It’s tough to tell who was more responsible for Cleveland’s 307-yard rushing performance on Sunday. On the one hand, the Browns have been running the ball very well all season, and they threw the kitchen sink at Dallas. On the other hand, the Cowboys’ depleted defense couldn’t execute or play sound football at all.
It started on the first play. The Browns called an outside zone to the left. Focus on the blocks the Browns got inside against Cowboys DTs, Dontari Poe (#95) and Trysten Hill (#72). They absolutely blew them off of the ball, making it difficult for linebackers Jaylon Smith (#54) and Joe Thomas (#48) to attack the line of scrimmage and maintain their gap responsibility.
It’s tough to do much as a linebacker with your defensive tackles in your lap. And this wasn’t just a one-time occurrence. Cleveland controlled the line of scrimmage all game.
The Cowboys also had a tough time playing to their responsibilities against the run. On the below power, Dallas was bringing a corner blitz to try and do something to slow down Cleveland’s rushing attack. Focus on Hill and Demarcus Lawrence on the left side of the screen. Both were slanting inside. However, they got blocked too far inside and were easily taken out of the play.
That allowed the pulling right guard, left tackle, and tight end to get up to the second level cleanly, again leaving Cowboys linebackers in a bad position.
This also allowed running back D’Ernest Johnson room to avoid the corner blitz.
The result was a 28-yard gain.
The Cowboys were unable to play fundamentally sound run defense all afternoon. On the below touchdown by Kareem Hunt, focus on safety Donovan Wilson (#37) on the right side of the screen. Watch him go inside (out of his gap), which allowed Hunt to bounce it to the edge.
I’m not sure exactly why Wilson went inside there, but you can’t give Kareem Hunt the opportunity to bounce it to the perimeter like that.
More concerning for the Cowboys was the way they allowed Browns tight ends to consistently win at the line of scrimmage and control the edge. Below, you can see Harrison Bryant (#88) and Stephen Carlson (#89) handle defensive end Everson Griffen (#97) on the right side of the screen.
This happened on more than one occasion for Dallas.
The Browns seemed to recognize and anticipate that the Cowboys had difficulty playing to their responsibilities against the run. They smartly attacked them with misdirection, using their wide receivers in the running game to generate some big plays. Odell Beckham Jr. had runs of 23 and 50-yards on plays that created chaos throughout the Cowboys Defense and led to lots of poor tackling.
As with any struggling run defense, bad tackling is always a main culprit. Sunday’s performance by the Cowboys was no exception. But it wasn’t just the tackling, it was also the lack of urgency Dallas played with in defending the run. The below play is a great example. Focus on safety Xavier Woods (#25) and defensive end Dorance Armstrong (#92) on the left side of the screen.
That was way too easy for the Browns. A defensive end and safety can’t lose or even get to a stalemate in the run game against a tight end and wide receiver respectively. The Browns were able to easily seal off that side of the running lane leading to another healthy pick-up on the ground.
The Cowboys Defense has certainly been decimated by injuries, so some of their ineptness in defending the run is understandable. But Defensive Coordinator Mike Nolan needs to get Dallas playing with more of an understanding of responsibilities, and especially, he needs to get them to play with more urgency against the run. Luckily, the Cowboys play in the NFC East and will be in the thick of the division race all season, whether they fix their issues or not.
The Browns, on the other hand, currently have the #1 running game in the NFL, both in yards per game and yards per attempt. They’ll face some stiffer competition this week in the Colts, who currently have the league’s top scoring defense. That said, the Browns have established themselves as a running football team. Expect to see Head Coach Kevin Stefanski continue to keep the ball on the ground and use a healthy amount of play-action. It’s been a winning formula so far.
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