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Why the Cowboys run defense is a problem and what it’s going to take to get better

How confident are you feeling in the Cowboys defense right now?

Dallas Cowboys v Buffalo Bills Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images

The defense of the Dallas Cowboys (in my Matt Foley voice) has “what they call a run game problem.” On Sunday, the Buffalo Bills ran rampant over the Cowboys' defense as they looked helpless surrendering 266 yards on the ground. It was the eighth time the defense has given up over 200 yards on the ground since Mike McCarthy took over as the coach and the fourth time since Dan Quinn took over as the defensive coordinator. It’s an issue that rears its ugly head now and again and is the weakest link on this Cowboys football team.

The Cowboys took steps to improve their run defense by drafting nose tackle Mazi Smith in the first round as well as linebacker DeMarvion Overshown in round three. Unfortunately, Overshown injured his knee in the preseason and was lost for the year. Smith is playing, but he is still developing. Additionally, the Cowboys have been without their top linebacker, Leighton Vander Esch, since Week 5 and were without the run-stopping nose Johnathan Hankins on Sunday.

The Bills just ran, ran, and ran. The 49 rushing attempts were the most any team has run on Dallas in 25 years when the Tennessee Titans did it against them in 1997. Not surprisingly, the Cowboys lost that game too.

This latest run-defending debacle has some suggesting that Micah Parsons should be moved to off-ball linebacker to help stop the bleeding. Parsons was great at Penn State but since being promoted to “the show” he’s emerged as one of the game’s top edge rushers. Moving him away from that seems criminal. Additionally, Parsons has been used sparingly as an off-ball linebacker out of need a few times, and it hasn’t gone particularly well.

That’s not to say he can’t develop into a viable option at off-ball linebacker, but it’s not going to happen overnight. Plus, Parsons' disruption on the line isn’t just measured by his own sacks and pressures. That guy changes how defenses block and it allows the entire pass rush to excel. It’s not a coincidence that the Cowboys have been one of the better pass-rushing teams in the league since Parsons joined the team.

So, if Parsons isn’t the answer, what is?

There are a handful of things that they could do better. One thing might be not to stubbornly stay in undersized personnel packages against the heavy jumbo packages the Bills employed on Sunday. This allowed the defense to be “nickel and dimed” against the Bills’ rushing attack. On Sunday, 11 players logged at least 50% of the defensive snaps and all but two of them weigh less than 250 pounds.

Pro Football Reference

Why did the Cowboys do this? Why did they stay in nickel-and-dime packages when Buffalo went heavy? Countering with more beef would be a good start.

The Cowboys being undersized is not a new development. They have been operating this way all year and it hasn’t been a problem. How is it that more teams aren’t exploiting this area? The defense has been dominant for a large part of the season, and how is that happening?

Quality of teams. That’s part of it, however, the Arizona Cardinals are the lone exception and they ran all over Dallas. The Cowboys have also beaten three teams who are .500 or better this season so they can beat good teams.

Offense firing on all cylinders. That’s another factor. The Cowboys are 9-0 when they score at least 24 points. They are 1-4 when they don’t. That’s a noticeable split. This team relies on the offense to work to build a little lead, forcing opposing teams into pass-rushing situations.

Performance. Let’s face it, Markquese Bell, Donovan Wilson, Jayron Kearse, and all the brethren of motley hybrid linebackers just didn’t play well against Buffalo. Diagnosing plays better, taking better angles, and just tackling better is all something they can do to have a better showing in the run game.

Avoid stupid mistakes. It might not seem like it would’ve made a difference, but the Cowboys could’ve made this a much closer game if they hadn’t given Buffalo’s offense so many second chances. A roughing the quarterback penalty on DeMarcus Lawrence, a roughing the punter penalty on Sam Williams, and a failed no-challenge by Mike McCarthy changed the complexion of the first half. The game script could’ve been much different if they didn’t have these miscues.

It’s important to realize that this Cowboys defense is who they are. There is nobody coming to rescue their run defense and they are not going to displace their best edge rusher. But they can be better against the run by doing some of these other things. Will it be enough? We don’t know. All we can say is that they’ve been successful before and they can do it again. It’s going to take a near-perfect game to hang with a team like the San Francisco 49ers, but this team has looked great at times. Anything is possible.

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