Cowboys DC Mike Zimmer details how he’ll deploy Micah Parsons, discusses Dallas

FRISCO, Texas — Dallas Cowboys three-time All-Pro edge rusher Micah Parsons is on a generational start to his NFL career. The word “generational” is probably thrown around too casually in sports analysis these days, but in the case of Parsons, it’s appropriate.

Parsons is one of five players — Hall of Famers Reggie White, Derrick Thomas, Dwight Freeney and Aldon Smith — to total at least 40 sacks (40.5) within his first three seasons. During his third season, 2023, Parsons paced the entire league in quarterback pressures (103), quarterback pressure rate (21.8%) and pass rush win rate (35.3%) — when a defender beats his block in less than 2.5 seconds. Astounding when factoring in Parsons was double-teamed on 35% of his pass rush plays in 2023, the most in the league among edge players, per the NFL’s Next Gen Stats. There wasn’t another edge rusher in the NFL who was double-teamed at a rate of 30% or higher last season.

Thus, new Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer isn’t going to reinvent the wheel when it comes to Parsons’ usage in comparison to how he was deployed under former DC Dan Quinn, who was hired to become the Washington Commanders head coach this offseason.

“He doesn’t have to take many steps,” Zimmer said Tuesday when asked about Parsons’ development. “We were sitting up there again this morning talking about other things we can do with him. He’s such a dynamic player that, I said this the other day: ‘Offenses are always going to know where he’s at.’ They’re going to turn protections to him, have the back help chip no matter what it is. In a lot of the games he played last year that I watched, the offenses had a good scheme where they get two tight ends on him and all those things. So, we’re going to obviously move him around, do different things with him, but we’re going to use him some ways where we’re getting the protection turned the way we want it turned and able to win on the other side. Sometimes, we’re going to try to overload a protection where he gets a one-on-one.”

Parsons began his career by lining up predominantly as an inside linebacker after being selected 12th overall in the 2021 NFL Draft, but after both starting Dallas defensive ends DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory missed time with injuries that season, he shined lining up along the defensive line. Parsons finished his rookie year with 13 sacks, good enough for Defensive Rookie of the Year, Pro Bowl and First-Team All-Pro honors. He has since been utilized in that pass-rush focused role as a defensive end the last two seasons.

Micah Parsons’ career defensive snap alignment

Defensive Line

41.3%

81.1%

87.2%

Linebacker

55.2%

18.1%

12.7%

Defensive Back

3.5%

0.8%

0.1%

*Data according to Pro Football Focus

When asked if he would encourage Parsons’ sumo wrestling training that he did in Japan earlier this month as part of trip to grow the game of football in Asia with Houston Texans quarterback C.J. Stroud, Zimmer joked, “He could have done that with me probably.”

Zimmer set to renovate Dallas’ defense, won’t be tearing it down and starting from scratch

Zimmer has been an NFL defensive coordinator in three different stints, including a prior one with the Cowboys: seven seasons with Dallas from 2000-2006, one season with the Atlanta Falcons in 2007 and six seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals from 2008-2013.He also called defensive plays for the Minnesota Vikings as their head coach for eight seasons from 2014-2021.

Prior to his arrival in Atlanta — the Falcons ranked 15th in scoring in 2006 (20.5 points per game allowed), Cincinnati — the Bengals ranked 24th in scoring in 2007 (24.1 points per game allowed) and Minnesota — the Vikings ranked last in defense in 2013 (30.0 points per game allowed), the defensive units Zimmer was tasked to lead were either barely above average or struggling. That isn’t the case in Dallas. The Cowboys were a top-five unit in 2023, allowing only 18.5 points per game, good for the fifth-best scoring defense in the NFL. That means Zimmer is entering his second stint as the Cowboys defensive coordinator with a different perspective.

“It’s like I told the defense the first day I got here,” Zimmer said. “‘This is a different deal for me. Usually when I come in, the defense is not good.’ And they’re pretty darn good. … We have to advance some of the things they were doing good and try to improve on the things they weren’t doing as good.”

Quinn, Zimmer’s predecessor, didn’t get the Commanders’ head-coaching gig for no reason. His Dallas defenses were consistently top five in scoring, and they led the NFL in quarterback pressure rate (41.4%), interceptions (59), takeaways (93) and defensive touchdowns (15) from 2021-2023.

Cowboys defense under Dan Quinn since 2021

PPG Allowed

19.9

5th

3rd Down Pct Allowed

36.4%

4th

Sacks

141

6th

QB Pressure Rate

41.4%

1st

TD-INT Allowed

68-59

2nd

Interceptions

59

1st

Takeaways

93

1st

Defensive TD 15 1st

“For the most part, they’ve played pretty darn good, and we’re going to try to accentuate that and maybe be a little bit more technique-oriented, maybe a little bit more disciplined,” Zimmer said. “At the end of the day, we’ve got to do it the way I want it done. I know [when] you try to come in and do somebody else’s thing, it just doesn’t go well.”

One area in which the Cowboys defense could stand to improve is in the run game. They allowed 112.4 rushing yards per game in the 2023 regular season, 16th out of 32 teams, and Dallas was gashed on the ground in four of their six losses last season, including the playoffs: They allowed 266 rushing yards at the Bills in Week 15 (a 31-10 defeat), 222 rushing yards at the Arizona Cardinals in Week 3 (28-16 loss), 170 rushing yards at the 49ers in Week 5 (42-10 loss) and 143 rushing yards against the seventh-seeded Packers in their 48-32 wild-card round playoff defeat (a game in which they trailed 27-0).

An organic way Zimmer could improve the Cowboys run defense would be to get a higher level of play out of the team’s 2023 first-round pick (26th overall), defensive tackle Mazi Smith. He registered 13 tackles, one sack, eight quarterback pressures and only three tackles for loss while playing in all 17 regular-season games in 2023 with three starts. Smith only had four snaps in the team’s loss against Green Bay. A good chunk of his struggles can be attributed to inconsistency in his frame. Smith was listed at 337 pounds by the Michigan in 2022 — his current listed weight by the Cowboys —  and 323 pounds at the 2023 NFL Scouting Combine.

That number declined below 300 pounds during the 2023 season in an effort to be more of a fit in Quinn’s defense.

“He lost a lot of weight when he got here,” Zimmer said. “He was trying to be an attacking three-technique to get up the field. … “Obviously, he was a high draft pick. I heard that he kind of struggled last year, so we’re gonna start with the basics: Get him in a good stance, get him using his hands the right way, getting his footwork the right way and then go from there.”

Now, Zimmer will ask Smith to be more of run-stuffing, larger defensive tackle in his scheme.

“We’re going to probably play blocks a little bit more, and try not to get reached so linebackers know where they’re supposed to fit, so forth and so on,” Zimmer said talking about Smith. “That’s the biggest thing. … Yeah, it’s what he did in college.”

He has yet to see Smith out on the practice field after the defensive tackle had offseason shoulder surgery, but Smith is already back above 300 with an agreed upon “ideal weight” goal established between Zimmer and Smith.

“He told me he’s like 305 right now,” Zimmer said. “I’ll keep his ideal weight to me. … I talked to him yesterday and asked him what weight he felt comfortable at, so we’ve got to get him to that point first and then get his strength back, and then we’ll let him go out here on the field. We anticipate he’s going to be a good player like he was in college, and that’s how we have to go.”

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