For all the accolades thrown at the Dallas Cowboys defense so far in 2022, there was one negative they couldn’t get away from. Their run defense was a problem. The peak of that dysfunction came in a two-game stretch where they gave up 447 yards rushing. The Bears, with running quarterback Justin Fields, hung 240 rushing yards on the Cowboys. The following week, the Green Bay Packers tallied up 207 yards rushing.
The Cowboys went 1-1 in those two games, and there was some sentiment that the Bears kept running the ball when they need to be passing to catch up, and that the Cowboys defense was content to let them do that. Context can be a powerful counter-argument to volume stats like rushing yards, but suffice it to say the Cowboys probably weren’t going to be a successful team in the long run if they kept giving up 200+ yards on the ground.
After that Packers game, the concern became real when you looked ahead on the Cowboys schedule. Dalvin Cook of the Minnesota Vikings was up next, and he was followed by Saquon Barkley of the New York Giants. Those are two really good backs with production to their name. The fear was that teams were just going to run the ball down the Cowboys throats to avoid their fearsome pass rush. It would be up to the Cowboys to get a big lead on offense to thwart that plan.
Instead, the Cowboys defense and Dan Quinn have stabilized their rush defense for now. The Vikings only totaled 73 yards on the ground with Cook accounting for 72 of that, and the Giants got 90 yards with Barkley finishing with 39 yards on the ground. Again there is context. Cook averaged 6.5 yards per carry and was limited because the Vikings fell so far behind. So we can’t say that Dan Quinn pulled out some magic formula and fixed the run defense. But there is no doubt the Cowboys have done better containing the run in the last two games.
The Cowboys defense is geared for the pass rush. Quinn likes to run stunts a lot, and that can confuse protection schemes, but it can also open running lanes. Dallas also doesn’t always line up in traditional gaps, preferring to move guys around, and sometimes have defensive linemen stand up off the line of scrimmage in passing situations. All of that can lead to poor gap discipline and open lanes if teams run instead of pass in certain situations.
There’s no silver bullet here. The Cowboys are going to rush the passer, it’s their identity on defense and they excel at it. But over the last two games, they seemed to have tightened up their discipline in containing gaps and setting the edge as to not get overrun by the run.
They said after the Packers game that they didn’t need a dramatic change, they just needed each guy to do their job on defense. At the time, it sounded like something team’s say when they don’t have a real answer. In this case, it seems it might have been the real answer.