Dallas Cowboys Finally Have Run Game Thanks to Offensive Line


After watching the Cowboys/Giants game last night we were left with many questions but also many answers. One question that may have been answered is the status of the Dallas Cowboys running game.

DeMarco Murray may have only logged 86 yards off of 20 carries but it was the way in which he earned these yards that instill confidence in the run game. In previous years, Murray and/or Jones would break long and dazzling runs from time to time. Last night had neither long nor dazzling. So why would last night of all nights prove the Cowboys run game is the best it’s been in years?

The blocking up front.

In previous games (in previous seasons) the Dallas Cowboys would earn their yards on the ground by breaking tackles and catching breaks on a singular running play. Most times the running back would be met immediately at the line of scrimmage (if not 3 yards deep) and was forced to fight for nothing more than a positive gain. DeMarco Murray’s ability to avoid negative runs was extremely impressive. Possibly more impressive than his propensity to break off huge gains from time to time.

Last night we saw something very different. We saw a running back who never made a big run. He never broke loose on one of his previously signature gains. He modestly averaged 4.3 yards per carry without ever breaking off a long run. He earned those yards the old fashioned way – By hitting his holes and following his blocking.

This isn’t a love letter to DeMarco.

He was never the problem.

This is all about the Offensive Line.

For once the offensive line opened holes. They executed assignments. They were in the right place at the right time. Those things could not have been said last year. These linemen still are not physically dominating in any way. But they are finally playing cerebrally and with good technique.

Tony Romo was still running for his life from time to time but as a whole, the pass protection was a drastic improvement. The running game was where the majority of improvement was seen. Why the sudden improvement? Was this surprisingly acceptable performance a sign of things to come or just a fluke moment in a very long season?  If the improvement is for real, what/who deserves the credit?

Dec 11, 2011; Dallas, TX, USA; A general view of the line of scrimmage during the game with the Dallas Cowboys playing against the New York Giants at Cowboys Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

These are big-time questions that can’t be definitively answered after seeing just one game. But that doesn’t mean we didn’t learn ANYTHING from Sunday night’s game. There are clear differences to the run-blocking style/technique of the line in 2013. This isn’t just about first round pick Travis Frederick or new starter Ronald Leary. This is a blocking scheme change. The Cowboys have finally instituted Offensive Coordinator Bill Callahan’s legendary Zone Blocking Scheme.

Yes, many teams run Zone Blocking Schemes (ZBS) in the NFL. Many even run a mix of man and zone in their everyday offense. Bill Callahan is really no different. It’s the Cowboys that have finally changed.

Over the years, the Cowboys have relied almost primarily on a Man Blocking Scheme (MBS) on the offensive line. The only time in recent memory they strayed from MBS was Bruce Coslet’s brief tenure with the ‘Boys.

This isn’t college football where a team like Alabama can just field players who are so athletically superior to their competition, they can beat their opponents 1 on 1 every time. This isn’t even the early 90’s NFL where free agency and the salary cap don’t inhibit a team like the Cowboys from building and keeping an All-Star O-Line. In today’s NFL teams are so evenly matched, the strategy of just “beating the guy in front of you” (as Bill Parcells would often say), doesn’t work anymore. Mismatches, technique, and deception are needed. And that is where Zone Blocking comes in…

Later today I will break down the ZBS more intensely but for now understand this: The offensive line is required to flow in the direction the ball is moving. Who the linemen block depends on the positioning of the defense. The line can flow one direction allowing the Running Back to follow the flow, or more often, cut back against it.

Nov 22, 2012; Arlington, TX, USA; Dallas Cowboys offensive coordinator Bill Callahan (center) with the offensive line during the game against the Washington Redskins during a game on Thanksgiving at Cowboys Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

This type of blocking scheme requires quick and agile linemen rather than big strong maulers. The Cowboys may not be the most ideal linemen to use in a ZBS but they certainly aren’t the big strong mauler type required for the MBS either. The Cowboys are asking their linemen to execute with proper technique within ever-changing assignments. They are running ZBS with a little MBS sprinkled in to keep defenses honest.

DeMarco was rarely met in the backfield like he was all-to-often last season. He followed his blocks and took what was given to him. He let the offensive line do the work and he was rewarded. Statistically he didn’t have a huge game, but his effectiveness was huge. It may not even continue. We just don’t know. But what we do know is this team has vastly improved their run-game. They are not relying on spectacular plays from DeMarco Murray. They are making things happen the right way. The spectacular plays will come (provided Murray stays healthy). If the Cowboys can continue to execute at the line of scrimmage this team may just have a chance to be a balanced offense. That’s something we all would like to see.

This afternoon I’ll breakdown the ZBS more thoroughly. It is certainly a key the Dallas Cowboy’s success in 2013.

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