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Football

The Bills Broke the Cowboys’ Run Defense. Can Dallas Rebuild it in Time For a Playoff Run?

Nobody ran through Dallas quite like Buffalo. That's quite the concern with two more run-heavy teams on deck.
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Josh Allen and the Bills ran through Dallas' defense on Sunday. Jamie Germano/Rochester Democrat and Chronicle / USA TODAY NETWORK

This is, without question, one of the strangest football teams I’ve ever watched. The Cowboys have clinched a playoff berth. They lead the NFL in point differential. They’re undefeated at home. But in three of their four losses, they have been thumped. Manhandled. Embarrassed. 

Nothing went right in Buffalo on Sunday, so there is no silver bullet to explain another road disaster. Dumb penalties, bad calls, poor pass protection, the mere fact the game was on the road—all of it. But if there is one glaring observation to be made, it’s one that relates directly to how this team is built: a good rushing attack can still ruin its day.

The Cowboys have an elite pass rush that leads the NFL in pressure rate. They have ballhawks throughout the secondary who make any throw a potentially dangerous one. But the middle of the defense remains a weakness that teams can exploit to a degree that effectively renders the other parts of the unit useless. 

This is a conscious choice the front office made, and I am not even of the mind it was a bad one. Most games are won through the air. Impacting the pocket and being solid in coverage are the two most important elements of modern defense. But elite speed on defense doesn’t offer much resistance to a game plan like Buffalo’s. The Bills ran it 49 times for 266 yards while attempting only 15 passes. Yes, 49 times.

Defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins was out with a high ankle sprain he suffered last week; linebacker Leighton Vander Esch suffered a season-ending neck injury in Week 5. Hankins is a 31-year-old journeyman Dallas acquired for nothing, and Vander Esch has battled injuries his entire career. If these are the players your run defense is leveraged on, you’re skating on thin ice. 

The club attempted to shore up the run defense in this year’s draft by selecting defensive tackle Mazi Smith in the first round, and maybe it always expected his development to be a slow burn. But he offers zero impact in the roughly 15 snaps a game he’s logging. Maybe third-round linebacker DeMarvion Overshown would have provided some resistance, but that’s a lot to expect from the 90th overall pick, who tore his ACL in the preseason. 

Dallas actually ranks 13th in rush EPA allowed, but I think this is a bit misleading. Opponents just don’t often get a chance to run in medium- to high-leverage situations because the Cowboys are often destroying them. I think what is more indicative is that they rank dead last in rushing “success rate” on defense (per rbsdm.com). Typically these models describe success as gaining 45 percent of yards on first down, 60 percent on third down, and converting on third or fourth down. So when teams run on Dallas, they have been wildly successful; they just don’t usually get a chance to do it when it matters.

The Cowboys still face a higher percentage of running plays than you would expect for a team this dominant. They sit at roughly the league average in run rate faced, and the teams around them are average to bad. For context, the teams who have faced the lowest percentage of run plays are the elites: San Francisco, Baltimore, and Philadelphia.

It has become cliche to say “this team is built to play with a lead,” but the stats, the scoreboard, and the eye-test reinforce this notion. You would not describe those other three teams mentioned in that way. They’re built to win. Period.

We know the Cowboys will have to win on the road, probably at San Francisco or Philadelphia, to get to a place they have not been in nearly 30 years: the NFC Championship Game. (And if they get there, it probably will have meant beating another contender as well.) But if they happen to get that far, trouble would await. San Francisco runs the ball at a higher rate than any team in the league; Philadelphia ranks ninth. Both teams are also in the top 10 in rushing success rate. San Francisco is second, and Philadelphia sixth. But, hey! Good news, bad news! The Cowboys have a couple of games to work on this, because the Dolphins, this week’s road opponent, run at the fifth-highest rate and are fifth in success rate. The next week, they host Detroit, which is fourth in rush rate and seventh in success rate. 

If even one of those teams thoroughly demoralizes the Dallas defense on the ground, confidence will be back to life-support levels heading into the postseason. And both teams are definitely capable of doing so. However, the inverse is true. You would almost prefer to see the Cowboys play close games the next two weeks where they have to prove they can hold up defensively without the knowledge the opposition simply has to pass. 

I don’t really see a clear solution. Defensive coordinator Dan Quinn loves to use stunts on the line (third-most this season) to free up his rushers to get to the quarterback. But a capable team often will run right into those looks as the gaps open. The Cowboys play less base defense than anyone, which again, is the right call on most weeks. They’re also built to play nickel and dime, and they play it as well as anyone. But they do not have the personnel to be an above-average run defense. At this point, they are aiming to simply be average; to not be dead last in the rate of successful rushing plays allowed.

From a playoff perspective, Buffalo needed Sunday’s game far more than Dallas did. I’d like to say “it’s one game,” because this team is still one of the league’s very best. But it’s the way the Cowboys lost, and not just the final score. Most teams are not capable of doing what Buffalo did. The problem for the Cowboys is, if they want to get to where they need to go, they’ll have to beat teams plenty proficient at doing exactly what Buffalo did.

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Jake Kemp

Jake Kemp

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Jake Kemp covers the Cowboys and Mavericks for StrongSide. He is a lifelong Dallas sports fan who previously worked for…

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