After a turnover-riddled opening loss to the San Francisco 49ers, the Dallas Cowboys have quietly rattled off three wins in a row, now positioning themselves as contenders in the NFC. There are, of course, many factors at play, but if I had to distill the 2014 version of this Cowboys team down to one play, it's this one from last Sunday night's win over the Saints -- a 15-yard touchdown run by DeMarco Murray off the right side:
Through four games this year, Dallas is throwing the ball 50.8 percent of their plays, a remarkably balanced approach in this pass-happy NFL. Instead of spreading things out and throwing the ball all over the park, Dallas is averaging 29.5 passes per game, right around the frequency that you see the Seahawks, Bengals, and Niners throw per game. Smashmouth.
Dallas vs. Houston
Dallas vs. Houston
That are some good ass running lanes there there.
Per @ESPNStatsInfo, DeMarco Murray has rushed for 327 yards BEFORE CONTACT this year. Only two backs have more rushing yards, period.— Tim MacMahon (@espn_macmahon) September 30, 2014
It's a delayed inside handoff from Tony Romo to DeMarco Murray. Note the pulling left guard, and all-world tight end Jason Witten following behind him. Ronald Leary pummels the Saints' inside linebacker (#53) that looks to fit in on the run defense, and Witten is close behind to take Curtis Lofton on face-to-face. Murray does what he does and presses the line of scrimmage (and doesn't give away which gap he's going to hit until the last second), and then cuts violently and decisively off of Witten's block. Murray gets downhill and makes another cut to avoid safety Jairus Byrd, picking up an extra seven yards or so.
The Saints would see this look again, at least at the start, but the Cowboys would add a little tweak to change things up. It worked beautifully. 4:09 second quarter, Cowboys up 10-0.
The play is essentially a power-O blocking scheme where the backside guard pulls while his cohorts pin/seal in the opposite direction. The play here is that Witten acts as a de facto fullback, slicing across the formation. Above, Witten blocked inside of the right tackle, but on this play below, as the play-side defensive end carries the right tackle in toward the ball, Witten goes all the way outside, maneuvers himself with outside leverage on the outside linebacker that comes up to fill, and seals him -- this is Junior Gallette. This is not an easy block.
For a guy that's caught 183 passes in the last two years, he doesn't seem too worried that he's only at 15 receptions through four games this season. "He doesn't care that he's not getting the ball." Zack Martin said recently. "He's out there blocking like an offensive linemen. It's really like having six offensive linemen on the field."
The wily vet concurs.
"To be able to have a really good running game, especially when you run the wide-zone scheme like we do, you have to be able to set the edges, because those are where the one-on-one matchups are." Witten noted. "If that never gets secure, then the run game never gets off the ground. I've always tried to take a lot of pride in that."
This play isn't wide zone -- it's a power-O type of scheme -- but the block on the edge is absolutely key. Witten's ability out there on the edge to run block is a big part of why the Cowboys have been having so much success this season.
The other thing that makes this a good representation of the Cowboys' newfound balance and congruity on offense is that Dez Bryant's seal on the outside is another major factor toward springing Murray.
Bryant and Witten, normally two of Tony Romo's most deadly receiving weapons, are integral parts in run blocking on this touchdown play.
Keep an eye on the Cowboys. They've got the NFL's best run game right now behind one of the NFL's best offensive lines, and the beauty in that is that they've still got their passing offense. Tony Romo still has his arm. He still has Dez Bryant, he's still got Jason Witten. He has a developing weapon in Terrance Williams. Dallas has used a stronger threat of the run to better utilize play action to throw downfield. They're getting more one-on-one's outside because teams are focused on the middle of the field. Balance has been a big reason Dallas is 3-1.