When the Cowboys play the Saints on Sunday night, much of the responsibility to bring home a win will rest on Tony Romo’s shoulders, as usual. But one player getting relatively little press lately is likely to be nearly as important in this game.
DeMarco Murray is still a very special back, folks. His numerous injuries have been frustrating, but when he is on the field you remember what he is capable of and why this team needs to get him at least 20 touches a game.
Murray is second in the NFL in yards per attempt among running backs. A greater percentage of his runs have been for first downs than LeSean McCoy or Adrian Peterson this year. A greater percentage of his runs have gone for over 20 yards as well.
In scouting the Saints, I came across much of the same stuff everyone else has. The most obvious reason to run would be last week’s Jets-Saints match-up. When a team runs for 198 yards on your next opponent, you’d be an idiot not to notice.
But beyond that, there are plenty of reasons for Dallas to feature Murray in this contest.
1) When Dallas runs, it likes to take about 50 percent of those runs right up the gut. As it happens, that is the softest spot in the Saints run defense. They allow 4.13 yards a carry straight ahead. Next most favored by Dallas, is running left to take advantage of Tyron Smith’s ability. Conveniently, this is the second weakest area for the Saints run defense. They allow 3.98 yards per carry on runs off the left end.
2) New Orleans ranks last in the league in open field yards. Meaning that when backs make it past ten yards, New Orleans is the worst in the NFL in mitigating the damage.
For runs between 5-10 yards, New Orleans is ranked 20th
And for Power runs, which are runs on 3rd or 4th down with two yards or less to go, including first or second and goal runs, New Orleans is ranked 28th, meaning that most of the time, the opposition achieves their goal of a rushing first down or touchdown in those situations. (All of this data comes from Football Outsiders).
In New England’s defeat of the Saints, they ran for 141 yards and two touchdowns. Steven Ridley averaged 4.8 yards per carry and New England had 14 drives to New Orleans 12.
Going into the Broncos game, my gut told me that Dallas would need to match Denver score for score, from a spread offense. I just didn’t see how trying to play ball control would work against and excellent run defense like Denver. That proved to be the way to go, although obviously Dallas lost in the closing minutes. At least they were in it till the end.
Against the Saints though, running the ball or passing to backs as much as possible would appear to be a very sound strategy. As loud as the Superdome is, getting the protections right on 50-plus pass attempts is probably asking too much. Getting the run game going early would improve Dallas’ odds of pounding it late and keeping the crowd from being a huge factor in the closing minutes.
Also important, Dallas needs to be flexible in how it defines it's run game. Short passes to backs are extended hand-offs in West Coast systems. Callahan being a West Coast guy, it would be wise to have these little passes ready, should the actual runs prove problematic. And as I've posted in Countering Rob Ryan, Dallas will need plenty of creativity to beat Ryan's blitzes. Some screens and shovel passes that actually work would be greatly appreciated.
However they need to make it work, Murray needs to factor large into this game plan. It will open up things for Dez Bryant, Jason Witten and Terrance Willams and give Dallas a genuine chance to pull off a much-needed upset.