Bengals offense vs. Cowboys defense: Matchup of strengths likely to decide outcome in Week 2 bout
Year after year, the NFL reminds everyone why it might as well stand for "Not For Long." Just last season, the Dallas Cowboys had the league's top offense, ranking first in points per game (31.2) and total yards per game (407.0). Last week, the Cowboys were the only team in the entire league that didn't score a touchdown in their 19-3 home loss on Sunday night against Tom Brady's Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Having lost quarterback Dak Prescott to a fractured right thumb, the defense is now the most important side of the ball in Dallas.
"Playing a team sport, you have to rely on each other to get your goals accomplished, and the offense needs our help right now, so it's up to us as a defense to step up and get them the help they need," Dallas Cowboys defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence said after practice on Thursday.
Their task this week when they face the Cincinnati Bengals: Slow down Joe Burrow, the reigning Comeback Player of the Year Joe Burrow, and Ja'Marr Chase, the reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year.
When Burrow was asked at his weekly press conference what stands out about this Cowboys defense, one name immediately came out of his mouth: Micah Parsons, the Cowboys linebacker who won Defensive Rookie of the Year as a rookie last season.
"Micah Parsons," Burrow said at his weekly media availability. "He's a really good player. Got to have a plan for him. Have to be aware of where he is at all times. He can wreck the game if you let him."
The second-year linebacker out of Penn State totaled the only two Cowboys sacks of Brady last week, both in the red zone, picking up right where he left off a year ago. Parsons finished his rookie season with 13 sacks, tied for the third-most by a rookie in league history. His 15 career sacks are tied for the second-most through 17 career games since sacks became an official statistic in 1982.
"Micah is a dog, you know what I mean," Lawrence said. "When you understand what you are, it's easy to commit to that role. Being that it's his second year, I feel like he has his feet underneath him. He's locked in on going for it all. I believe he's going to get it."
Parsons isn't a traditional pass rusher who aligns himself in the same spot on the field each play. In Week 1, Parsons lined up on the edge of the line of scrimmage along the defensive line on 64.1% of his snaps (41/64), as a traditional inside linebacker on 34.4% of his snaps (22/64) and even had one snap at cornerback, according to Pro Football Focus.
"Usually you have a pass rusher who lines up on one side of the ball and you can have a plan for him, but he rushes outside, he rushes inside, he rushes right, he rushes left," Burrow said. "They [the Cowboys] blitz him from the linebacker position. You always have to be aware of where he is at."
Parsons' natural ability to fluster opposing quarterbacks has led Cowboys fans to clamor for him to line solely as an edge rusher and tee off on the quarterback all the time. Because of the versatility he's shown, Dallas Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones has, to this point, resisted the urge to mandate Parsons become a pass rusher only.
"He's such a force, and he has the ability to move around. That's a real advantage and I see that," Jones said during his weekly Tuesday appearance on 105.3 The Fan. "On the other hand, when you start talking about a top edge rusher, after the quarterback, that's the most valuable thing in football in my view."
Cowboys' pass rush vs Bengals' O-line: Advantage Cowboys?
Parsons, Lawrence and the rest of the Cowboys' pass rush will take center stage in determining whether or not Dallas can knock off the defending AFC Champion Bengals in Week 2. The Bengals' pass protection of Burrow is their one weakness offensively.
Burrow has been sacked seven or more times in three of his last four games, including last season's playoffs, and no other quarterback in Bengals history has had more than three such games over the course of their entire career.
The 2021 leader in completion percentage (70.4%) and passing yards per attempt (8.9), Burrow is the most sacked QB in the NFL since the start of last season (58). Meanwhile, the Cowboys' pass rush ranks third in the NFL in pressure rate (35%) in that span.
However, in the Bengals' season opener, while Burrow was in the midst of committing a career-high five turnovers -- four interceptions and one fumble -- it wasn't actually due to being under duress for the most part. Burrow threw significantly more interceptions (three) when not under pressure than when under pressure (one) on Sunday in the Bengals' 23-20 overtime loss at home against the Pittsburgh Steelers. All four of his career-high four interceptions came when the Pittsburgh defense sent four or fewer pass rushers as Burrow faced the fourth-lowest blitz rate of his career (13.8%). The Steelers' blitz rate ranked as the sixth-lowest in the NFL in Week 1.
The decline in performance when not under pressure was a huge departure from last season when Burrow diced up defenses who didn't get rushers in his face.
"Yeah, not my best, obviously. I would like to take care of the ball better, but as bad as I played in the first half, I thought I battled in the second half and put us in position to win the game," Burrow said after the Week 1 loss. "I was proud of that, but I have to start stronger. I just need to take what the defense gives me and don't try to force."
The Cowboys could easily follow this plan Pittsburgh laid out a week ago since Dallas blitzed Tom Brady on only 13.8% of his dropbacks, the fifth-lowest rate (percentage points lower than the Steelers) of any team in Week 1. However, Parsons doesn't think facing Burrow is as simple as replicating the Steelers' game plan.
