Cowboys have a full-blown run-defense problem, and their road to fixing it doesn't get any easier
Right now, the Dallas Cowboys defense is like a child who doesn't want to eat their vegetables in order to have dessert. It has the NFL's best pass rush, but its run defense is the fourth worst in the league (143.1 rushing yards allowed per game), so it hasn't been able to utilize its strength as often as it would like. The Cowboys pass rush has been on a record-breaking pace with its 35 sacks, pacing the league and ranking as the franchise's most through nine games since the 1987 season when it had 38. Its ability to bother opposing quarterbacks is so good that Dallas doesn't even need to blitz much at all (only 29.5% of the time, 20th in the NFL).
"We've been talking about this since training camp -- the way we were gonna be challenged from Day 1," head coach Mike McCarthy said Monday. "We recognize our strengths as far as pass rush, but pass rush is a privilege right now. Until we take care of this run challenge, that's what it's gonna be."
The ground game conundrum has reached a breaking point over the past two games, allowing a combined 447 rushing yards across their 49-29 win against the Chicago Bears in Week 8 (240 rushing yards allowed) and 31-28 overtime loss at the Green Bay Packers in Week 10 (207 rushing yards allowed). This two-game stretch marks only the ninth time in franchise history that the Cowboys have allowed 200 or more rushing yards in consecutive games, and it's taken a toll on what was a pristine defensive start to their 2022 campaign.
While Aaron Rodgers and the Packers have been the Cowboys' bogeyman -- Green Bay has won nine of the past 10 games head-to-head -- it wasn't Rodgers' arm that caused the primary damage to Dallas last week. It was running backs Aaron Jones (24 carries for 138 yards and a touchdown (5.8 yards per carry)) and AJ Dillon (13 carries for 65 yards (5.0 yards per carry)) continually putting the Packers in manageable down-and-distance situations. Green Bay faced 13 third downs in Week 10, and 11 of them only required the Packers to gain four yards or fewer.
"You've heard us in coach-speak talk about complimentary football, and that can be a micro-version on defense as well," defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said Monday. "We didn't quite nail the run game the way we like -- we had 13 third- or fourth-down plays, and I bet 11 of them were a distance of one to four yards. That leaves only a few that were a little bit longer to get the pass rush going. Having complimentary football in your own phase is important because you don't want to live in third and ones, twos, threes, and fours. You want to create long yardage so you can let it rip".
With the Cowboys defense being in third and manageable so often and unable to "let it rip," it allowed the Packers passing game, especially on play-action, to come alive with Rodgers connecting with rookie Christian Watson four times for 107 yards and three touchdowns. Watson became the second rookie ever to have three receiving touchdowns against the Cowboys, joining Hall of Famer Randy Moss, who did so in 1998.
"Nobody's going to allow us just to rush, nobody's going to allow us to just be who we are," linebacker Micah Parsons said Sunday. "That's why we've got to take out this fire. Until we take out this fire, we're going to just keep seeing it. … If people want to keep doing their own thing, we're going to deal with this all year and we're going to never be the team that we're going to want to be. We have to put this out. We have to be accountable. We have to stay on our gaps and stop the run. Then once we stop it, we can go back to being who we are. But until we do that, it's going to be a long year."
Safety Jayron Kearse also critiqued his teammates' passion and self-awareness Wednesday.
"You should be angry," he said, via The Athletic. "You should be frustrated. If you're not, then I think we got the wrong guys in this defense, if you're walking around like everything is fine. Knowing how things went for us against San Francisco, [our run defense] being a big reason why we didn't advance in the postseason last year. It's all about urgency moving forward. We're 6-3 -- the sky is not falling -- but if you don't have a sense of urgency moving forward with how last week went, the week before, the bye went, then you need to gut check yourself and look in the mirror. … Everybody should be pissed off at how we lost that last game. … You can walk around here and look pissed and whatever; we'll see on Sunday."
Ultimately, Parsons identified what he thinks the most significant factor is in fixing the Dallas run defense: trust.
"We've got to trust each other," Parsons said Thursday, via The Dallas Morning News. "Trust is going to be the key to everything and where we want to go. We've got to trust someone is going to be in the B gap when they're supposed to be in the B gap. Do your own job. Without that trust, we won't go far."
When asked Monday if the Cowboys have the personnel to "put out the fire" with their run defense, Quinn immediately responded with "100%" as well as "nope" when asked if the team has a run defense "personnel problem."
