Ron Rivera succinctly summed up why the Washington Commanders have a little extra juice this week as they prepare for another NFC matchup against the Dallas Cowboys: "Because it's the Cowboys."
"That's traditionally been one of the NFC East rivals," Rivera said. "There's a long history between them, and we look forward to the opportunity to play them."
The Cowboys (2-1) were expected to be a team in flux once starting quarterback Dak Prescott suffered an injury to his right thumb in Week 1. With Prescott expected to miss about a month of the season, Cooper Rush, an undrafted free agent from Central Michigan, has stepped in and taken over on a temporary basis.
Rush, who is 3-0 as a starter in his career, has performed better than expected through two games, and much of that performance is a credit to the team around him.
While Amari Cooper is playing in a different conference and Michael Gallup is still coming back from an ACL injury (he was a full participant on Wednesday and hopes to play against Washington on Sunday), the Cowboys still have a solid arsenal of weapons in CeeDee Lamb, Ezekiel Elliott and Toney Pollard. Though the unit is nowhere near as explosive as it was last season, it is still capable of providing explosive plays when necessary, as it showed in the Cowboys' 23-16 victory over the New York Giants on Monday Night Football.
The Cowboys' true strength lies with their defense, which is as aggressive and opportunistic as it was in 2021. Micah Parsons, the reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year, currently leads the most productive pass rush in the league with four sacks and the second-best pass-rush win-rate among edge defenders. In the secondary, Trevon Diggs is living up to his reputation in securing turnovers, as he sealed Monday's game with a fourth-quarter interception.
The trio of Lamb, Parsons and Diggs have all been pivotal in the Cowboys' two-game winning streak. So, here is what the Commanders have been saying about some of the Cowboys' top playmakers.
Lamb is the team's second leading receiver through three games with 17 receptions for 191 yards, 87 of which came against the Giants. Lamb was the player who gave the Cowboys the lead over their NFC East foe in the four quarter, capping off an 89-yard drive with a one-yard touchdown, his first of the season.
Throughout his career, Lamb has flaunted strong hands, an impressive catch radius and a knack for delivering key plays when Dallas needs them. For a player like Kendall Fuller, who has seen his share of Lamb in the past, it is important for the entire secondary to work together to contain the wideout.
"They move him around so much," Fuller said. "But at the end of the day, it's about going out there and ultimately playing your techniques, doing the things you need to do to put yourself in position to make plays."
The Commanders have normally done a good job of containing Lamb in their previous matchups. He recorded at least 60 yards in both of the 2021 games, but he was limited to just 21 yards against the Burgundy & Gold during his rookie season.
Lamb was expected to step up once Cooper was traded and Gallup suffered his injury. He did that against the Giants, and if Washington hopes to get to 2-2, it will need to have an answer for him.
Rivera put it best when describing what makes Parsons so talented. "He's a special, dynamic athlete."
Parsons has not missed a step after being named the Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2021. On top of leading the Cowboys in sacks, he also has nine quarterback hits and five tackles for a loss. He has the fourth-highest overall grade in terms of Pro Football Focus' metrics among edge defenders and the highest in the NFC.
"Great player," said quarterback Carson Wentz. "It's a great defense, great front. They fly around, they play fast, so we know what we're up against. I've got nothing but confidence in our guys to protect, and the things that we'll do to counteract that and different things."
The Cowboys lead the league in sacks, while the Commanders have given up the most sacks through three games. It should be another challenge for the offensive line after the offense gave up nine sacks against the Philadelphia Eagles. The blame for that number should not be placed entirely on Wentz or the offensive line. However, both will need to improve in protection and recognizing pressure against a front that thrives on one-on-one matchups.
"I'm very excited for the matchup," Wentz said. "I know our guys are excited for it and they're a great defense, great front, and I'm confident we have a great front as well. We're gonna be ready for the challenge."
Say what you will about Diggs and his tendency to allow yardage in chunks at times, but the cornerback also knows how to create a turnover.
Diggs had a breakout year in 2021 by leading the league with 11 interceptions, including two returned for touchdowns. Diggs only has one pick so far this year, but he does lead the league with six pass breakups, three of which came against the Giants.
Terry McLaurin has seen plenty of Diggs over the past two seasons and had his share of success against the young cornerback (McLaurin has 1,329 yards against NFC East opponents since 2019, which is the most by any wideout in the NFL). McLaurin's best highlight against Diggs was the 52-yard score he had in Week 7 of the 2020 season, contributing to a 25-3 victory.
McLaurin did have high praise for Diggs, though, saying that the cornerback has "some of the best ball skills of any DB in the league."
"He plays a very aggressive style," McLaurin said. "He's very long at the line of scrimmage, and he can run as well. So, I think it's important to be physical as much as you can, and you're gonna have to make contested catches against him."
Most of McLaurin's production has come in the second halves of games so far. However, Rivera and Wentz have said they want to get him more involved earlier. No matter when he gets the ball against Diggs, it is a guarantee that McLaurin will be ready. And with Diggs being the type of player that the Cowboys trust to match up against opponents' top receivers, there should be competition between the two.
"When you're going against another great player, it just forces you to raise up your level of play," McLaurin said. "I'm looking forward to the challenge like I do every year. Hopefully I'll get some one-on-one opportunities and allow myself to attack him."