Dallas Cowboys  


DeMarco Murray-led ground game gives Cowboys playoff hopes


In past seasons, Jason Garrett's Dallas Cowboys have favored a pass-centric approach on offense. While it certainly made sense to rely on a Pro Bowl quarterback (Tony Romo) and a talented set of receivers (headlined by Dez Bryant), this game plan didn't help the Cowboys land a playoff berth, despite the fact that they routinely fielded one of the most explosive offenses in football.

With the 2014 Cowboys promising a new offensive approach built around a potent running game and diverse passing attack, I thought I'd take a long, hard look at the All-22 Coaches Film, to see if Garrett's attempt to become a blue-collar offense is sensible and effective, given the players on his roster. What I discovered: Dallas (2-1) finally has an offensive identity that could make it a viable threat in the NFC East.

Here are three reasons to think a more balanced offense is yielding fine results in Dallas:

1) The Cowboys have the best offensive line in football.

There are a lot of talented fronts in the NFL, but the Cowboys have assembled a young, athletic offensive line that absolutely dominates opponents at the point of attack. Part of their success has been fueled by the addition of three first-round selections (Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick and Zack Martin) over the past four drafts. Dallas has faced some criticism for constantly spending high picks on O-linemen, particularly with the Frederick selection, but the infusion of talent turned the unit into the team's biggest offensive strength. Thus, it is sensible for Garrett to transform the offense into a blue-collar outfit built around a run-centric approach.

Dallas is employing a zone-based scheme featuring the inside- and outside-zone plays. The offensive line comes off the ball in unison, with each blocker assigned to engage the first defender who appears on his designated track. The Cowboys occasionally double-team an assigned defender at the point of attack, with a blocker instructed to work to the second level after the initial block is secured. These simple tactics help Dallas create a push at the line of scrimmage, enabling the running back to press the front side of the play or search for a cutback lane on the back side. When executed correctly, the zone-based running scheme allows disciplined runners to thrive against aggressive defenses.

Let's take a look at a couple of examples from Dallas' Week 3 win over the St. Louis Rams:

In the play depicted just below, the Cowboys are running an inside zone to the right. Running back DeMarco Murray is instructed to read the flow of the defense on the front side of the play and determine whether or not to search out a cutback lane on the backside. On this play, Murray presses the line of scrimmage and sees the linebacker stepping into the hole, leaving a vacant area on the backside. The Cowboys back bursts through the crease and rumbles for 14 yards and a first down (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):

In the next play we explore, the Cowboys line up with Murray at tailback in an offset I-formation. He will run the inside zone to the right and look for a lane based off the reaction of the defense. After taking the ball, Murray senses the defense over-pursuing to the front side, leaving a void on the back side for a cutback. He blows through the crease and gains 20 yards on a perfectly executed play at the point of attack:

Given the Cowboys' ultra-athletic offensive line, the installation of a zone-based scheme allows blockers to aggressively come off the ball and knock defenders around without hesitation. Garrett and play-caller Scott Linehan are more committed to running the ball; the cumulative effect of battling a massive offensive line eventually wears out a defense and allows the Cowboys to control the line of scrimmage when the game is on the line. Most importantly, this allows a dangerous runner to find huge cutback lanes at the point of attack, leading to big plays on the ground.

2) DeMarco Murray is an elite running back.

The fourth-year pro is rarely mentioned as one of the top runners in the game, but it's time to appreciate his spectacular skill set. Through three games, Murray is the NFL's leading rusher with 385 rushing yards (70 more than anyone else). He has reached the 100-yard mark in each of the Cowboys' games, displaying big-play potential with three runs of 20-plus yards in just 75 rushing attempts.

Of course, Murray's production shouldn't come as a surprise, based on the raw playmaking skills he's displayed since arriving in 2011. Although injuries have kept him off the field at times, Murray has posted 10 100-yard games in 40 appearances, boasting a robust average of 5.0 yards per carry. Murray has put up fine numbers despite rarely receiving enough touches (15.4 rushing attempts per game) to really make a mark. He's logged 20-plus carries just 14 times in his career. The Cowboys' record in those games? 13-1.

Given Murray's production and impact on the Cowboys' overall success, it's about time the team made the Pro Bowler the focal point of the game plan. Studying the All-22 tape of the team's first three games, I saw a more concerted effort to feed the ball to Murray. Despite a host of negative plays and miscues by Murray in the first half of each game, the Cowboys have remained committed to running the ball. This was evident against the Rams, when the Cowboys continued to ride Murray despite facing a 21-0 deficit in the middle of the second quarter. The patience and persistence paid off when Murray churned out a pair of big runs on an eight-play, 80-yard touchdown drive that changed the momentum of the game.

Later, the Cowboys tapped into Murray's explosiveness as a perimeter runner, generating a big play off a jet-sweep concept in the third quarter. The play showcased his speed, vision and quickness, while also highlighting the overall athleticism of the Cowboys' front line, namely Smith and left guard Ronald Leary.

