Justin Jefferson is a threat. But Cowboys expect even bigger problem from Vikings

FRISCO, Texas — The most embarrassing run, perhaps, was Aaron Jones’ touchdown.

The Packers faced second-and-5, the game tied at 7 with 1:48 to play in the second quarter. Dallas’ left defensive end and interior lineman traded gaps, but wires crossed on the right side. Suddenly, defensive end Dante Fowler Jr. and defensive tackle Quinton Bohanna were attacking the same gap.

And an interior lane was wide open for the Packers' star running back to exploit.

Jones bounced through the gap, cut back left and rounded the left sideline home. He spun as he leapt into the end zone, grabbing his crotch mid-air for full effect.

A failure of the Cowboys’ interior run defense triggered their first deficit.

Repeated failures of the perimeter run defense would seal their final one, a 31-28 Packers decision in overtime.

“Disgusting,” linebacker Micah Parsons said postgame at Lambeau Field. “Until we take out this fire, we’re just going to keep seeing it. If people want to keep doing their own thing, we’re going to deal with this all year and we’re going to never be the team that we’re going to want to be."

Dallas’ loss to Green Bay wasn’t the first time a team exploited a glaring weakness against it. But after two straight opponents gashed the Cowboys for more than 200 yards apiece, emotions ran high. Three days later, they still were.

"You should be angry," Cowboys safety Jayron Kearse said Wednesday from his locker. "You should be frustrated. If you're not, then I think we've got the wrong guys on this defense.

“If you don't have a sense of urgency moving forward with how last week went, with how [the game] before went, then you need to gut-check yourself and look at yourself in the mirror.”

The secret is out

Opponents, it seems, have exposed a game plan to exploit the Cowboys’ weakness. The strategy is deeper than just running the ball, though the rush attack volume has factored heavily into game plans. The Chicago Bears and Packers, the Cowboys’ past two games, have run nearly twice as often (1.8 and 1.95 times, respectively) as they threw. The reduced pass attempts minimize the Cowboys’ opportunities to pass rush, thus neutralizing the defense’s top strength. And the challenge doesn’t stem from teams simply running on third downs.

As opponents see the Cowboys’ struggles to stay disciplined in run-gap assignments and tendency to allow leaky yards, the power productive first- and second-down runs circumvent obvious passing third downs. The Packers attacked 14 times on third- and fourth-down against the Cowboys. Eleven times those plays needed 4 or fewer yards to advance, prompting defensive coordinator Dan Quinn to describe the bleed as “death by 1,000 paper cuts.” And though Green Bay’s longest third-down attempt — for 7 yards, early in the fourth quarter — failed, the Packers went for it on fourth-and-7. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers found rookie receiver Christian Watson for his second of three touchdowns.

“We recognize our strength as far as pass rush, but pass rush is a privilege right now,” head coach Mike McCarthy said. “Until we take care of this run challenge, that’s what it’s going to be.”

Players and coaches insist the whiffs, while frustrating, don't reflect a lack of effort so much as defenders miscommunicating a coverage or overcompensating to make a game-changing play. "Sometimes," defensive tackle Neville Gallimore parroted coaches' lessons, "you can make the play by not making the play."

That’s what the Cowboys' defense is emphasizing in preparation for the talented 8-1 Minnesota Vikings. Hold firm edges, attack proper gaps, force rush lanes and “really, haul ass to a different level,” Quinn and his staff implore.

If not, the Cowboys risk the wrath of weapons, including Justin Jefferson and Dalvin Cook.

Danger awaits

Jefferson, with his preposterous fourth-and-18 catch in the fourth quarter of last Sunday's overtime win vs. the Buffalo Bills, must worry the Cowboys’ secondary. After all, Green Bay’s rookie Watson burned Dallas for 107 yards and three touchdowns carrying far less talent and experience.

But the Cowboys cannot overlook the threat of Cook, whose 80.8 rushing yards per game ranks seventh in the league and 2.5 yards per carry after contact ranks eighth. The Cowboys rank 22nd with 3.4 yards after contact allowed per carry. A missed tackle or poor angle could be costly, as the Bills saw last weekend when Cook didn’t find the creases in his teammates’ blocking lanes, he unleashed and broke tackles to the tune of an 81-yard touchdown, the longest carry in the NFL this season.

“He’s a guy who when he gets the ball can get going quick,” Kearse said. “He’s very elusive. Very, very efficient with his jump cuts, getting in and out of his breaks and things when he’s running his routes or he’s on the edge. So against a guy like him, you have to wrap his leg because he keeps it moving on the contact.

“His vision is good, his run-after-contact is good. It’s a lot that comes with a guy like that.”

The Cowboys respect how the Vikings target mismatches, weak links and game-plan specific attacks, so they expect a heavy dose of the run. And with seven of Minnesota’s eight victories coming by a score or less, the margin for error is small — and the urgency big.

“There is a ton of red-ass, a ton of disappointment, a lot of anger,” McCarthy said Monday. “That points to the commitment, the desire to win, the connection.”

Now, the Cowboys must translate that fuel into fire.

“We played disappointing football for ourselves and the fans and everyone that’s behind the Cowboys,” Kearse said. “We come back the next week and have the ability to right that ship.”