The Cowboys believe Stephon Gilmore and Trevon Diggs are poised to become the best cornerback duo in the NFL

By | September 15, 2023

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ – Dallas Cowboys wide receiver CeeDee Lamb faced the bleachers at MetLife Stadium for his announcement.

“Hey, I’ll tell you right now,” Lamb said as the Cowboys led 40-0 in the fourth quarter against the New York Giants. “The best couple in the championship. Non-negotiable.”

Lamb was reacting to the fumble that cornerback Trevon Diggs had just forced, two quarters after veteran cornerback Stephon Gilmore had intercepted a diving interception by Daniel Jones, which was itself one quarter after Diggs had hit the running back Giants Saquon Barkley so hard that Barkley coughed up a ball that fellow Cowboys defender DaRon Bland returned for a touchdown.

Thanks to their secondary, the Cowboys became the first team in 24 years to open the season with a lead of more than 40 points. Twenty-seven of these points are the result of takeaways. Lamb’s celebrated duo of Gilmore and Diggs led the charge.

(Photo illustration by Henry Russell/Yahoo Sports)

(Photo illustration by Henry Russell/Yahoo Sports)

The former caught his 30th career interception Sunday night, fifth among active players in the NFL. The latter was two years removed from 11 inches one season, the most the league had seen in 40 years. Yet interceptions alone don’t fully capture the impact of either player, much less the danger they pose as a tandem.

Cowboys brass had high hopes when they traded for Gilmore in the spring and then gave Diggs a five-year, $97 million extension to kick off training camp.

Gilmore and Diggs know they will have to repeat their impact before they truly claim any superlatives. But they also don’t deny the tantalizing potential they hold. Do they think they are the best couple?

“Are you asking me or telling me?” Diggs said from the postgame locker room as Sunday night turned into Monday morning. “I feel like we’re going to continue to show it off every week and let you all decide.”

Gilmore is elevating Diggs’ game

The Cowboys’ defensive front held its own against the league’s best last year. Only the Philadelphia Eagles had a higher pass-rush win rate, both teams hitting a 52% success clip, according to ESPN’s database (the Miami Dolphins ranked third at 50%). Micah Parsons’ 30% pass-rush win rate ranked first among individual edge rushers, while DeMarcus Lawrence led all edge rushers with a 36% run-stop win rate.

The Cowboys forced more fumbles (20) than any other team in the league, contributing to their second consecutive championship, the first time a defense had done so since the 1972-74 Pittsburgh Steelers.

Dallas’ secondary, meanwhile, was inconsistent. The group had bright spots — Bland’s five rookie interceptions stand out — and, in fairness, Diggs’ reduced interceptions stemmed in part from teams targeting him 22 percent less than the previous year. But the front office realized in the offseason: Add another top-tier outside cornerback (Bland thrives more in the slot) and quarterbacks will be forced between a rock and a hard place. Dallas traded a fifth-round draft pick to the Indianapolis Colts for Gilmore, who is 32 but came away with five Pro Bowl berths and 2019 Defensive Player of the Year honors.

“He has great football instincts,” Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn told Yahoo Sports during training camp. “He IS able to share things with players, coaches. He has a really good routine to practice. All these little details for all of this. There’s a reason he’s so productive.

Gilmore’s play alone improved Dallas’ defense. His mentorship also influenced his position group, starting with Diggs. The younger corner had already appreciated Gilmore’s advice from afar, Diggs messaged the veterans’ clips on Instagram to get feedback in glimpses of the productive in-person film sessions they now share. Diggs takes numerous notes on Gilmore’s strategies. And the routine that drew Quinn’s praise? Diggs used to wake up around 8 a.m. in training camp, but this summer he moved up the time to 6 a.m. to join Gilmore’s morning workouts, he said. He paid close attention to how Gilmore “doesn’t eat stupidity.”

“He sees me eating gummy snacks and says, ‘Why are you eating those?’” Diggs said. “Taking me under his wing and showing me how to last this long in the league.”

The short-term futures of Gilmore and Diggs look bright: Pro Football Focus graded them as the second- and seventh-best cornerbacks in the league through Week 1. Diggs relishes the chance to continue to “soak it all in.” Because while Gilmore has long been one of the best cornerbacks, Diggs believes he’s nowhere near the top of his game.

