For much of the season, the Dallas Cowboys have had to mix and match pieces on the football's defensive side. And while the defensive staff has had quite the task to get the most of a defense that has had both injury woes and poor play, the defense as a whole has struggled to get adequate play out of some of their top players.
Yes, the coaching staff gave the Washington Football Team several short fields to work with during the Cowboys 41-16 loss on Thanksgiving Day. However, the defense struggled to put up much resistance on the day and allowed Alex Smith, Terry McLaurin, and Antonio Gibson to beat them throughout.
Though it was a close game until Washington rattled off 21 unanswered points to finish the game, it was still a disappointing effort all the way around.
With the Baltimore Ravens next up on the schedule, the Cowboys face a tough test. Lamar Jackson may be having a down year, but he's still one of the better quarterbacks in the NFL. The Ravens bring a pretty formidable running game to the field led by Mark Ingram, JK Dobbins, and Gus Edwards.
The Ravens come into this contest with some uncertainty as they've battled a COVID-19 outbreak over the past several weeks. It looks as if Lamar Jackson will be available to lead the Ravens on the field in this matchup, but he will do so without much practice time and on what will be a short week even with the game being played on Tuesday.
Baltimore has the third-most rushing yards in the NFL this season, 41 yards shy of the Cleveland Browns.
That spells trouble for a Dallas Cowboys interior that looked to be on the right track against the Pittsburgh Steelers but once again fell into mediocrity against the Vikings and Football Team. Neville Gallimore and Antwaun Woods' inability to hold up at the point of attack has made it more difficult for the linebackers to play clean in the run game. And if we've seen anything from this linebacker group, it's that they struggle to get off blocks and make a play with much consistency.
Leighton Vander Esch continued his up-and-down play against Washington. He led the team with eight tackles and six stops per Pro Football Ball Focus and led the Cowboys with three missed tackles. Vander Esch is probably your best linebacker, but at this point, that's not saying a whole lot.
If the defensive tackles are getting beat on the inside against Baltimore, it's going to be a long day for everyone on the defensive side of the football.
In the passing game, the Cowboys secondary doesn't look right. Against Alex Smith, who has been Captain Checkdown for years, the defensive backs played 7-8 yards off the line of scrimmage and allowed Smith to take those throws underneath. Rarely did the corners come up in press-man coverage and dare Smith to beat them over the top.
They need to challenge Lamar Jackson to throw the ball downfield this week and not allow them to get anything easy underneath. Even if the secondary is undermanned due to injury, they don't have anything to lose. Playing conservative on defense will lead to a slow death.
One player in particular that needs to play better in the secondary is Chidobe Awuzie.
Against the Washington Football Team, Awuzie allowed five catches on six targets for 60 yards per Pro Football Focus. Overall not a terrible day, but Terry McLaurin beat him for three receptions and 48 yards, including a 28-yard reception and two first downs.
As easy as it is to lay blame at the coaching staff's feet for the inadequacies on the defensive side of the football, the reality is there's only so much a defensive coordinator or specific position coaches can do. The players have to play the game, execute their assignments, and make the plays that are there for them to make.
For the Cowboys to not get run out of the building on Tuesday Night Football, the defensive performance has to be better than last week and probably a lot better. The Baltimore Ravens bring a much better offense than what the Cowboys have faced each of the last few weeks. And with as overmatched as the Cowboys' offense will be against the Baltimore defense, it's all the more important for the defense to have an impactful game.