There’s a strong correlation between rushing attempts and winning for just about every NFL team, leading to the illusion that running often is beneficial to an offense. In most cases, it isn’t; offensive balance is the effect of winning (teams with a lead rush the ball late), not the cause of it.
That’s pretty apparent when we analyze box scores through halftime or three quarters rather than at the end of games. Since 2008, the Cowboys have won nearly twice as often when they pass the ball over 57 percent of the time through three quarters as compared to when they pass it less. And even though some teams aren’t all that great through the air, passing early in games is still the most popular path to success. . .
Having said that, the rushing game was still instrumental for Dallas in this contest. While bulk rushing attempts aren’t important, rushing efficiency can be quite beneficial to an offense. If the Cowboys can continue to run the ball effectively, it will help open up things through the air, where Dallas can really do its damage.
Defensively, this game was all about pressure for the ‘Boys. They totaled six sacks and really stifled quarterback Sam Bradford by allowing him very little time to get the ball downfield. Let’s take a look at two important plays for Dallas—one in the running game and one defensively—that helped secure the win.
DeMarco Murray’s 41-Yard Rush
Just out of halftime, the Cowboys faced a second-and-four at their own 26-yard line. They lined up in “Double Tight Left Twins Right Ace”—a formation they used 24 times in 2012. On the 11 plays on which they ran the ball from the formation, the Cowboys found a lot of success with 77 total yards (7.0 YPC) and a touchdown.
On this particular play, Romo issued a “kill” call prior to the snap. A “kill” call is an audible that allows the offense to change the play in just a second or two. This is the audible system that Dallas has used over the past few years, though we didn’t see it much in the first two weeks since Romo was given more freedom to change the play himself at the line. Romo issued multiple “kill” calls on Sunday, which might be a sign that the Cowboys are limiting his responsibilities just a bit.
Before some plays, the offensive coordinator calls in two plays to Romo, who then relays both of those plays to the guys in the huddle. The plan is to run the first play, but if Romo sees something in the defense that suggests that play won’t work, he yells “kill, kill, kill” at the line, alerting the offense to run the second play. It’s an effective way to change plays in a hurry, which is often necessary when you’re calling two of them in the huddle.
On this play, Romo made the right read. When he handed off the ball to Murray, only tight end Jason Witten didn’t win his battle at the point-of-attack.
This is a theme for Witten, by the way. It’s popular to say that he’s the best receiving-blocking combination tight end in the NFL, but he’s not. He continually loses at the point-of-attack, and I’d argue he’s barely an average blocker anymore.
In any event, Witten did enough to stay in front of his defender, and Murray adjusted by cutting back on a play initially designed to get outside.
After cutting back, Murray was contacted just two yards past the line. He was able to slip the tackle to get into the open-field, ultimately galloping for 41 yards. This shows just how volatile each running play can be, though; had Murray been a fraction of a second late to the hole, he would have been tackled for a couple yards. The difference between a great rushing game and a horrible rushing game is often a handful of bang-bang plays just like this one—a reason to be optimistic that Dallas can continue their rushing success.
Orlando Scandrick’s Sack
It’s so often advantageous to rush defensive backs after the quarterback because the offense doesn’t account for them. In isolation, we all know a player like Scandrick isn’t as good of a pass-rusher as someone like George Selvie, but Scandrick can be highly effective since he’s often left unblocked.
With the Rams facing a third-and-eight at the Cowboys’ 32-yard line, defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin was in search of a big play to knock St. Louis out of field goal range. The Cowboys lined up six defenders on the line—four down-linemen, linebacker Sean Lee, and Scandrick.
A few noteworthy things happened at the snap. First, defensive end DeMarcus Ware got an unbelievable jump. You can see Ware already a step ahead of every other defender, which happens on a regular basis because he jumps the snap so well. That also leads to a lot of offsides penalties from Ware—a negative you sort of have to live with given his effectiveness when getting off of the ball so quickly.
Second, Sean Lee dropped into coverage, meaning the Cowboys rushed just five defenders. If there’s one thing defenses don’t do enough, it’s disguising blitzes. On this particular play, it was really difficult to determine who was rushing. That’s especially true since Scandrick often feigns blitzing from the slot. To increase the effectiveness when he does rush, Dallas needs to make sure he continues to fake a blitz from time to time.
Finally, the Cowboys also ran a twist, looping Selvie inside. That created a dilemma for St. Louis because not only did they have only two linemen to block three defenders, but they also had to wait on the twist. If the right guard and right tackle had kicked out, Selvie would have been able to come up the middle untouched.
Instead, the Rams blocked the play “inside-out,” allowing Scandrick to run free. Since St. Louis was in an empty-set, Bradford needed to throw this ball hot to account for the unblocked defender. The secondary did a good job of sitting at the sticks to make sure any quick throws would have resulted in fourth down.
Ware and Scandrick both got in on Bradford so quickly that he didn’t have time to hit anyone, nor did any of his receivers turn so their quarterback could find them on a hot route. This was poor execution from St. Louis that was really forced by the well-designed blitz from Dallas.