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The Packers Preyed on All the Cowboys’ Flaws

And it starts with the run defense.
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Things aren't going well when an opposing running back finds his way into celebrating like this. MARK HOFFMAN/MILWAUKEE JOURNAL SENTINEL / USA TODAY NETWORK

The Cowboys lost an overtime stunner to Green Bay, 31-28, to drop to 6-3 on the season. Here’s what got accomplished in the most disappointing game of the season.

Had their weaknesses exposed

We have passed the midway point of the NFL season, which means we’ve sunk enough Sundays into this football team to trust our eyes on at least a few rudimentary things. First and foremost, the Cowboys’ defense is very good. You are likely aware of this without me telling you that Dallas came into Sunday with the game’s best defensive DVOA, an overall performance metric that accounts for opponent quality. By more conventional measures, the Cowboys have recorded the NFL’s most sacks while conceding the fourth-fewest passing yards per game and third-fewest points per game. This defense has been good, it is good, and barring widespread injuries, it will continue to be good.

The flip side of that coin is the sample size is now too large to dismiss any team’s flaws as early season anomalies. Personnel comings and goings can move the needle. Take, for instance, Dak Prescott returning from injury to elevate Dallas’ passing game and the knock-on effect of CeeDee Lamb emerging as the alpha receiver he always could be now that he’s finally playing games with Prescott and without having to share the ball with Amari Cooper. Otherwise, what we see now is a reflection of a team’s true self. Which means it’s time to talk about the Cowboys’ leaky run defense, their one gaping flaw when they don’t hold the ball.

The stat sheet tells us that this was a coming-out party for electric Green Bay rookie Christian Watson and that Aaron Rodgers delivered a restrained, efficient performance one week after his turnovers doomed Green Bay in an embarrassing loss to Detroit. Don’t be fooled. There is a reason the Packers ran the ball on six of their first seven plays and 10 of their first 14, not counting a small shovel pass that for all intents and purposes functioned as an 11th run play.

The Cowboys arrived at Lambeau Field having allowed the eighth-most yards per game on the ground on the 11th-worst yards per carry. By the time they departed, Green Bay had run for 207 yards on 5.3 yards per carry. The Packers did this without the aid of a mobile quarterback, a weapon that has flummoxed Dallas all season long. Instead, they dominated Dan Quinn’s defense through the slash-and-bash combo of Aaron Jones and A.J. Dillon, with the former blazing around corners and the latter bulldozing through the middle of the line.

Make enough hay there, and it gets a lot easier to catch the defense off balance with plays like this:

It would be bad enough if this were the sole recurring issue that did Dallas in. But it wasn’t. As they have so many times, the Cowboys derailed their momentum with penalties, none more costly than seldom-used rookie receiver Jalen Tolbert somehow lining up offside in overtime. As he has so many times, Mike McCarthy left Lambeau Field ripe for second-guessing, for debatable decisions (passing up a field-goal attempt in overtime to go for it on 4th-and-3; I was on board with this, for what it’s worth) and indefensible ones (trusting Tolbert, who had been targeted twice all season, to be on the field for the most consequential drive of the season). And as he has so many times, Rodgers won a battle of nerves over the Cowboys (more on that in a moment).

All of those things led to the unprecedented: Dallas blew a 14-point fourth-quarter lead after previously being 195-0 in such situations.

There is a way to dismiss Sunday for the outlier it was. The previous 195 games suggest there’s no reason to anticipate a collapse quite like this again, and even this one might not have happened had the officials tagged Green Bay’s Jaire Alexander for pass interference for this third-down mugging of Lamb in overtime:

But left unaddressed, bad processes lead to awful outcomes. And nine games into the season, what reason do we have to believe that the Cowboys will suddenly learn to stop the run, rein in the penalties, or play four quarters (and maybe then some) without a baffling decision or three?

None of this makes them a bad team with a bad defense. But it will cap their ceiling. Just ask Micah Parsons:

Got brutalized by Aaron Rodgers—again

Rather than rehash every miserable thing Rodgers has done to the Cowboys over the years, I’ll refer you to Austin Ngaruiya’s column from Friday, which not only did that but also ended on the following:

The Cowboys should win this game—but should is Dallas’ mortal enemy when Rodgers is involved. It doesn’t matter that Green Bay is on the verge of a tailspin that could send them to the top of the draft. I don’t feel comfortable. I don’t trust that Rodgers can’t return to his MVP form; it’s not like his physical gifts evaporated in less than a year. …  I’ve seen too much to write off the possibility of him ruining Sunday afternoon—for the Cowboys, and for all of us watching, too. 

