ARLINGTON, Texas –For one half Sunday night, the Cowboys' defense answered the biggest question of the week:
Can they produce without Sean Lee (strained hamstring) on the field?
In the second half, their primary issue without Lee this season – run defense – resurfaced in a 37-9 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles at AT&T Stadium.
The Eagles had only 35 rushing yards in the first half, including 6 carries for 16 yards from their dynamic rushing tandem of LeGarrette Blount and Jay Ajayi. The Cowboys forced a season-high five straight three-and-outs and took a 9-7 lead into halftime.
"Whenever we stop the run, great things happen," linebacker Jaylon Smith said. "That didn't happen in the second half."
Maybe two quarters is the ceiling for stopping the league's second-best scoring offense (31.4 points per game).
Held in check to that point, second-year quarterback Carson Wentz drove the Eagles 75 yards in only eight plays for a touchdown on the opening drive of the third quarter, capped by Corey Clement's 11-yard scoring run.
The next series, the momentum shifted for good.
Ajayi, acquired by Philly at the trade deadline, had already rushed for a 46-yard touchdown in his Eagles debut two weeks ago. Sunday, on second-and-6 from the Eagles' 14-yard line, he burst through a gaping hole in the middle of the Cowboys' defense for a 71-yard run.
The Eagles found the end zone again three plays later to take a commanding 23-9 lead. They never looked back, even without a functional replacement on field goals and extra points for kicker Jake Elliott, who was injured in the first half.
Wentz continued his MVP-type season, overcoming a slow start to throw for 168 yards and two scores.
"He's a big, strong guy," Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett said. "He's very athletic in the pocket and we had some guys around him and he made some big-time runs and big-time throws when he was under duress."
But stopping the run has been the key defensive ingredient all season. In six full games with Lee, their Pro Bowl linebacker and defensive captain, the Cowboys allowed an average of 80.3 rushing yards. In their previous three losses with Lee inactive or limited, the average nearly doubled to 153.3.
Sunday, with Lee on the sideline in workout clothes, the Eagles racked up 215 (6.5 yards per carry) – a season high against the Cowboys.
"We just didn't make the correct fits," said Justin Durant, Lee's replacement in the starting lineup. "We had some good plays in the first half and we just didn't come out in the second half and execute."
The first half was encouraging. But with Lee questionable at best to play Thursday's annual Thanksgiving game, and with fellow starting linebacker Anthony Hitchens (groin) also injured Sunday, the Cowboys must find consistency in a hurry.