Nick Eatman is the author of the recently published ****If These Walls Could Talk: Dallas Cowboys***, a collection of stories from the Cowboys' locker room, sideline and press box, with a foreword written by Darren Woodson.*
IRVING, Texas – About 10 minutes after kickoff, it looked pretty clear the running game would likely be the driving factor in the Cowboys' winning on Sunday.
As it turned out, the running game ultimately lost the game for the Cowboys – and that goes for both sides of the ball.
There're junior high coaches across the nation telling their teams "run the ball and stop the run." Those are always the two biggest keys to each game, no matter the level of play. Basically, what that means is control the line of scrimmage on both sides.
And that's exactly what it looked like the Cowboys could and would do here on Sunday. They came out blasting the Falcons all over the field with Joseph Randle looking like LaDainian Tomlinson with that No. 21 jersey juking and jiving defenders.
Randle had 85 yards on his first three carries. He ended the game with 87 yards on 14 carries.
Let that one sit for a second. Next 11 carries, he got 2 yards.
Meanwhile, Atlanta's Devonta Freeman ripped through the Cowboys' defense for a 141 yards and three touchdowns, keeping them off-balance all day. Freeman also had five catches for 52 yards. He was the best running back on the field by far, and the Cowboys simply had no answer.
Say what you want about the players missing in the lineup for the Cowboys. Sure, they missed Tony Romo and Dez Bryant, and even Jeremy Mincey and Randy Gregory. But Freeman is a backup running back as well. Although even when the rookie Tevin Coleman returns, the Falcons might want to rethink the playing time there. But that's a good problem to have.
A bad problem to have is a defense that can't stop the run. Once again, this is just an example of how funny the NFL is sometimes. The Cowboys go to Philadelphia where they have a three-headed monster backfield that includes DeMarco Murray and they get a big ol' 2 yards rushing.
They return home and face the Falcons with a backup tailback who torches them for 193 all-purpose yards.
Maybe the difference is the weapons Atlanta has across its offense with Matt Ryan and, of course, Julio Jones, who was simply uncheckable and has been all year. Jones running routes from every spot on the field will probably affect a defense's focus and should open up running lanes.
Plain and simple, the Cowboys really had no answer for the Falcons in the second half. If you're going to point fingers, you can't leave out the coaching staff, which was really out-schemed over the final two quarters.
The Falcons figured out what was happening and kept hurting the Cowboys and making them pay. That happened on both sides of the ball.
Let's focus more on the Falcons' offense, though. Yes, Jones is a beast and when they line him up all over the place. He's a defensive coordinator's nightmare. But if you can't stop the run as well, it's even worse because the Falcons never really had a lot of third-and-longs to deal with. Freeman was getting 4.7 yards per carry, so the Cowboys couldn't really get after Ryan in the second half.
Let's just be clear about this part: Injuries aren't excuses, but they are factors. And that's why it must be pointed out how much the Cowboys missed a guy like Mincey, who had a concussion in practice last week and couldn't play. That was a huge blow because the Cowboys were forced to rush the passer with Ryan Russell and Davon Coleman and Jack Crawford and then DeMarcus Lawrence. Those first two guys weren't even active in the first week of the season and other than Lawrence, those are non-starters on this team.
On this day, they were counted on to rush the passer and they simply couldn't cut it. The only sack on Ryan came from Sean Lee on a first-quarter blitz.
And while the Dallas defensive line was struggling, the offensive line wasn't having much success on the flip side. With the Cowboys refusing to test Atlanta down the field, the Falcons got to stack the line of scrimmage, which eventually wont them the game.
Good running teams can run the ball even when the defense crowds the box. The Cowboys only ran the ball five times in the second half, and they had the lead for most of the third quarter. That doesn't make a ton of sense to me, especially giving only one carry to Darren McFadden, after he basically ran over the Falcons in one second-quarter drive.
I understand the Falcons were committing to stopping the run, but if that's the case, the Cowboys should've at least backed them off with some deeper throws. Why go out and trade for a speedster like Brice Butler if he never gets to use his speed? And let's not forget about Terrance Williams, although his stat line was forgettable – no catches with just two targets.
Without Dez, the Cowboys have to get something from their wide receivers. But if the next guy doesn't even get one catch, and that's against a team trying to stop the run, it would be hard for any offense to move the ball.
Yeah, I get the "Next Man Up" philosophy, but that doesn't always mean the next man up is good enough. And on this day, they simply weren't.