When the outcome was still in question early in the fourth quarter Sunday and their Pro Bowl punter hit a ball off the side of his foot and saw it travel just 22 yards, the Dallas Cowboys‘ defense did not flinch.
The Washington Commanders took over at the Cowboys’ 30 with the ability to cut a deficit to one score, and they would get as deep as the 10. But then Dante Fowler Jr. recorded a third-down sack, and a fourth-down Carson Wentz throw to receiver Terry McLaurin was deflected by corner Trevon Diggs.
“It wasn’t even, ‘Oh, my gosh, bad field position,'” linebacker Leighton Vander Esch said. “It was everybody out there saying, like, ‘Do your job. They don’t get anything.’ And that was it.”
The Commanders got nothing. The Cowboys got everything, including a 25-10 victory.
Dallas (3-1) has won three straight games without Dak Prescott under center for a number of reasons: Timely offense, solid special teams, efficient running game.
But the biggest reason? The defense.
Even quarterback Cooper Rush recognizes it.
“They’re the reason we’re winning, it’s just plain and simple,” Rush said. “Those guys, I mean, 10 points in the NFL is pretty impressive.”
The Cowboys have yet to allow 20 points in a game this season. It’s the first time since 1973 the Cowboys have held their first four opponents to 19 points or fewer. They have allowed just four touchdowns in the first four games. Only the 1970 and 1972 defenses have given up four or fewer touchdowns in the first four games of the season.
That’s reminiscent of the Cowboys’ Doomsday Defense, when they had Hall of Famers Bob Lilly and Mel Renfro with Ring of Honor linebackers Chuck Howley and Lee Roy Jordan leading the defense in the 1970s.
“I’ll repeat it again: I think we’ve really got a chance to be the best defensive team in this league,” linebacker Micah Parsons said. “The way we prepare and the way we calculate, the players we have … everyone’s hungry out here. And I think that’s just been the key. Everyone’s just been relentless. Everyone’s been trying to take their chances and their shots.”
On Sunday, the Cowboys sacked Wentz twice, raising their season total to 15. It’s the eighth time in franchise history they have recorded that many sacks in the first four games of a season and just the second time since Jerry Jones took over as owner and general manager in 1989.
“We all talk about 17 [points] or less as a goal, but we all know how the rules have changed in the last 10 to 12 years, particularly with more space and so forth,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “I think it’s a real credit to our coaches and our players. You can see this really building in the second half of the season last year. As we stated throughout the OTAs and the training camp, this is a group that has a complete understanding of how we want to play. We’ve got a lot of depth, love their competitive spirit.”
Parsons is the most recognized defender, but he has gone two games without a sack.
“I started off good, but right now I’ve got to finish,” Parsons said. “I let too many plays get away from me today where I could have finished on the quarterback. That type of stuff can’t happen; [not] what a best player would do. I do think that I’ve been able to help my teammates get better.”
Against the Commanders, the sacks went to Neville Gallimore and Fowler. But it’s more than sacks.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Cowboys generated 16 pressures, which helped lead to two Wentz intentional grounding penalties. On the season, the Cowboys have 65 pressures, third most through four games since ESPN began tracking pressures in 2009.
“I mean, we know we real up front,” DeMarcus Lawrence said. “That’s a testament to the rush we put on the last couple of weeks. Yeah, if you was a quarterback, you’d be a little flustered too.”
And those pressures helped lead to two takeaways, including Diggs’ second interception in as many games and rookie DaRon Bland‘s first career interception, as he had to play the nickel corner spot after corner Jourdan Lewis went down with a groin injury in pregame warm-ups.
“I feel like there is no ceiling,” Gallimore said. “At the end of the day, we know what we’ve got in that room.”
Tom Brady’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers scored 19 points. The defending AFC champion Cincinnati Bengals scored 17. The New York Giants scored 16. Washington, 10.
“So next week: 7,” Parsons said. “You know what I’m saying? That’s the type of standard.”
The challenges will get stronger, starting next week with the Los Angeles Rams, followed by the Philadelphia Eagles and Detroit Lions.
“There’s another level we can get to,” Vander Esch said. “We ain’t there yet. We just got to keep chugging.”