FRISCO, Texas – Mike McCarthy has not called plays in his two-plus seasons as the Dallas Cowboys’ head coach, but he knows how he would attack his own defense: run the ball. A lot.
“We’ve been talking about this since training camp,” McCarthy said. “We’ve been talking about the way we were going to be challenged from Day 1. We recognize our strength 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 going to be.”
For all the good the Cowboys’ defense has done, it is ranked 29th in rushing yards allowed per game (143.1) and 26th in yards per carry (4.75).
In their past two games, the Cowboys have allowed 240 yards (Chicago Bears) and 207 yards (Green Bay Packers) on the ground. It is just the third time in the past 20 seasons the Cowboys have allowed at least 200 yards rushing in consecutive games (Weeks 6-7 in 2020 and Weeks 10 and 12 around their Week 11 bye in 2013).
This week against the Minnesota Vikings (4:25 pm ET, CBS), they will look to avoid a third straight game allowing at least 200 yards rushing for the first time since 1960, the franchise’s inaugural season.
In their past two games, the Cowboys have held a double-digit lead in the second half and, yet, the opponent has continued to run. With mobile Justin Fields at quarterback for the Bears, that is more understandable. But with 38-year-old Aaron Rodgers? The Packers ran by design on 62% of their plays, which was the highest rate ever in a game started by Rodgers, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
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“There’s an element that you just want to nail it perfectly, so that’s where we’re aiming towards to make sure we get that part right,” defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said. “We know how important it is. And as we’ve seen through some of those last few weeks, there are some teams that, ‘Hey, this fully committed to how we want to get it on [by rushing the ball].’ If that doesn’t get our attention to say, ‘This is how it has to go down,’ then it would be hard-pressed to find another way to get it across.”
The Vikings have the 23rd-ranked run offense, but Dalvin Cook is eighth in the league with 727 rushing yards. The Cowboys play the New York Giants on Thanksgiving, and Saquon Barkley leads the NFL in rushing (931 yards). In their final eight games, the Cowboys face six running backs currently in the top 10 in rushing and that does not include last season’s rushing champion, Indianapolis’ Jonathan Taylor, who has played just seven games but had 147 yards rushing last week.
“I think that’s part of the fun,” Quinn said. “Our league, there’s so many different ways. Sometimes you face a team that wants to drop back and throw it and do it that way. Another team wants to come back and run it like we’ve seen over the last couple of weeks.”
“As you get into each week, you’ve got to make sure you’re able to match it and play, even if they’re showing another style one week and they show a different one in that week. And having that adjusting ability in the game I think is important. I’m certainly counting on us to be able to get that done.”
Frustrations have bubbled. Players have talked about simply doing their jobs. Quinn said some of it can be traced to “overtrying.”
“You have to hold our gaps and stop it. You have to be accountable,” linebacker Micah Parsons said. “We have to hold our gaps, come downhill and stop them. It’s going to keep happening until we stop it. Period … Until we put this out, them running the ball, we’ll never be as good as we need to be. “
Said safety Malik Hooker, “Cut the leakage, fit the run how we’re supposed to, and I feel like we’ll be all right down the road.”
In the past 10 seasons, only two Super Bowl winners have finished outside the top 11 in run defense (2019 Kansas City Chiefs, 2012 Baltimore Ravens), and only two have allowed more than 4 yards per carry (2019 Chiefs, 2018 New England Patriots ).
Do the Cowboys have the right guys to stop the run?
“100%,” Quinn said.
So it’s not a talent issue?
“Nope,” he said.
The Cowboys added 340-pound defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins from the Las Vegas Raiders prior to the trade deadline, but where they have gotten hurt more, especially against the Packers, was on perimeter runs.
On the interior runs, there was what the Cowboys call too much, “leakage,” where a runner gains more yards after contact.
Their opponents are watching. They know where to test the Dallas defense. The Cowboys know the issue. They’ve known it since training camp.
“It really comes down to pad level and staying square and all the fundamentals of our run defense,” McCarthy said. “It’s hard. It’s ugly and that’s the beauty of it.”