IRVING, Texas — Considering how poorly the St. Louis Rams have been at stopping the run, getting to play them on Sunday looks like a great chance for the Dallas Cowboys to finally get their ground game going.
Only, in keeping with the way things have gone for Dallas this season, it’s not that simple.
The Cowboys are expected to plug two new starters into their offense Sunday. Leading rusher Felix Jones has a high ankle sprain and rookie DeMarco Murray likely will take his place. Probably blocking for him at left guard will be Montrae Holland, a veteran who was unemployed the first six weeks of the season and was signed Tuesday to fill a void caused by injuries.
Even at full strength, Dallas had one of the league’s worst running games, averaging only 84.8 yards per game. A per-carry average of 3.4 yards is even closer to the bottom of the rankings.
This problems has really stood out when trying to grind out yards close to the end zone.
Dallas has a single rushing touchdown through five games. Only Kansas City has less. That inability to finish drives explains why the Cowboys are tied for the most field-goal attempts in the league.
One more key stat that helps frame all this: Dallas has made five more field goals than extra points; the only other team with such an out-of-whack ratio is winless Miami. This inefficiency is especially jarring for the Cowboys seeing as their three losses are all by four points or less.
“If we want to be the team that our expectations are, we have to be able to get our running game going,” tight end Jason Witten said Wednesday. “We’ve done it a few times, just not as consistently as we need to.”
Running against St. Louis should help.
The Rams are allowing 163 yards per game, several first downs more than anyone else in the league. Break it down per carry and their average of 4.9 yards allowed is nearly the worst.
“It’s not real fun when you struggle in that department defensively because we firmly believe it has to begin up front,” said St. Louis coach Steve Spanuolo, whose background is rooted on defense. “The one thing you always know is that if you commit too many against the run, especially against this team we’re getting ready to play, they’ve got guys on the outside that will kill you. So you’ve always got to weigh the options of what you try to take away.”
If that’s a hint that the Rams are more worried about keeping Tony Romo from throwing to Miles Austin, Dez Bryant and Witten, then it’s even more of a burden for the Cowboys to get their running game going.
Not that coach Jason Garrett needs a reminder. He got ample evidence last Sunday, when Dallas tried burning up the clock while trying to protect a three-point lead in the final minutes against New England, yet moved backward on three plays and punted, setting up Tom Brady for a winning drive.
Jones was already hurt by then, so it was Murray and third-down back Tashard Choice who couldn’t move the chains.
But Garrett believes in Murray, a third-round pick out of Oklahoma.
He’s relatively similar to Jones in stature and speed. The difference is experience. After the lockout, he missed most of training camp with an injury. He’s played in all five games, producing 71 yards on 24 carries. His longest run is just eight yards. He’s also caught four passes for 23 yards, with a best of 13 yards.
Garrett said Murray seemed to find more of a rhythm against the Patriots.
“It was the first time I think we’ve seen in the regular season where he started to feel like himself,” Garrett said. “A lot of times runners just need to get a little sweat, they need to get a little feel for playing, they need to get knocked around a little bit and then they start getting into the mode where they feel comfortable in seeing things and making the cuts they need to make. I think we saw some of that.”
Murray agreed, saying he was finally at the point where he could react rather than having to think about what to do, then do it.
“I’m going out there and trusting my ability, trusting my technique and having fun,” he said.
Murray said Jones is a more patient runner than he is, meaning that he’s able to wait for holes to open then dart toward them. Murray has a good excuse for his impatience, having often had enormous holes to run through with the Sooners.
That gets back to the questions about Dallas’ offensive line, which could be more to blame for the woeful stats than the running backs.
Left tackle Doug Free is the only starter in the same spot as last year. The only other holdover from last season is guard Kyle Kosier, and he’s switched sides, now lining up next to rookie tackle Tyron Smith. They’re breaking in a first-time starter at center, Phil Costa, and then there’s the revolving door at left guard, with Holland likely to be the third starter in six games.
“There’s growing pains,” Garrett said. “I think our team has responded well up front to the different challenges they’ve had up to this point. They can get better individually, they can get better collectively. But that’s everybody on our football team.”
Notes: A day after dropping WR Dwayne Harris, the Cowboys brought him back to the practice squad. The vacancy was created by Jacksonville signing TE Martin Rucker. … Harris was the primary punt returner. Garrett said WR Kevin Ogletree, CB Terence Newman and WR Dez Bryant will be options to take his place.