What if they had a football game and no one threw the football? At first glance, that would be a prescription for horribly boring and ineffective games. It would seem to sacrifice big plays and excitement, with the defense dominating and offenses just trying to grind things out. However, there is one way that you would still get big offensive plays and high-scoring excitement.
Put the Dallas Cowboys defense on the field, because they have no ability to stop the run.
And this is not just about big rushing totals. Certainly, the Cowboys are the worst run defense in the NFL, yielding an average of 168 yards per game on the ground for the season. No, they also have an amazing ability to turn rushing plays by the opponent into the kind of long-range, exciting big-chunk gains and scores that normally are the province of the passing game. This was brutally on display in the depressing defeat at the hands of the Baltimore Ravens. From the NFL’s post-game stat compilation, here are the top ten plays by their offense.
Seven of the plays are rushes. That is the opposite of what we normally see. Five of the runs went for 20+ yards. Three for 30+.
To adequately describe the state of the Dallas run defense, we need to get out the old thesaurus, because we are going to need a bunch of different ways of saying “bad.” Against Baltimore, Dallas was shredded for 294 yards on the ground. That is pathetic. They allowed 7.9 yards per carry, which is absolutely horrible. It is no wonder that the Ravens cruised to such an easy victory, because they are the top running team in the league, averaging 169 yards per game. When the irresistible force meets an easily movable object, well, things happen. Very unpleasant things, if you are the object.
In the traditional viewpoint, stopping the run is the first priority for the defense. Some think that is no longer valid. The NFL has become a passing league, but what happened against the Ravens offers proof that the old views are not necessarily wrong.
Clearly, with Dallas in the cellar of yards allowed rushing, this is not a problem that just cropped up in Baltimore. It is, however, one that is reaching record heights - er, depths - this season.
Given the Cowboys have only played the Baltimore Ravens 6 times EVER, it might be something worth pondering that in nearly 1,000 games of history, they show up 3 times in the top 15 most rushing yards ever conceded by Dallas now. Rather disproportionate, I should say. pic.twitter.com/5hPwALuOgl— Bob Sturm (@SportsSturm) December 9, 2020
Look beyond the games against the Ravens, and note that three of the worst run defense performances in the entire history of the Cowboys franchise have happened this season. We are now in epically terrible territory.
It is very sad that just three-quarters into the first season for Mike McCarthy and his staff, the calls for their replacement are growing in volume. That certainly includes defensive coordinator Mike Nolan. Switching head coaches at this point seems extremely hasty, however. The roster has become a shell of itself with all the injuries, including no less that three All Pros and the franchise quarterback, plus the starting tight end all now out for the season, and the heir apparent at center on IR.
That doesn’t do anything to build a case for Nolan to get more time, though. The only major losses the defense has suffered for the season so far are DT Gerald McCoy, who didn’t get out of the first days of training camp, DT Trysten Hill, who impressed but is still just a second-year player with a lot of growing to do, and CB Trevon Diggs. The latter was the most significant defensive injury, but he is just a rookie who had his share of rookie mistakes. That doesn’t alter the fact that he was likely the best corner the team has when healthy.
He also had little to do with the run defense. No, although various players have missed time, the defense was near full strength against the Ravens. It turns out that strength is totally the wrong term to use.
While defensive backs do have a role in defending the run, the keys are the line, particularly the defensive tackles, and the linebackers. For most of this season, they have been beyond inadequate. The linemen are getting pushed around too much, they are not maintaining gap discipline, and frankly the linebackers have become completely disoriented on many plays. Throw in occasional poor tackling, and it is a wonder Baltimore didn’t just go to 100% runs. Lamar Jackson only attempted 17 passes as it was, and the fact that two of them were long touchdowns may be more about how the Cowboys were forced into selling out to have even the faintest flickering glimmer of hope to stop the run.
It has reached the point where it is impossible to not question what Nolan is doing. Some of the pre-snap alignments and reads for the defense were baffling. I’ll once again rely on Bob Sturm to provide the pertinent visuals.
Good morning. I would say that this 4D QB read is fascinating to watch Dallas "defend". First, nobody deep. Second, Dobbins has juice that rivals Lamar. So, watch everyone let Dobbins go free, then freak because Dobbins is all by himself, and abandon ball to chase guy w/o ball. pic.twitter.com/N0Dy78AUga— Bob Sturm (@SportsSturm) December 9, 2020
Look, it is blatantly obvious to even the most casual observer that the Ravens are far more dangerous when they run the ball than when they ask Jackson to throw it. It is just as glaring that he is the linchpin to the run game, always a threat to take it himself and hurt you. Yet the defense on that fourth and two play basically laid down a huge welcome mat for him to take the ball to the house. Which he swiftly did.
We are faced with two not necessarily mutually exclusive options. Either Nolan as a DC is unable to distinguish between his posterior and an excavation, or the players are trash. And as alluded to, both may well be the case.
Taking the players first, the defensive tackle position has long been one that the Cowboys have underinvested in. That is one reason why Hill’s apparent growth was so exciting. They finally spent a decent draft pick and, after a desultory rookie season, it was starting to pay off. They also invested in Neville Gallimore, but like Hill, he supports the theory that defensive linemen usually take a season or two to hit their stride. Whether Hill would make a big difference or not, the interior of the line is just not getting the job done. The ends, led by DeMarcus Lawrence, have been better, but on Tuesday they often looked to be trying to do to much to compensate. The results were not great.
The linebackers are just a mess right now. Both Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch seem to have forgotten all the reads, or are just unable to make them fast enough. On the big runs, they looked totally lost. The runners certainly lost them in a hurry. As opposed to defensive tackle, linebacker is a position where the Cowboys have grossly overinvested, with Smith a former second-round pick who is now locked in on a huge second contract, and Vander Esch a first-rounder that is looking disturbingly like a one-hit wonder his rookie year. Both are physically talented, but too often they are like rockets rather than missiles. For those without a background in aerospace, the technical difference between the two is that missiles have guidance. The starting linebackers in Dallas too often are blasting ahead with no idea of where they are supposed to be going.
Talent is key in the NFL. But good coaches find ways to get the most out of their players, and so far, Nolan has been decidedly a minimalist. We don’t know if the play calls are all as inappropriate as the one shown above, or if sometimes it is just on the players blowing assignments. Taken as a whole, the most likely answer seems to be both.
It is far more difficult to make major moves to fix the roster than it is to change the coaching. Nolan and his key assistants all need to be harshly judged. We can have some hope that the offense can be fixed in one offseason. Against Baltimore, they were not terrible. They still had a lot of trouble scoring points, but Andy Dalton moved the team fairly well, and the team got hurt by some egregious missed penalties on the Ravens defense. At least for Kellen Moore, there is something to work with. Furthermore the return of players from IR next year will be a major infusion of talent on that side of the ball. That kind of help is not coming on defense. The brain trust is going to have to go and find some more players to help out. They have had a bit of success in the draft, but 2020 was just another exhibit that they still have an nonviable approach to free agency.
That puts it back on the coaches to get the most out of the material they have to work with. The current bunch has absolutely failed at that. While the lost offseason and no preseason games were a factor, they do not explain why other teams with new coaching staffs like the Cleveland Browns, the New York Giants, and the Washington Football Team are all in the thick of the playoff hunt. All the Cowboys seem to be stalking is that top five draft position. It will be potentially useful in upgrading the talent, but it is hardly sufficient by itself.
It is so early, but it is time to evaluate the entire defensive staff for whether they deserve to still be on the sideline next season. That evaluation really should have begun already. If it is being done rationally and logically, the answer seems clear, if harsh. Harshness does not mean it is undeserved.