The magic number is 2.3.
After 2.3 seconds, Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy says, players must be ready to defend an opponent’s extended play.
“There are three stages to every football play: the pre-snap, the 2.3 and the above 2.3,” McCarthy explains. “If you just take a normal outside zone run play and you freeze it right at 2.3, everybody’s going to be fitted into their gap. And to me, that’s where the real money’s at in the play. Defensively, if you’re stopping the play before 2.3 then it’s probably a big play for the defense.
“It’s how we train.”
So consider the absurdity of the clip McCarthy queued up in film sessions on Wednesday. Murray did not simply extend a play beyond 2.3 seconds in this instance. Rather, the third-year gunslinger tortured a defense for a full 13 seconds.
“His extended play tape is pretty dramatic,” McCarthy said. “He can run. He’s even quicker. And what’s so impressive his ability to make the throws from different arm slots, different body positions.
The 11-4 Cowboys host 10-5 Arizona this weekend in a matchup of NFC playoff contenders with seeding implications. The contest arrives at an opportune moment, as a transformed Cowboys defense celebrates 14 takeaways and 13 sacks across four December games. Their momentum is undeniable. But context matters. And these four games, all Dallas wins, came against a roster of backup quarterbacks. The Cowboys defense has proven superior to the Saints’ Taysom Hill, Washington’s Taylor Heinicke and Kyle Allen, and the Giants’ Mike Glennon and Jake Fromm. Now, they determine: How will they fare against two-time Pro Bowl quarterback Kyler Murray?
“This is a week for us to make a statement,” impact rookie defender Micah Parsons said. “These type of games really define how you are going to go. We come out here and do what we are supposed to do, we’re putting everyone on notice.
“It’s a challenge I am excited for.”
The challenge Murray poses is multifaceted. Athleticism, arm strength, rare speed and twitchy decision-making contribute to his threat. Despite missing three games with an ankle injury, Murray has completed 69.1% of pass attempts for 3,284 yards, 21 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
He’s averaged 8.1 yards per attempt and posted a passer rating of 100.5. And Murray’s ankle hasn’t eliminated his ground threat: The 2019 first overall draft selection has still contributed 344 yards and five touchdowns rushing, averaging 4.6 yards per carry. He ripped off 74 yards on a mere four rushes last week in a 22-16 loss to the Colts.
“He is so explosive, so quick, so fast,” Parsons said. “We have to make sure all the gaps are filled so we don’t give him no breathing room to get outside of that pocket to extend plays.
“He is really getting the best of a lot of players this year. So I am going to have to be on my ‘A’ game.”
In 2020, against Murray, the Cowboys defense arguably wasn’t even on its ‘B’ game. Arizona gashed Dallas for 438 total yards, including 261 rushing yards, in a 38-10 loss. But the Cowboys defense has since transformed drastically.
After ranking 31st in run defense (158.8 yards per game) in 2020, Dallas ranks 12th (109.5) through 15 games. Even more meaningfully, they have leapt from 28th in points allowed (29.6) to seventh (20.5). No team has forced more turnovers this season than the Cowboys’ 33. Their 25 interceptions best second-place New England by five.
And perhaps as amazing: Entering Week 17, the Cowboys defense is as healthy as it has been all season. Defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence, after missing 10 games recovering from a broken foot, has rounded into form and last week intercepted a pass he tipped…next returning it 40 yards for a touchdown. Randy Gregory has commanded attention mostly from the right end, while Parsons has wreaked havoc as an edge rusher, coverage linebacker and interior rusher. Add in strong and speedy defensive tackle Neville Gallimore, and the Cowboys’ front seven is a problem.
Heinicke, the Cowboys’ victim two of the last three weeks, said Dallas “kicked our ass in all three phases of the game” after a 56-14 decision Sunday night.
“That defense isn’t just doing it to us,” he added, per ESPN. “They’re doing it to almost every team they play. When you play a team like that and get down quick and have to throw the ball, it’s tough.”
The defensive-line dominance, in turn, has complemented well a talented secondary. Second-year cornerback Trevon Diggs poses the greatest threat in the backfield, Diggs’ 11 interceptions tying Hall of Famer Everson Walls’ for the Cowboys’ single-season franchise record. Diggs plays opposite veteran corner Anthony Brown, whom defensive coordinator Dan Quinn lauds for consistency. The Cowboys’ safety rotation includes hard-hitting Donovan Wilson and size-and-speed mismatch Jayron Kearse.
The crew doesn’t underestimate the challenge Murray, his weapons and head coach Kliff Kingsbury’s scheme pose. Quinn guides them on the perils of Murray’s escapability, the need to “plaster” after he bolts from the pocket to defend both vertical and horizontal threats.
Animal-loving Parsons compares Murray to a cheetah on account of his rare speed. Parsons doesn’t assume he can thwart Murray alone. But the linebacker who fashions himself an always-hungry lion proposed a workaround.
“The cheetah’s the fastest animal, but I mean a lion doesn’t just go by himself,” Parsons said. “It’s a lot of lions and lionesses.
“So if you’ve got a pack of lions, then I like the lion over the cheetah any day of the week.”
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Dallas Cowboys’ plan on Cardinals’ Kyler Murray: Micah Parsons ready