Justin Jefferson is a threat. But Cowboys expect even bigger problem from Vikings

FRISCO, Texas – The most embarrassing, perhaps, was Aaron Jones’ touchdown.

The Packers faced second-and-5, the game tied at 7 with 1:48 to play in the second quarter. Dallas’ left defensive end and inside linebacker traded gaps, but wires crossed on the right side. Suddenly, defensive end Dante Fowler Jr. and defensive tackle Quinton Bohanna attacked the same gap.

And an interior lane was wide open for the Packers’ star running back to exploit.

Jones bounced through the gap, cut back left and rounded home down the left sideline. He spun as he leaped into the end zone and grabbed his cross in the air for full effect.

A failure by the Cowboys’ interior run defense caused their first deficit.

Repeated failures from the perimeter run defense would seal their last one, a 31-28 Packers decision in overtime.

“Disgusting,” linebacker Micah Parsons said after the game at Lambeau Field. “Until we get this fire out, we’re just going to keep seeing it. If people want to keep doing their own thing, we’re going to deal with it all year and we’re never going to be the team we want to be.”

Dallas’ loss to Green Bay wasn’t the first time a team has exploited a glaring weakness against it. But after two straight opponents gashed the Cowboys for more than 200 yards, emotions ran high. Three days later they were still there.

“You should be mad,” Cowboys safety Jayron Kearse said from his locker Wednesday. “You should be frustrated. If you’re not, then I think we have the wrong guys on this defense.

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“If you don’t have a sense of urgency, move forward with how last week went, with how [the game] before it’s gone, then you have to check yourself and look at yourself in the mirror.”

GREEN BAY, WISCONSIN - NOVEMBER 13: Micah Parsons #11 of the Dallas Cowboys anticipates a play during a game against the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field on November 13, 2022 in Green Bay, Wisconsin.  The Packers defeated the Cowboys 31-28 in overtime.  (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

Micah Parsons was blunt about his team’s defensive shortcomings after Sunday’s overtime loss to the Packers. Days later, the Cowboys still aren’t holding back on their scathing criticism of their defense. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

The secret is out

Opponents, it seems, have uncovered a game plan to exploit the Cowboys’ weakness. The strategy is deeper than just running the ball, although the rushing attack volume is heavily factored into game plans. The Chicago Bears and Packers, the Cowboys’ previous two opponents, ran almost twice as often (1.8 and 1.95 times, respectively) as they threw. The reduced pass attempts reduce the Cowboys’ opportunities to pass rush, thereby neutralizing the defense’s top power. And the challenge doesn’t stem from teams simply running on third downs.

As opponents see the Cowboys struggle to stay disciplined in run-gap assignments and the tendency to allow leaky yards, they drive productive first- and second-down runs to bypass obvious passing third-down runs. The Packers rushed 14 times on third and fourth down against the Cowboys. Eleven times those plays needed 4 or fewer yards to advance, prompting defensive coordinator Dan Quinn to describe the bleeding as “death by 1,000 paper cuts.” And although Green Bay’s longest third-down attempt — for 7 yards, early in the fourth quarter — failed, the Packers went for it on fourth-and-7. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers found rookie receiver Christian Watson for his second of three touchdowns.

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“We recognize our strength as far as pass rush, but pass rush is a privilege right now,” head coach Mike McCarthy said. “Until we take care of this running challenge, this is what it’s going to be.”

Players and coaches insist that the fumbles, while frustrating, don’t reflect a lack of effort as much as defenders miscommunicating a coverage or overcompensating to make a game-changing play. “Sometimes,” defensive tackle Neville Gallimore parroted the coaches’ lessons, “you can make the play by not make the play.”

That’s what the Cowboys’ defense is stressing in preparation for the talented 8-1 Minnesota Vikings. Hold solid edges, attack proper gaps, force rushes and “really, pull the hole to another level,” pleads Quinn and his staff.

If not, the Cowboys risk the wrath of weapons including Justin Jefferson and Dalvin Cook.

Danger awaits

Jefferson, with his ridiculous fourth-and-18 catch in the fourth quarter of last Sunday’s overtime win against the Buffalo Bills, should make the Cowboys’ secondary a concern. After all, Green Bay’s rookie Watson torched Dallas for 107 yards and three touchdowns with far less talent and experience.

But the Cowboys can’t overlook the threat of Cook, whose 80.8 rushing yards per game are seventh in the league and 2.5 yards per carry after contact is eighth. The Cowboys rank 22nd with 3.4 yards after contact allowed per carry. A missed shot or poor corner can be costly, as the Bills saw last weekend when Cook didn’t find the creases in his teammates’ blocking lanes, unleashing tackles and breaking on the pace of an 81-yard touchdown, the longest carries in the NFL this season.

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“He’s a guy who can get going quickly when he gets the ball,” Kearse said. “He is very evasive. Very, very efficient with his jump cuts, in and out of his breaks and things when he’s running his routes or he’s on the edge. So against a guy like him, you have to fold his leg because he keeps it moving on contact.

“His vision is good, his run-to-contact is good. That’s a lot that comes with being that old.”

The Cowboys respect how the Vikings target mismatches, weak links and game plan-specific attacks, so they expect a heavy dose of the run. And with seven of Minnesota’s eight wins coming by a score or less, the margin for error is small — and the urgency is great.

“There’s a ton of red tape, a ton of disappointment, a lot of anger,” McCarthy said Monday. “It shows the commitment, the desire to win, the connection.”

Now the Cowboys must turn that fuel into fire.

“We played disappointing football for ourselves and the fans and everyone behind the Cowboys,” Kearse said. “We come back the next week and have the ability to right that ship.”

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