With AT&T Stadium buzzing, and the Dallas Cowboys comfortably ahead of the Carolina Panthers, the visiting team’s offense led by quarterback Sam Darnold is in desperation mode.
Dallas, leading by 22 points early in the fourth quarter, senses victory approaching. And the Cowboys' young, electric pass rushing linebacker, Micah Parsons, feels an opportunity to impact the game on the horizon.
“Don’t think, just react,” he reminds himself.
He is living out his dream while simultaneously creating a nightmare for his opponent.
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Darnold lifts his right leg slightly, signaling he is ready for the shotgun snap. Parsons stands motionless, lined up about three yards off the ball across from the outside eye of Carolina’s right offensive guard, so as to not give away his intentions of disruption.
As the ball shoots through the center’s legs, Parsons explodes out of his two-point stance and flies toward the “B” gap (between the offensive guard and tackle).
The Panthers' offensive linemen leave the responsibility of handling the blitzing assassin to their running back, Rodney Smith, who all but certainly is questioning his occupational choice at the moment.
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Smith is the final line of defense between a full-speed locomotive wearing the number 11 in a Cowboys jersey and the Panthers quarterback.
He, and other NFL running backs, have handled blitzing linebackers many times before. But this is no ordinary linebacker. This is Micah Parsons. And on this play, Smith – and just about every other NFL running back in this scenario – has almost no chance.
Parsons slides past Smith’s attempt to block him low, using hands on the ground to continue in his forward pursuit and showing uncommon elusiveness for a man weighing over 240 pounds. Once he arrives at the location in the pocket at which Darnold stands, there is no place for the quarterback to run or hide. Parsons nonchalantly tosses the quarterback to the ground for yet another sack coming by dominant victory over an inferior blocking opponent.
It is just the latest example of why NFL teams will assuredly stay away from this approach in the games and years ahead. It is also why Parsons is back working tirelessly on his craft.
“I’m like, bro, just remember, you’ve just got to be a baller at the end of the day,” Parsons said, grinning widely outside the Cowboys locker room at their headquarters in Frisco. “Be comfortable out there. Just enjoy what you’re doing and have fun with it out there.”
There is nothing but fun in Micah Parsons’ world these days. The appearance at Wrestlemania in AT&T Stadium. A first pitch with the Texas Rangers. Courtside seats to watch the Dallas Mavericks in the playoffs. A faulty dropped puck at a Hershey Bears home game (“I figured that one out pretty quick, man,” he laughed).
“I’m enjoying new experiences, going to places I’ve never been, and just enjoying life and everything that comes with it,” Parsons said.
But don’t take the 2021 Defensive Rookie of the Year’s interest in new offseason life experiences as a sign that he is satisfied with what he accomplished in his NFL debut. Far from it. In fact, Parsons is fervently working on his second act, knowing, that to have similar success, he will likely have to beat very different styles of opposing pass protection.
“This year, it’s hard to look at the tape last year, because it’s (going to be) completely different,” Parsons said. “Starting from week one and week two (in next season) I’ve got to see how they’re going to adjust. Are they going to count me as a “big?” Or are they going to count me as a “little” and have the (running) back come to (block) me.”
The designation “big” and “little” offered by Parsons refers to the distinction between a bonafide pass rusher who belongs among the men in the trenches, or an off-ball player who out-of-characteristically happens to be blitzing toward the quarterback. The title seems to carry with it respect, which just about every player, coach and fan who watched Parsons attack opposing backfields in 2021 will tell you is well-deserved.
“I have news for you,” Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy said. “He will be declared a 'big.' I don’t think anyone will be declaring him a 'small.'”
Laughter follows before McCarthy continued.
“That’s what this league is and that’s the beauty of competing in this league. He’s going to be seeing more challenges whether he’s inside or outside, and he’ll definitely be targeted in protection schemes. I would anticipate that,” McCarthy said.
Those extra “targets” from opposing offenses refer to a team basically determining it will do whatever it takes to not allow a specific pass rusher to beat them, using slide techniques (most of the offensive line moving in sync in one direction) or double teams to do everything it can to keep him in check. It’s an approach Parsons began to see at the end of the 2021 season, and one he knows is likely on the horizon in 2022.
“There are so many things that I’ve got to look at, starting from the end of (last) year and going into this year,” Parsons said. “The 49ers (in the playoffs last season) were counting me as a big and sliding protection towards my way.”
