There’s a common sports cliché: Big-time players make big-time plays in big-time games and moments.
There’s a limit as to how “big time” a Week 1 game in the NFL is, but on the road in prime time against a division opponent that won a playoff game last season is, relatively speaking, a big-time game. The big-time players for the Dallas Cowboys — Micah Parsons, Stephon Gilmore, CeeDee Lamb, Tony Pollard, etc. — made big-time plays. But so did Juanyeh Thomas. And Markquese Bell. And Dorance Armstrong. And KaVontae Turpin. And, to a different extent, Chuma Edoga.
Considering the big picture, that may have been the most encouraging thing for the team to carry into Week 2.
“We definitely have a lot of depth,” head coach Mike McCarthy said. “The connection of young players and experienced players, I think we have a really good mix and I think our older guys definitely help the younger guys, the first-year players. I think it’s all come together very well. I am pleased with that. I think each and every year, when you can’t sign players back to second contracts, I think that shows how much depth you have and obviously what the rest of the league thinks of them.”
Plays that stood out from Mike McCarthy’s first game as Cowboys’ offensive play caller
Player allocation and talent utilization is where everything begins. Coaches can scheme up X’s and O’s on both sides of the ball but results don’t show unless the players are slotted in the appropriate places to make it happen. Players playing to their slot is a good starting point.
For example, Dak Prescott carries the expectations — in label and in pay — of being a franchise-level QB1. Any Sunday he plays below that standard, the Cowboys are chasing at that position. On days he plays to that bar, the team is set up for success. In games that he elevates beyond his slot and into the top tier of quarterbacks, the Cowboys will be very difficult to beat.
On Sunday, the Cowboys showed just how many players are capable of playing above their slot.
According to TruMedia, Parsons led the Cowboys with six quarterback pressures. The scoreboard is an important caveat to consider because things got so lopsided so quickly that it impacted how much players played, and how deep into the game. Parsons did his wreckage — six pressures, one sack and three tackles — playing 40 of the 65 defensive snaps. Impressive, but expected for a player with top odds for Defensive Player of the Year.
Armstrong, on the other hand, is officially listed as the starting defensive end but utilized as the backup, because Parsons, listed as a linebacker, is used as a defensive end. Armstrong played 18 snaps Sunday, ninth among defensive linemen (counting Parsons as an end). Regardless, Armstrong was the only player that matched Parsons in quarterback pressures. His final line was six pressures, two sacks and three tackles.
“Dorance has been good for the last couple of years and I feel like just being in Dan Quinn’s system for the third year, it’s just going to elevate his game,” DeMarcus Lawrence said. “You’re going to see him make a lot more plays this year.”
To be clear, none of this is to compare two players against each other, rather against the expectations each carries. Parsons is the team’s top rusher and arguably the best defensive player in the NFL. His impact comes beyond the final stat line, something that is evident routinely during games.
One example Sunday was on a play that resulted in a sack for Osa Odighizuwa. Right off the snap, Parsons drew the undivided attention of the offensive guard and tackle.
That cleared the path for Odighizuwa to get to the quarterback untouched and sack Daniel Jones.
Odighizuwa is another example of playing above his slot, as he finished with two sacks, four tackles and four quarterback pressures.
“Osa’s a dog,” Lawrence said. “We call him ‘Swole-sa’ because he’s so strong. … His intelligence (has impressed the most). Knowing his job but also knowing everybody on the front-four’s job can just speed up our game and make us play faster.”
Chauncey Golston, listed as the third-string defensive tackle, had a sack and four quarterback pressures. The above-average play went beyond just the front four. Thomas’ shining play was the field goal he blocked in the first quarter but he also had a key stop a few plays earlier and came back with a pass breakup on the ensuing Giants drive as well.
While it would be disingenuous to put DaRon Bland purely in the depth players overperforming category, his pedigree is behind that of Gilmore and Trevon Diggs. For Bland to add another interception to his resume, now tied for most in the NFL since he entered the league. When a player like Bland, who would be a top-two cornerback option on many teams in the NFL, is cemented as the third corner on the depth chart, it shows that the team is in pretty good shape.
Even players who are superstars showed the ability to make plays beyond their high floor expectations. Diggs has made his money by being a ballhawk and hunting the ball in the air but has also drawn criticism for his lack of physicality. On Sunday, it was his big hit on Saquon Barkley that resulted in Bland’s pick-six to send the game into laugher territory and it was Diggs who later made a strong play to strip the ball from a receiver.
DARON BLAND PICK-6!
ANOTHER D/ST TD FOR THE @DallasCowboys!
— NFL (@NFL) September 11, 2023
“I was really proud of him for that,” Quinn said of Diggs. “It was a great hit that you couldn’t have timed it up any better on the one that Bland got the interception on, and then knocking another one out later. It’s really having a mindfulness approach to get the football. Where is it? The ball is talking, are you listening, and what is it saying? We want to make sure we’re always thinking about that.”
Injuries are inevitable and the Cowboys will have to battle through their fair share at some point. That’s when the team will need the depth players to level up, much like Cooper Rush did last year in going 4-1 in Prescott’s absence. If those players throughout the roster are already performing at a starter level, the temporary drop-off would be lower. And if the Cowboys have good fortune and avoid injuries, individual performances like many on Sunday will be the result.
The game against the Giants wasn’t necessarily a template for the Cowboys; there aren’t many opponents the Cowboys will beat 40-0 and there will be opponents that will be a much tougher matchup than the Giants. However, the game Sunday was a recipe.
Backups performing like starters. Starters performing like stars. Stars performing like superstars. If the Cowboys can get this level of play consistently, regardless of who they’re up against, they will be hard to beat.
(Top photo of Chauncey Golston: Mitchell Leff / Getty Images)
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