FRISCO, Texas — Mike McCarthy hasn’t called plays in his two-plus seasons as Dallas Cowboys head coach, but he knows how he would attack his own defense: running the ball. A lot.
“We’ve been talking about it since training camp,” McCarthy said. “We talked about how we were going to be challenged from day one. We recognize our strength when it comes to passing rushing, but passing rushing is a privilege right now. Until we take care of that racing challenge, that’s what it’s going to be.
Despite all the good the Cowboys defense has done, they’re ranked 29th in rushing yards allowed per game (143.1) and 26th in yards per rush (4.75).
In their last two games, the Cowboys have allowed 240 yards (Chicago Bears) and 207 yards (Green Bay Packers) on the ground. It’s only the third time in the past 20 seasons that the Cowboys have allowed at least 200 rushing yards in consecutive games (Weeks 6-7 in 2020 and Weeks 10-12 around their Week 11 in 2013).
This week against the Minnesota Vikings (4:25 p.m. ET, CBS), they’ll look to avoid a third straight game by allowing at least 200 rushing yards for the first time since 1960, the franchise’s inaugural season.
In their last two games, the Cowboys held a double-digit second-half lead and yet the opposition kept on running. With mobile Justin Fields at quarterback for the Bears is more understandable. But with 38 years Aaron Rodgers? The Packers ran on purpose on 62% of their games, which was the highest rate ever in a game thrown by Rodgers, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
“There’s an element that you just want to get perfectly right, so that’s where we’re aiming to make sure we get that part right,” defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said. “We know how important it is. And as we’ve seen over some of the last few weeks, there are teams that, ‘Hey, it’s fully committed to how we want to do it [by rushing the ball].’ If that doesn’t grab our attention to say, “This is how it’s supposed to be,” then it would be hard to find another way to get it across.
The Vikings have the 23rd ranked running offense, but Dalvin Cook is eighth in the league with 727 rushing yards. The Cowboys take on the New York Giants on Thanksgiving, and Saquon Barkley leads the NFL in rushing (931 yards). In their last eight games, the Cowboys face six running backs currently in the top 10 in the rush and that doesn’t include last season’s rush champion Indianapolis. Jonathan Taylorwho played just seven games but had 147 rushing yards last week.
“I think that’s part of the fun,” Quinn said. “Our league, there are so many different ways. Sometimes you face a team that wants to back up and throw it and do it that way. Another team wants to come back and race like we’ve seen in the last two weeks.”
“As you go into each week, you have to make sure you’re able to match it up and play, even if they show a different style one week and they show a different one this week- And having that adaptability I think is important in the game.
Frustrations boiled over. The players talked about just doing their job. Quinn said some of it could be attributed to “excessive trying”.
“You have to hold our gaps and stop them. You have to be responsible,” linebacker Micah Parsons said. “We have to hold our gaps, get down and stop them. It’s going to continue until we stop it. Period… Until we put that in place, until they run the ball, we’ll never be as good as we have to be.”
said security Malik Hooker“Cut the leaks, adapt the racing like we’re supposed to, and I feel like you’ll be fine on the road.”
In the past 10 seasons, only two Super Bowl winners have finished outside the top 11 in rush defense (2019 Kansas City Chiefs, 2012 Baltimore Ravens), and only two have allowed more than 4 yards per carry (2019 Chiefs , 2018 New England Patriots).
Do the Cowboys have the right guys to stop the run?
“100%,” Quinn said.
So it’s not a question of talent?
“No,” he said.
The Cowboys added a 340-pound defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins of the Las Vegas Raiders before the trade deadline, but where they got hurt the most, especially against the Packers, was on perimeter runs.
On the inside tracks, there was what the Cowboys call too many “leaks,” where a runner gains more yards after contact.
Their opponents are watching. They know where to test the Dallas defense. The Cowboys know the problem. They know it from training camp.
“It really comes down to the level of the pad and staying square and all the fundamentals of our run defense,” McCarthy said. “It’s tough. It’s ugly and that’s the beauty of it.