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Spagnola: Running by this defensive concern again


FRISCO, Texas – OK, get it. The Cowboys' defensive performance in the season-opening, 40-0 victory over them Giants was historically impressive.

Largest margin of victory in a shutout in franchise history.

Largest Week 1 margin of victory in a shutout in NFL history since 1999.

First shutout of the Giants in a season opener since 35-0 in 1995, and we know what happened the rest of that season.

And the NFL Week 1 statistical rankings were out of this world.

  • No. 2 total defense (171 yards).
  • No. 1 pass defense (63 yards).
  • No. 1 points against (0).
  • No. 1 sacks (7).
  • No. 1 sack yards (-47).
  • No. 1 (tied) forced fumbles (5).
  • No. 1 (tied) turnover differential (+3).

All stupendous.

But here is my nagging question that haunted this 12th-ranked NFL defense in 2022:

Can the Cowboys stop the run? Remember that?

The Cowboys last year gave up at least 106 yards rushing in 11 of 17 regular-season games with a high of 240 in a win over the Chicago Bears. They gave up at least 136 yards rushing in all five of their regular season losses, including 207 rushing yards in the overtime loss to Green Bay and 192 in the overtime loss to Jacksonville. Plus, another 113 and a touchdown in the second-round playoff loss to San Francisco,

Heck, even in this past Sunday's smothering of the Giants they were nicked for 108 yards rushing, although 68 of those were in the Giants' game-opening possession.

And there is some ulterior reason for some of this running on the Cowboys, as head coach Mike McCarthy is known to say, "You probably will be asking me this question every week because we know how people are going to come after us."

His point: The Cowboys have led the NFL in takeaways in each of the past two seasons, the first repeat leaders since the 1972-74 Pittsburgh Steelers, and did finish third in sacks last year with 54, just one behind second-place Kansas City. He's right, teams would rather not have to throw the ball against this Dallas defense, at least not more than they must. So they run as much as reasonable.

Ah, but that then brings us to Sunday's 3:25 p.m. home-opener rub against them others from New York, the 1-0 Jets. The ones now without mercenary quarterback Aaron Rodgers, lost four snaps into their season-opener against Buffalo on Monday night with a ruptured Achilles. And having to start their former No. 1 draft choice Zach Wilson, his slow development the reason why, after his first two seasons, they traded a king's ransom and paid a small country's Goss National Income for the former Green Bay quarterback.

No secret, and for two very important reasons, the Jets WANT to run the football Sunday. First, to not overly expose Wilson in the passing game. Second, because they are good at it, with running backs Breece Hall and veteran-acquisition Dalvin Cook, causing McCarthy to say, "Both of these backs can take it to the house."

For evidence in that emotional come-from-behind, overtime victory over Buffalo, and that's with Wilson at quarterback for all but those opening four snaps, the Jets rushed for 172 yards, averaging 6.1 yards a carry. For context, that's one more total yard than the Giants gained against the Cowboys (171), and nearly three times the Giants total average PER play (2.8 yards) in the opener.

Just running the football.

"We'll have our hands full this week," Cowboys "lionbacker" Micah Parsons predicts, then going on to emphasize why with, "we've got to stop their great backs."

Yep, he saw Hall going for 127 rushing on just 10 carries, buoyed by that one 83-yarder. He knows the threat of Cooks, having played against him with Minnesota these past two seasons. And he sure understands what this prospective elite defense's Achilles heel has been over the past three seasons, finishing ranked 31st, 16th and 22nd over the past three seasons against the run.

"We know what we're going to get and what they want to do," says starting linebacker Damone Clark. "They're going to give you what they give you. We know teams don't want to face our power rushers, so teams are going to do what they can do not to face our power rushers.

"We know what kind of defense we want to be. But you can't just talk about it, you've got to be about it."

And it's high time to start "being" come Sunday because chances are against this Jets staunch defense there won't be this 40-point luxury to lean on. This promises to be a grind it out game, especially if the Jets can hold the Cowboys offense at bay and by eating up the clock running the football to keep Wilson out of harm's way.

This run susceptibility is one reason why the Cowboys re-signed 325-poound, 11th-year defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins, knowing the veteran can eat up space in the middle. Why they used the 27th pick in this year's NFL Draft to select 328-pound defensive tackle Mazi Smith, a hard man to move in the middle. That's 653 pounds clogging up the middle on those snaps they play next to each other.

Then add in third-year tackle Osa Odighizuwa, who is off to a nice start with four tackles, two sacks and three QB pressures in the opener, and that pain to the Cowboys' own offense during training camp.

And this run stuff is exactly why the Cowboys re-signed inside 'backer Leighton Vander Esch and took that fifth-round draft chance last year on Clark, despite knowing he was going to miss most of last season having undergone vertebrae fusion neck surgery following the NFL Scouting Combine.

Plus, for sure they didn't want 10th-year defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence going anywhere last year, one of their best run-stopping defensive ends, by reworking his ballooning base salary with additional guaranteed money while lowering his yearly salary cap hit.

The Cowboys have worked to get bigger and better up front on defense, and for what it matters, we had a chance to see this defense's potential every day during training camp, so many times wrecking what this high-powered offense was doing and for sure making life tough on QB1, Dak Prescott.

In fact, he couldn't help from smiling this week when asked about what it was like to watch this defense carve up the Giants.

"It was awesome to see someone else back there," referencing Giants quarterback Daniel Jones, sacked seven times, hit another 12 times, having eight of his intended passes broken up, twice intercepted, while the Cowboys defense dropped the Giants running the ball 10 times for losses.

All that's great, but this last hurdle in their quest to become an elite defense, one up there with Cowboys Super Bowl champions of the past, and we are talking 30 and 50 years ago, will be improving against the run to make life much more uncomfortable for opposing offenses.

"They are definitely going to run the ball," Lawrence said of the Jets offense, and while gratified with their performance against the Giants, "Tank" going on to say, "It was all about going out there and showing the world," knowing the mission to elite is going to be tested by these Jets.

"Very important, important, especially if we want to do what we're good at," he says.

That's terrorizing quarterbacks trying to throw the ball and creating opportunities in the secondary for takeaways, the Cowboys finishing last season with 16 interceptions, their second most in the last eight seasons, only the 26 in 2021, led by Trevon Diggs franchise-tying high of 11, more.

Again, what the Cowboys did to the Giants, with all of those gaudy numbers, is one thing. Consistency is another. And by around 6:30 Sunday night at AT&T we'll find out a little more about this team's quest to consistently dominate the NFL competition.

To me, we know all we need to know about the pass rush, about the ability to take that ball away, about turning opposing offenses inside out.

But can they stop the run … even when they know that run is coming?

"We still have to prove it, it's not a one-week thing," veteran safety Jayron Kearse says. "Definitely would be a huge step against this team."

No kidding. And not only for their own good, too, come Sunday, but also to reach "elite" status.

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