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Training Camp | 2023

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Spagnola: Something Is Brewing On Defense


OXNARD, Calif. – This defense, telling you, something is brewing.

And look, know there has been only three training camp practices in pads, with the fourth of the allotted 10 taking place Saturday out here off the Ventura Highway.

But there are just some telltale signs in this the third season in coordinator Dan Quinn's defense that something special is in the air. You know, like a gurgling geyser before it blows.

"We're just working day in and day out," says veteran safety Jayron Kearse. "I don't know where we are until we go against someone else."

Granted, but after last season when the Cowboys finished 12th in total defense, but fifth in points allowed, giving up 342 in 17 games played (20.1 avg.), thought there must be three necessary additions.

Veteran cornerback. Check.

The Cowboys traded for 12-year veteran Stephon Gilmore. Even at age 33, he's been as advertised, destined to neutralize any offense's notion of staying away from Trevon Diggs, Pro Bowl wideout CeeDee Lamb saying of Gilmore, "He's the smartest defensive back I've faced."

Then big, strong, space-eating defensive tackle. Check.

Cowboys use the 27th pick in the NFL Draft for Michigan DT Mazi Smith, so far with no NFL experience showing signs of clogging up the middle to keep the riffraff off his linebackers, though still needing to refine some techniques to become the much-sought dominate force behind the line of scrimmage.

Finally, shore-up the linebacker corps. Check. Check. Check.

The Cowboys able to re-sign former first-round draft choice Leighton Vander Esch to a reasonable two-year deal. Last year's fifth-rounder Damone Clark – limited to just 10 games (five starts) with no offseason work or training camp after vertebrae neck fusion surgery following discovery at the NFL Scouting Combine – is coming into his own as the starter next to Vander Esch. And they are working hard to develop young 'backers Jabril Cox and third-rounder DeMarvion Overshown. And none of this takes into account Micah Parsons, practicing more and more at defensive end while capable of still playing linebacker too.

To me, there isn't an obvious weakness on this defense. The secondary is solid, and especially once Donovan Wilson returns from his high calf strain. The linebacker corps is more than solid. And, oh, that defensive front, a great mix of veterans like DeMarcus Lawrence, Dorance Armstrong, Dante Fowler and Johnathan Hankins, along with this maturing group of youngsters with Osa Odighizuwa, Neville Gallimore, Chauncey Golston, Sam Williams, "The Maz," Quinton Bohanna, Junior Fehoko and, oh yeah, Parsons too. Plus, Quinn is experimenting rushing Vander Esch from outside at defensive end and flipping Lawrence and Parsons from side to side.

"A position-less defense," says secondary coach Joe Whitt Jr. "We always talk about rush and coverage, it's a marriage."

And this might be the most significant trait of this defense. Take last year. The Cowboys finished with 54 sacks, their most in the past 14 years, having to go back to 2008 to find more in a single season (59). And that was the high going back 23 seasons to 1985 when they had a franchise record 62, the most since sacks became an official NFL statistic in 1982.

But then they also led the NFL with 33 takeaways, one fewer than they recorded while leading the league in 2021, becoming the first team to lead the NFL in takeaways for consecutive seasons since the Steelers did so from 1972-74.

"The best defenses are usually very good tacklers and guys who have a very good ball-hawking awareness," Quinn says. "Because if you get those two parts right, you are going to eliminate explosive plays, and obviously creating takeaways you are taking away opportunities to score or trying to score yourself."

And now enter Parsons, the heartbeat, soul and lead disciple of this defense. Sort of the Waldo of football, since quarterbacks breaking the huddle must immediately ask themselves, "Where's Micah?"

While in real life, pressure makes pipes break, in football pressure creates turnovers. And as Whitt says, one complements the other, meaning pressure up front can create turnovers, or coverage out back can create pressure up front if quarterbacks are forced to hold the football a tick or two longer.

"It's extremely important," Parsons reasons with one or the other, bringing Gilmore into the conversation. "I told 'Gilly,' you better give me three more sacks. I just know the type of player he is and the type of guys these young guys are trying to be like. So I'm super excited.

"Even Gilly told me just in two days of practice, 'Bro, I didn't think the ball could come out this fast. I ain't never had the ball (come out this fast).' And I said, 'Gilly, the ball going to come out hot. I'm telling you, they've got to get that ball out. If they don't, it's over. We're not worrying about it. We off the field.

I'm super excited."

Cornerback coach Al Harris knows exactly what Parsons is talking about, benefiting himself from the fruits of pressure up front.

"Listen man, (pressure up front) makes life so much easier," he says for the secondary. "Cuts down the number of routes on the tree."

Meaning, when guys in coverage can count on the pressure up front, they realize receivers can only run certain routes. That allows them to play more aggressively. Not exactly gambling, mind you, but eliminating what they must guard against. More like playing the percentages.

Reminding me of that time period from 1987 through the first meeting in 1991 when the Eagles beat the Cowboys eight straight times and nine of 10 into the first meeting of 1992. That is when the Eagles had that dominant defensive front with Reggie White, Jerome Brown, Clyde Simmons, Mike Pitts and a blitzing Seth Joyner.

Troy Aikman sure remembers that bunch, suffering 11 sacks in that first meeting of '91, the Eagles tying the Cowboys' single-game opponent high for sacks in a 24-0 whitewashing.

A day or so later in the locker room, veteran cornerback Ike Holt, who came over to the Cowboys in the 1989 Herschel Walker trade, sarcastically demonstrated how well the Eagles corners could cover. Ike got down in his pre-snap stance, as if lining up in man coverage, and out loud, as he took three steps backs, said, "One, two three," then stood up, crossed his arms, and with a big smile on his face goes, 'Yeah, I'm good, I'm good."

Bottom line meaning, with a pass rush like that, playing corner does become as easy as one, two, three seconds.

And conversely, with corners and safeties in tight coverage, and the quarterback with nowhere to go with the ball, there becomes a proliferation of sacks.

Plus, if this defense improves against the run – the Cowboys finished 22nd in 2022 – this might just become some kind of defense for Quinn to brag about.

"We can't just talk about it, we have to do it on the field," Parsons says of entering elite defensive status. "We've got to keep getting better. We've got to clean things up. I don't think we're at the standard we want to be right now yet, but that's what we're working for."

And on paper, after just those three padded camp practices and from what the naked eye is detecting – "It's tough. They make us work," Lamb says of going up against his team's defense in practice – goodness seems to be bubbling up from underground before our very eyes.

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