Dallas’ waning defense could mean playoff trouble for Cowboys

For much of the 2022 season, the stars seemed to line up for the Cowboys as they look to finally justify the hype that surrounds Dallas ahead of every NFL campaign.

The Cowboys survived an early-season quarterback injury in Dak Prescott to start 4-1 with Cooper Rush under center, and have since consistently shown signs of being a team that has the ingredients to go all the way. at the Super Bowl.

Prescott, following an unconvincing performance in his return from injury in Week 7 against the Detroit Lions, rediscovered the level of performance that helped him rise from the fringes of the NFL’s elite to the position of quarterback. The loss of Amari Cooper in a trade with the Cleveland Browns had minimal negative impact on offense, with CeeDee Lamb surging as the undisputed number one receiver and Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard forming a carrying tandem. explosive ball.

Meanwhile, the Cowboys’ defense has frequently shown its ability to derail the opposing offense through its dominance on the defensive line and its success in generating takeaways, in which Dallas leads the NFL with 26.

Yet their strength on that side of the ball is now worth questioning after a four-game streak in which the Cowboys went 3-1 but saw their skill on defense drop significantly.

Indeed, since Week 12, the Cowboys have allowed an average of 359.8 net yards per game. Only 10 teams dropped more during this period. Between Weeks 1 and 11, the Cowboys were the ninth-best defense in the NFL by the same metric.

The Cowboys were able to survive their defensive decline in weeks 12-14, beating the New York Giants by one possession and blasting the Indianapolis Colts with an avalanche in the fourth quarter, before narrowly avoiding a humiliating loss to the Houston Texans in a game. in which they gave up 23 points on the NFL’s second-worst offense by yards per play.

But their Week 15 encounter with the Jacksonville Jaguars arguably served as a harbinger of what could happen to the Cowboys in the playoffs if Dan Quinn’s defense can’t get back on track.

Although their loss to the Jaguars was settled by a Prescott six pick as Rayshawn Jenkins returned an overtime interception that slammed Noah Brown’s hands, it was down to the Cowboys’ inability to kill the Jaguars after leading 27-10 in the third quarter.

Dallas gave up two 75-yard touchdowns, sandwiched by a 39-yard drive, to give up that advantage in just under nine minutes of playing time. The Cowboys defense gave up eight explosive carries of at least 10 yards and 11 of those passes, and was unable to hold the lead that Prescott restored with just over three minutes left on his second touchdown pass to Brown.

Of course, the Cowboys defense got the ball back to Prescott with a forced fumble from Trevor Lawrence immediately after that score, and criticism of the Dallas offense for calling a shot at Brown on third down on the next drive. which fell incomplete and gave Lawrence another shot with a minute left is deserved.

But the offense will rarely be perfect every practice, and the frustrating thing for the Cowboys is that this is a loss suffered in the middle of one of Prescott’s best performances of the season.

Prescott delivered an accurate, well-thrown ball on 27 of his 30 pass attempts. His 90% completion rate was fourth-best among quarterbacks with at least 10 attempts going into Monday and best for callers averaging at least eight aerial yards per attempt. Prescott averaged 8.33, with his impressive combination of aggression and accuracy exemplified by his perfectly placed 20-yard touchdown throw to Peyton Hendershot on a wheel road to give the Cowboys a 14-0 lead in the second quarter.

In terms of turnovers, the defense offered support to Prescott by producing three, and the Cowboys quarterback was not faultless in their loss of the initial 17-point lead, throwing a third-quarter interception at Jenkins setting up Jacksonville for a touchdown. to reduce the advantage to 27-24.

But the reality is that the offense scored enough points to beat Jacksonville, and instead of complementing that effort with a display that frustrated the Jags and improved Jacksonville’s offense, the Dallas defense instead delivered a volatility that should worry a team that will almost certainly have to leave. on the road as a Wild Card in the NFC Playoffs.

Brown’s unreliability in the clutch could be seen as a mistake that justifies owner Jerry Jones’ continued apparent lobbying for the Cowboys to sign Odell Beckham Jr. for their playoff push.

Still, the Cowboys aren’t a wide receiver, especially one whose status in his recovery from a torn ACL remains unclear, far from winning their conference. Rather, they are apparently short of the kind of defense that can propel them to glory against opponents like the Philadelphia Eagles and San Francisco 49ers who can thwart their offense and who they will surely have to overcome to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. .

With a playoff berth assured, there are plenty of reasons for hope in Dallas, but there could be trouble ahead if the Cowboys can’t stop a worrying defensive downturn.

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