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After further review: Lack of gap discipline dooms the Cowboys run defense against Washington

Let’s see what we can find out after re-watching the tape.

NFL: Washington Football Team at Dallas Cowboys Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

For the first time since 2012 (RG3 and Alfred Morris’ rookie season), Washington has swept the Dallas Cowboys. In recent years, it’s been the Cowboys doing the sweeping as they have won both games in three of the previous four seasons. And it may have even been all four had L.P. Ladoucer not been called for that bogus snap infraction that nullified a game-tying field goal in 2018.

The Cowboys are struggling this season as they sit with a 3-8 record, and they’ve had particular fits with Washington as their divisional foes have blown them out by 22 and now 25 points this season. One of the big reasons the Cowboys have had problems with Washington is in the running game as rookie Antonio Gibson has looked like an All-Pro-caliber player in both games.

Why are the Cowboys so bad at stopping the run against this team? This question leads this week film study piece as we search for what we can learn after further review.

Blockers are getting to the second level

Washington deserves a lot of credit for their blocking schemes, and it’s given the Cowboys defense problems for two straight games as Washington has rushed for 392 yards in their two meetings this season. Their offensive line is very good at sliding off of defensive linemen and positioning themselves into the second level. Their tight ends do a fantastic job picking off would be tacklers, allowing their running backs to move freely in space.

On this first play, the Cowboys have defenders looming in each of the gaps, but as blockers pick them up in the second level, Peyton Barber is able to run through a wide open space. He goes untouched for 10 yards before he meets Donovan Wilson, who spent all day cleaning up this mess.

Poor gap discipline

While props goes to Washington for their blocking, the Cowboys did themselves no favors by leaving their opponents clear running lanes. Several times in this game, the ball carriers ran away from where the defense was positioned as gaps were left unattended. It’s hard to know how much of this is attributed to poor defensive scheming or just bad reaction by the Cowboys defenders. What does seem clear is that the Dallas linebackers are very quick to commit to the gap, and if they guess wrong, they’re in big trouble because there isn’t a teammate showing up to help.

On this next play, both Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch push forward into the gap. All Antonio Gibson has to do is cut to his left as there is a huge hole in the B gap. Unfortunately for the Cowboys, there is no help and Gibson runs into the end zone untouched.

Sometimes it’s clear that the player is at fault as their ball pursuit is terrible. On this play, Vander Esch goes unblocked, but he loses sight of where the ball carrier is going and starts off in the wrong direction. Barber just bounces around the cluster of bodies to wide open spaces.

Here is another play where the Cowboys leave a huge hole. Both Sean Lee and Jourdan Lewis do a good job staying disciplined to their gap as they slide the feet patiently watching the play develop. Only at the last second do they push forward to close down the lane, only to have Gibson bounce to his right where no Cowboys defender can be found.

Motion takes defenders out of the play

To aid in creating open space, Washington ran a lot of motion to move defenders around. The threat of J.D. McKissic caused defensive backs to follow him in motion, removing them from any chance of making a play. It was a well-executed decoy as Cowboys defenders were left wondering aimlessly in no-man’s land.

On this play, Lewis follows McKissic in motion and Xavier Woods moves the same direction as he’s attempts to stay with tight end Logan Thomas. Darian Thompson was coming on a blitz, and by the time Gibson got the ball, the Cowboys defensive backs are already too far out of position to make the play.

It should be noted that while Wilson racked up a lot of tackles that day, he was a liability in run support. His change of direction was bumbling, and he doesn’t posses the long speed to make up for his mistakes. Re-watch those last two videos and you’ll see that Wilson is totally in position to make the play, but moves like he’s running in molasses. He’s had a great season since moving into the starters role, but he definitely has some limitations in his game.

Just not fast enough

The Cowboys safeties in general aren’t making enough plays. Both Woods and Wilson love to lay the smack on their opponents, but they need clear shots to make that happen. If they get into a footrace with anyone, there’s a good chance they’re going to lose.

On this play, Woods easily is in position to make the play on Gibson, but the rookie running back turns on the jets and somehow beats him to the corner of the end zone.


Tackling makes all the difference

While the Cowboys defense was late to the party, Washington swarmed to the ball every chance they got. They did a really good job fighting through blocks and wrapping up. Late in the second quarter, the Cowboys moved the ball in the red zone and had a shot to tie the game at 17. They came up short and had to settle for a field goal, but how it came to that was aggravating. Twice over the span of three plays, they hit Michael Gallup on a quick pass hoping to get him space to run, but each time they came up empty. The Cowboys receivers couldn’t secure their blocks and Washington’s defense closed fast. This just came down to one team executing better than the other.

A missed opportunity

The Cowboys decision to attempt a fake punt was risky to say the least, and while Washington has sniffed out where the play was supposed to go, it was still surprising that Cedrick Wilson didn’t try to throw the ball to C.J. Goodwin. As we look closer at this play, you can see that if he connects with Goodwin there, this play has a chance to go to the house and we wouldn’t be talking about what a terrible decision that was.

Give Pollard his props

The Cowboys second-year running back Tony Pollard was essentially nonexistent in this one, but we wanted to highlight a few plays that deserve praise. For starters, he did a great job picking up the blitz from the outside, not once, but twice that enabled Andy Dalton enough time to find Amari Cooper. Both plays were 25+ yard gains.

And let’s not forget his relentless 3rd-and-1 run where it looked like he was going to be bottled up at the line of scrimmage, only to bounce outside to fight for the first-down yardage. Well done, 20.