The Oakland Raiders are not fooling Dallas, and the Cowboys are not fooling themselves.
The Raiders are going to run the ball, and the Cowboys haven’t been stopping the run.
“That’s what they want to do,” linebacker Ernie Sims said.
“We haven’t stopped the run real well,” defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin said. “We just have to play the run better.”
That will certainly be true on Thanksgiving Day, when the Cowboys, with the 30th-ranked run defense in the NFL, allowing an average of 133.6 yards per game, take on the Raiders and the NFL’s fourth-ranked rushing offense (140.6 yards per game).
The Cowboys already have problems stopping the pass. But the Raiders, with rookie quarterback Matt McGloin, might decide to hit the Cowboys where they have been vulnerable.
“They’re definitely power,” defensive tackle Nick Hayden said of the Raiders. “A power team trying to get at you. Their whole line tries to knock you off the ball.”
The New Orleans Saints knocked the Cowboys off the ball two weeks ago and ran for 242 yards, embarrassing them with an all-ground touchdown drive in the fourth quarter.
The New York Giants tried to knock the Cowboys off the ball Sunday and gashed them for runs of 37, 16, 14 and 12 yards on the way to 202 yards.
Before that, the Minnesota Vikings ran for 169 yards against the Cowboys. And a week earlier, the Detroit Lions ran for 143.
“That just comes down to being gap-disciplined,” Hayden said. “You see it. We’ll stop runs for minus-1s, zero yards, and then they’ll just gash one on us. Our defense is based on being in your gap and being gap-disciplined.”
It is also based on healthy players. The Cowboys were missing Jason Hatcher in the fourth quarter against the Vikings and for all of the Saints game. They did not have DeMarcus Ware against Detroit or Minnesota. And last week, they played without their leading tackler, Sean Lee, who went out in the first half of the Saints game, along with strongside linebacker Justin Durant.
“The ‘mike’ has been the adjustment,” Kiffin said, referring to the middle linebacker spot now occupied by Sims. “He’s been doing that for a couple of weeks. It hasn’t been easy for him. But he’s seeing it better and better. He’s doing a good job. He played great last week.”
At strong side linebacker, the Cowboys plugged in Kyle Wilber, who was a work in progress as a defensive end, and he delivered seven tackles.
With Ware and Hatcher back in the lineup, and Lee presumed to be close to returning, the Cowboys have a touch of optimism that their run defense will improve.
“We analyzed it fairly quickly, but closely, and there were different things that came up,” coach Jason Garrett said of the run defense against the Giants. “It wasn’t one guy. It wasn’t one thing, ‘Hey, we were in the C gap,’ or ‘The safety didn’t come down.’ On different plays, on each of the longer runs they had, it’s one thing on this play, another thing on that play, another thing on that play.
“What we need to do is address those things with each of the individual guys. Sometimes it was physical; we got blocked, we weren’t able to hold that B gap because that guy dug us out of that B gap. But other times it was how a corner might replace when a safety gets cracked or how a linebacker comes over the top or comes over the top too far. We’ll address those things quickly with our guys this week and hopefully we can get those things rectified by Thursday.”