One of the biggest issues the Dallas Cowboys (7-7) faced in their three-game losing streak was the effort the Cowboys defense gave them in their losses to the Buffalo Bills and the Chicago Bears. In particular, the team struggled to stop the run and their efforts to tackle could only be described as terrible. In their 44-21 win over the Los Angeles Rams (8-6), the Dallas Cowboys’ defense dominated the Rams in a game that they needed to come out smelling like roses.
Though the final numbers show 21 points allowed by the Cowboys, 14 of those points came in the final five minutes of the game when the outcome was already decided. What’s most impressive is who they shut down.
The Rams had been rolling of late, scoring an average of 31 points per game. The Cowboys held them to seven points through three quarters. All-Pro Running Back Todd Gurley, who had averaged more than 110 total yards and a touchdown over the last two contests, was held to 38 total yards. Sure, he scored two touchdowns but was held mostly in check throughout, getting his second score in garbage time.
Quarterback Jared Goff averaged just 5.56 yards per attempt and finished with a QBR of 37.4. Coming in Goff was averaging 7.7 yards per attempt and had a QBR of 45.6, which according to ESPN Stats and Information was the 24th ranked QBR in the NFL. Dak Prescott, on the other hand, was third heading into week 15 with a QBR of 73.3.
The defensive performance was led by Sean Lee, who had one of the team’s two sacks and an interception on the night. Goff was attempting to fit a ball in between Sean Lee and Jaylon Smith just beyond their depth in the middle of the field and Lee smoothly and expertly dropped into his zone and secured the interception with his arms outstretched. After the pick, he returned the ball inside the Rams 20 yard line and set up the Dallas Cowboys fourth touchdown of the first half.
Jourdan Lewis was also excellent in this game as he collected his fourth sack and added a pass deflection in coverage on a play that would have led to a first down and extended a Rams drive in the second half.
Perhaps the performance that should excite Cowboys fans the most is the play of cornerback Chidobe Awuzie. He played his best game of the year and perhaps his career. In coverage, he arrived on time to the ball preventing several completions and when challenged down the field, never gave Jared Goff anywhere to throw the ball to or the receiver any room to attempt to make the catch. One of the most encouraging things he did was when he was forced to cover deep down the sideline, he got his head around to play the ball instead of simply playing the man from a trail position. That’s an area where Awuzie has struggled in his career, often being in the right place, but never making a play on the football because he couldn’t see the football. Doing what he did on Sunday will better suit his game because he’s much better when he’s able to look back to the quarterback.
On Sunday, the Cowboys, led by a dominating effort from Nose Tackle Antwaun Woods, stopped the run, forced the Los Angeles Rams to attempt to convert 2nd and 3rd and long situations that they just weren’t capable of doing. The Cowboys held the Rams to four of 12 on third downs. On 3rd and 7 or longer, the Rams were only 1/7. Their one-third and long conversion was the Robert Quinn holding penalty that extended the first drive of the game. The Cowboys were able to force the Rams to punt on their next set of downs.
The Cowboys defense held them to 4.2 yards per play. They came into the game averaging 5.8 yards per play, good for 12th in the NFL. 4 of 12 on third downs.
The most remarkable thing about this game is that the big defensive plays didn’t come from any of their star players like DeMarcus Lawrence, Robert Quinn, Jaylon Smith, or Byron Jones. Instead, it was Antwaun Woods, Dorance Armstrong, Sean Lee (perhaps a star but has slowed down a bit), Chidobe Awuzie, and Jourdan Lewis.
That’s a really encouraging sign for this defense that other guys were able to step up. Lawrence and Quinn have been among the league leaders in double-team rate all season and though they’ve remained effective, can only do so much.
They don’t have to be as dominant as they were on Sunday for the Cowboys to win games and potentially make the playoffs, but they have to be able to stop the run a little bit to force teams into third and long situations as they did on Sunday. The Cowboys’ defense is built to force teams into passing situations. Whether it’s playing with a lead or facing 3rd and 7 or more, the Cowboys want to get after the passer and in a game like this one where the offense was rolling, the defense took advantage and made life incredibly difficult for Jared Goff and the Los Angeles Rams offense.
It was an encouraging win for a defense that was literally run over in the divisional round playoff loss in January. In that game, they couldn’t slow down Todd Gurley or C.J. Anderson, so it didn’t matter that they were making life terrible for Jared Goff.
Wins like this one can be galvanizing for a team that was reeling down the stretch and staring the very real possibility of missing the playoffs in the face. This wasn’t exactly a must-win game, but the Cowboys desperately needed something positive to happen prior to facing their division rival Philadelphia Eagles next Sunday in Philadelphia. Division games can get weird and though the Eagles aren’t in good shape, they’ll still be a formidable foe. Getting a win over a quality opponent like the Rams should give them the boost in confidence they need with just two games remaining.
Things were looking very bleak for the Cowboys even with hopes of a playoff berth in sight. They weren’t playing good football as a team and looked destined to either miss the playoffs or perhaps be one and done in the wild card round. Getting a win like this later stage of the season could potentially catapult the Cowboys on a run that could find them playing in February.
This team’s always had the talent to play with anyone in the NFL, they just hadn’t shown it to this point. If the Dallas Cowboys defense shows up with efforts like that one from week-to-week, they’ll be a defense that is very hard to score against.