Breaking Down the Cowboys' Dominance in the Running Game


A week ago the Panthers' pass defense let them down, allowing Atlanta to convert four straight third downs on a touchdown drive that put the Falcons ahead to stay.

On Monday night the Panthers' run defense was just an anemic. In the 21-7 loss to Dallas, the Panthers, particularly the front seven, looked to be just as confused as the pass defense was against Atlanta. Defenders were again out of position, did not always execute and overall seemed to be guessing what the Cowboys were doing. Dallas' offense dictated tempo, especially a running game that rolled up 212 yards on 32 plays (6.6 yards per carry).

The Cowboys ran for at least 10 yards on six different plays, scored on a 5-yard run and broke off a 7-yard run on a third-and-1. Using misdirection, pump fakes and draws, Dallas kept the Panthers' read-and-react defense off balance most of the night.

Three weeks into the season, a Panthers defense geared towards preventing the big play is giving up tons of medium-sized plays. Defenders don't appear to be anywhere near comfortable in new coordinator Ron Meeks' system. Last week that manifested itself in the passing game against Atlanta. Monday it was on full display against the ground game -- especially four key second-half plays that helped the Cowboys score the 10 points they needed to go ahead for good:


The situation: Second-and-6, midfield. 7-0 Panthers. 12:30 to play in the third quarter.

Formations: Dallas lined up in the I-formation with a tight end on the left and one receiver on each side. The Panthers' corners were in press coverage with both safeties back deep.

What happened: Tailback Felix Jones ran a misdirection play 40 yards to the left.

How it happened: The tight end went in motion right and the Panthers' left outside linebacker slid up to line up over him. A safety moved up behind the linebacker, stopping six yards from the line of scrimmage. The Panthers defense now had nine players in the middle or on its left side.

Quarterback Tony Romo and Jones sold a run to the right, then Jones took the handoff and ran left, away from all the traffic. Jason Witten, lining up at fullback, sealed off the inside and the left tackle took out the right outside linebacker. The Panthers' right defensive end, Julius Peppers, played run but bought the misdirection and shifted left. He tried to recover, but took an inside angle. Jones bounced to the outside and shot through a gaping hole as Peppers made a token attempt to tackle him. He ran for 40 yards before he was pushed out of bounds by two defensive backs.

The result: Dallas had a first down at the Carolina 10, leading to a field goal that drew the Cowboys within 7-3.

The situation: First-and-10, Carolina 35. 7-3 Panthers. 7:20 to play in the third.

Formations: Dallas went to the wildcat, with tailback Tashard Choice lined up in the shotgun. A tight end was on each side, two receivers were lined up right and another receiver left. The Panthers' right outside linebacker showed blitz.

What happened: Choice took the snap, faked a handoff and ran up the middle for 10 yards.

How it happened: The receiver lined up in the right slot went in motion left. Choice made the fake to him and the receiver ran left. Two Panthers linebackers pursued the receiver, opening up space for Choice. Choice found a hole up the middle. The Panthers' left defensive end shed a block and combined on the tackle with free safety Charles Godfrey.

The result: Dallas had a first down on the Carolina 25.

The situation: Second-and-4, Carolina 19. 7-3 Panthers. About 6 minutes left in the third.

Formations: Dallas lined up with a tailback directly behind Romo and a fullback to the right. A tight end lined up left with one receiver in the right slot and one receiver in the left slot. The Panthers' defensive backs lined up several yards off the receivers.

What happened: Two plays after the Choice 10-yard run, receiver Patrick Crayton took an end around left for 14 yards.

How it happened: The tight end went in motion right, drawing the left outside linebacker to shift left. A safety slid up just behind that linebacker, four yards off the line of scrimmage.

Romo faked a handoff to Choice running right. Peppers, the right defensive end, bit on the fake. Crayton took the handoff from Romo and swept left around Peppers. A receiver pushed corner Richard Marshall back and a pulling offensive lineman took out the safety lined up on the right side of the Panthers defense. Marshall fought off the block and tackled Crayton.

The result: The Cowboys had a first-and-goal at the Carolina 5.

The situation: First-and-goal, Carolina 5. 7-3 Panthers. About 5 minutes to play in the third.

Formations: Dallas lined up in the I with a tight end left and two receivers right. The Panthers were in tight man coverage; a linebacker lined up on the right and showed blitz. The free safety was lined up over left tackle six yards off the line.

What happened: Choice ran left for five yards and a score on a draw play. 

How it happened: Romo did a pump fake to his right, freezing safety Quinton Teal on that side of the field. The right outside linebacker and the other safety thought pass and dropped back into coverage. Romo handed off to Choice, who ran inside left. Offensive linemen blocked the linebackers and the fullback blocked the free safety, opening a huge hole.

The result: The third straight effective running play capped a five-play, 58-yard drive with the touchdown that put Dallas ahead to stay.

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