“Hell no,” Diggs said when he received his extension. “I’m just starting. Literally. My main goal is to stay consistent and continue building my career.

“Try to put together a good resume where I will eventually become one of the best DBs to play with.”

Why the NFL should pay attention to the Diggs-Gilmore duo

The Cowboys’ defensive identity is centered around three principles. Quinn wants to field a high-energy defense, which is reflected in the speed of the players. He wants players to remain hyper-aware of the ball, inviting rather than forcing takeaways. And Quinn preaches tenacity, often measured in the physicality of the tackles.

In the first three years of his Cowboys career, Diggs established himself as a ballhawk with 17 interceptions and 49 total pass deflections. Fair or not, the 2020 second-rounder has also developed a reputation for not putting 100% effort into tackling. Questions have arisen as to whether he has sacrificed some tackles to chase ball opportunities.

Against the Giants, Diggs strengthened the first belief and began to reframe the second.

The film tells a much richer story than the score of what was officially credited as Diggs’ pass breakup in the first quarter.

The Giants took the field with 3:21 to play in the first quarter, eager to close a 9-0 deficit before the end of the quarter. But Lawrence sacked Jones before he could get his first pass. The Cowboys secondary covered Jones’ options on the second snap of the series, resulting in a third-and-19. This time, Jones didn’t go deep for the kill — he simply targeted Barkley on a wheel route. Diggs was waiting, finally delivering a hard shot that sent the ball flying into the air before Barkley could maintain enough control. Bland caught it and ran 22 yards for the touchdown.

Quinn praised how Diggs targeted success rather than takeout.

“I don’t think you can time things any better,” Quinn said. “We say, ‘The ball talks.’ Are you listening? What is he saying?” We want to make sure we’re always thinking about this. This is a part of the game that we want to emphasize as often as possible without putting ourselves in a vulnerable position.

“Regarding the Trevon incident that caused the interception, he wouldn’t have tried [knock it loose]. She was going there to strike. Good things came from there.”

Good things came to the Cowboys again in the fourth quarter, when Jones completed a pass to receiver Isaiah Hodgins and Diggs chased Hodgins with more fervor than many thought he showed last year. The cornerback reached for Hodgins with both arms, knocking Hodgins down and releasing the ball. This time, Cowboys safety Israel Mukuamu recovered the fumble. The 40-0 decision was effectively sealed, with Dallas bringing in backup quarterback Cooper Rush for the resulting series.

It’s not like the Giants were foolishly tempting players in Diggs’ vicinity. Rather, what choice did they have? Gilmore had already broken up three passes, including a diving interception on a play. Jones said he made the “wrong decision” not to throw it away. Five different Cowboys defenders deflected eight Jones passes in total, a tally resulting from and contributing to the seven sacks and 12 total quarterback hits dished out by Dallas. Diggs wrote in capital letters.

“Hate, [felt] like it’s perfect,” defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence told Yahoo Sports. “Being able to have our DBs play plays like that, it makes the ball come out quicker.”

Gilmore and Diggs intend to continue playing with that hunger, with the deep secondary surrounding them similarly attacking with the unique traits Quinn has identified in each and has planned accordingly to maximize them.

With a front that continues to dominate and a secondary that begins to cement it, do the Cowboys have the best defense? Parsons said he made that statement against the Giants. Diggs says he agrees “110%.”

It could take several weeks before the Cowboys have sufficient proof of concept. While they expected a tough test in Week 2 against Aaron Rodgers, they will instead face the Jets, quarterbacked by Zach Wilson, with a group of skill players who are more likely to test Dallas’ mettle against the run. Then come the Arizona Cardinals, probably led by Joshua Dobbs, and the Patriots with quarterback Mac Jones. More significant tests loom in Weeks 5 and 6, when a West Coast doubleheader will pit the Cowboys against Kyle Shanahan’s San Francisco 49ers offense and then against the Los Angeles Chargers and newly extended wideout Justin Herbert.

By then, Gilmore and Diggs expect to have further dealings. And they hope that not only Lamb’s “best duo” statement, but also Diggs’ sideline exclamation on Sunday, rings true.

“HEY! Public service announcement,” Diggs said after Gilmore’s interception. “Do Not throw the ball.”

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