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Another Look At Dallas And The Running Game

If the Cowboys are going to have a real chance against the Broncos, they need to use the ground game effectively. But the evidence shows they lack the faith to do that.

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Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODA

Conventional wisdom says that the Dallas Cowboys have no real chance against the Denver Broncos. The guys in orange are 4-0 and certainly look to be the best team in the NFL right now. With Peyton Manning showing absolutely no signs of his age, they are averaging almost 500 yards and 45 points a game.

No one has been able to stop their offense this year. And with the way the Cowboys let Philip Rivers carve them up while maintaining possession for much of the San Diego Chargers game, there are certainly major concerns about how bad it might get against a banged up Dallas defense that once again is having to start players that were not even in the league a few weeks ago.

Dave Halprin took a look at what the Cowboys would have to do to have a chance in this game. One of the keys dealt will the exact thing the Chargers used to take the last game away from Dallas.

4. Make every offensive possession count. No turnovers, no drops, no penalties. Whatever you do, play smart football on offense, don't do stupid stuff or you will be made to look stupid. Focus at the task at hand.

More than any of the other keys he had, this is one that the Cowboys have the most ability to control themselves. They don't have to worry as much about what the other guys do, but need to get their own assignments executed. If you want to keep the elder Manning brother from running away with the game, don't let him have the football. This is a time for some good old-fashioned ball control.

And Dallas has a running game that, through the first four weeks of the season, has numbers that say it can get the job done. After years of a lack of an effective running attack, the team now boasts the following:

  • Demarco Murray is third in the league in rushing yards with 356.
  • He is averaging 4.9 yards an attempt.
  • The team is averaging 4.6 yards an attempt.
  • Pro Football Focus has Murray rated as the second most elusive running back in the league, behind only Adrian Peterson.
  • Also from PFF, the run blocking in Dallas has been markedly better the past two games. This is expected for the blowout win over the St. Louis Rams, but against the Chargers, the team still had a +2.6, and the offensive linemen were even better with a cumulative +5.2. (The TE and WR blocking brought the total down.)

Murray is showing his ability as a feature back. He may well be the most important weapon that the Cowboys have to counter Manning. While I was working on this article, Nick Eatman at had just about the same thought in assessing the matchups for the upcoming game.

To me, the bigger matchup is going to be Manning's success vs. DeMarco Murray's success.

And no, I'm not just saying the Cowboys need to grind out yards and the clock to try to limit Manning's possessions, although it wouldn't hurt if the game worked out that way.

Bill Callahan and Tony Romo need to be prepared to ride Murray this Sunday.

However, another number would fly in the face of this: Denver leads the league in rushing defense, giving up only 74 yards a game. But Denver has also been getting early leads in its games, so most of its opponents have tended to start passing heavily as the game progressed. Given that the Broncos are 30th in the league in passing yards given up per game, surrendering an average 316, it is obvious that trying to match them through the air is not working. (They average 364 yards offensively through the air.) They give up lots of yards, but not points. And they can be run on, as the Philadelphia Eagles showed against them with 166 yards on the ground last week. That is a remarkable study in the importance of giving up yards versus giving up points, because Denver only outgained the Eagles by 22 yards (472 to 450), and neither team gave up a turnover. Two special teams touchdowns contributed to the 52 to 20 margin, but even without them, the Bronco's offense still outscored Philadelphia by 18 points.

So, if Dallas can avoid ST errors, I still think the Cowboys' best bet is to saddle up Murray and go hard on the ground.

Now the question is, can they bring themselves to do that? I took a look in my last post at how the Cowboys have basically refused to run the ball on third and short this season. And in the comment thread, a very good question came up.

I'd like to see your short yardage chart with play selection and success rate compared to what "winning" teams do just out of curiosity

I know it would take some work but it would be interesting and perhaps revealing.

by dmagikwand on Sep 30, 2013 | 11:30 PM reply rec (4) flag

That sounded like a very good idea, so I decided to compare the Cowboys' approach when they had third and three or less with that of the five undefeated teams in the league, which of course includes the Broncos. Here is what I came up with (all numbers are for season to date):

Team Pass plays Successful Run plays Successful
Cowboys 12 5 1 1
Broncos 7 7 6 4
Chiefs 10 7 4 1
Patriots 13 7 7 4
Saints 10 7 4 2
Seahawks 7 4 5 1

Dallas clearly is the most one-dimensional team here. The Broncos were almost 50/50, and both the Chief and Patriots were still over 25% runs on third and short. Still, all teams do lean towards the pass when they need a conversion - and actually, that is the higher percentage move for most of the teams.

Still, it is clear that Callahan and Romo need to mix things up a bit. And they have a better option at running back to convert those plays than any of the undefeated teams. It is possible that the Cowboys could get some nice gains on third and short if Denver has been scouting their tendencies. If I was a defensive coordinator facing the Cowboys and I knew that they had passed 92% of the time on third and short, I would not be any hurry to get some extra run support in the box. This would look like a perfect situation to give Murray a chance if you wanted to be unpredictable - for a change.

And this is not limited to just third and short situations. The Cowboys have the seventh highest average yards per rush in the league, but they are 24th in rushing attempts per game. Why are they not going to such an effective weapon? Either they simply are not paying attention, or they just don't trust it. It's time to get over that.

If the Cowboys want to win this game, they may need something like the time of possession dominance San Diego managed. That is a very tall order, but a good running game may be the only hope of that. Some minds need to change about how much to rely on Murray and his fellow backs.


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