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Cowboys hot topic: The defense is their Achilles’ heel (again)

Two 31 point outputs. Two losses. That is not supposed to happen in the NFL.

Green Bay Packers v Dallas Cowboy Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

There are still some issues for the offense of the Dallas Cowboys, but in the last two games, there were some strong signs they are at least finding ways to overcome them. In particular, the long touchdown drive to retake the lead inside of two minutes against the Green Bay Packers showed that they are still able to find the formula that was so successful in 2016. All they needed was one stop from the defense.

A stop that was nowhere to be found.

It is a simple fact that the vast majority of times you score 31 points in the NFL, you should win the game. Yet in the last two games, the Cowboys have managed to lose despite accomplishing that. It is hard to argue that their offense is at least managing to get the job done, only to be let down by a defense that is unable to do its part. And it is not exactly a new development.

What is going on? Is it coaching? There certainly seems to be a problem, particularly after halftime. The Cowboys had good leads after the first half against both the Los Angeles Rams and the Packers, only to see those teams come roaring back against little opposition to take the wins. A lack of talent? For a while, the team was clearly investing more heavily on the offensive side of the ball, but the last two years they have begun putting more draft capital and free agent money into trying to shore up the defense.

And there are some signs that the talent is starting to show up.

There are some very good pieces on the defense, but they have just not been working together well, especially in the past couple of weeks.

Now, the Cowboys have a bye week to try and right things. They have to if they want to have any hope of making the playoffs. They already trail the Philadelphia Eagles by two games in the NFC East, and Washington is ahead of them as well. We all have a pretty good idea of what the issues have been, so here is a look at why Dallas might be able to correct things.

Fix the linebacking.

Everyone is focused on how Aaron Rodgers had another incredibly good game on Sunday (something he seems to manage so frequently against the Cowboys), but the real issue in the game may have been that Dallas was not able to stop the run. The Packers, who are not known for their ground attack, put up 160 yards rushing, led by rookie Aaron Jones, who gashed them for 125 yards. Rodger also had 32 yards on the ground, keeping several drives alive. The failure to stop Green Bay from running the ball so well falls directly on the linebackers, who are the main line of defense there.

And it was the second week in a row that Dallas let itself be shredded on the ground. Todd Gurley had 121 yards for the Rams the week before. The Cowboys had their own formula used against them by both LA and GB, with big first down runs setting up favorable down and distance for their opponents.

It is no coincidence that Sean Lee missed both games. Dallas made a strategic decision to keep him out for the second week to allow him to more fully recover from his hamstring problem. It was probably the right thing to do, but the short term results were evident. In both of the two most recent losses, the linebackers were frequently out of position and taking bad angles to allow the big runs. The injuries to Lee and Anthony Hitchens forced Jaylon Smith into a much bigger role than was planned for him in his first season back from injury. Smith is playing under a double handicap. He is still not fully recovered, and he has only been in five NFL games. He simply does not have the ability and experience (yet) to handle the load that has been thrust upon him. And it clearly shows. The return of Hitchens against the Packers did not help.

Now, Lee should be back and able to get the defense into position as well as make plays, something he is simply superb at. That in itself should go a long ways towards making things better. And Smith can be put on a much reduced snap count, which will likely result in improved results for him when he is on the field with a lot less weight on his shoulders.

Let the young defensive backs grow.

Dallas took a calculated but still huge risk in parting ways with Morris Claiborne, Brandon Carr, and Barry Church in the offseason. To replace them, they drafted Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis, and Xavier Woods. As the tweets above show, they got some very talented young players - and young players are going to make mistakes. Still, as the results have shown, there is a great deal of promise in the new-look secondary. It hasn’t helped that Orlando Scandrick has been playing through injury and has at times not looked like his old self.

At this point, the best move for the Cowboys may be to go all in on the young talent. Make the starting nickle (the real base defense in the pass-centric NFL) Awuzie, Lewis, Woods, Byron Jones, and Anthony Brown. Let them learn together as a unit and hope they can continue what has been a good start. Based on what we have seen from the rookies, that may become one of the better secondaries in the league. Scandrick, Jeff Heath, and Kavon Frazier should be relegated to backup and/or special teams duties, which frankly is what their play has earned them so far this season.

Keep getting sacks.

The Cowboys now boast the league’s leading sack artist in Lawrence, and the team is sixth overall in sacks. Suddenly, the pass rush has become a strength for the team. And it should just get better with Irving’s fast start after his suspension. They need some more production from the rest of the team, although Tyrone Crawford has quietly added two sacks of his own and is looking like a key part of the mix, despite the disrespect he gets from so many fans.

The idea here is that the pass rush and the coverage behind it will grow together and work hand in hand to make both work better. That will hopefully lead to the final ingredient needed.

Take the ball away.

Once again, Dallas is having a dismal time getting takeaways, which is contributing to the losses (there was only one meaningful turnover in the Green Bay loss, but that pick six was huge in driving the outcome).

The problem with getting turnovers is that there is such a randomness to it. The coaching staff can emphasize it all they want, but sometimes it just doesn’t happen. This peculiar observation is a great illustration of how it really doesn’t seem to relate much to the players involved.

That quartet of players could not get interceptions in Dallas, but now they are picking them off with regularity. It is not logical or explainable. That is just how it goes.

But if the pass rush continues to come at the opposing quarterbacks, and the young secondary players keep doing a good job in coverage, interceptions should start to happen. (Fumbles are even more difficult to generate, and this season the Cowboys have also seen the ball repeatedly bounce back to the opponent.) We have to hope that the law of averages finally swings back in Dallas’ favor. If it does, then good things should ensue.

It at least appears that the Cowboys don’t just have possible solutions to their defensive woes, they actually have some players to make them happen. Health is going to be a huge factor, as we have seen star players dropping at an alarming rate already this season. The Houston Texans lost both J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus for the season last Sunday. But if Dallas can avoid too many injuries, the defense should turn around.

If it doesn’t, though, it is going to be a long season and probably will waste more strong offensive showings.

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