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How the Cowboys defense can get even better than it is now

By David Helman
FOX Sports Dallas Cowboys Writer

Despite the praise being thrown at this Dallas Cowboys defense, don’t expect Dan Quinn to become complacent with where the group is.

After all, the Cowboys defensive coordinator has seen what this can look like at its absolute best. Long before he led this turnaround in Dallas, even before that fateful Super Bowl with the Atlanta Falcons, Quinn oversaw NFL greatness as the defensive coordinator of the Seattle Seahawks and the iconic Legion of Boom.

Reflecting on a famous moment from former Seahawks great Kam Chancellor, Quinn can vividly recall the process of watching great become special.

“It got to a playoff game, he had an 80- or 90-yard interception against Carolina that he took back all the way,” Quinn said. “I remember seeing it at that moment and saying, ‘That’s it, that’s what it looks like. That’s what championship defense can look like.'”

Needless to say, the Cowboys have a long way to go before anyone will compare them to a unit that terrorized the NFL for roughly five years, helping Seattle to two Super Bowl appearances and one championship.

But it’s not so much about a comparison as the idea of graduating from good to great, and then from great to special. And while it hasn’t happened for this group through four weeks, Quinn knows exactly what to look for when evaluating. 

“There’s usually a moment or two in those first 10 or 12 games that you answer a challenge, you deliver on it — there’s something that says, ‘Whoa,'” he said. “You don’t know what game it’s going to be. You’re not even sure who the opponent is, but there’s just a performance that says, ‘This is what this group’s capable of.'” 

Quinn was sure to say his current group hasn’t provided a “whoa” moment just yet. After all, beating up on the Giants and Commanders isn’t quite the same as some of the tasks in front of the Cowboys. That includes a trip to Los Angeles this Sunday to face a Rams team looking to break out of a post-Super Bowl funk (4:25 p.m. ET on FOX and the FOX Sports App).

But in watching this defense through the first month of the season — even in the loss to Tampa Bay — it’s easy to assume that the moment is coming.

All the basic stats speak for themselves and can be easily looked up. The Cowboys are seventh in total defense and third in scoring defense. Their 15 sacks rank second in the league only to Philadelphia. They have yet to allow multiple touchdowns in any of their four games, which is a big part of the reason they haven’t allowed 20 points to an opponent yet.

It gets more interesting on a micro level. There’s a hefty amount of irony when you look at the NFL’s pass-rush win rate metric through the first four weeks. The league leader, by a considerable margin, is Denver’s Randy Gregory, who unfortunately was just sent to injured reserve with a knee injury.

Gregory, if you’ll recall, was on the verge of re-signing with the Cowboys in March — right before he opted for Denver, where he signed a five-year, $70 million contract. Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones was quick to point out that the savings allowed them to sign multiple replacements in Dorance Armstrong, Dante Fowler Jr. and Anthony Barr.

“We ended up getting three players for what we would’ve had Randy for, and that’s exciting,” Jones said. 

The funny thing is, despite the spin, Jones is proving to be right. The Cowboys lead the league in pass-rush win rate, winning a matchup 56% of the time. And while Gregory might top the list, the Cowboys currently boast three players in the top 20. Micah Parsons ranks sixth, winning his efforts 17.6% percent of the time, while DeMarcus Lawrence is 13th with a mark of 13.8%, and Armstrong is right behind him at 15th and 13.6%. Fowler is proving to be worth the $3 million investment to this point, as he has chipped in three quarterback hits, two sacks and a forced fumble while playing just 29% of the team’s defensive snaps so far.

This isn’t to say the Cowboys have it all figured out. After all, that “Whoa” moment has yet to happen. It feels like it’s coming, though, and there’s no time like the present. The Rams, have allowed 16 sacks through four weeks, and they have nine turnovers to go with that.

We’ll see what happens, but the potential is there. That’s worth being excited about. 

“I think we have a long way to go,” Quinn said. “But what does excite me about the group is that I think we can get a lot better as we’re going. That really fires me up.”

David Helman covers the Dallas Cowboys for FOX Sports. He previously spent nine seasons covering the Cowboys for the team’s official website. In 2018, he won a regional Emmy for his role in producing “Dak Prescott: A Family Reunion” about the quarterback’s time at Mississippi State. Follow him on Twitter @davidhelman_.

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