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Cowboys road woes continue against Bills with historic collapse of the run defense

The Cowboys fourth road loss of the season may have been their ugliest, a total no-show effort in Buffalo.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Buffalo Bills Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

The Dallas Cowboys will play more than their guaranteed 17 games this season. This much was known after the early window on Sunday afternoon, when the Carolina Panthers beat the Atlanta Falcons. While clinching a playoff spot for the third straight year under Mike McCarthy is nothing to scoff at, the way Dallas played in Buffalo on Sunday did nothing but reignite questions about how legitimate of a postseason contender this Cowboys team can be. Now with just three regular season games remaining, one at home where the Cowboys remain a different team entirely, and the other at a Commanders team that dropped to 4-10 and lost in Dallas 45-10 on Thanksgiving, the Cowboys are running out of time to change the narrative. They need to find the form, especially on the road, of a team with hopes of reaching the conference championship for the first time since 1996.

In a much anticipated game between supposed cross-conference contenders, it was only the home Buffalo Bills playing with any semblance of December intensity and focus, beating the Cowboys 31-10. Sunday was the Cowboys’ worst loss since week five at the 49ers, and in similar fashion it was the Bills run game completely taking over with 266 yards on 49 attempts. Even without executing a game plan that forced Josh Allen to throw under duress and allow this Cowboys secondary to do what they do best, McCarthy’s team tried to adjust and stay in the fight by matching the physicality of the Bills, but costly penalties quickly put the score out of reach.

Trailing 14-0 before only managing a field goal at the end of an 11 play drive that got into the red zone, the Bills answered right back after a Jayron Kearse personal foul turned a 2nd and 19 incompletion into a free first down. Six straight running plays from the Bills to follow, the last of which being Allen’s one-yard touchdown, effectively put this game out of reach before halftime with Buffalo leading 21-3.

The Cowboys will have an immediate chance to respond off a humiliating loss, something they’ve done well under McCarthy by only losing consecutive games in weeks 11-12 of 2021. Those losses were both to AFC West teams in the Chiefs and Raiders, and now the Cowboys stay in the same division again as they travel to the AFC East leading Miami Dolphins. The team will certainly have their hands full trying to grasp what went so wrong at the Bills in week 15, while also preparing for both Mike McDaniel’s high-flying Dolphins offense and a Vic Fangio defense that’s given the Cowboys trouble in the past. Before anything can be said about a week 16 game that many around The Star will welcome arriving on the calendar sooner than Christmas Eve, here are a few further notes on Dallas’ fourth road loss of the season.

Dallas Cowboys v Buffalo Bills Photo by Lauren Leigh Bacho/Getty Images
  • To say that this game was the predictable once-a-year outlier where Dan Quinn’s defense gets exposed on the ground would still be doing James Cook and Josh Allen’s performance a disservice. The Bills rushed for 266 yards, the most the Cowboys have allowed under Quinn over the last three seasons. The previous high was 240 against the Bears last season, where the Cowboys jumped out to a 14-0 lead and were more willing to let Chicago run the ball and take up time to score. The Cowboys had four sacks and scored on a Micah Parsons fumble return to win 49-29. There would be no such support from the offense in this game, with the Bills taking a quick 7-0 lead on their opening drive.

The long play of this drive was a Stefon Diggs 18-yard crossing route working against Stephon Gilmore, set up by two Cook runs of 10 and 12 yards. The more concerning play that set the tone for the type of letdown game Dallas would be experiencing all afternoon came on Diggs’ next target, a third and goal throw where Allen was forced out of the pocket and Gilmore was in good position in coverage. DeMarcus Lawrence was called for roughing the passer on the play, giving the Bills a fresh set of downs from the one, and two plays later they had a touchdown lead.

The Cowboys pass rush knew the unique challenge that playing against Allen presents when it comes to finishing plays against him and keeping contain, but only forcing him to throw a total of 15 times (11 of which came on the Bills’ first three drives, taking a 14-0 lead they could protect with the run game) is still well short of what they were hoping for. Dallas was stacking the box in hopes of the Bills testing a secondary led by Gilmore and DaRon Bland that still found a way to make some plays when the ball was rarely in the air, but Buffalo wasn’t discouraged from running at the likes of Damone Clark, Markquese Bell, Juanyeh Thomas, and Carl Davis between the tackles.

Defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins has played well this season, and been mentioned in these post-game notes multiple times as a valuable member of this defense, which the Bills clearly noticed in taking advantage of his absence. The Cowboys also missed the run support safety Malik Hooker provides as he was inactive for this game.

Secondary coach and Quinn-lieutenant Al Harris was seen trying to inspire the Cowboys defense on the sideline, but with the amount of runs that spilled into the secondary, Dallas was simply exposed from a scheme and personnel standpoint when it came to defending the run. The longest third down the Bills faced all game was eight yards, converting 5-9 on the game with three on the ground and a total of 20 rushing first downs.

  • Dak Prescott’s 3.9 yards per attempt in this game was a full yard lower than any previous game this season, with the other being a game the Cowboys still controlled at the Panthers with Dak at 4.9 YPA but still throwing two touchdowns. There were many points in the first half where the game could have swung much differently, mostly on Sam Williams’ roughing the punter penalty and Kearse’s personal foul which both led to Bills touchdowns, but even if this game stayed low scoring should Dallas get off the field in both spots, the offense continues to look like a shell of themselves against good competition on the road. The Bills put an emphasis on taking away the middle of the field where CeeDee Lamb and Jake Ferguson have hurt teams all year with big runs after the catch, and besides an incomplete shot play to Brandin Cooks in the first quarter, the Cowboys were unable to take advantage of matchups on the outside.

The Cowboys still moved the chains after the Brandin Cooks incompletion on their longest run of the game, Prescott scrambling for 13 yards on the very next play, but a Tyler Smith holding penalty later in the drive was too much to overcome as they punted after a third down sack. The rhythm of the passing game that’s allowed Prescott to hit his back foot and get rid of the ball on time at a remarkable level was absent in this game, and as the Bills blanketed his receivers downfield the pass protection again struggled against speed rushers that get to the level of the quarterback quickly. Whether or not the Cowboys could have played a more balanced game and built off of the momentum their rushing attack found last week against the Eagles will never be known as they fell behind so quickly, but with all four Cowboys losses this season coming on the road in games they’ve scored less than 23 points, the need for them to find this balance against Miami next Sunday becomes even more crucial.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Buffalo Bills Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports
  • If the Cowboys not scoring on their last drive of the first half was the first nail in the coffin, it was sealed shut when they started with the ball in the second half and managed just one first down before punting. After converting a third and short on the previous series with a simple handoff to fullback Hunter Luepke, the Cowboys tried play-action on their next third down but lost ten yards on a Greg Rousseau sack. With only two vertical routes available for Prescott, he had nowhere to go with the ball as pressure came quickly up the middle. Passing plays like this that force Prescott to hold onto the ball, and breakdowns in pass protection even when Dallas has numbers committed to it, have become far too common an issue for McCarthy’s offense when playing on the road in the elements, and not the friendly turf of AT&T Stadium.

The Cowboys could have kept dreams of hosting a playoff game on their turf alive much easier with a win, putting further pressure on the Philadelphia Eagles with an ill Jalen Hurts to win on the road at the Seahawks Monday night, but now are far more likely to be the NFC’s five seed for the second year in a row and find themselves on the road at the NFC South winner again.

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