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The 2010 Cowboys Run Blocking, Part II: Short And Long Runs

Marion Barber, getting it done in short yardage situations.
Marion Barber, getting it done in short yardage situations.

In part one of this mini-series on the run-blocking game, we saw that the Cowboys running game seems to be suffering from a decline in blocking and a decline in running. Today we move on to the next set of metrics.

Were you aware that Marion Barber is 8-for-9 on 3rd down conversions from three yards and less? His 88.9% conversion rate in those third-and-short situations ranks him 2nd in the league, despite also having the second most attempts of any running back in the league in these down-and-distance situations. Barber also has a higher overall first down conversion percentage on his runs than any other back in the league (33.8 percent) and he ranks fifth in avoiding negative runs.

On the other hand, the Cowboys are tied for last place in the league for runs of more than 10 yards. So are the stats we saw in the first post skewed by the lack of longer runs and a lot more short runs? Again, we look to the Football Outsiders data for insights.

Power Success

Percentage of runs on third or fourth down, two yards or less to go, that achieved a first down or touchdown. Also includes runs on first-and-goal or second-and-goal from the two-yard line or closer.

It’s hardly a secret that the 2009 Cowboys offensive line struggled, and struggled mightily, with running plays on short yardage situations and goal line attempts. The numbers bear this out: The Cowboys ranked 26th in power success with 58%. Not a big revelation there, but now take a look at the 2010 numbers in comparison:

Rank Power Success NFL Avg
2009 26 58% 64%
2010 5 75% 62%

Somehow, somewhere the Cowboys appear to have fixed their short yardage woes, at least according to the stats. And while the failed goal line play against the Jaguars sticks out like a sore thumb, the unit has actually done pretty well in short situations this year, as Barber's numbers from above the break show. And now for the bad news.

10+ Yards or Open Field Yards

Yardage gained by running backs at least 10 yards past the line of scrimmage, divided by total running back carries.

FO are calling all yardage beyond ten yards ‘Open Field Yards’. If you take Open Field Yards divided by total carries, you get an indicator for ‘big play ability’, or at least ‘break away ability’ of your running game.

Open Field Yards
Rank 10+ Yard runs / carries NFL Avg
2009 5 1.16 0.82
2010 30 0.39 0.71

The 2010 Cowboys running game is characterized by a complete lack of any big play ability. Over seven games, the Cowboys have two runs of more than twenty yards and 12 runs of more than 10 yards.

The Cowboys best best running play for a long time has been the draw. The Cowboys like to run draws and counters with guards pulling and the tight ends crossing. Draws are ideal for large, athletic linemen who can move and are better at pulling than blocking the man in front of them. Well, the Cowboys linemen collectively don't move that well anymore. Knees are shot, ligaments are worn, bones are weary. This line just doesn't have the speed to pull off these plays any longer. Instead, what you see are linemen not getting to their blocks fast enough and runners forced to avoid defenders in the backfield. 

This unit actually does a surprisingly ok job when the offensive line is simply blocking the man in front of it, as they would in short yardage situations. The tight ends and the full back chip in and there are holes for the backs to hit (if they see them - and the QB doesn't get in the way).

It's when the plays get more complex and one or more linemen pull that the line struggles. And when the line pulls, guess who the running back is on the field more often than not? Felix Jones. Hard to hit a home run if you're hit by a pitch every time.

If you watch a highlight of a running back shooting across the line of scrimmage and down the field untouched, chances are it’s the offensive linemen that made that happen. If your running backs are unable to get down the field with any regularity, chances are it’s the offensive linemen that are not making it happen.


Percentage of runs where the running back is tackled at or behind the line of scrimmage. Since being stuffed is bad, teams are ranked from stuffed least often (#1) to most often (#32).

The Cowboys O-line has allowed only 12 stuffed runs so far this season according to the official NFL stats. That's the fourth best value in the league. Now, the Cowboys also have the second fewest rushing attempts of any team in the league with 155, so you've got to put the 12 stuffed runs into context. FO do just that with their own definition of stuffed runs in the table below. The Cowboys O-line is not giving up a lot of stuffed runs, in fact, the percentage is unchanged versus last year.

Rank Stuffed NFL Avg
2009 7 17% 19%
2010 10
17% 19%

Getting to the line of scrimmage and perhaps a couple of yards beyond is not the big issue for the 2010 Cowboys running game. Getting to the second level is.

According to Bob Sturm the Cowboys have called 47 runs on first and second down in the last three weeks:

He has called 47 run plays from under center (I keep saying under center because that is your basic offense on 1st and 2nd down where the defense is not thinking pass. They are thinking 50/50 run/pass and this is the best test of your run offense) in the last 3 weeks. And the sum total of those 47 run plays? 126 yards. 2.6 yards per carry! Brutal.

The Cowboys running game is getting it done in short yardage situations (most of the time), doesn't get stuffed very often, but seems to hit a wall about two to three yards beyond the line of scrimmage with a scary regularity. Whether that's a result of bad running, bad blocking or bad playcalling I'll leave up to you to decide.

[In the third and final part of this mini-series we’ll look at how well the Cowboys ran the ball in different directions]

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