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Opposing player to watch: Running back Melvin Gordon

The Cowboys run defense has been putrid without Sean Lee, on Thanksgiving they’ll welcome this Pro Bowl back.

NFL: Buffalo Bills at Los Angeles Chargers Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

6.7, 7.1, 4.3, 9.3.

That’s how many yards per carry the Cowboys defense has allowed in the second halves of the Rams, Packers, Falcons, and Eagles games, i.e. the games without Sean Lee. In the first halves of those games the defense usually gave up about 30-40 or so yards and then in the second half, for whatever reason, they simply crumbled. For as much consternation as there is over the pass defense, and it’s plenty warranted, the run defense has been arguably the biggest culprit in the second half defensive collapses.

Carson Wentz made a few timely throws on third down last week but he didn’t even put up 100 yards passing in the second half. Aaron Rodgers threw for less than 150 in the second half, which isn’t necessarily great but if you hold Rodgers to under 300 in a game (which the defense did) you feel pretty good about it.

What really killed the Cowboys in those games, and the Falcons and Rams games, was that the defense has consistently given up 90+ yards in the second half, and in some cases they gave up well over 100. Jared Goff, Aaron Rodgers, Matt Ryan, and Carson Wentz are clearly all very good quarterbacks, you have MVP’s, a Super Bowl winner, at least one Hall of Famer, and two of the brightest young quarterbacks in the league.

But again, they didn’t single-handedly kill the Cowboys. Each of them certainly made timely throws and played well overall, but it was the running game that was the real killer, often times after successfully limiting the run in the first half. You have absolutely no hope of stopping a top-tier quarterback when you allow a team to consistently run the ball at a decent clip, let alone if you’re giving up 6-7 YPC.

And on Thanksgiving the Cowboys will face yet another quarterback similar to those other four in Phillip Rivers. He is at the back end of his career but he is still a borderline top 10 quarterback who is more than capable of carving up any defense on any given Sunday, especially if afforded a running game popping off for 5+ yards a clip.

All of that brings me to Melvin Gordon, the Chargers 2016 Pro Bowl running back. Gordon had a disappointing rookie year in 2015 after being drafted 15th overall out of Wisconsin, but he bounced back in 2016, putting up 997 yards and 10 touchdowns, which ranked 13th and 7th in the league respectively. He was also a potent threat out of the backfield with 41 catches for 419 yards.

He’s had a similar season in 2017, ranking 9th in the league with 633 yards rushing, 5 touchdowns, and another 35 catches for 250 yards and 4 touchdowns. Gordon is a bit of a plodder, averaging only 3.8 YPC in 2017 and 3.9 last season, but he is capable of busting long runs when he hits the hole at the right angle, evidenced by his 87-yard touchdown a few weeks ago against New England.

Either way, when your defense has gotten torn apart recently by the likes of Aaron Jones and Tevin Coleman there isn’t much room for arrogance when it comes to stopping opponents. Gordon might not have elite speed but he is certainly a very good overall player and is one of the more consistent, versatile backfield threats in the league who can keep an offense on-schedule.

Even if the Cowboys are able to limit Gordon in the first half, as they have in those four collapses, the Chargers won’t get away from the run. Gordon ranks 8th in the league in attempts in 2017 and was 10th in 2016. He will get his 15-20 rushes one way or the other, and if he starts breaking off long runs late in the game you better believe they’ll keep feeding him with his physical style.

So the defense, without Sean Lee, will have to figure out some way to stifle the running game while not getting carved up by Rivers through the air. It’s hard to pinpoint why exactly the defense falls off so steeply after halftime but some of it has to be that opponents are seeing something and adjusting because the pattern is too stark and obvious to discount it as mere happenstance, especially when for the most part the personnel on the field doesn’t change from one half to the next.

I wish I had answers for how the Cowboys can accomplish this but at this point I’m clean out. You simply have to hope that Tyrone Crawford, David Irving, Demarcus Lawrence and company can elevate their games to win the battle at the line of scrimmage, and that Anthony Hitchens, seemingly the only “3-down” linebacker left in Lee’s absence can stay available and on the field.

I’m not optimistic given what we’ve seen out of them lately.

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