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How Can The Dallas Cowboys Improve Their Rushing Attack In 2014?

A study of the Dallas Cowboys 2013 rushing attack to find ways in which they can improve for the 2014 season.

Patrick McDermott

In chorus, Cowboys fans across the country just replied, "run it more" or "commit to running in the fourth quarter." And while I understand and agree with those sentiments, there is more to analyzing the Cowboys rushing attack than attempts. Yes, clearly the Cowboys should run the ball more. After all, while only one team in the league ran the ball fewer times, the Cowboys ranked 7th in the league in rushing efficiency (4.5 avg). It would only stand to reason that Dallas should have been more willing to rely on the ground game considering they were so efficient. Consider this:

  • The Cowboys rushed the ball 336 times, about 100 fewer attempts than the NFL average (433.5).
  • Dallas would have to increase their attempts by nearly 50% to reach the average of the Top 5 (510).
  • Despite their meager number of attempts, only five teams had more (one) 40+ yard runs than Dallas, who also ranked 18th in the league in 20+ yard runs. The Cowboys had a big-play rushing attack!
  • The Cowboys only had 95 fourth-quarter rushing attempts, just six per game!

These are the most obvious reasons why the Cowboys should run the ball more. They can help keep their sub-par defense off the field and better maintain fourth-quarter leads. They have the capability of making big plays with the ground game, which should increase in number with more attempts. And of course, a greater commitment to the run would help open things up in the passing game by having a more balanced offense keeping opponents' defenses off balance.

However, despite the seemingly efficient rushing (despite greater volatility due to a lot of big gains versus such few attempts), there are areas where the Cowboys must get better. To get a clearer picture of how they can improve their rushing attack, besides more attempts, let's compare their performance to three of the most celebrated ground games of the 2013 season.

Rushing Attempts and Average by Quarter/Half

Team 1stHalf Att 2ndHalf Att 1stQrt % 2ndQrt % 3rdQrt % 4thQrt %
DAL 168 168 28.9% 21.1% 21.7% 28.3%
SEA 239 257 21.8% 25.1% 22.4% 28.1%
SF 235 270 24.0% 22.6% 23.6% 29.9%
PHI 242 258 26.6% 21.8% 22.8% 28.8%
TEAM Avg Avg Avg Avg Avg Avg
DAL 5.0 3.9 5.3 4.7 4.5 3.5
SEA 4.9 3.7 5.4 4.5 4.0 3.4
SF 4.6 4.2 4.7 4.4 4.1 4.3
PHI 5.0 5.3 5.6 4.3 4.9 5.5

Of the four teams, the Cowboys were the only one that didn't have a greater number of rushing attempts in the second half, and didn't have the greatest percentage of their runs in the fourth quarter (albeit by a small margin). Perhaps some of the Cowboys slow starts were due to Bill Callahan actually calling too many runs to start the game, but it seems difficult to scold the team too much considering their first-quarter rushing average was clearly their best throughout the game. Then again, every team had their best average in the first quarter. It seems defenses learn quickly and soon adjust to become better at stopping the run after seeing how teams attack them. Perhaps the answer is for the Cowboys to save some of their rushing formations for later in the game to surprise their opponents or catch them off guard.

More importantly, the Cowboys must improve their efficiency when running the ball in the second half, especially the fourth quarter. While the 49ers and Eagles manage to better retain their averages throughout the game, the Cowboys clearly struggle as the game wears on. Again, this makes me wonder whether the Cowboys show their cards too quickly. Both the 49ers and Eagles had very complex ground games and ran out of various formations and intricate blocking schemes. The Cowboys (and Seahawks) had a more simple rushing attack and it could be hurting them in the second half.

Another reason might be the lack of rushing attempts. The Cowboys aren't wearing down their opponent's defensive line and linebackers, who are thus better able to stop the run late in the game. This is something the team will have to look into this offseason. If the team is going to rely on their rushing attack more in the fourth quarter, they must find ways to improve their average.