"We know how important it is, and as we've seen the last few weeks, teams are committed to getting on us that way," Quinn said. "If that doesn't get our attention, then I would be hard-pressed to find another way to get it across. One thing I do know is we have the right crew to do it and the answers within that circle to do that."
Presiding over a rushing defense under siege, the defensive coordinator had no issue with players calling out their teammates' accountability following another performance that left the team wanting more.
"I know they have each other's backs," Quinn said. "I think more than anything, it's just a good reminder. … You don't have to over try or go outside of the boundaries in order to make a play, and when we do that, we're pretty damn successful."
Jerry Jones, the team owner and general manager, gave a full-throated endorsement of his defensive coordinator and his defensive players when asked about his team's continued struggles in the run-stopping department.
"I like the way we're coached," Jones said, via The Athletic, when asked about the issue Tuesday on 105.3 The Fan in Dallas. "I like the way we're addressing how to stop the run. We have the players to do it."
A tough road ahead
If the Cowboys want to see a defensive run-game resurgence, they're going to have to do it against some of the best backs the NFL has to offer. Here's a list of the next seven running back Dallas will face (provided each one is healthy at the time of their matchup): Minnesota Viking Dalvin Cook, New York Giant Saquon Barkley, Indianapolis Colt Jonathan Taylor, Houston Texan Dameon Pierce, Jacksonville Jaguar Travis Etienne, Philadelphia Eagle Miles Sanders and Tennessee Titan Derrick Henry. Six of those rushers rank in the top 10 in the entire NFL when it comes to rushing yards except Taylor, who has missed three games with an ankle injury but led the NFL in that category a year ago.
Cook torched the Buffalo Bills, the NFL's No. 2 scoring defense (16.8 points per game allowed) for 119 yards and a touchdown on only 14 carries (8.5 yards per carry) thanks to his 81-yard explosion for a touchdown that began the Vikings' 17-point comeback in their eventual 33-30 overtime road win last week.
"The thing that jumps out to me is their playmakers: the speed at running back, the speed at receiver and now speed at tight end," Quinn said. "To have those players featured, it's on us to figure out the best matchups for those guys. They have some athletes at those positions."
Newly acquired tight end T.J. Hockenson, a trade deadline pickup, has 16 catches since Week 9, tied with Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce for the most in the NFL at their position in the span of Hockenson's brief time with Minnesota. Oh, and reigning NFC Offensive Player of the Week Justin Jefferson had a career-high 193 receiving yards and a touchdown on 10 catches, including one of the best catches of all-time last week against the Buffalo Bills. The Cowboys defensive backs are going to have their hands full with someone like Jefferson, whose one-handed catch on fourth-and-18 in Week 10 with under two minutes to go was the longest fourth-down conversion in the NFL this season and the Vikings' longest fourth-down conversion since 2003 (Week 10 at Chargers on a 19-yard pass from Daunte Culpepper to Jim Kleinsasser on fourth-and-18).
"I had the best seat in the house, right there on the sideline," Vikings cornerback Patrick Peterson said on his "All Things Covered" podcast about Jefferson's catch. "As soon as he caught it, I damn near jumped out of my jacket. 'Oh my God, he really just caught that ball' is what I thought while also thinking hurry up."
While Christian Watson's catches came fairly easily against the Cowboys with the Packers facing short down-and-distance situations, Jefferson can make plays even if the Cowboys' pass rush has the opportunity to "let it rip." Per the NFL's Next Gen Stats, Jefferson caught nine passes in Week 10 with a completion probability below 50%, the most such catches in a game by any player in the NFL Next Gen Stats era, which dates back to 2016.
The Vikings are now 8-1, tied for the best record in the NFC with the Philadelphia Eagles, and during Minnesota's seven-game win streak that has catapulted it to the top of the standings, Jefferson has been on a historic tear. His 828 receiving yards during this run are the second-most by any player during a seven-game win streak since the AFL/NFL merger in 1970, behind only Hall of Famer Jerry Rice's 906 in 1990, when he won the receiving triple crown by leading the NFL in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns.
One way for the Cowboys to avoid seeing Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins connect over and over again with Jefferson is to pressure him, something Dallas does better than anyone when given the chance. His 66.1 passer rating when pressured ranks 21st in the NFL this season among 35 qualified quarterbacks. However, Dallas' vaunted quarterback pressure powerhouse can only operate at full power if it eats its vegetables on early downs and stops the run. Read More