"One thing about really great quarterbacks is they don't make the same mistakes twice," Parsons said after practice on Wednesday. "I'm not expecting the same Joe Burrow as last week. I don't think anyone should be expecting the same player. We're always trying to improve, so I'm not banking on Joe Burrow to make the same mistakes. Good players always learn from their mistakes and you try not to make those mistakes twice. He's an extremely good quarterback, and I'm excited for the matchup. Obviously, I want to get pressure on Burrow and obviously make an impact on the game that way and try my best to minimize his time to get the ball to his elite receivers."
The primary focus of the Bengals' offseason was to shore up their offensive line so Burrow could have more time to find his receivers in Chase, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd. They signed three new starters in free agency: former Tampa Bay Buccaneers guard Alex Cappa (four-year, $35M contract), former New England Patriots center Ted Karras (three-year, $18M contract) and former Dallas Cowboys right tackle La'el Collins (three-year, $30M contract).
Lawrence said he is looking forward to reuniting with Collins, his former teammate and friend, on Sunday at AT&T Stadium.
"It will be great to see La'el. I haven't seen him since he left to go to Cincinnati," Lawrence said. "It will be good to go against him, check in on him and see how he's doing."
He also wants to reconnect with Collins after getting to Burrow on Sunday.
"He's an aggressive player in the run game. He's a good player," Lawrence said. "He [Collins] struggled with T.J. Watt last week, so send Micah [Parsons], and I'm gonna be over there regardless."
Cowboys' secondary vs Bengals' pass-catchers: Advantage Cincy?
If Burrow can get the football out of his hands before being popped by Parsons or Lawrence, he could carve up the Cowboys' man coverage-heavy scheme concocted by defensive coordinator Dan Quinn. Burrow leads the NFL in yards per pass attempt against man coverage (10.3) since the start of last season while the Cowboys play man coverage at the second-highest rate in the league in that same span (39%) and allow the ninth-most yards per attempt (7.7) in man-to-man.
True to that trend, the Cowboys ran man coverage on 43.5% of their defensive snaps in Week 1, the second-highest rate in the NFL behind only the Lions, as they held Brady's Buccaneers to only one touchdown in three trips to the red zone.
Throwing the ball deep to Chase, Burrow's college teammate at LSU, has been a recipe for success as he has the most receiving yards by a rookie in the Super Bowl era last season (1,455), and has six catches of 50 or more yards since entering NFL in 2021, the most in the league.
However, going deep against this Dallas defense can be a high-risk, high-reward proposition with cornerback Trevon Diggs -- the NFL's interceptions leader with 11 a year ago -- lurking in the secondary along with a defense that led the league as a whole with 26 interceptions a year ago.
"They have really good players that understand when they can take chances and aren't afraid to get up and be aggressive in man coverage," Burrow said. "They understand their coverage structure really well."
The last time Burrow faced Diggs was in Tuscaloosa, Alabama when Burrow led the second-ranked LSU Tigers past Diggs' third-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide 46-41 in November 2019. Burrow lit up Diggs and the Alabama defense for 393 passing yards, three passing touchdowns and no interceptions while completing nearly 80% (31-39) of his passes. Chase led the Tigers in receiving that day with 140 yards and a touchdown on six catches.
"He [Diggs] makes a lot of plays, obviously with however many interceptions he had last year. It felt like a million," Burrow said. "He's not afraid to take chances. He's going to jump routes, and you have to be aware of who you're throwing a 50-50 ball to when he's covering them because he's going to make a play. I think he was a former wide receiver at some point in his career, so you have to be aware of that."
Despite Diggs' high-level ball-hawking abilities, expect Burrow to target Chase early and often, especially with the status of his No. 2 wide receiver Higgins up in the air after he exited Week 1 with a concussion. Chase cooked the Steelers for 10 catches, 129 receiving yards and a touchdown in Cincinnati's overtime defeat.
"Just moving him around, when Tee went down, he [Chase] played X, Z, in the slot, and I think that will make it hard on defenses to try to eliminate him from the game plan," Burrow said. "Moving him around, you have to always find him and you have to have a plan for when he is in the slot, when he's to the boundary, to the field, all that stuff. He's a smart enough player to do it."
Come Sunday, the Cowboys expect to see the prime version of Burrow following his most turnover-filled game of his young professional career.
"He's so calm, cool and collected," Parsons said of Burrow. "He had four turnovers, but he still fought his team back in that second half and made a huge jump. That shows how he's always on to the next play. He's a competitor. He has an amazing story. He's a fighter. Fighters never stay down. I'm expecting the best Joe Burrow to come out there on Sunday."
Whichever group emerges victorious from the four-quarter fight between the Cowboys defense and Bengals offense will be the unit that leads their team to victory on Sunday. Read More