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Offseason | 2023

Spagnola: Taking A Lesson From Good Old Days


FRISCO, Texas - This happened by pure coincidence the other day out here at The Star.

Had just written a note about rookie defensive tackle3 Mazi Smith, and how the Cowboys sure need to improve their run defense over this past season, finishing 22nd in average yards per game and how opponents gained at least 100 yards rushing in 11 of the 17 games.

While walking back to my desk, noticed on the TV an NFL Classic game was reshowing on NFL Network, 1993, Week 18. Did a double-take noticing the Cowboys uniforms, and darn if it wasn't the Cowboys-Giants season finale out at Giants Stadium. The game to decide the NFC East title and homefield advantage throughout the playoffs was tied 13-13 heading into overtime.

You know, the game Emmitt Smith sprained his shoulder early in the second quarter, refusing to come out, actually running the ball 32 times for 168 yards and catching 10 passes for 61 more yards and one touchdown. Averaged 5.6 yards a touch while wincing in pain every time he hit the ground.

You know, the game the Cowboys won on Eddie Murray's walk-off 41-yard field goal with 4:16 left in OT, eliciting Cowboys radio play-by-play announcer Brad Sham to say, "God bless you, Eddie Murray."

Yep, that one, the win propelling the now 12-4, NFC East champion Cowboys to play their next two playoff games at home, including wiping out the Packers in the divisional round (27-17) and the 49ers in the NFC Championship Game again (38-21) to earn the right to beat the Bills again (30-13) in Super Bowl XXVIII for back-to-back titles.

But here is the part of this overtime victory story overshadowed by Emmitt gutting it out and the Cowboys wining despite Troy Aikman completing only three passes to a wide receiver (Michael Irvin 3 for 50 yards). Why, the Giants won the toss, had the ball first in overtime when back then the first score wins.

None of this great memory widely documented on the tours out here at The Star would have taken place if not for the Cowboys 10th-ranked defense, if not for this defense totally shutting down the Giants vaunted Rodney Hampton-led running game in overtime.

The Cowboys defensive front, thanks to a combination of Charles Haley, Tony Casillas, Leon Lett, Tony Tolbert and Jim Jeffcoat, plus a Giants chop-block penalty on one running play, forced a punt on that first possession, New York gaining just 11 yards on six plays, Hampton and Dave Meggett held to only 14 yards on four runs.

And on a third-and-16, with Giants quarterback Phil Simms in shotgun formation at his own 26-yard line, the Cowboys pressure up front forced Simms out of the pocket but seemingly with dangerous room to roam. Except for should-be Hall of Fame safety Darren Woodson, who had lined up in coverage in the slot, running Simms down for but four yards to force a fourth down punt.

Defense matters, and even throughout that entire game, the Giants needing 35 carries to gain 130 yards rushing, just 3.7 a carry, and most important, Hampton needing 30 of those carries to gain but 114 yards, averaging 3.8 a carry.

"As far as that high-powered offense," Cowboys safety James Washington couldn't help himself from pointing out sarcastically to me that day about the Cowboys' fourth-ranked total offense barely scoring 16 points because "in big games, if we don't play well … if we don't hold our opponent to 17 points or less, well …."

You get the point.

And that right there brings me back to the Cowboys' current run defense. And here is what struck me digging a little deeper than right after the draft when explaining why the Cowboys deemed it necessary to draft Mazi, a defensive tackle, with their first-round pick, something they hadn't done in the first round since grabbing Russell Maryland with the first pick in the 1991 draft.

Also struck me not only after pointing out that the Cowboys gave up at least 136 yards rushing in all five of their losses, including in overtime losses to Green Bay (207) and to Jacksonville (192).

Creating this self-imposed question:

Did opponents run so much on the Cowboys because they could, or did they run that much trying to stay away from the fierce Cowboys' pass rush and the defense's ability to turn the ball over, having led the NFL with 33 takeaways in 2022, 16 of those tying the Cowboys for the seventh-most interceptions?

Chicken or the egg, right?

Check this out. While the Cowboys finished 22nd against the run, opponents ran the ball 497 times, fifth most in the NFL. And for further context on 497, that's the second-highest total (510 in 2020), and granted this being a 17-game season, since the Cowboys defense faced 538 runs in 2000. By the way, the top three opponent totals for most runs in a single season stand at 543 in the 1-15 season of 1989, the 538 in the 5-11 season of 2000, followed by 511 in the 6-10 season of 1997.

In fact, since the 497 of 2022 ranks eighth highest in franchise history, this is only the third time that's occurred during a winning season, since usually facing more runs has meant more losses.

Yes, the Cowboys finished with a winning record in 2022 despite facing such a high number of runs. But check out the correlation with the losses. In fact, there was one more 100-yard game. In the 19-12 playoff loss to San Francisco in the second round, and even though the Cowboys held the Niners to just 19 points and a reasonable 312 yards of total offense, they did give up 113 rushing yards to the 49ers.

And guess what? In the 31-14 first round victory over Tampa Bay, the Buccaneers only ran for 52 yards, forcing Tom Brady to attempt 66 passes. That's passes, not a cross-country Route. And in this case, shutting down the run and scoring points forced the Bucs to throw more. Not because they were more effective – Brady finished with a 72.2 QB rating, completing just 35 passes for 351 yards – but because they weren't getting anywhere while falling behind.

The Cowboys didn't just stuff the middle of the defense with Mazi, but also re-signing Johnathan Hankins for the start of the season this time, giving the Cowboys hopes of improving that run defense, along with moving Chauncey Golston inside for another versatile big body to go with seasoned veterans such as Osa Odighizuwa, Neville Gallimore and Quinton Bohanna.

Oh, and then there are these encouraging words for an improved run defense from defensive line coach Aden Durde:

"This is the third year in the system for the guys."

That historical reminder for sure reinforcing the necessity of stopping the run.

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