FRISCO, Texas – There was the overtime pick six heard around the world.
But before that, there were the 192 rushing yards the Dallas Cowboys defense allowed. There were 21 unanswered Jacksonville Jaguars points in the second half, no sacks Trevor Lawrence in the last three quarters or overtime.
So as much as quarterback Dak Prescott’s “frustrating” statistic became a pressing storyline outside the building, a much more pervasive concern permeates Cowboys headquarters.
What happened to the Cowboys defense?
What happened to the frantic pass rush, gap-sound linebacking corps, and disciplined secondary?
Injuries only explain so much. The Cowboys won’t get sympathy from many more battered teams across the league.
The cowboys’ defenders wonder: What went wrong in the last two weeks? How did two teams whose records pale in comparison to Dallas’s bring the Cowboys to the wire?
“We’re talking about one of the best defenses in the league,” safety Jayron Kearse said from his locker on Tuesday. “And for the past two weeks, we haven’t shown it at all. You are what you put on tape. At this point, we haven’t finished the job yet.”
‘Our attack cannot score 34 points and we lose the game‘
It’s too simple to say that the Cowboys haven’t taken the 1-12-1 Houston Texans and 6-8 Jacksonville Jaguars seriously over the past two weeks. Sure, they left behind a Thanksgiving win over the New York Giants knowing how important the Christmas Eve matchup with the Philadelphia Eagles would be. But the majority of Dallas’ roster has risen to the task, whether it was an offense leading a 98-yard, game-winning drive in the final three minutes against the Texans or defenders successfully securing three takeaways in the 40-34 OT loss to Jacksonville.
But Kearse didn’t mince words when he talked about the defensive effort and communication over the past two weeks. He wondered if some teammates came out “flat”.
“Maybe feeling like we were up 21-7 and just feeling like we were going to win the game easily,” he said of the Jacksonville misstep. “Or go back two weeks ago, where, oh, it’s the Texans. Not coming into the game with that edge…as a defensive unit, not with the full hunger that was shown earlier this year.
“Fatigue is no excuse. Who you play against is no excuse. We need to get the job done as a defensive unit. And that’s for everyone to check themselves: you know if you gave it your all. You know if you aren’t.”
Throughout the season, the Cowboys defense continues to score favorably. They have the seventh fewest points allowed in the league (19.2), eighth fewest yards (324.6), and third fewest passing yards (191.6). Even their weakest link defense (24th) started to settle in November.
But the past two weeks? Dallas has allowed 31.5 points per game, 415 total yards per game, and 262 passing yards. In the entire league, no team has allowed more than 26.6 points or 399.2 yards per game this season. Only three have allowed more than 262 passing yards.
One of the best defenses suddenly falters – against two record-breaking opponents.
“Giving up 500 yards for, no disrespect, but that Jacksonville team shouldn’t have happened,” said Kearse. “Our offense should not bring 34 points and we will lose the game no matter what.”
Much of the needed solution comes down to execution. Defensive Coordinator Dan Quinn believes player finishing is a bigger issue than any schedule change.
From a personnel standpoint, expect the Cowboys to make a change in at least one place.
All-Pro Trevon Diggs remains solid at right cornerback, even if his interception total isn’t as standout as last season’s 11. Quarterbacks have targeted him less, knowing the risk he poses.
But facing him, Dallas attempted to start sophomore cornerback Kelvin Joseph after season-ending injuries to cornerbacks Anthony Brown and Jourdan Lewis. Joseph played 37 defensive snaps vs. Jacksonville, per PFF, and did fine on defense. But his coverage and tackling hurt the Cowboys, with Lawrence connecting with receivers on two of three targets against him, passing passes for 69 yards and two touchdowns.
Quinn said the position will be competitive in practice this week, and he was particularly concerned about a missed double move that became a 59-yard touchdown.
“He’s a good tackler. He can play the ball,” Quinn said of Joseph. “You don’t want someone to get beat on a double team going for a big one because that really comes down to your eye discipline. You have to hope that when you make some of these mistakes, you don’t see the repetition of them.”
Add in the fight against deception, a pass rush neutralized by Lawrence’s quick release and the return of defensive battle around the perimeter, and the Cowboys’ defense wonders: if we play like we did to go 40 against the Jaguars give, how will a powerful team like Philadelphia punish us this weekend?
“licking their chops”
This week the Eagles are watching that movie.
Head coach Nick Sirianni said his team will prepare two versions of his game plan to face the Dallas defense, one for MVP candidate Jalen Hurts and the other for backup quarterback Gardner Minshew. The 13-1 Eagles have not officially ruled out Hurts, but they are expected to rest his sprained shoulder so that it heals better before the playoffs. Hurts was listed as a non-participant in Tuesday’s walkthrough.
Minshew led the Eagles to a victory over the New York Jets in relief last December.
Each quarterback will benefit from an array of weapons highlighted by receivers AJ Brown and DeVonta Smith, running back Miles Sanders and tight end Dallas Goedert, who caught two touchdowns from Minshew in last year’s Jets game and was activated this week from a injured reserves.
Minshew would also find himself behind one of the league’s strongest offensive lines – and against a defensive line whose fire has at least died down somewhat in December.
Either way, the Cowboys’ defense will struggle. Coaches and players alike expect teams to tease them with play-in-progress and deceptive actions until they respond appropriately.
“The road is not getting any easier,” said Kearse. “It’s only going to get harder, and we have some things to sort out.
“Just like we watch other guys’ tape, they watch our tape. And I can assure you, right now they are licking their chops.
Follow Yahoo Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein.