Cowboys front seven vs. Jonathan Taylor: Run defense turning corner just in time to face star Colts RB
"There's an adage that everyone remembers November and December, that's the reality of our league, especially going to 17 games," Dallas Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy said Monday. "The best football is in front of us."
McCarthy's last line, "the best football is in front of us" appears to be the case for his team's defense, specifically against the run. Their rushing defense had been their glaring weakness, allowing 143.1 rushing yards per game in Weeks 1-10, fourth-most in the NFL, prior to their wins at the Minnesota Vikings and at home against the New York Giants in Weeks 11 and 12. Dallas has allowed 81.5 rushing yards per game over its last two contests, the sixth-fewest in the league, despite facing two of the best running backs in the NFL -- the Vikings' Dalvin Cook and the Giants' Saquon Barkley.
"We're just understanding teams are going to do that [run the ball right at us]," Cowboys linebacker Micah Parsons said on Wednesday. "You kind of hope that teams don't play the run, screen game … teams don't really want to drop back and pass anymore, at least against us … it's hard to stay up, but we understand what it is. Right now, we've seen what we need to see, and we're always planning for the unexpected."
In Weeks 8 and 10, before and after their Week 9 bye, the Cowboys allowed a combined 447 rushing yards across their 49-29 win against the Chicago Bears in Week 8 (240 rushing yards allowed) and 31-28 overtime loss at the Green Bay Packers in Week 10 (207 rushing yards allowed), a two-game stretch marking only the ninth time in franchise history that Dallas had allowed 200 or more rushing yards in consecutive games. A big source of pride for the Silver and Blue this Thanksgiving was limiting Barkley to 52 scrimmage yards -- 39 rushing and 13 receiving -- and one rushing touchdown in Week 12 after allowing him to get loose in Week 3 when he had 126 yards from scrimmage and a rushing score.
"I thought we did pretty good, he [Barkley] might've had one, maybe two explosive runs, but for the most part contained him and made sure everything was short," Parsons said after the game on Thanksgiving. "They passed way more than we were probably expecting, so I think we did a pretty good job for the way he's [Barkley] been playing this year."
The Cowboys tied their season-high with 12 missed tackles in their 23-16 win at the Giants in Week 3, but they had a season-low one missed tackle in their 28-20 win against the same team on Turkey Day in Week 12.
"Something we were pleased with was our tackling … that was a big improvement from the quarterback [Daniel Jones] to the running back [Barkley], guys who are exceptional with what they do in terms of running the ball," Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said on Monday. "Going against this team [the Giants], we knew how important it was going to be able to set the edges. This running back Barkley has such a good jump-cut to start outside and bring it back inside, so we worked that as much as we could given the short week. We know how explosive and dangerous he is. We knew it was going to have to be the second, the third, the fourth guy to come in to go make some plays. It wasn't just going to be in the run game. It was him coming out of the backfield on screens. Going into it, that was a focus point for us: the tackling in the run and in the pass game as well."
Week 13 brings another challenging tackling task to AT&T Stadium in Arlington on "Sunday Night Football" in last season's leading rusher, Indianapolis Colts running back Jonathan Taylor. He led the entire league in carries (332), rushing yards (1,811) and rushing touchdowns (18) in 2021 and despite missing three games with an ankle injury this season, Taylor has 47 tackles avoided in 2022, eighth-most in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus.
"It's the speed," Quinn said when asked what stands out about the Colts' lead horse. "[Jonathan] Taylor is a bigger back, you wouldn't always think that because of the kind of speed that he has, but he is a strong-sized back. The inside run if you miss your fit or your angle, you can really be vulnerable. I think you saw that against the [Las Vegas] Raiders on the long one that he had [a 66-yard touchdown run] where if he gets out to the edge and he can split it, he has the speed to go the distance. That was true from his college days [at Wisconsin], and it's kind of carried all the way through. He is a tough back that has real good speed, so this will be our third one in a row of guys that can really make the big plays."
"He's [Taylor] just more downhill, more forward,and he has that extra juice at the end" Parsons said when asked about the difference between Taylor and the last two running backs Dallas faced, Cook and Barkley. "He's always falling forward where Saquon [Barkley] and [Dalvin] Cook are way more elusive, I would put Jonathan Taylor as more of a power back, just smaller than D Henry."
Since former Indianapolis Colts offensive lineman and ESPN NFL analyst Jeff Saturday became the interim head coach in place of the fired Frank Reich, he reinstalled Matt Ryan as the starting quarterback after he was benched for former sixth-round pick Sam Ehlinger and put more of an emphasis on the ground game. Taylor has had at least 20 carries, 80 rushing yards and a rushing touchdown in all three games since Saturday took over.