Rushing Attempts and Average by Downs & Third-Down Conversions

Team 1st Dn Avg 2nd Dn Avg 3rd Dn Avg 3rd Dn Att 3rd&5orless Att 3rd&5orless Conv 3rd & 1-2 Att 3rd & 1-2 Conv
DAL 4.7 4.5 3.1 27 18 55.6% 13 69.2%
SEA 4.5 4.2 3.6 50 29 55.2% 21 57.1%
SF 4.5 4.2 4.0 73 36 30.6% 23 43.5%
PHI 5.3 5.1 5.0 71 49 61.2% 32 71.9%

This may be the most surprising thing to Cowboys fans. Dallas was actually very good at converting third-down runs; even in short- yardage situations. In fact, they were better at it than both the Seahawks and 49ers. What they should do is trust in their rushing attack more in these situations. When the team faced third-down and five or less, they ran the ball just 18 times and converted for a first down in over 55% of their attempts. However, if you take away all the third downs and 1-2 yards to go, it shows the Cowboys ran the ball only five times when in third-and-three to third-and-five. It's pretty safe to assume defensive coordinators caught on to this and were far more comfortable calling plays to stop the pass in these situations. The 49ers and Eagles ran the ball about three times more often in those situations.

The Cowboys must also trust the rushing attack more in short yardage situations, where they converted 69.2% of their 13 rushing attempts. By comparison, they threw the ball 19 times on third-and-short and only completed 52.6% of their passes. Not only is it shocking that they threw the ball more often than they ran it in those key third-and-short situations, they also had a worse conversion rate. Perhaps the team was under the same misconception as many of the fans and thought the team would struggle to convert short-yardage runs like they did in years prior. However, it is clear this is no longer the case. Add Zack Martin to the mix, and the improved offensive line makes it even more necessary to trust the rushing attack to help improve the Cowboys poor 2013 third-down conversion rates.

Another important note, something not on this chart, is the down distribution of rushing attempts. The Cowboys ran the ball 336 times and 204 of those attempts came on first down, nearly 61%. Think this is something that defensive coordinators noticed and used against the Cowboys? When Jason Garrett mentions the offense must become more balanced, I hope he includes this in talks with new play-caller Scott Linehan, letting him know Callahan's predictability as running game coordinator must be avoided.

Rushing Attempts and Average by Formation

Formations Shotgun I-From LoneSetback One TE Two TE Two WR Three WR Four+ WR
Attempts 77 35 268 151 118 128 126 9
Average 4.8 5.0 4.3 4.3 5.6 5.2 4.4 9.7

It seems the Cowboys might have gotten things all wrong when deciding their rushing formations. Nearly 80% of their runs came out of lone-setback formations, and yet the team had one of their best rushing averages out of I-formation. I also feel compelled to mention that (excluding the 4+WR outlier) the Cowboys two tight-end sets provided them their best rushing average at an impressive 5.6 yards per attempt. This is something to consider next time people complain about Gavin Escobar's ability to run block.

Perhaps the Cowboys should look to utilize I-form two-tight end sets more often. They seem to run the ball very well in these two situations and should look to combine them more often as well. Especially considering they have two TEs that are legitimate passing threats and could look to catch defenses off balance by throwing the ball out of this run-heavy formation. They could easily use it to set up play-action passes and/or motion Jason Witten to the slot and/or Demarco Murray out wide. And that would work even better if defenses have already fallen victim to rushing attempts out of the formation.

I think this kind of "mind game" with defenses is also why the Cowboys have such a high rushing average in four+ WR sets. Even if you remove the longest run (only 19 yards), the average drops only slightly from 9.7 to 8.5 yards. The Cowboys could be well served to surprise defenses more often by running a draw out of these pass-heavy formations, which is probably one reason their shotgun rushing attempts near a 5 yard average.


So there you have it, an in-depth look at how the Cowboys can improve their rushing attack next season. While the addition of a first-round pick and the three experienced starters competing for the LG spot should also help matters (possibly C.J. Copeland as well...I hope), the team will not rest on just player improvements to better their ground game. You can rest assured that Garrett and his coaching staff have been reviewing these kinds of stats, and every second of coaching tape, to find ways to make DeMarco Murray and company more dangers. It seems clear that increasing their attempts is important, but not the only thing the team should do to improve the rushing attack in 2014.

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