It didn't take long for DeMarco Murray to make his mark, breaking off a 91-yard TD run on his first touch of the day. (ZUMAPRESS.com)
In Break It Down, I will go back and analyze the Xs and Os of a notable play or performance from Sunday’s games.
How unlikely was DeMarco Murray's record-setting 253-yard rushing day against the Rams Sunday? Well, consider Murray's rushing totals from his first five NFL games: 0, 21, 6, 12, 32.
Then Felix Jones suffered a high ankle sprain in Week 6, opening the door for Murray to take on a bigger role in the Cowboys' offense. And, all of a sudden against the winless Rams, the rookie running back broke loose. His 91-yard TD run early in the first quarter set the stage, but it took far more than just that one long jaunt for Murray to break Emmitt Smith's Cowboys single-game rushing mark.
Some of the credit -- or the blame, depending on which side you're on -- for Murray's big day falls on St. Louis' defense, which is now allowing a mind-blowing 183.8 yards rushing per game. If Dallas' stagnant ground attack was going to start rolling, Sunday was the day.
But during one Murray run in the second half, FOX analyst John Lynch brought up how Cowboys coach Jason Garrett had talked about needing to adjust how he used his team's offensive line, a smaller and more mobile group than in year's past.
Dallas accomplished that Sunday with a series of misdirection plays, which freed Murray into space.
How did Dallas pull it off? Let's take a look ...
We'll start, naturally, with Murray's first carry -- the 91-yard burst to put Dallas on top 7-0.
The Cowboys were in an I-formation with two wide receivers and tight end Jason Witten split wide, and on 1st-and-19, the Rams had to be worried about a possible pass. Tony Romo took the step, dropped five yards and looked downfield, freezing the defense. He then handed off to Murray on a delay.
Romo's drop kept the linebackers at home, leaving just a four-man rush. The Cowboys took care of that, with Kyle Kosier (No. 63 above) diving down to pick up St. Louis' only free lineman, right as Murray takes the handoff.
There is already a huge lane for Murray if he heads left, but the play calls for him to go right. That decision works out well, too.
Kosier's play helps Murray get through the line of scrimmage, but the two key blocks here come from Witten (boxed) and fullback Tony Fiammetta, just to Witten's left at the 11. Those two take out a pair of St. Louis linebackers, effectively ending the Rams' chances of keeping Murray from getting through the second level.
All that's left between Murray and the end zone are two deep safeties. He blows by one, then turns Quintin Mikell inside out and races untouched to pay dirt.
Remember that huge hole it looked like Murray had to his left when he took the handoff from Romo? This is what he ended up running through:
That's the result of a combination of three factors:
1. The blocking, obviously. Not only does Dallas close out St. Louis' defensive line, but the Cowboys also manage to eliminate the Rams' entire linebacking corps inside and the cornerbacks outside.
2. The play. Back to that point about misdirection. A straight handoff out of that I-formation with 3-wide would have put Dallas in position to be outnumbered at the point of attack. By going with the delay, Romo kept the linebackers from crashing forward, giving Murray time to hit the hole.
Compare that to this second-quarter play pictured below, a straight handoff with St. Louis bringing heat from the linebackers:
Murray has nowhere to go, and the play winds up losing four yards.
3. Murray. In previous games (we'll get there), he hadn't shown much in the way of vision or burst. On this play, he explodes through the hole, then cuts back to open field and lets his speed take over.
Over and over again, Dallas was able to get Murray open space -- doing so both by tossing wide to him outside the tackle box and by utilizing misdirection plays, like on the long TD.
The Cowboys came back to a delayed handoff in the second quarter, facing a 2nd-and-14. Just like on the first play, there are multiple running lanes for Murray.
And just like on the touchdown, he makes the correct decision, cutting left, then turning upfield once he's clear of the defensive line.
The result is below. Murray winds up gaining nine yards on this particular play, but notice the lack of defenders in the picture. As we saw on the 91-yard run, that's a three-pronged success approach: Blocking, play call and Murray's decision-making.
The Cowboys didn't try to force Murray or Tashard Choice or any other back up between the tackles repeatedly -- as Garrett pointed out to the FOX crew, this team's advantage is its speed.
Here's another example of that approach, with Murray taking a wide-left pitch and cutting upfield. This also does not turn into a home run -- Murray gained about six -- but you can see the lane he has by clearing the linebackers and defensive line.
Contrast that to Week 6 against New England, when Murray rushed 10 times for 32 yards and the Cowboys mustered just 77 yards on the ground as a team.
For whatever reason, Dallas stuck to an up-the-gut approach more often than not in Foxborough, hoping to beat New England at the line with straight running plays.
Here's one such example from the first half of that game:
The offense line generated minimal push, and Murray -- like we saw earlier this season in "Break It Down" with Chris Johnson -- completely missed the cutback hole to his left. Keep in mind, Murray is just six games into his rookie season, so he's bound to make those mistakes.
But, as we saw Sunday, Dallas is better off pushing him outside anyway, where the holes are more established and the defense is spread out.
Another example from that New England game, this one coming late with Dallas clinging to a three-point lead.
The Cowboys were trying to milk the clock and clearly set up in a run formation. Romo handed to Murray on what appeared to be a simple dive play up the middle.
New England blew it up -- the Patriots stood up the middle of Dallas' line and collapsed the edges. Murray was hit before he could get to the line of scrimmage and took a loss.
But from the failures at New England came a renewed sense of what Dallas could and could not accomplish in its run game. What was on display against the Rams -- namely, an attack predicated on outside runs and misdirections -- has the potential to thrive with Murray, Choice and Felix Jones (when healthy), given the quickness all three possess. Dallas might not bust out a 250-yard rusher every week, but it has a much better chance to succeed stretching the field horizontally than it does trying to mash between the tackles.