FRISCO, Texas – There isn't a better play to sum up Tuesday night's defensive performance, and Leighton Vander Esch took ownership of it.
That's not necessarily an easy thing to do. Lamar Jackson's 37-yard touchdown dash in the waning seconds of the first quarter was painfully easy, and it set the tone for a dominant Baltimore win.
It'd be understandable to deflect some of that blame, but Vander Esch didn't bother.
"That was 100% me. That was on me," he said afterward. "I read the play right off the bat, and I should have just fit my assignment."
Chalk it up to the difficulty of defending the option. Facing a 4th-and-2 from the Dallas 37-yard line, Lamar put the ball on rookie running back J.K. Dobbins moving left out of the shotgun. Just as DeMarcus Lawrence crashed inside and past Jackson, the reigning NFL MVP pulled the ball back and kept it.
The vast majority of the Cowboys' defense followed Dobbins outside the tackle box and away from the play, including Vander Esch – who said the quarterback was his responsibility.
"I read it perfectly until I second-guessed myself and thought he handed it to the running back, but that wasn't my job," he said.
By the time Vander Esch realized his mistake and reversed field, Jackson was past him. He was actually past the entire Dallas defense, as he raced untouched to the end zone to give Baltimore a 7-3 lead.
"It was a call that we really should be in great shape there," said Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy. "We didn't execute it."
There were three more quarters to play, but that just about summed it up. By the time the night was done, the Ravens had rushed for 294 yards, with three different rushers racking up at least 71 yards for a healthy team average of 7.9 yards per carry.
"Hey, 300 yards is obviously astronomical," McCarthy said. "We have to get a quick turnaround. Just when you feel like you're taking steps as a team, the keys to the game was stopping the run and we definitely didn't get that done tonight."
To be fair, this is an unusual challenge even by NFL standards. It's not every team that has a quarterback capable of rushing for 1,000 yards in a season – not to mention a two-headed running back monster of Mark Ingram to go along with Dobbins.
DeMarcus Lawrence seemed to take exception to the thought that slowing down this option attack is an easy thing to do. And he does have a point.
"When you're playing the triple option, it's more than one read you have to read," he said. "I can understand why Leighton would second-guess himself, because he's not just playing the dive. Now, he has to play the pitch the from quarterback, now he has to play the pass. There's a lot of keys that y'all don't see on film that we have to recognize and we have to recognize within a split second or a play can bust."
At the same time, there's a mountain of evidence that suggests this is not just a Lamar Jackson problem. This is the same Dallas defense that surrendered a franchise-worst 307 rushing yards to the Cleveland Browns. And even as the group seemed to make strides in recent weeks, there was the issue of the backbreaking 23 and 37-yard touchdown runs surrendered in the fourth quarter of the Thanksgiving loss to Washington.
The Cowboys have played 12 games in 2020, and questions about the run defense have lingered after most of them. And as sick as they might be of hearing those questions, they're probably just as sick of giving the same answers.
"We've still got four more left and we can go out there and turn this thing around," Vander Esch said. "But then again, there's enough talking about it – we have to go do it."