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Taking pass on the pass might prove beneficial for Cowboys

  • By Elliot Harrison Special to NFL.com
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The Cowboys rose from the depths of 0-2 to get a much-needed win in Houston on Sunday. Yes, the defense was stifling. Yes, quarterback Tony Romo played almost flawlessly. But there was this little thing the Cowboys kept doing that might've shocked everyone this side of Don Meredith.

They handed off the ball.

The Cowboys running the football? What about Romo, Miles Austin, Dez Bryant, Jason Witten and the rest of the offense chuckin' the ball all over the field? Oh, they're still there, but the fascination with those guys and running a spread-like offense is a big reason the Cowboys got to 0-2 in the first place.

No team abandoned the running game through the first two games like the Cowboys did. They ran the football 29.6 percent of the time. Twenty-nine! That's a lot of passing, and also the lowest percentage of running plays to overall plays in the league.

So back to Sunday. The Cowboys took the ball out of Romo's hands -- at least some of the time -- and ran Marion Barber and Felix Jones with more aggression. Let's take a look at the numbers the Cowboys put up: 27 rushes for 101 yards, 3.7 yards per carry.

Sharon Ellman / Getty Images
When Tony Romo hands the ball off at least 27 times a game, Dallas' success rate goes up dramatically.
Cowboys under Wade Phillips (regular season)
Rushing attempts W-L
At least 27 21-2
Fewer than 27 13-15

Not exactly mind-blowing, but let's dig deeper, using the 27 rushing attempts as a line of demarcation.

In the Wade Phillips era (since 2007), the Cowboys have won 91 percent of the games (21 out of 23) in which they've ran the ball at least 27 times -- like they did on Sunday. As you would suspect, a few of those instances came when Dallas was already carrying a big lead and was just running out the clock. But many didn't, and 21-2 is too impressive to ignore.

So how did the ground game help get the Cowboys that 21st win, on the road against a hot opponent?

» They kept the Texans honest, forcing them to come out of their nickel defense to avoid getting knifed by the run game.

» Pressure was taken off of Romo and he was no longer solely responsible for moving the chains.

» They saved their wide receivers' legs. Run a 9-route several times, and even the best athlete will get fatigued. On Sunday, Roy Williams looked explosive.

» The extra runs burned a little more clock while giving the Cowboys' linemen a chance to be aggressive, as opposed to constantly being on the receiving end of opposing pass rushes (see Alex Barron in Week 1).

» The run game helped the Cowboys hold an edge in time of possession, and playing from behind, the Texans couldn't use Arian Foster and their running game effectively.

The Cowboys' time of possession (32:20) would have been even more stellar if they hadn't ripped off big plays on both of their second-half touchdown drives.

On the first one, Romo hit Bryant for 30 yards before capping it off with a touchdown pass to Williams. That play was set up after Jones ran twice for 19 yards to start the drive.

On the second touchdown drive, Romo hit Williams for 63 yards on a second-and-10. On an earlier second-and-10, which is usually a passing down, offensive coordinator Jason Garrett ran Barber for no gain. What's the significance? Get the defense at least thinking you might run in a similar situation, and you've won half the battle before the ball is snapped.

Was the more even distribution the only reason the Cowboys got their first win? No, but to quote NFL Network analyst Tom Waddle, "Dallas needs to fall out of love with the pass, and fall in love with the run."

Garrard regressing, Vick needs protecting

Two thoughts from the Eagles-Jaguars game:

David Garrard as a starter
  W-L TD-INT Yds/Att Rate
Before 2008 19-11 34-14 7.16 89.4
2008-present 13-22 34-28 6.81 81.5

1. David Garrard wasn't impressive, and like Carson Palmer, his overall game seems to have regressed. So it surprised no one that the Jaguars claimed Trent Edwards off waivers on Tuesday. Garrard has clearly taken a step back since his career year in 2007 -- mostly in the interception category. Jacksonville's poor record is a reflection of that.

2. Any idea which team leads the NFL in most sacks allowed? Here's a hint: Their quarterback is really mobile. Surprisingly, with three more sacks allowed against the Jaguars, the Eagles have given up the most with 14. Considering Michael Vick is under center, that's notable. At some point, the Eagles must do a better job protecting him. Vick needs to occasionally step up in the pocket or just throw it away. Great mobility doesn't solve everything, and for Philly to win the NFC East, Vick must still be standing in Week 17.

Numbers game

» 24.4 percent: San Francisco's conversion rate on third down (10 of 41), and a major reason offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye was let go on Monday.

» 425: Yards from scrimmage through three games for Raiders running back Darren McFadden, more than half the way to his career high for a single season (784 last year).

» 18: Penalties committed by the Packers for 152 yards Monday night. The last time they were on Monday Night Football, they committed 11 fouls for 175 yards against the Ravens. Two games, 327 yards in penalties. Yikes!

» 36.4: Derek Anderson's completion percentage when he throws to Larry Fitzgerald (12 of 33). Anderson's completion percentage to other Cardinal receivers: 60.9.

» 16: Passes allowed by the Jaguars this season of at least 20 yards, worst in the league. Cornerback Derek Cox has already been benched and safety Sean Considine looks lost.

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» 4.31: Yards per play allowed by the Steelers this season, lowest in the NFL and almost a full yard below the league average (5.30).

» 1,106: Passing yards allowed (368.7 per game) by the Texans through three games. That's the second most allowed through three games since 1950, just one yard behind the 2005 49ers.

» 0-5: Giants record vs. the Tennessee Oilers/Titans. They were 5-0 vs. the Houston Oilers. Somewhere, Bud Adams is smiling.

Final thought

Wade Phillips, the defensive coordinator, also deserves a lot of credit for the Cowboys' win in Houston. Matt Schaub, who put up Norm Van Brocklin-like numbers in Week 2, was held in check. Before leading the Texans to a garbage-time touchdown in the fourth quarter, Schaub had only thrown for 163 yards.

Most of that had to do with Andre Johnson's ailing ankle. Once Phillips realized Johnson was no longer a threat, the Cowboys had Alan Ball or Gerald Sensabaugh playing single-high safety with little extra attention paid toward Johnson. There wasn't much need to play two-deep zone -- which puts the kibosh on big plays -- because the Houston offense had no vertical dimension. It also freed one of the safeties to move up and cover the tight end.

More proof that Johnson makes that offense go.

Elliot Harrison is the research analyst for NFL RedZone on NFL Network.

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