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Defensive Review: Micah Parsons shines, but issues in run defense remain

Defensive Review: Micah Parsons shines, but issues in run defense remain

Holding an offense like Tampa Bay’s unit to just 19 points and just seven points in the second half is no small feat. Most Sundays, that should be enough to win. Micah Parsons and the rest of the defense did their part.

It’s difficult to figure out where to start here. From a bird’s eye view, Tampa Bay racked up 347 yards, with 152 of those coming on the ground. Dallas’ defense was strong on third down, as the Bucs converted just five of their 14 third downs. The Cowboys were penalized 10 times in this game, and none of those came on the defense. Overall, it was a very positive showing. The defense did their job, but by no means were they perfect.

Run Defense

But Tampa Bay had a lot of success on the ground against the Cowboys’ defense. That’s a continuation of an issue that plagued the defense in 2021. Stopping the run was an issue most of 2021, and Leonard Fournette had a ton of success Sunday. Fournette finished with 127 yards on 21 carries for a strong six yards per carry.

The Bucs had a ton of success running it to the left side. Bob Sturm of The Athletic pointed out how jarring Tampa Bay’s run splits when running to the left side are. This was not by accident:

About 75 percent of Fournette’s attempts and 111 of his 127 yards were at the left side. As stated above, this is not an accident with DeMarcus Lawrence (a fantastic run defender) usually playing on the right side. Some things are going to have to change on that left side if Dallas doesn’t want this to become a trend. Those five clips in Sturm’s tweet are hard to watch.

For as good of a corner as Trevon Diggs is, he is anything but good in run support. Attacking him seemed to be an objective of Tampa’s, but Dallas’ left defensive ends need to be much better. It cannot just be Lawrence holding down the right side. Dorance Armstrong received a very poor run defense grade of 49.1 from Pro Football Focus. Sam Williams had the same issue in limited snaps. Here are two threads from Sturm and John Owning of PFF diagnosing some of these issues in the run game:

Another issue I noticed was Leighton Vander Esch and Anthony Barr needed to do a better job of scraping over the top to fill their gaps. Not coincidentally, they both received subpar run defense grades from PFF as well. While it was a decent showing overall, Dallas needs to shore up its run defense, especially on that left edge. I’m looking at you, Dorance Armstrong.

Pass defense

I’ll include the pass rush in this section as well as the secondary. But let’s start with the secondary:

The biggest issue here probably begins with Anthony Brown. Brown has been a nice player for Dallas for several years and had a strong training camp as well. But Tom Brady picked on him all night. Per Pro Football Reference, he was targeted nine times for seven catches and 108 yards.

Trevon Diggs was very strong in coverage. He surrendered just 33 yards on six targets. He did give up a red zone touchdown to Mike Evans on an unbelievable one-handed catch by Evans.

Leighton Vander Esch also had a nice night in pass defense. He was targeted just four times and gave up 15 yards, per PFR. Donovan Wilson and Malik Hooker had strong evenings in the back end, as Wilson came up with a nice interception and Hooker was never targeted.

The safety room did take a hit, as Jayron Kearse sprained his MCL and will miss 2-4 weeks. In the preseason we heard so much positivity about Israel Mukuamu and Markquese Bell and the depth they provide in the safety room. With Kearse out, Mukuamu and Bell will have to step up.

Overall, it was a decent showing from the secondary, but Brady was still able to complete some throws down the field (as he tends to do over the last two decades).

As anticipated, the pass rush of this team is a strength. Dallas generated 13 pressures on Brady. Here are our leaders in the clubhouse for pressures on Sunday (hello, Micah Parsons):

  • Micah Parsons: 5
  • Osa Odighizuwa: 2
  • Tarell Basham (out next week with a quad injury): 2
  • Trysten Hill: 1
  • Donovan Wilson: 1
  • Dorance Armstrong: 1
  • Dante Fowler Jr.: 1

DeMarcus Lawrence was shut out Sunday, but he still provided very strong run defense. Going forward, Dallas is going to need more from Lawrence in pass rush to make up for the loss of Randy Gregory.

Odighizuwa continued to build off his strong rookie season with two pressures and he also received a strong 75.5 grade from PFF. Hill was Dallas’ 2nd-highest graded defender behind Parsons with a grade of 81. Combine those two with Neville Gallimore and Quinton Bohanna, as well as Chauncey Golston’s ability to kick inside, and you’ve got some nice young depth on the interior.

The Parsons Project

Each week I’ll close this article with a look into how Dan Quinn is deploying Micah Parsons. This gets its own section because Parsons is such a truly unique and versatile talent and how he is deployed fascinates me. Here are his snap counts by position:

  • Defensive line: 40
    • LOLB: 20
    • ROLB: 20
  • Off-ball linebacker: 21
  • Right cornerback:  1

Parsons played all 62 snaps for Dallas on Sunday. He was the highest graded Cowboy per PFF with a grade of 85.7. He received a 64.6 grade in run defense, 78.2 in tackling, 88.4 in pass rush, and 64.3 in coverage.

Parsons was not targeted in coverage and had no missed tackles. He continued his torrid start to his pass rushing career as he tallied five pressures and two sacks Sunday. After Sunday, Parsons is one of five players in NFL history to record 15 sacks in his first 17 games. That statistic is even wilder when you realize he had just 2.5 sacks in his first eight games. For my mathematicians at home, that’s an outrageous 12.5 sacks in his last nine games!

Parsons is a truly special, generational talent who is already a co-favorite for the Defensive Player of the Year Award, per FanDuel. With Dak Prescott out, Dallas needs this defense, to use a hockey term for when a goaltender is playing great, to stand on its head to give Dallas a chance.

Micah Parsons is at the forefront of that effort. Let’s do this again next week.


Staff Writer covering the Dallas Cowboys || Co-Host of The Silver and Blue Podcast || Co-Host of The Victory Avenue Podcast

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