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Cowboys believe Stephon Gilmore, Trevon Diggs are primed to become NFL's best cornerback duo

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Dallas Cowboys wide receiver CeeDee Lamb faced the MetLife Stadium bleachers for his announcement.

“Hey, I’m gonna tell y’all right now,” Lamb said as the Cowboys rode a 40-0 lead in the fourth quarter against the New York Giants. “The best duo in the league. Non-negotiable.”

Lamb was reacting to the fumble cornerback Trevon Diggs had just forced, two quarters after veteran cornerback Stephon Gilmore caught a diving interception of Daniel Jones, which was itself a quarter after Diggs hit Giants running back 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 their season with a road shutout of 40+ points. Twenty-seven of those points resulted from takeaways. Lamb’s celebrated duo, 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-most among active players in the NFL. The latter is two years removed from 11 in one season, the most the league had seen in 40 years. And yet, interceptions alone don’t fully capture either player’s impact much less the full danger they pose as a tandem.

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

Gilmore and Diggs know they’ll need to repeat their impact before truly laying claim to any superlatives. But they also don’t deny the tantalizing potential they hold. Do they believe they’re the best duo?

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

Gilmore is elevating Diggs’ play

The Cowboys’ defensive front held its own with the league’s best already last year. Only the Philadelphia Eagles had a superior pass-rush win rate, both teams rounding to a 52% success clip, per 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 team in the league, contributing to their second straight takeaway crown, the first time any defense had repeated 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% less often than the year prior. But the front office realized in the offseason: Add another top-tier outside cornerback (Bland thrives most in the slot), and quarterbacks will be forced between a rock and hard place. Dallas traded a fifth-round draft pick to the Indianapolis Colts for Gilmore, who’s 32 years old but arrived with five Pro Bowl berths and 2019 Defensive Player of the Year honors.

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

Gilmore’s play alone upgraded Dallas’ defense. His mentorship has also rubbed off on his position group, beginning with Diggs. The younger corner had already valued Gilmore’s advice from afar, Diggs messaging the veteran clips over Instagram for feedback in glimpses of the productive in-person film sessions they now share. Diggs takes copious notes on Gilmore’s strategies. And the routine that drew Quinn’s praise? Diggs used to awaken around 8 a.m. at training camp but shifted that schedule to 6 a.m. this summer to join Gilmore’s early morning workouts, he said. He paid close attention to how Gilmore “doesn’t eat foolishness.”

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

Gilmore and Diggs’ short-term future is looking bright: Pro Football Focus ranked them the second and seventh best cornerback in the league during Week 1. Diggs cherishes the chance to keep “soaking everything up.” 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 stay building on my career.

“Try to put together a good résumé to where at the end of the day I’ll go down as one of the best DBs to play the game.”

Why NFL should beware Diggs-Gilmore duo

The Cowboys’ defensive identity centers on three principles. Quinn wants to front a high-energy defense, reflected in players’ speed. He wants players to stay acutely aware of the ball, inviting rather than forcing takeaways. And Quinn preaches toughness, often measured in the physicality of tackles.

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

Against the Giants, Diggs reinforced the first belief and began reframing the second.

Film tells a much richer story than the boxscore on what was officially credited as a first-quarter Diggs pass breakup.

The Giants took the field with 3:21 to play in the first quarter, eager to narrow a 9-0 gap before the quarter’s end. But Lawrence sacked Jones before he could get his first pass off. The Cowboys’ secondary blanketed Jones’ options on the second snap of the series, prompting a third-and-19. This time, Jones didn’t look deep for the kill — he simply targeted Barkley on a wheel route. Diggs was waiting, ultimately delivering a hard hit that jarred the ball airborne before Barkley could maintain sufficient control. Bland grabbed it and raced 22 yards for the touchdown.

Quinn praised how Diggs targeted a hit rather than takeaway.

“I don’t think you can time it up any better,” Quinn said. “We say, ‘The ball’s talking. Are you listening? What is it saying?' We want to make sure we’re always thinking about it. That’s part of the game we want to emphasize as often as we can without putting ourselves in a vulnerable spot.

“On Trevon’s hit that caused the interception, he wasn’t going in there trying to [knock it loose]. He was going in there to hit. Good things came from that.”

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

It wasn’t that the Giants were foolishly tempting players in Diggs’ vicinity. Rather, what choice did they have? Gilmore had already broken up three passes, including the diving interception on a play Jones said he made a “poor decision” not to throw away. Five different Cowboys defenders deflected eight of Jones’ passes in total, a count both resulting from and contributing to the seven sacks and 12 total quarterback hits Dallas inflicted. Diggs capitalized.

“Oh, man, [felt] like it was picture perfect,” defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence told Yahoo Sports. “Being able to have our DBs play games like that, it makes the ball come out faster.”

Gilmore and Diggs plan to keep playing with that hunger, the deep secondary around them similarly attacking with the unique traits that Quinn has identified in each and schemed them accordingly to maximize.

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

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

By then, Gilmore and Diggs expect to have further rapport. And they hope that not only Lamb’s “best duo” pronouncement, but also Diggs’ sideline exclamation from Sunday, ring true.

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