What DeMarcus Ware told Dallas Cowboys star Micah Parsons over pre-NFL playoff lunch this week
FRISCO, Texas — Over calamari and Topo Chico, more fish and water, Micah Parsons and DeMarcus Ware talked ball for roughly two hours.
The Dallas Cowboys rookie and the ex-Cowboy who was recently named a Pro Football Hall of Fame finalist lunched Tuesday at Moxie’s Classic Grill in the North Texas suburb of Southlake. Ware guided Parsons ahead of Parsons’ first-ever NFL playoff game. Technique, mentality, game plan? The duo canvassed each topic.
“He helped how to prepare best so that way I keep my head low and I can stay focused on the things I need to focus on,” Parsons said Wednesday afternoon. “What to look for when you’re watching (film). All the tendency things, things that I kind of knew but he kind of went into more detail.”
This wasn’t the first meeting of minds for arguably the Cowboys’ two greatest defenders of this millennium. But as the Cowboys prepare to host the 49ers at 4:30 p.m. ET on Sunday in an NFC wild-card matchup, Parsons seeks to avail himself of every resource in pursuit of an edge. Ware, whose five playoff chases included a Super Bowl title and 7.5 postseason sacks, understands. The Cowboys’ 2005 first-round draft pick was impressed when the team’s 2021 debut selection introduced himself.
“When you’ve got a first-round draft pick coming in and not really worried about are they arrogant or not? He wasn’t (and it was) crazy how fast he picked it up,” Ware told USA TODAY Sports by phone Wednesday evening. “That’s what you want to see in your rookie: When you tell them something, they’re going to change it right then because they want it.”
Ware explained Parsons’ hunger through the lens of the lion mentality the Penn State product rookie has embraced.
“At the end of the day, you only got one day to hunt,” Ware said he tells Parsons. “Every hunter’s not going to be successful, but you’ve got to hunt like it’s your last one every single week.”
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‘So smart sometimes he gets bored’
When Ware and Parsons first connected, their approach was broad. They studied film together and worked on technique, taking meticulous notes on how Parsons’ debut professional season could unfold.
Ware dissects Parsons’ physical and mental growth in a campaign featuring 13 sacks, 84 tackles, three forced fumbles and three deflected passes in 16 games. Parsons’ 20 tackles for loss trailed only the Steelers’ T.J. Watt and Niners’ Nick Bosa, each veteran force at 21. He also ranked top five in quarterback pressures (47, tied for fourth) and quarterback knockdowns (17, tied for second).
Where has Parsons’ technique improved most?
“His bend,” Ware said. “At first he was really fast, meaning like in a straight line, but now you can see he can bend. He can bend really well. That took some time and it takes really calculated thinking of what you’re doing out there.
“If you haven’t played in a year, you can get out there and run fast. OK, cool. But can you bend around a guy, can you finish plays, can you see the things that a lot of the other players aren’t seeing which are tendencies?”
To achieve this mastery, Ware said, Parsons must aim to master three segments: offseason activities through training camp, preseason and regular season, and postseason.
“OTAS, minicamp, training camp that people don’t see – that’s your steak and potatoes, 80% of your season before you put the pads on,” Ware said. Then ramp up speed and mentality. In the postseason, Ware says, maintain and perfect.
Parsons took the message to heart, staying after training camp practices for one-on-one work with defensive coordinator Dan Quinn and unsuccessfully begging coaches to give him more preseason snaps. By the opener, Parsons was starting. By Week 2, as the Cowboys had lost starting left end DeMarcus Lawrence to a 10-week foot fracture recovery and starting right end Randy Gregory to COVID-19, Parsons was embracing a rush plan atop his coverage linebacker responsibilities.
“Sometimes what you think is the worst thing that could happen, sometimes is not,” Quinn said. “I’m not saying DeMarcus’ injury was good. But I am saying that we did find out some new information that has provided us some value as we head into this week and beyond about a player’s versatility.”
