‘Doomsday is back’: How a stellar defense has carried Cowboys to a 3-1 start and hearkened memories of the glory days

FRISCO, Texas — Micah Parsons sat in his mahogany locker on the defensive side of the Dallas Cowboys’ stadium locker room, the linebacker’s jersey removed but a shoulder-padded undershirt intact. His defense had just held the Washington Commanders to only 10 points in the Cowboys’ third straight win. But this week was just the latest statement by the Cowboys' D.

For the first time since 1973, the Cowboys have held four straight opponents to 19 points or less. And for the first time since 1972, they have allowed just four touchdowns through four contests.

“That’s kind of the standard of what we want to come away with,” Parsons told Yahoo Sports. “How we want to represent this Dallas defense.

“‘Doomsday,’” he added, “is back.”

Parsons’ tone reflected less the arrogance of a player resting on his or his teammates’ laurels four weeks in and more the cautious optimism building as the Cowboys' defense draws weekly statistical parallels to the franchise’s best ever.

The Dallas “Doomsday” Defense helped the Cowboys to two championships and five total Super Bowl appearances in the 1970s. Stars included Hall of Fame defensive tackle Bob Lilly; Hall of Fame defensive backs Mel Renfro and Herb Adderley; and five-time All-Pro linebacker Chuck Howley, the first defensive player to win Super Bowl MVP.

The 2022 Cowboys, meanwhile, are 26 years removed from even an NFC championship game berth.

So while veteran defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence agreed “the stats speak for themselves” that this group is the Cowboys’ best defense since he was drafted in 2014, he stopped short of echoing Parsons’ Doomsday parallel.

“Me and Micah have a long talk to do this week,” Lawrence said. “How did they finish in ’73? None of that don’t matter. It’s all about getting better each and every week. And when our time comes, we’ve got to be sitting on the top of that mountain.”

How and when will it be fair to recognize what the Cowboys' defense is building?

Dallas Cowboys defensive back Donovan Wilson (6) celebrates with teammates Trevon Diggs (7) DeMarcus Lawrence (90) Dorance Armstrong (92) after an interception against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on September 11, 2022, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Matt Patterson)
Dallas Cowboys defensive back Donovan Wilson (6) celebrates with teammates Trevon Diggs (7) DeMarcus Lawrence (90) Dorance Armstrong (92) after an interception against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sept. 11 in Week 1. (AP Photo/Matt Patterson)

‘They are clearly the thermostat’

Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn coordinated Seattle’s Legion of Boom defenses in 2013 and 2014. The 2013 unit led the league in fewest points and yards allowed, and most takeaways. Seattle won the Super Bowl that season. The following year, again the stingiest against both production and scoring, Seattle won the NFC championship before losing 28-24 to Tom Brady's Patriots in the Super Bowl.

Quinn says special defenses must be consistent, curve toward improvement as the season elapses and succeed holistically rather than excelling in only some phases.

“If you’re going to be a good defense, you need to be good at all the spots,” Quinn said. “That’s third down, that’s red zone, that’s short yardage.”

Through four weeks, Dallas' defense is checking boxes — against their franchise predecessors and against the 31 teams they’ll fight for this season’s Lombardi Trophy.

Through Sunday night, the Cowboys ranked third in points allowed (15.5 per game), seventh in total yards (308.5 per game) and sixth in passing yards (171). Only the Philadelphia Eagles (16) have generated more sacks than their 15, the Cowboys and Eagles’ 44 quarterback pressures trailing only the Kansas City Chiefs.

The Cowboys have found a rush-and-cover tandem working together powerfully.

At the line of scrimmage, Parsons has four sacks while Lawrence and Dorance Armstrong each have three. They’ve downed quarterbacks around the left end and right, in dropbacks and in phone booth-like collapsing pockets. Parsons alone has levied spin moves and chops to beat offensive tackles, only to chase a ball-carrier sideline to sideline one snap later.

And in the secondary, the Cowboys boast a ballhawking cornerback and increasingly hybrid safeties.

Cornerback Trevon Diggs, who nabbed a league-best 11 interceptions last season, exited Sunday’s game with three key pass breakups including his second pick in as many weeks. Team owner Jerry Jones raved about Diggs’ skills to become a ballcarrier. Those relative gambles work, in part, because of the coverage he’s receiving behind.

The Cowboys selected Donovan Wilson out of Texas A&M in the sixth round of the 2019 draft, and they signed veterans Jayron Kearse and Malik Hooker in free agency in 2021. Quinn credits the group with reducing missed tackles and adjusting deftly to modern offenses’ variance. During Wilson’s nine-tackle day Sunday, he thwacked receivers and running backs alike short of the chains, even blitzing quarterback Carson Wentz sufficiently to trigger an intentional grounding penalty.

“The safety room is strong,” Quinn said Monday, in a refrain foreign to Cowboys fans of the past decade. “Man, am I impressed with that group.”

The result: The Cowboys have won three straight games with backup quarterback Cooper Rush, as Dak Prescott recovers from a thumb fracture. Rush credits the defense as “the reason we’re winning … plain and simple.”

“You want your defense to be the thermostat because the thermostat regulates the game,” head coach Mike McCarthy said Monday. “And they are clearly the thermostat for us, make no bones about it.

“They’re going to keep us in striking distance,” he added.

Can this defense get even better?

Quinn thinks back to his Seattle powerhouses, and the NFL defenses through history, when asked: At what point in a season do special defenses really start to look special?

“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,’” Quinn 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. That’s what it looks like.’”

He believes his group has demonstrated excellence and toughness, but not yet a “whoa” moment he anticipates they soon will.

Dallas’ next two contests could be the defense’s toughest two-week stretch of the season. The Cowboys travel west to the defending Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams and then east against the NFL’s last undefeated team in the NFC East rival Philadelphia Eagles.

The Eagles, with a far more potent rushing attack (163.5 yards per game, fifth most), likely pose a bigger threat. Even McCarthy acknowledged Monday that if he were facing this Cowboys group, he’d attack them by ground. The lone touchdown drive the Cowboys allowed each of the past two weeks was buoyed by ground games. Giants quarterback Daniel Jones scrambled for 14 yards on the scoring series to set up Saquon Barkley’s 36-yard rushing touchdown, while Washington running back J.D. McKissic flipped the field with a 33-yard burst up the right sideline three plays before the Commanders’ touchdown.

Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts leads all quarterbacks — and is third overall — with four rushing touchdowns.

The Cowboys welcome those challenges, knowing that only with better performances on bigger stages can they truly determine how close to Doomsday talent they actually are.

“You see the [points allowed],” Parsons said. “It went from 19 to 17 to 16 to 10. So next week: seven. Every week we’ve got to keep getting better."

He added: “I think we’ve really got a chance to be the best defensive team in the league.”

Follow Yahoo Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein