Mike McCarthy doesn’t put much stock in year-to-year comparisons. Each NFL season brings new personnel, new coaches, new schemes, new tactics to every squad across the league. What a team did or didn’t do well one year typically has little bearing on what to expect the following season.
But the Cowboys coach knows that until his defense demonstrates they can shut down opposing rushers on a week-in, week-out basis, it will be seen as an exploitable vulnerability, just like it was in 2022.
“You’ve got to stop the run and, really, the action passing game, too, because of the big-play opportunities I’m sure they’re going to try to challenge us with,” McCarthy told reporters at a Thursday morning press conference at The Star.
“We know that’s how people are going to come after us.”
Last year, the Cowboys were in the bottom third of the league in rushing yards allowed, giving up 129.2 yards per game, on average. Sunday’s season opener against was statistically better; the Giants gained 108 yards on the ground. The Cowboys’ 3.9 yards allowed per carry, if stretched out over last season, would have had them tied for third place overall.
But Hall also showed out in Week 1, compiling more rushing yards than anyone in the NFL except Christian McCaffrey. Yes, most of the speedster’s 127 yards came on one 83-yard scamper, but that’s precisely what McCarthy wants to prevent.
Breece Hall reached a top speed of 20.54 mph on this 83-yard run, his third-fastest speed of his career.
Hall has reached 20+ mph on four touches since entering the NFL last season (including his first two touches tonight). Hall is responsible for the highest 20+ mph-touch rate… pic.twitter.com/AY5qUMKBfG
— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) September 12, 2023
“Both these backs can take it to the house,” the coach explained, “so that’s definitely a focus for us.”
Cook was held to a pedestrian 33 yards against Buffalo, but the longtime Viking has typically performed well against Dallas, averaging 90.5 rushing yards per contest over four career meetings with the Cowboys.
Hall and Cook combined to add another 46 yards in the passing game in the Jets’ overtime win over the Bills, and the Cowboys defensive front will be charged on Sunday with keeping that contained as well.
And now with Aaron Rodgers sidelined, Gang Green may lean even more heavily on a backfield-based attack than originally expected, even with backup Zach Wilson having a full week with the first-stringers and his coaches having ample time to sift through their offensive playbook to find the pass plays best suited to him.
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While the 24-year-old passer could certainly rise to the occasion after an emotional win on Monday, the Cowboys’ best chance of keeping the Jets offense in the hangar starts with enforcing a full ground stop against their one-two attack at running back.
“It’s important to stop it,” McCarthy said, “and keep it stopped.”
That would also go a long way in announcing to the rest of the league that this year is indeed different in Dallas.