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Spagnola: A defense so far so very marvelous


ARLINGTON, Texas – While walking off the field of a near empty AT&T Stadium Sunday evening, someone stopped to ask me this:

"What do you think about this Cowboys defense?"

"Frightening," was the first word that came to mind.

Might have said "devastating."

Could have been "destructive."

Now, we're only two games into this 2023 season and might as well reserve the right to use "Doomsday" for at least another week or three should this continue.

And Dak Prescott, knowing he had been harassed and hurried all training camp long, made a second mention within the past four days about how he's glad "someone else," meaning a quarterback other than him, has to face this bunch's wrath.

Well, the previous Sunday night it was the Giants' Daniel Jones.

This Sunday, before 93,689 white towel-waving folks packed into this stadium, it was poor Zach Wilson, the New York Jets' stand-in for Aaron Rodgers, becoming the next "someone else." Poor guy. Got sacked three times, the first on his third snap of the game. Got hit another five times. Got intercepted four times. Got passes broken up another seven times.

And the Cowboys defense was so suffocating, Wilson could complete only 12 passes, just four of those to his wide receivers. And maybe even more devastating to any success he might have enjoyed, a Jets team rushing for 172 yards in their season-opening win over Buffalo could only run for a mere 64 yards against the Cowboys, with 36 of those coming with Wilson desperately having to scramble five times away from mayhem.

You know that pregame fear of Breece Hall and Delvin Cook running the ball? Forget about it. Eight carries, 16 yards.

No wonder the Jets limped out of here 30-10 losers, and it could have been worse. Much worse if not for Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy seemingly not wanting to show his red-zone and goal-to-go cards once the second win of the season was in good hands. Especially with the Jets showcasing a pretty much impotent offense with the exception of just one play. As veteran defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence termed it, "a cheap S like that," referring to the one-play 68-yard Wilson to Wilson (Garrett) touchdown pass when Malik Hooker coming up to make the tackle slipped to the ground.

"But, you know," Jets head coach Robert Saleh said, "they've got a hell of a front."

Saleh should have known. He could have sat in a MetLife Stadium suite before the Jets' Monday night opener the next night to watch firsthand last Sunday when the Cowboys sacked Jones seven times, pressured him another 20 times, intercepted him twice – taking one to the house – and totaling three takeaways, batting away eight passes and, uh-oh, returning a blocked field-goal attempt to the house, too.

"You just witnessed the best defense in the world," Lawrence said with conviction, assuming he meant the football world wherever the game is played. "They got to come to us."

And not from being a non-believer after the Cowboys' dismantling of the Giants in the opener, 40-0, but knowing of this defense's past discretions trying to stop the run last year – allowing opponents to rush for more than 100 yards in 11 of 17 regular-season games, including all six of their losses (playoffs included) – call me skeptical going into this game. Or wanted a bit of "show-me" evidence.

Yep, that was me going into the game proclaiming this to be the biggest litmus test of an improved run defense.

Well, here's three reasons for passing my test with flying colors. First, the Cowboys offense turning an 18-7 lead into a second-half romp, the Jets forced against their will to start throwing the ball. Secondly, the Jets offensive line was not up to the task, not run blocking, not protecting Wilson, though there was a lot of postgame talk coming from those others about how the Cowboys were "stacking the box."

Really? That's what happens when you play as much man coverage as the Cowboys do. That's why it looks that way when at times playing a five-man front, one of those a linebacker, or all those safeties like Juanyeh Thomas and Markquese Bell unafraid to man up close to the line of scrimmage.

And thirdly, if that is even a word, Micah "The Beast" Parsons.

Did you guys watch that?

"He was a wrecking crew today," McCarthy said. "I was on the other side of it all through camp."

Thought the Jets would have realized that after watching last Sunday. Nope, their third snap, Micah loops inside from his right defensive end spot to obliterate Wilson. And this "stacking the line stuff." All the Cowboys were doing to open the game is playing a 4-3 defense with the third linebacker, mostly Parsons, playing on the line of scrimmage, creating a five-man front against the Jets' heavy formations.

But you know like they do in baseball, talking about how a batter "slashes"? Well, here is Micah's slash line in this game: 4 tackles/3 TFLs/2 sacks/4 QB hits/1 FF, 1 FR/1 PBU.

And inside those numbers, one of his QB hits turned into a Jayron Kearse interception, and his tackling of Cook for a loss, well, on the way down he strips Cook of the ball, recovers the fumble, and if not for the calf of guard Laken Tomlinson brushing Micah on his way up, he would have gone for a defensive quadruple: TFL, FF, FR, returned for a touchdown.

"I mean he's special," said 33-year-old veteran cornerback Stephon Gilmore. "Like I've told you all before, I've never seen nothing like it."

Worse, his play is contagious. Just supercharges the rest of the guys. They are yearning to get into the act. And maybe someday one of these analytical geeks will come up with a stat for defensive players like Parsons, whose mere presence causes offensive linemen to false start or hold out of desperation to save their quarterback. Yep, that, too, in this game.

And none of this defensive talk should minimize what the Cowboys offense did again, scoring on seven of 10 full possessions, Prescott finishing with a 112.2 QB rating, CeeDee Lamb unstoppable (11 for 143), Tony Pollard with 109 yards from scrimmage on 32 touches and Jalen Tolbert (in place of the injured Brandin Cooks) with three catches, his first since Nov. 20 of last season. And rookie kicker Brandon Aubrey going five-for-five on field goals between 21 and 55 yards, then one-for-one on extra points and eight-for-eight on kickoff touchbacks, certainly curing the anxiety of those sucking air through their teeth fearing the unknown.

Think about this: In the opening two games, the Cowboys have outscored the Giants (1-1) and now Jets (1-1) 70-10. And if not for that one play, it would have been 70-3.

They now lead the NFL with 10 sacks in two games, putting them on an unheard of 85-sack pace. They have five interceptions. No. 1 in the NFL. Are a plus-7 in takeaway differential with the seven takeaways, No. 1 in the NFL and threatening to lead the league in takeaways a third consecutive season. Are giving up an average of 193 yards a game, No. 2 in the NFL going into Monday night's games.

And best of all, are 2-0 to start a season for only the third time since 2008, the other two times going 3-0 in 2019 and 2-0 in 2015 before losing quarterback Tony Romo and their next seven games.

Granted it's only two games, 15 to go. Next up, at Arizona. Don't want to hear anything else about Cowboys stacking lines or surprised by their ability to put pressure on a quarterback. Or that they haven't seen anything like Micah.

As Lawrence said, "We know who we are. We just feel like the world is just starting to figure out who we are. Just keep watching."

And they hope, keep marveling.

Ah, maybe that's what my defensive adjective should have been.


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