Ware and Parsons exchanged tips periodically including when Parsons hit somewhat of a mental rookie wall in October and sought change. Ware, a nine-time Pro Bowler, told the rookie who has since claimed his first Pro Bowl berth: Study the plays early in the week, and then opponent tendencies. Divulge those tendencies to scout team players to ensure maximal practice time and mental readiness by game day.
Parsons emerged refreshed from a Cowboys bye and ripped off a terrifying stretch in which he posted 9.5 sacks and three forced fumbles in six weeks. Ware credits, in part, Parsons understanding tricks to maintaining mental focus.
“He’s so smart sometimes he gets bored,” Ware said. “He’ll get out there sometimes and it’ll come easy to him. That’s the time when you dial in and be smarter and (even more) consistent with the mental focus. You’ve got to almost give yourself so much information that you get overwhelmed then you figure out how to be comfortable in those uncomfortable situations.”
The goal: Intake enough information to keep engaged but filter it organically to not miss a beat. Ware alerted Parsons to examples when he was keying in to so many cues that an offensive tackle had already kicked back before Parsons had burst. The duo discussed signals garnered from a center’s hand and a guard’s movement; from the tackles’ inside and outside feet and the personnel distribution. Is the quarterback advancing a three-step drop or two? Adjust accordingly. Think but don’t think.
“All this stuff, while you’re running, you’re thinking about it,” Ware said. “You’re not even having to worry about your move because your move is preset. In your mind, you’re getting off full speed so when they react to you and punch you, you already know exactly what to do and you’re looking at the quarterback the whole time. And seeing if it’s a two-step drop, I need to cut my rush off and get there a little bit faster. Oh my gosh, it’s a three-step block that means they have more blockers, now I can do my longer move.
“In those 3 seconds, that’s what you have.”
Thwarting Kyle Shanahan’s scheme
Against the 49ers and head coach Kyle Shanahan’s creative scheme, Parsons knows he must prepare to play with physicality. Dominate the line of scrimmage vs. a run-heavy attack. Keep nimble to counter the multifaceted skill sets of players including receiver Deebo Samuel and tight end George Kittle. Parsons is eager to match San Francisco's shape-shifting with his own.
“It’s going to be versatility on versatility,” Parsons said. “We’ve got to minimize their explosive (plays) and create our turnovers and explosives on defense, get the ball back. The more we can stay off the field and the more we keep our offense on the field, I think we’ve got a great chance of winning this game.”
And Ware reminded Parsons: There is no room for error in postseason football.
“Any mistakes you made this season,” Ware said, “make sure you eliminate them.”
Sunday is the time, he added, to play even faster than he thought possible. Any film Parsons watched in the regular season, of a missed chance to chase the quarterback and strip a ball loose, an askew pass that might have been intercepted with a tad more acceleration? Fix that now.
“Your individual battle with yourself you need to win every single week,” Ware said. “Because you’re prepared. You’re ready. And you need to unleash.”
Parsons says he’s ready to unleash against what the 49ers call their “bully ball” physicality, the Cowboys rookie quipping that in his hometown, “the bullies get bullied.”
“It takes someone to stand up and fight,” he added. “I ain’t never back down from a challenge.”
Parsons responded to Ware’s postseason challenge promptly, arriving at Cowboys meetings early Wednesday to diagnose extra film with senior defensive assistant George Edwards. Armed with Ware’s advice, Parsons felt ahead of the game.
“I kind of had a head start on it,” he said, noting how he explained to Edwards the 49ers’ utilization a receiver on a toss in one clip. Edwards responded: “Oh yeah, you are getting it.”
“I was like, ‘Yeah George, I’m paying more attention than you think, brother,’” Parsons said. “He kind of just laughed and things like that. That just speaks volumes to the relationships I’m building with coaches and former players.”
Ware leaves the door open.
“He’s just one of them dudes that he’s like a little brother to me,” Ware said. “When he needs something, I’m always here to share. It’s just cool to be part of his journey.”
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein.