FRISCO, Texas — Perhaps the most embarrassing run was Aaron Jones’ touchdown.
The Packers faced second-and-5, the game tied at 7 with 1:48 left in the second quarter. The Dallas left defensive end and inside lineman traded spreads, but the wires crossed on the right side. Suddenly, defensive end Dante Fowler Jr. and defensive tackle Quinton Bohanna were attacking the same gap.
And an inside lane was wide open for the Packers standout to exploit.
Jones bounced across the gap, cut left and rounded the left sideline. He spun as he leapt into the end zone, grabbing his crotch in the air for full effect.
A failed home run defense for the Cowboys sparked their first deficit.
The defense’s repeated failures of the perimeter run would seal their last, a Packers 31-28 overtime decision.
“Disgusting,” linebacker Micah Parsons said after the game at Lambeau Field. “Until we put out this fire, we will continue to see it. If people want to keep doing their own thing, we’re going to deal with that all year and we’ll never be the team we want to be.”
Dallas’ loss to Green Bay wasn’t the first time a team had exploited a glaring weakness against it. But after back-to-back opponents slashed the Cowboys for more than 200 yards apiece, emotions ran high. Three days later, they still were.
“You should be mad,” Cowboys goaltender Jayron Kearse said from his locker on Wednesday. “You should be frustrated. If you’re not, then I think we’ve got the wrong guys on that defense.
“If you don’t have a sense of urgency to move forward with how last week went, with how [the game] before leaving, then you have to control yourself and look at yourself in the mirror.
The secret is out
Opponents, it seems, laid out a game plan to exploit the Cowboys’ weakness. The strategy is deeper than just running the ball, although the volume of rushing attack has been factored heavily into the game plans. The Chicago Bears and Packers, the Cowboys’ last two opponents, ran almost twice as often (1.8 and 1.95 times, respectively) as they threw. Reduced pass attempts minimize the Cowboys’ opportunities to rush, neutralizing the maximum strength of the defense. And the challenge does not come from teams simply running on third downs.
As opponents see the Cowboys struggle to stay disciplined in rushing assignments and tend to allow leaky yards, they’re propelling productive first and second down runs to get around the obvious third downs. The Packers attacked 14 times on third and fourth downs against the Cowboys. Eleven times these plays have required 4 yards or less to advance, prompting defensive coordinator Dan Quinn to describe the bleeding as “death by 1,000 paper cuts”. And although Green Bay’s longest third down attempt – for 7 yards, early in the fourth quarter – failed, the Packers went for it on fourth and seventh. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers found rookie receiver Christian Watson for his second of three touchdowns.
“We recognize our strength in passing rushing, but passing rushing is a privilege right now,” head coach Mike McCarthy said. “Until we take care of this racing challenge, that’s what it’s going to be.”
Players and coaches insist the smells, while frustrating, reflect not so much a lack of effort as defenders miscommunicating coverage or overcompensating to make a game-changing play. “Sometimes,” defensive tackle Neville Gallimore repeated coaching lessons, “you can make the game by not play the game.
That’s what the Cowboys defense is focusing on in preparation for the talented Minnesota Vikings 8-1. Hold the edges firm, attack the right gaps, force the rush lanes, and “really, take the ass to a different level,” implores Quinn and his staff.
Otherwise, the Cowboys risk the wrath of the guns, including Justin Jefferson and Dalvin Cook.
Jefferson, with his absurd fourth-and-18 take in the fourth quarter of last Sunday’s overtime win over the Buffalo Bills, must have the Cowboys secondary worried. After all, Green Bay rookie Watson burned Dallas for 107 yards and three touchdowns with far less skill and experience.
But the Cowboys can’t ignore the threat from Cook, whose 80.8 rushing yards per game ranks seventh in the league and 2.5 yards per rush after contact ranks eighth. The Cowboys rank 22nd with 3.4 yards after contact allowed per carry. A missed tackle or the wrong angle could be costly, as the Bills saw last weekend when Cook couldn’t find the creases in his teammates’ blocking lanes, he snapped and broke tackles high of an 81-yard touchdown, the longest carry in the NFL this season.
“He’s a guy who, when he gets the ball back, can go fast,” Kearse said. “He is very elusive. Very, very efficient with his jumps, getting in and out of his breaks and everything when he’s running his routes or he’s on the edge. So against a guy like him, you have to wrap your leg because he keeps it moving on contact.
“His vision is good, his after contact run is good. That’s a lot that comes with a guy like that.
The Cowboys respect the way the Vikings target mismatches, weak ties and game plan specific attacks, so they expect a heavy dose of running. And with seven of Minnesota’s eight wins by a score or less, the margin for error is small — and the urgency is high.
“There’s a ton of red asses, a ton of disappointment, a lot of anger,” McCarthy said Monday. “It shows the commitment, the desire to win, the connection.”
Now the Cowboys must turn that fuel into fire.
“We played disappointing football for ourselves and the fans and everyone behind the Cowboys,” Kearse said. “We are coming back next week and have the ability to right this ship.”
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