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Cowboys' defense -- not Brandon Weeden -- holding them back

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ARLINGTON, Texas -- The Dallas Cowboys unveiled their game plan to survive the next two months, and it was simple. For a while Sunday, it was entirely effective. They would run the ball. They would allow Brandon Weeden to throw only short, safe passes, most often to his running backs, never taking a shot downfield, despite their professed admiration for his arm and accuracy. They would also rely on their defense.

For 30 minutes, it worked. Quarterback Tony Romo, his left arm suspended in a sling, threw his right one around Joseph Randle, who had 92 rushing yards and three touchdowns in the first half. Even with the Giants' win on Thursday night and the Eagles rolling over the Jets on Sunday afternoon, it looked like the Cowboys were, at the very least, going to be able to tread water in the NFC East until their dynamic playmakers returned, as Jerry Jones had said would be the strategy minutes after Romo was hurt a week ago.

But what if the Cowboys were worried about the wrong dynamic playmakers?

Atlanta's 39-28 win Sunday underscored one thing: While everybody focused on the absence of Romo and Dez Bryant and the breaking body of Jason Witten, it was the defensive decimation -- Greg Hardy, Rolando McClain, Randy Gregory, Jeremy Mincey and Orlando Scandrick were all unavailable Sunday -- that might be the Cowboys' bigger immediate problem. Weeden can be instructed to throw downfield -- Jones said after the game that he thought Weeden was capable of doing it if the Cowboys ask, which sounded like a roundabout way of asking Jason Garrett to construct a game plan that calls for it -- and you'd like to see the offense stay on the field in the second half to give the defense a break. But 28 points should be enough to beat any opponent, and it should be viewed as a gift when the two biggest offensive stars are in street clothes.

But it was the lack of a pass rush, the maddening futility of trying to defend Falcons receiver Julio Jones (hard to fault the Cowboys for something nobody else has figured out either), and the troubling inability to stop a backup running back named Devonta Freeman that ultimately undid the Cowboys, to the tune of 438 yards of offense and 34 minutes of possession for the Falcons. The Cowboys entered the game with the league's second-ranked defense, but they had to know that was a mirage once they took a long look at the injury report, just like the first-half domination was. Just as they had to know the Falcons would eventually figure out their offensive plan, improve their tackling and squeeze the life out of the Cowboys' shrunken attack. And they had to expect Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan would decide, at some point, that he was going to get the ball to Jones no matter what.

There was one sequence midway through the third quarter that illuminated the Cowboys' most pressing issue: When the best player the Cowboys had left, linebacker Sean Lee, went to the locker room to get stitches in his lip -- a symbolic injury for a defense that was bloodied Sunday -- the Falcons moved with ease. Atlanta used three runs by Freeman (who finished with 30 rushes for 141 yards) and two long passes to Jones (12 catches, 164 yards), including one for a touchdown, to pull, very suddenly, within three points.

It wasn't so much that the Cowboys' defenders had worn down. Even Jones admitted that early in the third quarter was no time to be tired. It was simply that next man up sounds better than it plays. In other words, there's a reason the next man is not the first man on the depth chart. The defense was exposed for what it was: a unit lacking many of its best players, one that could not get itself off the field.

"Worried? No. Not at all," Jones said. "I wish we had all of our players but that's dreaming. Not worried, but we just have a lot of work to do to stay in the hunt."

Sunday was a very bad day for starting quarterbacks. Drew Brees sat out with a bruised rotator cuff, Philip Rivers took a beating and Ben Roethlisberger suffered a knee injury that will sideline him for at least a month. But the Cowboys have a less-conventional conundrum: Their backup quarterback isn't even their biggest problem. Jones professed his confidence in Weeden, said the moment was clearly not too big for him, and he was happy with how Weeden handled himself. Weeden agreed, calling it an efficient day.

So now the task falls to the defense to keep itself from getting gashed and gassed again. The Cowboys get a possibly-Breesless Saints team next week, but after that, they host Tom Brady and the Patriots' revenge tour, perhaps the worst imaginable matchup for a stretched-thin defense that can't pressure, can't cover and can't stop the run. Jones said Gregory, a rookie pass rusher, promised before the game that he might surprise people in the next few weeks. Gregory has a high ankle sprain suffered in the season opener that is supposed to keep him out four to six weeks. He has missed two so far.

In the unhappy Dallas locker room, Tyrone Crawford could barely contain his disgust at the Cowboys' situation.

"Definitely motivated to never have this happen ever again," he said.

But this is what the Cowboys' season has come to now: hoping that a rookie can rush back from an injury, counting the days until suspensions end, watching the injury report with trepidation and trying to pick up a win here and there to stave off the rest of the division.

The first half proved the Cowboys might have an offense capable of treading water until Romo gets back. Who could have imagined it might be the defense that sinks the Cowboys' season before he can?

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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