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Twitter Q&A: Why did the Cowboys defense collapse in the divisional round?

Cowboys Twitter wants to know why such a solid defense collapsed in the playoffs?

NFL: NFC Divisional Playoff-Dallas Cowboys at Los Angeles Rams Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Now that the offseason is officially underway, we were feeling reflective on this past season. We decided to poll our Twitter audience to see exactly what was on the minds as we put this past year into the rear-view. BTB asked and you all delivered, let’s take a look at that frustrating ending vs. the Rams with a question posed by Jason Donnelly (@JCDJR2601 on Twitter)

Why did the Cowboys defense collapse vs. the Rams after such a promising season?

It starts upfront with the Rams offensive line, which ranked third in rushing this season with a pretty stellar group of road-graders paving the way. For a defensive line to work properly each guy has to handle their assignment, which just didn’t happen in Los Angeles. It wasn’t the first time we witnessed a collapse like that, the week 15 matchup with the Colts was very similar.

The Cowboys defensive line doesn’t have a ton of size to begin with and they were quite frankly manhandled at the point of attack and their defensive tackles were overpowered. Both Todd Gurley and C.J. Anderson were following their blocks and punishing the Cowboys 4-3 front. The Cowboys defensive line relies on stunts, instead of blitz help, to cause disruption in the backfield.

What happens when the defense knows when and where those stunts are coming? You get what happened in the Rams game.

“They’re a defensive line that really likes to move a lot,” [Rams] right guard Austin Blythe told The Ringer. “We had a pretty good tell when they were going to do that.”

Yes, the Rams broke the code and had the Cowboys defensive line figured out.

...stunts depend on the element of surprise, and during Los Angeles’s film study in the week leading up to the game against Dallas, the Rams discovered that the Cowboys defensive line was tipping whether they were going to stunt based on how they aligned before the snap.

Depending on the alignment of the Cowboys defensive tackles, particularly whether Maliek Collins was shaded closer to the tackle instead of the guard, the Rams figured a stunt may be coming. If the Rams saw Collins lined up slightly wider than usual, they looked for a second tell. If a certain Cowboys lineman had a specific hand on the ground—right or left—or if a player was tilted one way or the other, it confirmed what the Cowboys defensive line was going to do.

“They have good players, but we just felt scheme-wise we were able to—we had a lot of tips and tells on what they were going to do in front of us,” said Rams center John Sullivan.

According to the Rams offensive linemen, they knew what was coming on about 90% of the plays.

“Usually they like to play a 3-technique but if he got a little wider, and looked like he was going to play the [left or right] tackle, he was going to slant out and we were going to get another movement from the other side too,” Blythe said. “If [the defensive tackle] is going to come in, the tell is going to come in from the other side.”

I asked Blythe how often the tells accurately predicted the Cowboys play call.

“Plus-90 percent” Blythe said.

That should give you an idea of how things collapsed for the Cowboys defense that day.

What resulted from a bad day in the trenches was a domino effect on the entire unit. Dallas couldn’t funnel the action to rookie weak side linebacker Leighton Vander Esch or Jaylon Smith like they hoped. These two young linebackers were left chasing the play, which caused too much over-pursuing and more guys getting washed out entirely. Even when Dallas tried to go with experience and get Sean Lee in the game, he just didn’t have the reactionary speed and his timing was way off.

To make matters worse, Jeff Heath struggled mightily to finish tackles and just like that they were gashed to the tune of almost 300 rushing yards in one game. In 2018, the Cowboys defense held opponents below 100 team rushing yards in 11 games. The 278 gained in LA was almost 100 more yards than they gave up in the Colts game. The Rams did a masterful job of showing a lot of pre-snap movement but having the discipline to avoid jumping off-sides and accruing false start penalties. The Rams caught DeMarcus Lawrence and Antwaun Woods a few times for free yardage but all that movement really threw this Cowboys defense for a loop.

That game also showed the front office what they were missing with the absence of David Irving and that’s a playmaker on the interior. Irving is completely unreliable and will have trouble even finding a team in 2019 which is such a shame as this defense could have really used his freakish athleticism. Maliek Collins, Tyrone Crawford, and Antwaun Woods all played their tails off but none of them are consistently disruptive enough as pass rushers nor do they have elite strength to hold up.

The Cowboys have quality edge rushers with DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory, Lawrence is the elite rusher but also happens to be one of the better run defenders. Think about how this defense would be with just one consistent space-eating presence in the middle or a playmaker of any kind. The Cowboys must add either a disruptive athletic phenom in the mold of Irving or find an elite run stuffer that eats up space. Either way, until they get help inside, their edge rushers won’t be able to truly dominate.

Under Rod Marinelli, this team just hasn’t valued true one-tech defensive tackles and prefer they come with pass rush ability. This is something they should reevaluate this offseason because they cannot afford to be rendered so ineffective against the run if they hope to move past the divisional round.

Additionally, they need to make sure they are not being read pre-snap. If the Rams really did figure out what they were doing on defense along the line, then the rest of the NFL will know soon enough. The Cowboys might want to check into their pre-snap alignments to make sure they aren’t tipping their hand.

Stopping the run is a fundamental necessity of any great defense and especially so in the postseason. The Cowboys couldn’t stop the Rams’ one-two rushing attack and therefore the entire defense collapsed at the most inopportune moment. The Cowboys defense wasn’t just beat, they were bludgeoned their fate was sealed way before the final whistle was blown.

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