By all accounts, the Cowboys are fielding one of the best defenses in the NFL for a second consecutive season with Dan Quinn at the helm. But if there had to be one area where this group - led by elite pass rushers like Micah Parsons and DeMarcus Lawrence, and ballhawks like Trevon Diggs - was somewhat vulnerable, it’s the ability to stop the run.
As a matter of fact, the Dallas defense had allowed at least 150 rushing yards in each of their first four games of the season. They then held the Rams to just 38 yards, though Los Angeles has struggled to run the ball all year. They followed that up by allowing 136 yards to the Eagles (a genuine feat given the organization’s steadfast commitment to the run) and 117 yards to another run heavy offense in the Lions.
For three consecutive weeks, the defense had mildly over-performed against the run, but it wasn’t enough. That’s why the Cowboys made the move to acquire Johnathan Hankins, a veteran nose tackle with a penchant for eating up run plays. He was supposed to be the pièce de résistance for this run defense.
Then the Bears ran all over the Cowboys for a total of 240 rushing yards. They averaged 5.6 yards per carry. Both were the most allowed by this unit all year, and by a pretty sizable margin. So what gives?
After watching the game over again, it became evident that things weren’t quite as bad as the raw numbers suggested. For starters, Hankins was especially impressive in his Cowboys debut, and the run defense was marginally better with him plugging up the middle.
When new Cowboys NT Johnathan Hankins was on the field Sunday, Bears RBs Khalil Herbert and David Montgomery combined for 11 carries and 39 yards (3.5 average). When Hankins was on the sideline: 20 carries for 113 yards (5.7) and a touchdown.— Michael Gehlken (@GehlkenNFL) November 2, 2022
Film behind the stat. pic.twitter.com/tbKWomqIIB
Hankins only played on 42% of the defensive snaps, which may or may not have been due to the fact that he had just joined the team. Whether or not that number increases significantly going forward, it was still a positive development to see his presence be felt so much on Sunday.
Even with those splits, though, the Cowboys weren’t that bad. It must be understood that Chicago runs the ball a lot; they led the league in total rush attempts coming into the game and, unsurprisingly, still led afterwards. The offense is designed to run the ball, and they tend to do so regardless of whether they’re leading or trailing in a game.
Herein lies the biggest source of confusion from the game. When Micah Parsons scored a touchdown on the fumble recovery, the Cowboys led by three scores. With five minutes left in the third quarter, Chicago was in a spot where most teams would start to almost exclusively throw the ball. Not the Bears, though: in fact, 110 of the Bears’ 240 rushing yards came after that Parsons touchdown.
In that kind of situation - holding a three-score lead with just 17 minutes left - the Cowboys wanted the Bears to run the ball. They had shown all game long that they were really only capable of scoring on long drives, buoyed by the run. Doing so again with such a deficit made a comeback nearly impossible. Yes, the defense gave up all those yards, but they were effectively garbage time yards that caused more damage to the Bears’ win probability than it did to the Cowboys.
Another wrinkle from the game was the prevalence of quarterback Justin Fields as a runner. While Chicago uses Fields as a designed runner quite often, nearly two thirds of his rushing production in this game - 38 yards, to be exact - came on scrambles.
In the box score, quarterback scrambles get counted as rushing yards, but the reality is that yards given up on a scramble don’t really reflect a defense’s ability to stop the run. In fact, Football Outsiders (the creators of the DVOA metric) score scrambles as a pass play rather than a run, since it occurs on a true dropback rather than an actual run play. That also explains why the Cowboys only dropped from 12th to 13th in run defense DVOA after the Bears game.
None of this is to say that the Cowboys were great against the run this past week; they gave up plenty of runs they shouldn’t have, and the Bears deserve flowers for crafting such an efficient run game this year. But Dallas wasn’t nearly as bad as the numbers suggested either.
There’s reason for optimism, too. Hankins will only be more familiar within this defense moving forward, and the Cowboys appear ready to activate Tarell Basham off of the injured reserve as well. A year ago, Basham was one of the defense’s best run defenders: he led all defensive ends in tackles and run stops, and he had the lowest average depth of tackle among qualifying edge defenders. In other words, he got to the ball carrier quickly and made the stop.
So reinforcements are coming, but the Cowboys aren’t exactly desperate for them either. The run defense’s showing against the Bears will ultimately be remembered for what it was: a statistical anomaly. There is still room for improvement in this area of the defense, but it’s far from the glaring weakness it felt like during the game.