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Dallas Needs To Fix Their Pass Defense With Denver On Deck

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Danny Woodhead scored two touchdowns as the Chargers eviscerated the Dallas pass defense exposing its weak links days before a visit to Peyton Manning and Denver. Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images.
Danny Woodhead scored two touchdowns as the Chargers eviscerated the Dallas pass defense exposing its weak links days before a visit to Peyton Manning and Denver. Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images.

Mediocrity has again descended on Dallas, and this time, the culprit lies in a stat that’s been driven into the ground: time of possession.

The Cowboys’ Week 4 trip to San Diego ended in a 30-21 loss — a familiar, ho-hum performance laden with misfires on both sides of the ball. The defense yielded 400 passing yards, including six completions of 25 yards or more, while the defensive front failed to exploit the battered San Diego O-line. After two outstanding scoring plays by Dez Bryant, the offense came out with zero rhythm in the second half and scored as many points. Both fourth-quarter drives came up empty, stymied by a holding penalty and a fumble, respectively.  

But while the failure to make big plays in the second half — or to make detrimental ones at key moments — did contribute, the real damage lies with the defense. They got exposed; their pass coverage was annihilated on every level. Monte Kiffin’s defense appeared to be outsmarted and outcoached, and Phillip Rivers’ illustration of how accuracy and a quick release can shred this secondary seemed far too easy.

That’s hardly the kind of tune-up you want with Peyton Manning on deck.

Although they provided a chunk of it, the Cowboys’ defense blew a two-possession lead and the game. They didn’t do the offense any favors in terms of field position and time, especially when the Chargers stepped up their tempo. The Dallas D has been the rock of 2013 with its momentous playmaking, punctuated by a slew of takeaways, sacks and galvanizing third-down stops. But it’s a gold mine of yards that anyone can pick, and it’s dangerously soft on the underneath pass. It plays the run well and generates pressure effectively, but it works too much out of zone coverage and leaves too much open space.

Possession: it’s the metric that lets you know it’s not working.

The sample size is small, but ball control battles are key for this year’s squad. The Cowboys won their first three by a combined 24:50 — good for the second-best average in the NFL. During that stretch, they had no defensive disintegration. But they ceded 34 minutes of possession to the Bolts, who held Dallas to 3:23 and eight harmless plays in the third quarter alone. Forget third-down rates: 15 of San Diego’s 27 first downs came on two plays or fewer. Ultimately, the pace and volume of the play-calling wore the Cowboys down, and they simply couldn’t get off the field.

The Chargers’ game plan proved they did their homework better than their opponents did. They accounted for their disadvantage in the ditches by unleashing a fusillade of screens, tosses, quick dumps and short slants. It allowed their young linemen to avoid elaborate pass-rushing moves and instead get downfield and dole out second-level blocks. The Bolts ran the ball just enough to keep the Cowboy linebackers and safeties honest, let their receivers make plays in space on short throws, waited for vertical seam and sideline routes to open up, then nailed them.

It’s a formula that’s far too easily duplicated by one of the all-time greats in Manning. If the Cowboys don’t tighten up against Denver, they’ll be out of contention before they can have another listless third quarter and take another step toward infinite averageness.