Old friends turned enemies on Sunday
The Cowboys defense may never get a better scouting report on an opposing quarterback from their defensive coordinator than they will in preparation to face Colts quarterback Matt Ryan, Quinn's face of the franchise when he was the Atlanta Falcons head coach from 2015-2020. Their run together included the peak of both of their careers during the 2016 season when Ryan won the NFL MVP award while the Falcons reached the Super Bowl. They fell just short against Bill Belichick, Tom Brady, and the New England Patriots, losing 34-28 in overtime, the only Super Bowl ever to go to OT, after blowing a 28-3 lead. However when Quinn looks back on his years with Ryan, it's all admiration.
"I love him," Quinn said when asked about facing his former star quarterback. "He is a rare and relentless competitor. That's one of the first things that you find out about him being around him for a long time. He's a wolf in sheep's clothing. He comes across nice and clean cut, but he is a tough-ass competitor. Those are some of the things I remember. From his side, I remember all the support he showed me and the staff, and I certainly appreciate that. He's got a special spot with me because of his toughness, his leadership and what he stands for."
Ryan may not be as happy to see his old boss on Sunday since the 37-year-old quarterback is averaging the fewest air yards per pass attempt (5.9) in the NFL this season along with the second-most turnovers in the league, 14, behind only Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen's 15. Making matters worse for Ryan, the Colts have allowed the most sacks in the league, 43, while the Cowboys defense has the most sacks in the NFL, 45, the most by any team through 11 games since the 2014 Buffalo Bills. Dallas is on pace for 69 sacks as a team this season, which would be three short of the single-season record by a team, 72, set by the 1984 Chicago Bears.
Leading the charge in the Cowboys' sacks department is Parsons, whose 12 sacks are second-most in the league behind only the 13 put up by New England Patriots linebacker Matt Judon. With 12 or more sacks in each of his first two seasons, Parsons is just one of three players to accomplish that feat along with arguably the greatest pass rusher ever, Hall of Famer Reggie White, and former San Francisco 49ers defensive end Aldon Smith. His 12 total sacks also rank as the most through 11 games by any player since sacks became an official statistic in 1982.
All of his sacks have come in bunches -- games with two sacks -- as Parsons' six multi-sack games are tied for third-most in a season since 1982. He only needs three more such games to break the record for the most multi-sack games in a season, currently held by White with eight.
"I come out and try to do variations of moves," Parsons said. "I really want to see how they're going to play, especially throughout the first 15 [plays]. They're going to try tricks, gadgets, play-actions, boots, all types of things versus true dropbacks. I try to use my super power, which is my speed, to see if they're suitable to speed. If I can't beat the edge, I'll be like 'Ok, well is inside there?' If he's staying heavy on the inside, 'are his arms wide?' There are a lot of keys I'm starting to pick up on and realizing that if I maybe exploit that. Then, 'oh wow, when someone figures out the game plan, they're like now we have to switch it' and at that point, I've got them exactly where I want them. I've got good playback memory, so I can kind of remember how they set me [up], how I lost, were my hands wrong, did I miss my hands? Those types of things just help me. You remember more when you lose than when you win."
A significant part of Parsons' prolific ability to bring down opposing quarterbacks is his versatility -- both in where he lines up and what moves he uses to beat offensive linemen. While he's lined up 72% of the time as a defensive lineman, 26% of the time as an inside linebacker, and 2% of the time as a cornerback, there's been a wide variation of which spot he's lined up at when on the defensive line or when standing up as an inside linebacker, according to Pro Football Focus.
"You want to make sure that you're not in one location long enough for teams to say 'this is where he's [Parsons] going to be, so this is how we're going to go,'" Quinn said. "He'll move off the ball sometimes, left side, right side, so you can move him around. … When you have that type of versatility, not every player can do that. The fact that Micah can move from inside linebacker to outside linebacker to right defensive end to left defensive end to standing over the center. Putting him in different spots is one of the real parts of not allowing someone to know, 'Hey, always put a tight end to the offensive left [side] to chip Lawrence Taylor' not that it worked against him or anyone else. I think having the ability to move is a big piece of that."
Ryan, Taylor and the Colts' 30th-ranked scoring offense -- 15.8 points per game -- will likely be in for a rude awakening on Sunday night against Parsons, DeMarcus Lawrence and the rest of the Cowboys' front seven that helps power the NFL's second-ranked scoring defense, allowing 17.0 points per game. Read More