The Dallas Cowboys defense has help on the way for it's front seven starting this Thursday at the New Orleans Saints, with DeMarcus Lawrence expected to play for the first time since week one. Randy Gregory and Neville Gallimore could rejoin the defense the following week, but with losses in three of their last four games the Cowboys focus needs to be solely on the Saints. This week has already presented more injury and COVID related challenges to the Cowboys, who will be without Head Coach Mike McCarthy on Thursday.
Dan Quinn will fill McCarthy's shoes, the defensive coordinator that's architected a major turnaround by the Dallas defense already this season. Rookie of the year candidate Micah Parsons is a huge reason for this, and although it's the Cowboys secondary most in need of help after allowing 373 passing yards to the Raiders, Quinn will take all of the pass rush ability he can get from his front.
It's the scheme in the secondary that Quinn has adapted from his days in Seattle and Atlanta, but his premise at DL and LB paired with the Cowboys' trust to let him bring in the right personnel have yielded immediate results. In front of another national audience, there may be no better showing of this for the 2021 Cowboys than against the Saints – who have given first team QB reps to Taysom Hill this week.
Hill hasn't played since week 10 with a foot injury, and Trevor Siemian hasn't ran with Sean Payton's offense as New Orleans' has hoped. The Saints are coming off of a 31-6 loss to the Bills on Thanksgiving, where Siemian threw for 163 yards on 29 attempts with an interception.
No matter which QB they face, the Cowboys won't see the same passing threat they have in recent losses. If it is Hill, they'll have to be ready for a rushing threat that tests their gap assignments and willingness to tackle in space. Micah Parsons has excelled in both of these areas all season, flashing as a pass rusher in the absence of both Lawrence and Gregory.
Parsons' rush ability is hardly affected by where he lines up, using his power and bend to close on quarterbacks with remarkable speed. Paired with DeMarcus Lawrence's ability to set the edge from the strong side, Parsons seeing more time back at LB could be exactly what the Cowboys need against Hill.
Once Quinn's defense is at full strength, Parsons can remain a matchup player that complicates the looks opposing offenses get by rushing from multiple spots. A look ahead at their schedule shows how important this versatility will be, with both meetings against Taylor Heinicke and Washington remaining, a road game against Daniel Jones, as well as Kyler Murray and Jalen Hurts to end the regular season.
Just how much weight all of these games carry will be determined by the Cowboys avoiding another setback against the Saints. While their own offense expects to keep working Ezekiel Elliott in an effort to find their ground game again, the Cowboys defense needs to limit the Saints big plays on designed runs for Hill. In the two games where Hill has played more than half of the snaps on offense, the Saints averaged 156 yards on the ground, including a season high 170 against the Giants. They enter Thursday's meeting with the Cowboys as an equally desperate team, losers of four straight with less than 30 points scored in all four losses.
The Cowboys recent struggles have been defined by their inability to put a complete game together. Holding Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs to 19 points and not coming away with a win was followed by scoring 33 against the Raiders and still losing. There were points earlier in this high-parody 2021 season that preparing for Taysom Hill would be more of a challenge, but the Cowboys added focus on defense this week paired with their “secret weapon” in Micah Parsons makes this the right matchup to maintain their lead in the NFC East.