Sun, 17 Jan 2021

Spagnola: Stopping The Run Might Do 'Em Wonders

Dallas Cowboys
05 Dec 2020, 19:24 GMT+10

Mickey Spagnola

FRISCO, Texas - This is really something, isn't it?

On the 12th day of inactivity having nothing to do with a bye, the Cowboys will actually - we think - play that 12th game of the season this Tuesday - we think - 7 p.m. at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore against the Ravens - we think.

COVID-19 tests willing.

And this part is something else even more:

With the 4-7 Giants playing at 8-3 Seattle on Sunday.

With the 3-7-1 Eagles playing at 8-3 Green Bay on Sunday.

And with the 4-7 Washingtons playing at undefeated, 11-0 Pittsburgh on Monday night.

The odds are all three of those teams lose.

Meaning, if ... if ... the 3-8 Cowboys on Tuesday night can defeat the 6-5 Ravens, losers of three consecutive games and four of their last five, plus with who knows how many COVID-eligible to play, then your Dallas Cowboys would be tied for first place in the NFC East with four games to go.

Go figure.

The hardest part of this scenario then becomes the Cowboys winning, losers in five of their last six ever since the gruesome, season-ending left ankle injury suffered by quarterback Dak Prescott, who by the way made his way out on Friday to watch a little early practice with the aid of only a left crutch that he was barely using and wearing just a tennis shoe on his injured foot.

Especially since the oddsmakers have the Cowboys 8.5-point underdogs.

So what are the Cowboys up against in trying to beat this Baltimore team to get that elusive fourth win?

First, who knows what Ravens will actually be playing in this game at this point, and that includes quarterback Lamar Jackson, still one of 17 players listed on Baltimore's reserve/ COVID-19 list on Friday and one of seven starters still on the list heading into Tuesday night's game.

Who will clear and be eligible to play at this point still is somewhat of an unknown, and why Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy has the Cowboys preparing for the best the Ravens can present, and that includes Jackson, assuming he's cleared to return after his 10 days since testing positive, which would be in time for a workout on Monday.

But to me, the Cowboys biggest worry has to concern themselves. Sure, you would like to know what the Ravens will present. Great. But more importantly, the Cowboys can control best what they present the Ravens. And if they learned anything from having the ability to watch the Baltimore-Pittsburgh game following Wednesday's practice, would be this:

No matter how much your offense might be struggling, and the Cowboys' certainly did in the 41-16 loss to Washington on Thanksgiving, playing well defensively can keep you in the game. Neither the Steelers nor the Ravens played well offensively that afternoon, but their defenses kept this game close, a 19-14 victory for Pittsburgh.

And not sure 12 days between games will cure what's been ailing that Cowboys offense, either. Neither starting tackle, Zack Martin nor Cam Erving, both injured during the first offensive possession of the Washington loss, is expected to play Tuesday night.

And as Cowboys COO Stephen Jones said of losing those two at the outset of the game, "That was a big hit for us."

Thus, Dallas will be playing once again with Brandon Knight and Terence Steele at the tackle spots, meaning the Cowboys will continue to play with backups at four of the five offensive line positions.

So defense, what about it?

Here, though, is the deal: For this defense to play well, the Cowboys just have to play better - much better - against the run. Especially in this game.

Look, if you want numbers, here are the numbers of note: The Cowboys are ranked 32nd against the run in the NFL, giving up 156 yards a game. Totally unacceptable. The franchise record for a 16-game season is the 164.7 of 2000. The all-time record is 186.6 given up by the first team in franchise history, that a 12-game, 0-11-1 season in 1960.

So now here come the Ravens. They are the NFL's third-ranked rushing offense at 157 yards a game. That's not good news. They have four players with more than 200 yards rushing, led by Jackson's 575 yards. And remember, the last time the Cowboys played a quarterback who wanted to run - by design - Arizona's Kyler Murray rushed 10 times for 74 yards and one touchdown.

Here are more persistent troubling rushing numbers: Rams 153, Cleveland 307, Arizona 261, Washington 208, Philadelphia 119, Minnesota 125 and ...

Washington the second time around, when you think the Cowboys would have learned their lesson, and this in just the past game on Thanksgiving, 182 and three rushing touchdowns.

Like, just when you thought the Cowboys had solved their run defense problems, limiting Pittsburgh to 46 and, well, OK, Minnesota to the 125 and their NFL's leading rusher Delvin Cook to a reasonable 115, and needing 27 carries to do that, the roof caved in again.

Now, there seems a good chance Jackson might be eligible to play in this game at this point. Same with their two running backs on the reserve/COVID-19 list, Mark Ingram and J.K. Dobbins.

And how about this: The Ravens rank 32nd in passing offense, averaging 189.3 a game.

Guess what they'll want to do, especially if Jackson isn't able to play and they are starting Trace McSorley since backup quarterback Robert Griffin III has just been placed on injured reserve?

So darn it, for a change, might the Cowboys just load up against the run? Like, not continuing to play their nickel defense against obvious run personnel, you know, two tight ends and two wide receivers or two wide receivers, two running backs and a tight end? Or as they tried far too many times against the Redskins, with a four-man line, at times Jaylon Smith lining up on the line of scrimmage as a fifth and just one linebacker or five defensive linemen and Smith the lone linebacker?

Might they try to play three linebackers against obvious run personnel instead of bringing up a safety from their nickel defense to moonlight as a linebacker?

Just asking.

Because it would seem the Cowboys objective in this game would be to do everything they can to stop the run and challenge the Ravens to beat you with the pass. Play those odds.

If they win that gamble, making a quarterback who might get in one practice before the game or a quarterback who has played in just two NFL games in his two-year career - and attempted his first six pass attempts this past game in place of the injured Griffin, completing only two - beat you, well then you might be able to scramble enough points to win the game.

And fly home tied for first in the NFC East.

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