FRISCO, Texas — There was the overtime pick-six heard ’round the world.
But before that, there were 192 rushing yards the Dallas Cowboys defense allowed. There were 21 unanswered Jacksonville Jaguars points in the second half, no sacks of Trevor Lawrence in the final three quarters or overtime.
So much as quarterback Dak Prescott’s “frustrating” stat line became a pressing storyline outside the building, a far more pervasive concern pervades Cowboys headquarters.
What has happened to the Cowboys defense?
What has happened to the frenetic pass rush, the gap-sound linebacking corps and the disciplined secondary?
Injuries explain only so much. The Cowboys won’t earn sympathy from far more battered teams across the league.
Cowboys defenders are asking themselves: What has gone wrong the past two weeks? How have two teams whose records pale in comparison to Dallas’ taken the Cowboys to the wire?
“We talk about being one of the best defenses in the league,” safety Jayron Kearse said Tuesday from his locker. “And the past two weeks, we haven’t shown it at all. You are what you put on tape. At this point, we haven’t gotten the job done.”
‘Our offense should not put up 34 points and we lose the game‘
It oversimplifies matters to say the Cowboys didn’t take the 1-12-1 Houston Texans and 6-8 Jacksonville Jaguars seriously the past two weeks. Sure, they left 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 stepped up to the task, be it an offense leading a 98-yard, game-winning drive in the final three minutes against the Texans or defenders who successfully secured three takeaways in the 40-34 OT loss to Jacksonville.
But Kearse didn’t mince words when speaking about the defensive effort and communication the past two weeks. He wondered whether some teammates came out “flat.”
“Maybe feeling like we were up 21-7 and just felt like we were going to win the game easily,” he said of the Jacksonville slip. “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 having the complete hunger that was shown earlier in the year.
“Fatigue is not an excuse. Who you’re playing against is not an excuse. We have to get the job done as a defensive unit. And that’s for everybody to check themselves: You know if you’ve been giving it everything. You know if you’re not.”
Across the season, the Cowboys defense still ranks favorably. They’ve allowed the seventh-fewest points in the league (19.2), eighth-fewest yards (324.6) and third-fewest passing yards (191.6). Even their weakest-link run defense (24th) began settling in November.
But the past two weeks? Dallas has allowed 31.5 points per game, 415 total yards per contest and 262 passing yards. Across the 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 is suddenly faltering — against two opponents with losing records.
“Giving up 500 yards to, no disrespect, but that Jacksonville squad, shouldn’t have happened,” Kearse said. “Our offense should not put up 34 points and we lose the game, regardless of what goes on.”
Much of the needed fix comes down to execution. Defensive coordinator Dan Quinn believes players’ finishing is more of an issue than any needed scheme change.
From a personnel standpoint, expect the Cowboys to make a change in at least one spot.
All-Pro Trevon Diggs remains solid at right cornerback, even if his interception total isn’t as eye-popping as last season’s 11. Quarterbacks have targeted him less, knowing the risk he poses.
Opposite him, though, Dallas attempted to start second-year cornerback Kelvin Joseph after season-ending injuries to cornerbacks Anthony Brown and Jourdan Lewis. Joseph played 37 defensive snaps vs. Jacksonville, per PFF, and fared fine in run defense. But his coverage and tackling hurt the Cowboys, with Lawrence connecting with receivers on two of three targets against him, the passes going for 69 yards and two touchdowns.
Quinn said the position will be up for competition in practice this week, and he was especially concerned about a missed double move that became a 59-yard touchdown.
“He’s a good tackler. He can make a play on the ball,” Quinn said of Joseph. “You don’t want to see anyone get beat on a double-team that goes for a big one because that really comes down to your eye discipline. You’ve got to hope that when you make some of these mistakes, you don’t see the repeating of them.”
Add struggles against misdirection, a pass rush neutralized by Lawrence’s quick release and the return of perimeter run defense struggles, and the Cowboys defense wonders: If we play like we did to give up 40 against the Jaguars, how will a high-powered team such as Philadelphia punish us this weekend?
‘Licking their chops’
This week, the Eagles are watching that film.
Head coach Nick Sirianni said his team will prepare two versions of its game plan to face Dallas’ defense, one for MVP candidate Jalen Hurts and the other for backup quarterback Gardner Minshew. The 13-1 Eagles have not ruled Hurts out officially, but there is an expectation that they’ll rest his sprained throwing shoulder so it heals better before the playoffs. Hurts was listed as a non-participant in Tuesday’s walkthrough.
Minshew led the Eagles to a win over the New York Jets in relief last December.
Either 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 from injured reserve this week.
Minshew would enter behind one of the league’s stoutest offensive lines, too — and against a defensive line whose fire has at least somewhat subsided in December.
The Cowboys defense will have their work cut out for them either way. Coaches and players alike expect teams to bully them with the running game and misdirection plays until they adequately respond.
“The road is not going to get easier,” Kearse said. “It’s just going to continue to get tougher, and we have some things to figure out.
“Just like we’re watching tape on other guys, they’re watching tape on us. And I can assure you, right now, they’re licking their chops.”
Follow Yahoo Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein.