ARLINGTON, Texas — It was after 11 p.m. but 4-year-old Aaiden Diggs was still awake.
He had asked his father to get an interception every week. And Monday night, as the Cowboys readied to host their division-rival Eagles, Aaiden upped the ante.
“He told me, ‘I want you to get an interception and a touchdown,’” Cowboys cornerback Trevon Diggs said following a 41-21 win. “I said, ‘All right, I got you.’ So I kept my promise.”
The Cowboys were carrying a 20-7 lead when the second-year defensive back lined up for the Eagles’ third snap of the second half. Diggs diagnosed Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts’ three-step drop and quick game read. He saw receiver Devonta Smith’s short split and expected the rookie to run an out route.
Then Diggs, who practiced against Hurts and Smith as college teammates at Alabama, came out of a clean break. Smith fell and Diggs met the ball along its trajectory, clutching it as he accelerated through a 59-yard pick-six. The Cowboys’ scoreboard turned to 27. Diggs became the first Cowboys player to record an interception in each of the first three games of the season since Everson Walls, a three-time All Pro, accomplished the feat in 1985.
Interception. Touchdown. Just as young Aaiden drew it up.
“You want to talk about a player that’s playing lights out? Trevon Diggs is balling right now,” said Cowboys tight end Dalton Schultz, who recorded 80 yards and two touchdowns himself. “That dude is lock down. He’s going to compete with the best of them.”
The Cowboys hoped Diggs would make plays when they selected him in the second round of the 2020 NFL Draft. Despite injuries as a rookie that sidelined him from four games, Diggs notched 58 tackles in addition to deflecting 14 passes, forcing a fumble, registering a sack and intercepting three passes — all against the Eagles.
The stat line was impressive to members of the Cowboys organization, the ball-hawking skills hearkening to Diggs’ receiver background evident. And yet Diggs spent the offseason obsessing over the gap between his 14 pass deflections and three interceptions. Get a hand on the ball, he told himself, and he needed to secure the interception. He viewed the gap as 11 missed opportunities.
Diggs shared that gap with quarterback Dak Prescott, revealing to Prescott his determination to take the next step. Prescott, equally determined to motivate his teammates in creative manners, challenged the young defender.
“We made a little (bet),” Prescott said. “Go get five or seven picks and we’ll come up with something. He’s on the way to it — fast.”
Diggs credited his success, in part, to a deep understanding of Hurts and Smith’s tendencies garnered across one-on-one drills during their college practices. He got a hand on three of Hurts’ passes total, including a drive-killing ball to Smith third-and-11 with 2:52 to play in the third quarter.
From the ESPN2 broadcast, Alabama coach Nick Saban watched his former players compete. He said he teaches defensive backs to read quarterbacks’ three-, five- and seven-step drops.
“But they all can’t make that play like Trevon did,” Saban added, per 247 Sports. “He’s got great ball skills. He was a great receiver before he became a DB.”
Diggs celebrated enthusiastically but intentionally, not rubbing in his dominance to the “real quiet” rookie receiver whom Philadelphia selected 10th overall this year. He had another trash-talk victim: “I let Jalen know.”
Cowboys fans might ask upon hearing this: How much of Diggs’ playmaking Monday night reflected his familiarity with his opponent rather than his natural skills? Diggs’ 2021 body of work makes clear that his interceptions reflect his own strengths. Against Tampa Bay, Diggs snagged a Tom Brady ball that bounced off running back Leonard Fournette. In Los Angeles, he dived to intercept Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert’s pass to Keenan Allen on an over route. Heck, even in Cowboys practices, the healthy competition between Diggs and Prescott ramped up to a sideline verbal sparring. Diggs knows that realistically, his ex-teammates in Philadelphia had the same opportunity to capitalize.
“Devonta, he knows my moves,” Diggs said. “He knows what I want to do, and I know what he wanted to do. So it’s a fair game. It was fun.”
“Fun” was a descriptor Cowboys defenders rarely chose in 2020, when offenses routinely gashed them up the middle for chain-moving runs and punishing deep balls. Does this unit still let up risky gains each week? Sure, Dallas allowed a 38-yard completion to tight end Dallas Goedert on the Eagles’ first possession and passes of 28 and 41 yards in the third quarter. But two of those three drives ended with the Cowboys intercepting Hurts. Takeaways are no longer a fluke for a team that leads the league with eight. Prescott and his offensive colleagues have come to expect it.
“That’s the expectation they have for themselves,” said Prescott, who completed 21-of-26 passes for 238 yards and three touchdowns and lost a fumble. “They’re a talented group, they communicate well, playing well together and it shows. They’re ball-hungry with a bunch of ballhawks.
“As long as they continue to do that, we’re going to win a bunch of games.”
Discipline, focus and growth capture the Cowboys’ attention more than excessive celebration as they look to build off their 2-1 season start, the first time in Mike McCarthy’s two years with Dallas that he has posted a record better than .500. Players were exuberant upon returning to their locker room, a quick water-spraying celebration in store to acknowledge what Prescott described as a “statement win” buoyed by a complete performance across phases. But they want this statement to continue, turning the page into what could be the chapter of a remarkable Cowboys defensive turnaround.
The stability that coordinator Dan Quinn has instilled in mere months makes Dallas’ 2020 defense (31st in rushing yards allowed, most points allowed in franchise history) seem like a distant memory. Rookies are playing earlier and with more impact than even the coaching staff expected, rising to the occasion amid injury and COVID-19 lineup restrictions. First-round rookie Micah Parsons has flashed at both linebacker and defensive end; third-round defensive tackle Osa Odighizuwa hampered Hurts with 1.5 sacks on Monday.
“It’s a totally different defense,” Diggs said. “You can take that whole year last year and just throw it away.
“We ready, we hungry, we got some young guys that are ready to compete.”
Next up the Cowboys will host the Panthers and then the Giants before visiting New England. A softer schedule awaits in October, though November will feature quarterbacks Patrick Mahomes and Derek Carr in the same week.
Diggs plans to learn and grow more by then. To put the league on notice? “Trying to,” he said late Monday night when asked. To show the NFL “I’m here.”
As Monday night threatened to spill into Tuesday, Diggs wrapped up his postgame press conference in the AT&T Stadium tunnels with a mission first to show 4-year-old Aaiden he was here. Aaiden had attended the game, Trevon Diggs said. He was still awake.
“He’s up,” Diggs said, his soft voice contrasting the tone of his play style. “He’s up right now. I’m going to see him.”
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein