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The Cowboys' Pass Defense Is Holding Them Back

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Dallas' secondary could do nothing to stop Calvin Johnson and Matthew Stafford. Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images.
Dallas' secondary could do nothing to stop Calvin Johnson and Matthew Stafford. Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images.

We knew it was bad. We knew that appearance-wise it was ugly; that, statistically, it flat-out stunk. We knew Megatron would be a huge challenge for it.

But until we saw the Dallas Cowboys fall 31-30 to Detroit in Week 8, most of us doubted their pass defense was porous, soft and generally ineffective enough to actually derail the season. Matthew Stafford’s 488-yard aerial assault and Calvin Johnson’s 329-yard receiving explosion ultimately produced a gift-wrapped victory for the Lions and a devastating failure to capitalize for the Cowboys. It shattered records and Cowboy hearts alike, and proved definitively that in today’s passing league, the Dallas pass-preventers are hopelessly outgunned and disadvantaged.

The secondary was earmarked a liability from Day 1; inadequately addressing it in the draft and in free agency was a drastic omission. The defensive line has withstood more injuries than Travis Pastrana. Between the two, the Dallas D simply cannot dictate momentum in the passing game. Four 400-yard passing games and an NFL-worst 315 passing yards per game suggests it’s an ongoing, irreparable problem.

Offensively, the ‘Boys were docile against the Lions. Their play-calling was predictable — they ran on 15-of-23 first downs despite no DeMarco Murray. Romo was repeatedly flushed from the pocket, his accuracy and timing were off, and he simply looked less sure of himself under center. Yet he managed three touchdowns without his No. 1 running back and No. 2 wide receiver. Special teams contributed a fantastic kick return and converted two 53-yard field goals. And though you could argue that Tyron Smith’s hold majorly impacted the outcome, the Cowboys were much cleaner in terms of penalties.

Then there’s the real kicker: the minus four turnover margin — the stat that’s supposed to bear an infallible correlation to wins and losses.

Despite all that, with no timeouts and scarcely a minute to play, the Cowboys couldn’t stop the Lions from going 80 yards. Their pass defense ran out of grace-saving plays and collapsed with the game on the line. Even when it was a two-possession game, the Lions displayed no urgency, methodically pounding the ground, taking the short slants and screens the Cowboys gave them and trusting the Dallas scheme to break down. It was as if they knew the pass defense wasn’t a threat — even after Sean Lee’s impressive duo of interceptions.

Furthermore, the Lions’ ground game was clicking. They knew it was wearing down the Cowboys’ front four and granting Stafford more time. They knew Dallas was desperate to prevent more deep balls, and that the coverage would eventually produce big gaps for a quarterback who can really thread the needle.

If the rest of the league didn’t already know that for certain, they do now.

Don’t pin it all on Brandon Carr. He’s a fine corner who dealt with the most powerful, explosive and vertically-gifted receiver on Earth. He had little linebacker help on inside routes, and the safeties routinely lined up too deep to have effective presences over the top.

The Cowboys spent seven weeks hiding behind takeaways and the feel-good story of Rod Marinelli and the ragtag, yet capable defensive line. They used them to justify Monte Kiffin’s scheme and to put a positive spin on their defensive proceedings.

That guise has vanished in the wake of the Detroit game.

Looking back, you can make the case that the pass defense bears the lion’s share of blame for losses to San Diego, Denver and Detroit. Looking ahead, you have to figure it’ll play a huge and detrimental role in future games against explosive offenses, including New Orleans, Green Bay and Chicago.  While this year does feature an exceptionally bad division, it’s now tough to see Dallas finishing above 9-7. Considering Chicago is a road game in December, that’s three insanely difficult games right there.

And when that final mark or one close to it is realized, when the Cowboys bring home the ugliest NFC championship in history, and when they get eviscerated by Seattle or San Francisco at home in the first round, Jerry Jones will have a lot of answering to do for this unit.