Possibly the most prescient thing we’ve run on StrongSide.

Got caught on the wrong side of a righteous tribute

This is a pro-Marshawn Lynch establishment. That includes his greatest NFL play, and it is definitely not limited to what happens before arriving in the end zone:

So you can count me among the legion of people who enjoyed Jones doing his best homage to Lynch on this touchdown run just prior to halftime:

Given Lynch’s significance as a player, perhaps some of the Cowboys appreciated the gesture, too. Or would have, had this not come at their expense.

Outfoxed themselves?

Another reason the Cowboys’ defense looked overmatched: they managed just two sacks (tied for a season low with the Washington and Tampa Bay games) and two quarterback hits (their worst total all year). Both of those numbers likely would have been higher had Parsons been rushing the passer instead of dropping into coverage at linebacker for much of the game. Why wasn’t he?

Allow me to take a stab at the Cowboys’ logic using a cross-sport comparison:

For the uninitiated, the Stars spent several seasons playing Miro Heiskanen, their best defenseman and the second of this city’s trio of possibly transcendent 23-year-olds (Luka Doncic is the third), playing on the right side of a defensive pairing rather than his natural left. There was a logic to it. After John Klingberg, the Stars were woefully short of quality right-handed options compared to left-handed ones, so why not slide Heiskanen, who does just about everything a modern defenseman can dream of, slightly out of position to pick up the slack for his less-gifted teammates?

The same logic applies to Dallas’ pool of edge rushers and linebackers. With Anthony Barr sidelined, Dallas’ non-Parsons options at linebacker amounted to Leighton Vander Esch (who was playing banged up after leaving the field briefly in the first half), Damone Clark (playing in his second career NFL game), and special teamer Luke Gifford.

Compare this to defensive end, where Tank Lawrence is one of Dallas’ five best players (and probably their best non-CeeDee Lamb player on Sunday), Dorance Armstrong has leveled up several times in his elevated role, Dante Fowler Jr. is on the track to earn a hefty raise next offseason after his play on a one-year deal, and second-round rookie Sam Williams is doing things like this:

Maybe it’s a different story if Barr had been active. Ditto if Vander Esch hadn’t given the coaching staff a scare. But weigh those question marks against the certainties on the edge, and it’s easy to see why Quinn and Co. believed they could get away with Parsons away from the action up front.

The problem is that championships tend to be won by teams that accentuate their strengths more than ones that minimize their shortcomings. As David Castillo wrote many a time, both the Stars and Heiskanen were ultimately harmed by asking their best player to do more of the things he was very good at instead of the ones he was special at. And after this tepid performance rushing the passer, it’s hard to wonder whether the Cowboys didn’t do the same thing with Parsons.

Closed the book on the Lamb conversation

For well over a year, the debate regarding Lamb’s place in the NFL receiver hierarchy ranked somewhere between that of Anthony Brown’s quiet effectiveness as a second cornerback and whether or not Lawrence could be an elite defensive lineman despite his low sack total. In each of those cases, the griping came at the expense of nuance. Brown does not need to be spectacular to serve as an important cog in a good secondary. Lawrence’s sack total only matters to a point, because sacks are but one part of an edge player’s job.

And in Lamb’s case, the very nature of his position makes any hope of a breakout contingent on his surroundings. Receivers need talent, of course, along with savvy and persistence and timing and body control. Lamb has each of those things. Receivers also require opportunities to catch the ball and someone capable of getting it to them. It took until this season for Lamb to begin commanding the target share on par with the game’s best receivers. It took until the Chicago game for him to play consecutive games with Prescott in that new role.

That makes his performance against Green Bay—a career-high 11 receptions for 150 yards and two touchdowns—a statement, yes, but also an inevitability. Players this gifted with that many passes thrown their way (he was targeted 15 times) by one of the game’s 10 or so best quarterbacks are going to emerge as stars.

Consider the discourse closed, then. Lamb is an elite player. Football may be a tricky game, but some things don’t need overthinking.  


Mike Piellucci

Mike Piellucci

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Mike Piellucci is D Magazine's sports editor. He is a former staffer at The Athletic and VICE, and his freelance…

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