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Is Pass Protection The Key To The Cowboys Running Game?

Many factors helped the Cowboys establish a strong running game in 2014. But one of the biggest contributors might surprise you.

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

When DeMarco Murray left town, there was deep concern about how this would impact the Dallas Cowboys running game. The ground attack had just got going after several years of dismal performances or under-utilized performances. But just like that, an organization that has seemingly made all the right moves in recent years, up and decided that they could live without Murray. Why would they do such a thing?

One possible answer could be that many other strengths of the running game are still intact and that the contribution of Murray can be supplemented. In a recent article, I listed several factors that play a role in the Cowboys new-found success in the ground attack. It's the usual suspects - offensive line, Tony Romo, receiving weapons, etc., but taking a closer look at a few of these factors brings out an interesting revelation.

DeMarco Murray vs. The Offensive Line: Who you got?

DeMarco Murray

Murray has done an outstanding job honing his skills and becoming a quality running back in this league. Any claim to suggest otherwise is not a claim that holds any merit. However, what can be said is that he's not the big reason why the Cowboys' running game is so great.

Over the last three seasons Murray has made significant jumps in his PPF grades each year. His constant improvement and the chemistry with the offensive line have made him a very productive ball carrier. But are some of these stats a little misleading? Did DeMarco have 1,845 yards because he's an exceptional talent or is it because he was able to run the ball so much?

Murray had 392 carries last year, but he's had an average of 257 carries over the last three seasons. This figure can be used to calculate a prorated PFF grade that allows a more reasonable comparison of DeMarco's performance that isn't so inflated by volume. This is how it works: In 2012, Murray had a PFF grade of 3.9 on 161 snaps. If we prorate that with his three-year average of 257 snaps, we get a prorated grade of 6.2 (257 / 161 * 3.9). Repeat that calculation for 2013 and 2014 and this is what we get.

Year Carries PFF Grade Prorated Grade
2012 161 3.9 6.2
2013 217 9.0 10.7
2014 392 17.8 11.7

The prorated grade shows how Murray has improved from season to season, however it also indicates there is only a small increase from 2013 to 2014.

A lot is made about Murray's 998 yards after contact, but again - this is just another volume statistic. If you break it down by attempt, he had a 2.54 YAC average, ranking him 22nd in the league (minimum of 50 carries). He's got an elusive rating of 48.0 (ranked 23rd), which evaluates the impact of the runner independent of his blocking. Murray has never been strong in either of these categories throughout his entire career.

All these things paint a picture and that picture is - he's good, not great.

Offensive Line - Run Blocking

With three first-round investments and a bruising run blocking UDFA in Ronald Leary the Cowboys have done a great job of building a wall. Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, and Zack Martin have played a collective seven seasons and already have four Pro Bowl selections between them. So how has this group done when it comes to run blocking?

Here are the run blocking PFF grades of the offensive line over the last three seasons:

Year Run Snaps PFF Run Blocking Grade Prorated PFF Grade
2012 1,617 40.3 50.7
2013 1,807 42.6 48.0
2014 2,683 54.8 41.6

Just like with Murray, this unit has shown progressive improvement from year to year. But just like Murray, their numbers are inflated by volume. Prorating these grades based on the three year average of run snaps (2,035) tells a different story.

For all the talk about putting together a dominating offensive line, the PFF grades don't support an improvement in run blocking. For as much of a liability players like Nate Livings and Ryan Cook were in the passing game, they graded out as good run blockers. And Tyron Smith had his best year as a run blocker in 2012.

The Dallas offensive line has changed quite a bit in the last few years, but as far as run blocking goes - they've always been a pretty solid unit.

So What Is It Then?

Offensive Line - Pass Blocking

Last season the Cowboys showed remarkable improvement in third-down percentage. Dez Bryant (121.2), Terrance Williams (119.7), and Cole Beasley (130.6) all finished in the top 10 in the league in WR rating (QB rating when thrown to WR), which is incredible. And Tony Romo led the league in QB rating. These were all improvements over the previous season. Dallas threw the ball much less in 2014, but a lot more efficiently. Why is that?

Answer - better pass protection.

Here are the pass blocking PFF grades of the offensive line over the last three seasons:

Year Pass Snaps PFF Pass Blocking Grade Prorated PFF Grade
2012 2,957 -29.9 -30.5
2013 3,337 8.3 7.5
2014 2,749 20.8 22.8

Just like the first two categories, the pass blocking has shown improvement from year to year. Unlike the other two categories, the prorated figures indicate a large growth in the pass blocking grades.

In 2012, everyone was horrible at pass blocking. In 2013, the offensive tackles - Smith and Free were the only ones who did well. Last year, the Cowboys added another quality pass blocker in Zack Martin and he jumped out of the gate with the highest grade of all the linemen. Travis Frederick struggled his rookie year against the pass, but showed a lot of improvement this season which helped earn him a trip to the Pro Bowl.

Maybe the decision to draft a blasé run-blocking offensive lineman like Chaz Green is a result of what he can do against the pass? Green has good footwork and has a large frame to square up on defenders. And he is really good at picking up blitzes. Plus they now also have La'el Collins, who is another college tackle who could emerge as a strong pass-blocking guard.

The Cowboys did a great job running the ball last season, but a forgotten reason for success isn't DeMarco Murray or the run blocking of the offensive line. That reason is the great pass protection of the big uglies. The extra time allowed Romo to find open receivers and keep the chains moving. And more offensive plays meant more rushing yards.

With a pass blocking offensive line that continues to get stronger, the Cowboys stand a great chance to continue finding success in the ground game in 2015.

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