With 10 minutes to go in the fourth quarter and the ball just past midfield, Chargers’ quarterback Philip Rivers dropped back on a third-and-6 play and found his favorite target, wideout Keenan Allen, down the left sideline for an easy first down.
Allen then decided the play wasn’t over. Los Angeles’ leading pass catcher dodged, ducked and dipped his way back across the field through five Dallas defenders for a 42-yard touchdown that essentially sealed a 28-6 drubbing of the Cowboys on Thanksgiving.
While the defense dealt with myriad issues throughout the afternoon, the unit’s most glaring shortcoming was its inability to get stops on third down. By the time Dallas had lost its third consecutive game, the Chargers had converted nine of their 14 third-down opportunities (64 percent).
“You try to do different things when you play a guy like this,” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said, referring to Rivers. “You try to man, you try to pressure him and try to do things different ways, and I don’t know if it was one thing. They tried to play man coverage and they beat us at different times and they beat us in different ways.”
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At the half, the Cowboys trailed 3-0, and the Chargers had converted just three of their seven of third-down attempts. Underneath the surface, though, there were warning signs that foreshadowed the second half to come.
So far this season, Rivers has been one of the least accurate passers in the league, 29th statistically. But through the first two quarters of play Thursday, the veteran completed 15 of 19 attempts, for 219 yards.
In the third quarter, the dam broke as Los Angeles converted all four of its third-down attempts. In the final two quarters of play, the Cowboys stopped the Chargers on one of their seven third-down opportunities.
“When you’re playing a team and they’re behind, they have to call certain things and do certain things in certain situations,” Cowboys defensive tackle David Irving said. “We didn’t put them or keep them in those situations, and we didn’t make them one-dimensional.”
Whether it was a blown coverage, a jump ball or a third-and-short situation, Rod Marinelli’s defense just could not get stops when it mattered most.
Coming into this game, the Chargers’ offense ranked 25th in the NFL in average time of possession. Rivers and company held the ball for just over 36 minutes compared to Dallas’ 23:55.
Eventually, the bend-but-don’t-break approach, combined with a second consecutive turnover-filled performance from the offense, wore down a unit that was already missing defensive anchor Sean Lee.
“He’s one of the guys that controls the defense really well and makes sure everybody is in the right place,” Cowboys defensive end Tyrone Crawford said. “It’s obviously hurting us a little bit, but we have to do what we’ve got to do while he’s out.”
The Cowboys defense once again struggled to create any kind of pressure on the quarterback. For the second game in a row, they had no sacks. The noticeable lack of pressure also allowed the Chargers to record eight receptions of 20 yards or more, which is the most the unit has allowed in any game this season.
Now, at 5-6, the Cowboys’ defenders are well aware that this group has a week to dig themselves out of this rut and help save what’s left of its season.
“How we’re playing is who we are; we are what we repeatedly do,” Irving said. “If we don’t fix it fast, then this is who we are this year.”
Peter Dawson: 817-390-7657