Frisco, Texas – There’s been an extra six hours heard around the world.
But before that, there was 192 yards allowed by the Dallas Cowboys defense. There were 21 unanswered Jacksonville Jaguars points in the second half, and no sacks by Trevor Lawrence in the last three quarters or overtime.
And as much as quarterback Dak Prescott’s “disappointed” stat line has become a pressing story outside the building, an even more pervasive interest is spilling over into the Cowboys’ headquarters.
What happened to the Cowboys defense?
What happened to the frenetic passing rush, quarterback corps vocal gap and disciplined high school?
Injuries only explain so much. The Cowboys are not going to gain sympathy from the hardest-hit teams around the league.
Cowboys advocates are asking themselves: What went wrong these past two weeks? How did two teams, whose records pale in comparison to Dallas’ records, get the Cowboys to the wire?
“We’re talking about him being one of the best defenses in the league,” safety Jayron Kearse said Tuesday from his locker. “And in the last two weeks, we haven’t shown it at all. You are what you put on tape. At this point, we haven’t got the job done.”
“Our attack should not put 34 points and we lose the game“
It’s an oversimplification to say that the Cowboys haven’t taken the 1-12-1 Houston Texans and 6-8 Jacksonville Jaguars seriously these past two weeks. Sure, they left the Thanksgiving Day win over the New York Giants knowing how important the Christmas Eve game with the Philadelphia Eagles was. But the majority of Dallas have risen to the task, whether it’s the 98-yard, game-winning offense led in the final three minutes against the Texans or the defensemen securing three takeaways in the 40-34 OT loss to Jacksonville.
But Kearse didn’t mince words when he talked about the defensive effort and communication over the past two weeks. He wondered if some of his teammates had gone off “carelessly”.
“We probably feel like we were up 21-7 and felt like we were going to win the game easy,” he said of the Jacksonville slip. Or go back a couple of weeks ago, where, uh, Texans. Not getting into the game with that advantage…as a defensive unit, and not having the full-blown hunger that showed up earlier in the year.
“Fatigue is no excuse. Who you play against is no excuse. We have to get the job done as a defensive unit. And this is for everyone to check themselves: You know if you gave it your all. You know if you haven’t.”
Throughout the season, the Cowboys defense still ranked well. They allowed the seventh-fewest points in the league (19.2), the eighth-fewest yards (324.6) and the third-fewest yards (191.6). Even the weakest link of defense (24) began to settle in November.
But the last two weeks? Dallas allowed 31.5 points per game, 415 total yards per contest and 262 receiving yards. Across the league, no team has allowed more than 26.6 points or 399.2 yards per game this season. Only three have allowed more than 262 yards passing.
One of the best defenses is a sudden stumble – against two opponents with losing records.
“Giving up 500 yards, no disrespect, but the Jacksonville squad, that shouldn’t have happened,” Keers said. “Our offense shouldn’t put up 34 points and we lose the game no matter what.”
Much of the needed reform comes down to implementation. Defensive coordinator Dan Quinn believes finishing players is more of an issue than any required change in scheme.
From a personnel standpoint, expect the Cowboys to make a change in at least one location.
All-Pro Trevon Diggs is still solid at right cornerback, even if his interception total isn’t quite as impressive as last season’s 11. Quarterbacks have targeted him less, knowing the dangers he poses.
In turn, Dallas tried to start second year cornerback Kelvin Joseph after season-ending injuries to cornerbacks Anthony Brown and Jordan Lewis. Joseph played 37 strike defense against Jacksonville, per PFF, and fared well in the run defense. But his coverage and handling hurt the Cowboys, with Lawrence connecting with receivers on two of three touchdowns against him, passing passes for 69 yards and two touchdowns.
The center will be competitively ready in practice this week, Quinn said, and he was particularly concerned about the missed double step that became a 59-yard touchdown.
“He’s a good striker. He can play on the ball,” Quinn said of Joseph. “You don’t want to see anyone get beaten up in a double-team pick at senior side because it really comes down to your eye discipline. You have to hope that when you make some of these mistakes, you won’t see a repeat of them.”
Add in misdirected struggles, a pass rush neutralized by Lawrence’s quick-release and perimeter defense comeback struggles, and the Cowboys defense wonders: If we play like we did to give up 40 against the Jaguars, how will a high-strength team like Philadelphia punish us this weekend?
“lick their pieces”
This week, the Eagles are watching this movie.
Head coach Nick Siriani said his team will prepare two versions of his game plan to take on the Dallas defense, one for MVP candidate Jalen Hurts and one for backup quarterback Gardner Minshew. The 13-1 Eagles have yet to officially disqualify Hurts, but there is speculation that they will rest his sprained shoulder so he can recover better before the playoffs. Hurts was listed as not taking part in Tuesday’s tour.
Mincio led the Eagles to a comfortable victory over the New York Jets last December.
Any quarterback would benefit from a host of weapons, most notably receivers AJ Brown and DeVonta Smith, running back Miles Sanders and tight end Dallas Goedert, who hit twice off Minshew in a Jets game last year and was activated from injured reserve this week.
Minshew will come in from behind one of the strongest offensive lines in the league as well – and against a defensive line whose fire has subsided somewhat at least in December.
The Cowboys defense will have their work cut out for them either way. Coaches and players alike expect teams to bully them with running games and misdirection games until they respond appropriately.
“The road just doesn’t get any easier,” Kearse said. “It will continue to get tougher, and we have a few things to figure out.
“Just as we watch a tape on other guys, they watch a tape of us. And I can assure you, right now, they are licking their chops.”
Follow Jori Epstein of Yahoo Sports on Twitter @JoriEpstein.
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