On that play -- diagrammed just below -- the Cowboys break the huddle aligned in an Ace-Solo formation, with Bryant poised to come in motion to fake the jet sweep. Bryant's motion is designed to pull the defense to the right. Romo pulls a sleight of hand by faking the handoff to Bryant heading right before flipping the ball out left to Murray, with a pair of blockers (Smith and Leary) leading the way around the edge. Murray takes the pitch and turns the corner, weaving his way through traffic for a 44-yard gain that helps set up another score for the Cowboys:

With Murray emerging as an elite runner capable of grinding out tough yards and delivering big plays, the Cowboys' decision to become a run-oriented offense gives them a chance to overwhelm defenses the old-fashioned way.

3) Tony Romo is better suited to play in a ball-control passing game.

After relying on the three-time Pro Bowler to serve as the driving force of the offense since 2006, the Cowboys finally have alleviated some of the burden on Romo's shoulders. The 12th-year pro is averaging just 29.7 pass attempts per game in 2014, which is a drastic reduction from the averages he posted over the previous two seasons (35.7 in 2013 and 40.5 in 2012). Additionally, Romo is playing within a quick-rhythm passing game that is designed to get the ball out of his hands rapidly, thus helping him avoid big shots in the pocket.

While I'm sure the philosophical change was partially due to Romo's possible physical limitations following his second back surgery in less than a year, I believe the Cowboys' new approach ideally suits his skills. Romo is a pinpoint passer with superb anticipation and awareness. He routinely hits receivers within the strike zone and is capable of throwing his pass catchers open in tight windows. Although Romo has been harshly criticized for his epic interceptions in a few late-game moments, he is actually a sound decision-maker capable of thriving in a "connect the dots" scheme. Thus, the implementation of a ball-control approach -- built around quick-rhythm throws and play-action passes -- should help him continue to play at a Pro Bowl level.

After reviewing the coaches film, I believe the savvy blending of quick-rhythm throws and play-action passes has also helped Cowboys receivers thrive, despite a general reduction in passing plays. The short passing game has allowed Bryant, Terrance Williams and tight end Jason Witten to get easy touches, while the play-action game has produced big gainers. When the Cowboys are able to stay on schedule and avoid obvious passing situations, the combination of concepts has helped Romo and Co. move the ball up and down the field efficiently. Furthermore, the strategy has given Romo time to shake off the rust of an inactive offseason -- nobody's relying on him to put it in the air 40 times each Sunday.


These concepts offer high-percentage passes designed to get the ball out of Romo's hands before the pass rush can collapse the pocket. They are akin to hitting lay-ups in basketball, as they help the quarterback get into a rhythm and gain confidence throwing the football. When executed properly, the quick-rhythm passing game is nearly impossible to defend and cleverly complements a potent ground attack.

In the play diagrammed just below, the Cowboys are aligned with two receivers on the left and Bryant positioned alone on the right. Bryant is instructed to run a slant, taking advantage of the one-on-one coverage on the back side. Romo fakes an inside handoff to the running back to lure the linebackers to the line of scrimmage, thus creating a huge void for the slant. After the fake, Romo turns and fires a dart to Bryant. The Pro Bowler snatches the pass and gains 9 yards for a Cowboys first down:

In the next play, the Cowboys originally line up with two receivers on the right and one on the left -- before RB Lance Dunbar motions to the left to create an empty set. Dallas is running a Y-stick concept, with Witten hooking up in the middle of the field. Cole Beasley (the slot WR on the right side) and Dunbar are also running hitches along the numbers to give Romo multiple options to target. Romo hits his Pro Bowl tight end in the middle for an easy completion and 15-yard gain:

In the following play, Dallas breaks the huddle in a split-back shotgun formation, with Witten positioned at fullback. Witten shifts out to a flex position prior to the snap. The Cowboys are running their favorite red-zone passing play -- Flood Z-under -- with Beasley running to the flat, Witten to the corner and Williams coming underneath on a dart slant. This is the same route Williams scored on in the Week 1 game against the San Francisco 49ers. On this snap, the Rams are man coverage, so the inside receivers' routes create a natural pick for Williams to shake free from his defender on the dart route. This results in an easy 12-yard pitch-and-catch touchdown:


The ideal complement to a zone-based running game is a diverse play-action passing package featuring bootlegs, waggles and traditional run-action passes. The Cowboys use all of these elements, but it is the run-action vertical attack that makes their offense difficult to defend. With opponents forced to pay close attention to Murray in the backfield, the Cowboys are able to get one-on-one coverage on the outside. Thus, Dallas can create big-play opportunities for Bryant and Williams on double moves and cleverly designed vertical routes.

In our final play breakdown just below, Dallas initially comes out of the huddle aligned in an Ace-Wing formation. Williams motions across the formation to bait the Rams into anticipating a run. The Cowboys are running a two-man route, with Williams instructed to run a deep crossing route and Bryant a deep post over the top. The play-fake causes Rams defenders to hesitate due to the threat of the run. Meanwhile, Williams and Bryant are flying up the field on vertical routes. With the secondary scrambling to recover after the play-fake, Romo reads the free safety and unleashes a bomb to a wide-open Bryant. This results in a 68-yard score for the Cowboys:

The Cowboys quietly have jumped out to a solid start in the 2014 campaign by employing an offense that is more balanced than -- yet just as explosive as -- previous installments. Given the success of run-oriented teams in the NFC in recent years (see: Seattle and San Francisco), the switch to a blue-collar formula could help the Cowboys make a surprising playoff push.

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.



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