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What went wrong with the Giants’ run defense against Dallas?

How were the Cowboys able to gash the Giants on the ground?

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at New York Giants Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Giants’ loss to the Dallas Cowboys on Monday Night Football hurt. Obviously, it was a loss to a bitter divisional rival (as though there were any other kind in the NFC East), but it was also a win that was seemingly within the Giants’ grasp.

If there was any one part of the loss that stings more than any other, it was the Giants’ porous run defense.

“It was the easiest 140 yards I’ve ever gained. I don’t even know If I broke a tackle, I just ran inside the scheme. Those guys just mauled them up front, thank them for making it easier on me,” Elliott said after the game.

Elliott ran 23 times for 139 yards against the Giants, averaging 6 yards per carry. Of those 23 carries, only four went for less than four yards (two tackles for a loss). Time after time, Elliott was able to find a hole along the line of scrimmage and pick up 4, 6, or 9 yards at a clip.

How did he manage it? Did the Giants’ defensive line get mauled that poorly, or was there something else at work?

Run blocking

It always starts up front when it comes to running the football, and the Cowboys were able to execute their blocks.

Here we see Dallas deviate from its usual 11 personnel package and line up in 21 personnel with a fullback. Somewhat predictably, they decide to use the heavier package to play some power football with a man gap scheme.

The left side of the line all executes downblocks while right guard Zack Martin pulls to the play side to help create the seam through which Elliott runs. The block from LG Connor Williams takes Leonard Williams out of the play, while Tyron Smith releases to the second level and blocks Alec Ogletree. Dalvin Tomlinson does get penetration, Travis Frederick is able to execute a block on him and keep him from disrupting the play in the backfield.

Martin’s block takes care of Lorenzo Carter, doing well to cross the offensive formation and get into position to block Carter before he can make a play on Elliott.

From there, the fullback blocks LB David Mayo as he comes up to fill the C-gap, inside of Carter. There isn’t much room, but they are able to create a stable seam for Elliott, who picks up six yards on the play.

But there is a more to the Giants’ struggles defending against the run than just being out-executed on the line of scrimmage. They were often able to defend the initial running lanes, only to be gashed on cutbacks.

Backside defense?

When it comes to running the ball and defending the run, it is always a team effort. Every player on the offense needs to execute, from the offensive linemen to the wide receivers. By the same token, every player on the defense needs to be on the same page and execute their assignment. All too often, that didn’t happen against Dallas.

The Giants do a good job defeating the play-side blocking on this play. Lead by good penetration from B.J. Hill and a firm edge set by Markus Golden, the Giants look like they have this run stopped before Elliott is able to get the edge and turn upfield.

But then he spots a cut-back lane to the left and is able to turn what would have been a short gain at best into a 9-yard pickup.

The cutback was there because Mayo was over-aggressive in his pursuit of Elliott. B.J. Hill does a nice job of creating penetration against Frederick and is able to control him until he sheds the block to fill the first cutback lane. That leaves the left-most gap, the backside of the play, for the second-level players to clean up, which in this case is Mayo. Mayo, however, over-pursues and finds himself trying to make a play through the same gap as Hill, rather than making sure Elliott can’t cut back and set up a block using Frederick.

That’s exactly what happens, and Elliott is able to pick up 9 yards before Lorenzo Carter is able to get there and make the stop.

Elliott is a patient runner with good vision and was routinely able to exploit missed assignments in the Giants’ run defense for good gains.

The Giants line up with a seven-man box, and before the snap seem to have every gap covered. David Mayo follows Jason Witten over to the offensive right, which causes Ogletree to fill the right A-gap. That leaves Leonard Williams and Oshane Ximines to hold down the back side of the play and prevent a cutback. Williams does get penetration and is almost able to make a play on Elliott in the backfield. But in doing so he lets Tyron Smith get inside of him, establishing a backside block to create the cutback lane. With both Williams and Ximines sprinting upfield, there is nobody there to prevent Elliott from picking up the big gain.

There were instances when it did all come together for the Giants’ defense.

As we end on a high note, we see everything come together for the Giants’ defense. The defensive line does its job well, with the three down linemen occupying the Cowboys’ offensive linemen and not allowing any kind of push. The linebackers stay disciplined and don’t take the bait when Tony Pollard presses his run into the line of scrimmage before cutting to the (offensive) right.

Thanks to all that, Mayo and Carter are in position to make the tackle as he tries to run through the right B-gap, and hold him to a gain of just three yards.