchise single-season record belongs to Chris Jones at 42.5 in 2015. As for gross punting average, Anger ranks fourth in the NFL at 49.2, just 0.6 from second place. The single season franchise record belongs to Mat McBriar, 48.2 in 2006. Says special teams coordinator John Fassel, "The only thing we concern ourselves with is net." And for example, Anger was 42.9 against the Saints, with a 48.1 average, with four of his punts at least 54 yards.
  • Three And Out: That might be good in baseball, but in football, not so much. And of late, with the Cowboys losing two of their past three games, this has become an increasing problem. See, over the first six games, with the team averaging 39.1 points a game and finishing 5-1, the Cowboys only had 14 three-and-out possessions. But in these past three games, uh, going 1-2, they have 18 three-and-out possessions, averaging just 23 points. Why, seven of their 14 possessions against the Saints were three-and-outs, the Cowboys only 2 for 13 on third-down conversions. "It comes down to being efficient on first and second down," Moore said, going on to point out, "you have to win first down." That means running the ball more efficiently, which brings us full circle, and to do that the offensive line must play better.
  • Out Of Necessity: While running back Ezekiel Elliott for the second straight week is listed as fully practicing on Wednesday, though still nursing what he calls a "stiff" knee, and sidekick Tony Pollard not practicing with a foot injury, the Cowboys were in running back-need, if for nothing else practice, signing fourth-year back Ito Smith to the practice squad. Smith is a former fourth-round draft choice of Quinn's while in Atlanta. Speedy, tough runner out of Southern Miss.
  • Holiday Small Treats: Parsons already has broken the Cowboys' previous rookie sack record set by DeMarcus Ware at eight in 2005, and Ware was a fulltime defensive end, but, uh, football player already has 10 with five games to go, a number that has him tied for fourth in the NFC, just two behind the leader, Joey Bosa with 12 … The Cowboys need to cost Washington quarterback Taylor Heinicke some dough on Sunday, since his contract calls for him to receive a $125,000 bonus for every game he wins when playing at least 60 percent of the snaps, meaning he's already bagged an extra $750,000 … Following the Atlanta game, before Dallas lost two of the next three, the Cowboys defense was ranked a season-high 15th, but now, three games later, matching the season-low 27th they were after the Chargers game … The Cowboys catch a break with Washington defensive end Montez Sweat landing on Reserve/COVID, having to miss 10 days for testing positive unvacced … And more Walls, as in Everson, since Diggs with nine picks now has the most for the Cowboys since "Cubby" had nine in 1985. One more would match Mel Renfro's previous franchise-high of 10 in 1969 and Diggs needs two more to match Walls' record of 11 set in 1981.

And for welcoming back head coach Mike McCarthy to The Star on Thursday, even saying when coming back from COVID-19 quarantine these past 10 days he might just show up at 12:01 AM Thursday, he gets the last word when explaining just why Dak Prescott is this year's Cowboys Walter Payton Man of the Year Award nominee.

"I think he does a tremendous job with that," McCarthy said of Dak's qualifications. "I think he would be an outstanding nominee for that prestigious award. I've had a chance to be around it with the Walter Payton family, what that means and what that represents, and I think Dak Prescott represents that to the highest level. Just the maturity, the ability to speak on his life and just how he puts himself out there. I think he's unique and special, and I'm proud of him for that."

Well said. Bet you guys second that notion.

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