Cowboys have surprise Top-10 player at both ends of pass defense:

In today’s pass-heavy NFL, shutting down an opponent’s air game is of utmost importance. Whether the defense creates havoc at the source with sacks, pressures, hurries, and hits… or causes disruption at the downfield target with interceptions, pass breakups, or just consistently tight coverage that makes a completion difficult (and maybe makes the quarterback look elsewhere next time), the result is the same:

Minimize the damage done by the other side’s passing attack, and your own offense suddenly does not have to do quite as much to win the game. “The best offense” and all that…

Nick Shook of NFL.com recently used Next Gen Stats to look at the best defenders in the business on both ends of the equation, ranking the top 10 disruptors and coverage artists. The numbers don’t necessarily compute who: the best: players are in a given category; just who was, statistically, most effective for the parameters used.

The Cowboys’ resurgent defense of 2021 placed a man on each list, but both names held an element of surprise.

Disruptors, No. 4: LB Micah Parsons:

Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert is hit by Dallas Cowboys linebacker Micah Parsons as he throws during the second half of an NFL football game Sunday, Sept. 19, 2021, in Inglewood, Calif. (AP Photo / Gregory Bull)

For the disruptors, Shook used QB pressures, pressure rate, hurries, sacks, and turnovers caused by QB pressure to determine his rankings. Dallas rookie linebacker Micah Parsons placed No. 4 on the list, ahead of Leonard Floyd, Myles Garrett, Nick Bosa, and Aaron Donald.

The surprise isn’t that Parsons is recognized as a game-wrecker; it’s that the numbers prove that, even from his off-the-ball position, he outperformed some of the sport’s most feared full-time pass rushers.

Says Shook:

“Parsons wasn’t an every-down rusher – he was primarily an off-ball linebacker – which sparks an interesting debate when it comes to this exercise. With less pass-rushing responsibility, Parsons might have benefitted from being assigned to get after the quarterback in more advantageous situations. But the flip side of that argument is the reality that he was rushing less, meaning he had fewer chances to make an impact in that facet of the game. And he certainly maximized those opportunities.

“Parsons fell short of the gross totals posted by most of the players listed here when it came to quarterback pressures, but he led the league in quarterback pressure rate at 21.1 percent. He finished with 13 sacks, getting home on 4.7 percent of all pass rushes – good for third-best in the NFL. Add in the four turnovers caused by pressure, and Parsons proved to be quite the disruptive defender in his rookie season. ”

Parsons was pressed into defensive end duty in just his second game as a pro, filling in for the injured DeMarcus Lawrence. It was his first time playing the edge since high school, but the athletic linebacker was so impressive that coordinator Dan Quinn continued to experiment with him there throughout the season, even with all regular line starters at full strength.

Current plans are for Parsons to move around again in 2022, keeping opposing offenses guessing as to where he’ll line up from play to play.

Coverage players, No. 6: CB Anthony Brown:

Nov 14, 2021; Arlington, Texas, USA; Dallas Cowboys cornerback Anthony Brown (30) intercepts the ball during the third quarter against Atlanta Falcons receiver Olamide Zaccheaus (17) at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports:

Interceptions make the highlight reel, but it takes more than than picks to make a good cover man. Shook looked at metrics like catch rate as compared to expectation, tight-window percentage, passer rating allowed, and targeted expected points added (which quantifies “how much an individual player impacts an opponent’s scoring potential”).

Add in all of that, and league interception leader Trevon Diggs doesn’t even make the list. But Anthony Brown does. Chalk that up, Shook says, to Diggs’s low tight-window percentage based on how he tends to play, off receivers during their route and then using his closing speed to attack once the ball is in the air.

As Shook notes:

“We always get a few surprises with these rankings, and Cowboys fans will likely raise an eyebrow at this one. (I know I did.) For much of 2021, it felt like Brown was getting attention for being on the wrong end of a completion, but his total résumé tells a different story. Brown saw more targets as the nearest defender than any other player in 2021 with 117, yet he was consistently right there to make a play – or, at the very least, make a completion difficult. Despite the high volume of targets, Brown’s tight-window rate was over 28 percent, and he allowed the sixth-lowest completion percentage among defensive backs (49.6). His completion percentage allowed below expectation finished at a solid -6.4 percent, and he finished with the sixth-lowest targeted EPA on deep balls (-6.8). While Trevon Diggs attracted the lion’s share of positive praise in 2021, Brown was there on the other side playing a solid No. 2 cornerback. ”

Brown has come under fire from a portion of Cowboys fans who seem to dwell more on the moments when he got burned than the games he provided solid (if mostly unnoticed) coverage. The team now has a full eight cornerbacks in the facility: other than: Diggs and Brown, showing the emphasis the team has placed on forcing internal competition at corner.

If he can continue to beat out younger prospects like DaRon Bland, Nahshon Wright, Isaac Taylor-Stuart, and Kelvin Joseph (whose future with the club is a question mark for off-the-field reasons), the veteran entering his seventh year will have the chance to back up his somewhat surprising placement on this list… even while Diggs is across the field being the marquee ballhawk.

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