Or more accurately, on his shoulders.
The Dallas Cowboys are primed for another Broncos-like track meet this Sunday, when they face the Philadelphia Eagles. The characteristics for both games are similar. As with the Denver matchup, this game will pit two of the top scoring offenses in the league, the Cowboys ranking 2nd and the Eagles 4th. Like that Broncos shootout, we’ll see two struggling defenses, with the Cowboys sitting 25th in scoring while the Eagles lag farther behind, at 29th. Philly is allowing 30 points per game on average, just what the Cowboys are scoring.
What’s more, the Eagles cannot stop the pass; they rank 31st in yards allowed, one spot below the porous Cowboys secondary. They’re a prime target for Tony Romo’s passing attack, which started the Broncos game gunslinging and has not changed its approach.
The matchup looks promising when the Cowboys have the football, but an injury to Dallas’ top runner may hamstring their deep passing plans. DeMarco Murray injured a knee early in the Redskins game, leaving after just seven carries. His departure hobbled the rushing attack. The average per attempt plummeted from 4.1 yards per rush when Murray carried to ball to a woeful 1.5 YPA when rookie Joseph Randle took over.
Just as important, Murray’s departure slowed the Cowboys’ passing attack, which was so potent against the Broncos. Dallas finally has the confidence that its offensive line can handle four and even five man rushes unaided, so offensive coordinator Bill Callahan has spread the field the last two weeks to a degree not seen before. He has used four receiver sets and emptied the backfield regularly, flexing tight end Jason Witten and Murray into space. When the Broncos and Redskins tried blitzing five and six men, Murray offered the line assistance. He’s strong at blitz pickup,
The protection leaked after Murray was injured. James Hanna and Randle shared Murray’s blocking duties, but could not identify and stop Redskins blitzers as effectively. This deprived Tony Romo of numerous downfield attempts. He had to scramble and look for checkdown targets Sunday night, where he was able to stand and scan against Denver.
The challenge for the coaches this week, to my eyes, is replacing Murray’s solid protection. The Eagles run a 3-4 package and have some young, promising front seven talent. If they can rattle Romo, or just move him around, as Washington did in the second half, they can slow him enough to win, as the Chargers did three weeks ago. If Dallas can again find a six-man blocking seal, Romo can bomb away as he did against Denver.
Injuries may force some creativity. Second string back Lance Dunbar has the running shake and the will to block, but like Murray, he’s injured. If his hamstring isn’t healthy enough, the Cowboys will again start Randle.
The rookie may be up to it. There’s a big difference between 1st team reps and second team reps. A full week of practice may allow him to step up. That’s the shortest answer to success.
If he can’t, the Cowboys may move Jason Witten more into the backfield as an F-back, and use more four receivers sets, or work Hanna and Gavin Escobar as the on-the-line Y options. The Cowboys may lose some production from the tight end spot, the better blocking would allow Romo to compensate, with compound interest.
Running back blocking seems like a small detail, but it can have a big effect on the game. We saw it last week, and we’ve seen it in the Chiefs, Chargers and Broncos losses, where small mistakes have led to big frowns on Monday morning.