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Spagnola: Can't Let These Runnin' Lions Roar

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FRISCO, Texas – Dak is back. Great.

He feels confident. Even better, "We're full go," Dak says.

The guys couldn't be happier, as Ezekiel Elliott says, "I'd say it's definitely good to have him back."

Not just for his play, but as Micah Parsons points out, "He's the heartbeat."

But once again, while this is all sounds fine and good, Dak Prescott is not a one-man band out there. He doesn't automatically show up with some sort of witch-doctor elixir to assure no matter who the Cowboys are playing, and even if it's the 1-4 Detroit Lions at noon Sunday at ATT Stadium, he will cure all of what might be ailing the Cowboys.

"And I'm sure he's juiced," veteran Zack Martin says of Dak returning after missing the past five games with the Cowboys going 4-1 in his absence with Cooper Rush starting, and now heading into a string of four consecutive games against NFC North teams.

Nothing could be finer.

Or … could it?

And that brings me to this concern that's sort of been camouflaged these first six games of the season by this team's knack for sacking opposing quarterbacks, leading the NFL with 24 after six weeks. With this team's ability to not turn the ball over, this team's ability to create scoring drives in the nick of time and having limited their first five opponents to no more than 19 points.

That is until the Cowboys don't, until the defense does not play up to at least coordinator Dan Quinn's par, and he let them know on Monday after the 26-17 loss to Philadelphia that he was POed by his group's performance

Right here is the biggest concern, especially facing the NFL's No. 2 offense (411.8 yards a game), No. 3 scoring team (28.0 points game) and historically one of the best rushing offenses in Detroit's history after just five games, averaging 151.4 yards a game, the Lions' seven rushing touchdowns in only five games ranking sixth overall. By comparison, the Cowboys have run for just four touchdowns.

Now this could be a Detroit passing fancy, just a five-game sample. But let history put some perspective on just what head coach and former Cowboys tight end Dan Campbell's bunch has done so far:

· This is the first time in history Detroit has rushed for at least 750 yards (757) and seven touchdowns through the first five games of a season since 1991, and, uh, that's when some guy named Barry Sanders was toting the ol' pigskin for them.

· This is the first time the Lions have rushed for 100 yards in each of the first five games of a season since 1984, and in two of those games against teams the Cowboys already have played, (Washington 191) and Philadelphia (181).

· This is the first time since 1980 a pair of Lions running backs have each rushed for at least 230 yards through the first five games of a season, Jamaal Williams (332) and D'Andre Swift, who has missed the past two games with injury (231) and is "questionable" for Sunday's game, since the pair of Billy Sims (560) and Dexter Bussey (252). And for further clarification, that's Billy Sims from Hooks, Texas, and the 1978 Heisman Trophy winner and 1979 runner-up at Oklahoma who was the No. 1 pick in the 1989 NFL Draft.

Think the Cowboys just might have their hands full? And no matter Detroit's 1-4 record, because before being shut out by New England, 29-0, prior to last week's bye, their previous three losses were by three (Eagles), four (Vikings) and three (Seattle). And for further context, the Lions put up 36 points in their win over Washington (36-27), and by comparison, the Cowboys beat the Commanders 25-10, with nearly half those points coming on four Brett Maher field goals.

Think all that should get the Cowboys' attention?

"They've got a great front all the way around, dominant run game, great group of backs," says Parsons, the Cowboys Lionbacker. "We've got to go out there and try to stop the run and be resilient out there."

You are darn tootin' the Cowboys must stop the Lions running game – possibly bolstered this week if Swift is ready to go – their defensive Achilles heel after six games. While the Dallas defense ranks eighth overall, that bunch ranks only 19th against the run, giving up 120.7 yards a game.

Four of the six teams the Cowboys have played have rushed for at least the 142 yards Washington did, with Tampa Bay hitting them for 152 in the opener, the Giants two weeks later for 167 and then Philadelphia this past Sunday night for 136. Plus, Cincinnati came close to reaching the century mark with 89.

"We're developing, we're taking strides, but we still have things to clean up, and I think that is obvious after last game, too," says inside linebacker Leighton Vander Esch, second on the team with 43 tackles, just two shy of safety Donovan Wilson.

Let's emphasize what he said: "I think that is obvious after last game, too." Like, especially after the 26-17 loss to the Eagles. Especially after that fourth-quarter drive immediately after the Cowboys, once trailing 20-0, had trimmed the Eagles' lead to 20-17 with 14:39 left to play.

Why, the Eagles then mounted a 13-play, 75-yard drive for the knockout touchdown, eating up nearly half the quarter (7:07) to establish that 26-17 lead. Why, the Eagles ran the ball on 10 of those 13 plays. Gained 45 yards

"Geesh, anytime a team goes down and scores, and the way they did it, of course that stings," Parsons says. "But you learn from those. You know, maybe it's something I could have done better or someone else could have done better or maybe we all could have done better.

"You've got to learn from them, got to adjust. That's the beauty of it: You get this week to prove it and show what we learned."

And if they have, it was a bitter lesson to swallow.

Because when Vander Esch was reminded of that drive, you could tell he still was simmering inside over that collapse after the Cowboys had climbed back into that game, playing on the road, against the undefeated division opponent and the fifth straight game with Cooper Rush at quarterback.

"I don't know how to answer that one for you," Vander Esch says, stammering before he began after a contemplative pause, as if that drive still hurt too much to even address the next day, before continuing, "I mean, obviously we could go out there, obviously if we stopped them, we were going to win that game. But it didn't happen that way, that's football. … Obviously it's a bummer.

"We're going to look at that and clean that up."

You bet they are going to be looking closely, and why there should be no one in that locker room even thinking to themselves, It's the Lions, dude. This team very easily could be 4-1. And if Hard Knocks is any indication, Campbell will have his team all jacked up for this game, his sort of homecoming back to Texas.

And Campbell knows darn well what the Lions must do to come in here to beat the Cowboys, no matter if Dak coming back poses a greater challenge for his 32nd-ranked defense.

"Ultimately, if you're holding my feet to the fire, we've got to do what we do well. We've got to play to our strengths," says Campbell, born in tiny Clifton, Texas, and went on to play his college ball at Texas A&M before eventually playing tight end for the Cowboys from 2003-05 for Bill Parcells. "Certainly, we've got to be able to run the ball."

So, Cowboys D, one that many were looking for an appropriate nickname after holding both the Commanders and Rams to just 10 points, and the first five opponents to start the season to no more than 19 points for the first time since the 1972 season, there is your charge after the Eagles and quarterback Jalen Hurts ripped apart this notion of an impenetrable object.

The Lions are coming right atcha, Campbell also knowing that to neutralize this Dallas pass rush leading the NFL in sacks while Lions quarterback Jared Goff has only been sacked seven times, "to stay out of third-and-7s will be really big in this game."

Yep, great Dak is back. Michael Gallup, too. Maybe Dalton Schultz trying to play through that sprained right knee and for the second straight week off the Cowboys injury report going into Saturday. The young offensive line has improved during the time Dak has been out. Maybe this offense moves more into an attack mode once Dak settles in after a couple of possessions in his first start in six weeks.

But the Cowboys can't let the runnin' Lions ruin their Sunday.

Remember the "sting."

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