Having to find ways to circumvent extra attention as an elite defensive force is nothing new for the greats in the game, a designation that clearly continues to belong to Los Angeles Rams defensive lineman Aaron Donald. Donald recently commented about his approach to finding ways to impact the game even when the other team seems hellbent on making sure that does not happen.
“What I do is I study tendencies,” Donald told the "I Am Athlete" podcast. “I study who I’m going against. I study the guard, each guard, and then I study the center. And then I’m just going to watch them play. What they’re losing with, what they’re winning with … what tendencies they give. There are going to be certain things they do to help me play faster … I know if I get a one-on-one I’m going to win, but I don’t have too many of those opportunities that are going to come. So I’ve got to find different ways.”
When asked about Donald’s comments, Parsons seemed to resonate with the approach, while also respectfully understanding the difference between the experience gap dividing a second-year phenom and a ninth-year all-time-great.
“That comes with knowledge and it also comes with experience,” Parsons said. “Aaron Donald was able to experience so many different things over the last few years, that he was able to add to his game about how (other teams) were going to block him … I watch all that tape too. When you can look at those types of mentors and you can just take that and add that to your toolbox, it makes you an even better player.”
That’s a scary thought for whichever opposing offensive player is tasked with the unenviable assignment of stopping Parsons in the future. And while the gap between potential and greatness is still murky at the moment, his ability to be moved around to different places on the field as a once self-described “queen on the chessboard” does provide rare flexibility and versatility.
Nowhere is that more apparent than during Cowboys position group meetings, where Parsons is the only defensive player on Dallas’s team that splits time between two different rooms, moving back and forth between the defensive linemen and linebackers. And yet, while balancing both jobs, he still plays the role of mentor to young Cowboys players in each group.
“When I’m with the linebackers, there are four rookie guys, and I’m explaining to them, don’t take what coach says too literal. When coach says relate to '2' (the second furthest wide receiver to a given side of the offensive formation), they going all the way out to '2.' Don’t overthink. If you’re going to make a mistake, do it at 100%.”
Then, without skipping a beat, he begins to talk about pass rushing techniques and advice he is sharing with Cowboys rookie defensive end, Sam Williams.
“Sam came up to me today and said, ‘How do you know when to go inside?’ And I’m like, 'Man, I’m reading half his body.' The best thing (former Cowboys offensive lineman) La’el Collins taught me when I was learning how to pass rush, he was like, ‘Man, you’ve got to make them fear one thing.’ I make them fear the speed, and then everything else can go off that. They’ve got to respect you in some aspect. They’ve got to fear the speed, fear the power, they’ve got to fear something about you that’s going to make them set just a little bit different. And I was like, once you show that, you can do all your counters and all your moves and things you want to show. But they have to respect you in some aspect.”
That respect for Parsons seems already established throughout the league and was silently put on full display with fewer and fewer game reps that involved him going one-on-one with non-offensive lineman pass blockers as the 2021 season progressed. And yet, his ability to pressure the quarterback seemed to maintain all year long, even against proven NFL offensive linemen.
One reason? Offenses often did not know whether he was rushing the quarterback or dropping back into coverage, as Dallas featured simulated pressure packages (multiple “extra” defensive players lined up on or near the line of scrimmage, with some players rushing the quarterback and others dropping back in coverage at the snap of the ball). Parsons’ quick burst made him an even more difficult matchup than most in these instances.
It’s why the consistent questions from Cowboys fans and reporters about Parsons’ official position will likely continue to be answered with a simple “yes” from the Cowboys front office. McCarthy’s willingness to define him as a “big” is, to this point, the extent of the specification. The versatility is just too valuable and allows Dallas to find ways to create one-on-one situations that are much more difficult to scheme up when a player almost always lines up in the same position on the field.
“I thought it served him well, as far as creating more opportunities for matchups,” McCarthy said. “But what I really found out is how much it benefited our defense, and you definitely saw that last year with Micah.”
Parsons’ benefit and the opposing offense’s headaches. And while they know the blocking plan against him will not be the same in 2022, the Cowboys are also at work trying to find new, creative ways to get their linebacker free again in the season ahead.
“I think it’s going to be a really fun what I’m about to do this year,” Parsons said as he walks away from reporters.
Fun. And continuing to live out his dream. Which fits in with just about everything else in Micah Parsons’ world these days.