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A Tale Of Two Halves? Dallas Defense Versus Atlanta Part 1: The Run

The Dallas defense appeared to be holding their own against a very potent Atlanta offense. Then it all came unglued, suddenly and without warning. Or did it? What really happened against Atlanta?

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Like most Dallas Cowboys fans, I had a disappointing week. The team gave up a double-digit lead in what could have been a signature win, beating an undefeated team while missing many of their best players. For me, though, it was particularly disappointing because what I've been most excited about was the apparent depth the team had developed. It seemed that all around the defense the Cowboys had stocked up multiple good players. I penned a column earlier about my hopes for Davon Coleman, who the Cowboys released this week. He was just one of the players I felt was ready to step in and step up in the absence of the marquee players this game. I must have been wrong. It seemed clear that the Falcons had taken advantage of the Cowboys depleted state and that tired starters and weak backups had caused an epic second half collapse.

But is that really what happened?  See if you can guess which half the following plays came in.

Run 1

This toss left to Devonta Freeman was stopped for no gain. While Sean Lee would get credit for the tackle, the play is made by DeMarcus Larwence (blue circle) who drives his man back so far into the play that Freeman actually has to run backward after taking the hand off. A big win for the defense.

Run 2

This play was a disaster-in-the-making. Kyle Wilber (red circle) is blocked and Sean Lee (red x) is disrupted by Jack Crawford getting pushed back on the edge. The Falcon's fullback has a bead on Anthony Hitchens (red arrow) but the much maligned Nick Hayden (blue circle) gets off his block and slows Freeman enough that Lee can converge and stop him for no gain. This play would've been a huge gain without Hayden's play.

Run 3

This was a 16-yd run around the right side. They simply ran away from Sean Lee (green check) and the right tackle leaves DeMarcus Lawrence unblocked to go intercept (I believe) Andrew Gachkar (red arrow). Lawrence (blue circle), meanwhile, is cut blocked and taken to the ground, as is Brandon Carr (out of the picture). Where was Anthony Hitchens (red circle) on this play? I'll decline comment.

Run 4

On this 3rd and 7 deep in Dallas territory, the Falcons play it safe, clearly thinking field goal with a hand off up the middle. Ryan Russell (blue circle) is left completely unblocked because this is a dive play. Sean Lee (red x) has the hole spied and is clearly planning on eating this one alive.

Devonta Freeman does the unthinkable and cuts right into the waiting arms of Ryan Russell (blue circle) for a huge loss.  Such is the presence of Sean Lee in the hole (red circle). Unfortunately, Russell runs right by Freeman, who proceeds to convert a 3rd and 7, giving the Falcons 1st and goal. Dallas was very lucky, however, as nobody even noticed Julio Jones (green check) lined up in the backfield. He would have had an easy touchdown had Matt Ryan pitched him the ball instead of handing to Freeman.

Run 5

Very similar to the first run in this article except that this time it is Tyrone Crawford's penetration (blue circle) that disrupts the play. Barry Church (blue arrow) comes up and ties up Freeman allowing Anthony Hitchens (red x) to close and stop Freeman for no gain.

Run 6

This is just a beautiful shot of team defense. Everyone in their lanes and setting contain against the stretch run, allowing unblocked back side defenders like DeMarcus Lawrence (blue arrow), who showed incredible speed on this play, to stop the play cold. This is textbook run stoppage.

So which plays happened in which half? Any guesses?

In a spoiler for the follow-up article on the pass defense, I'll tell you. They are chronological, with four plays from the first half and two from the second. While it felt like Davonta Freeman ran wild and unstoppable in the second half, the Dallas defense actually contained him several times. The problem was that every time they did, they gave up a key 3rd down conversion like Run 4, above, or a huge play in the passing game... but more on that in my next.