- Tim MacMahon, ESPN Staff Writer
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IRVING, Texas -- Could keeping the second tight end on the sideline be the key to success for the Cowboys' running game?
That's certainly what the statistics indicate five weeks into the season.
The Cowboys planned for two-tight end formations – "12 personnel" – to be their base package this season. While they've thrown the ball effectively out of those looks, the running game has sputtered, averaging only 3.63 yards on 52 carries.
On the other hand, the running game has been remarkably successful with three wide receivers on the field, averaging 5.33 yards on 51 carries.
"Whenever you can open up the box and not have eight or nine guys stacking the box, it definitely helps the running game," running back DeMarco Murray said. "We can get hats on hats. I think it helps the offensive line, helps myself as well, but we're doing well running the ball when we're getting the opportunity."
Those opportunities have been a lot better when the Cowboys spread the field, forcing opposing defenses to take a linebacker off and go with their nickel defenses. The lanes tend to be a lot wider for Murray in those situations.
The hope was that defenses would be put in a personnel bind with two tight ends on the field, because all of the Cowboys' tight ends have the versatility to be flexed out, essentially making it a three-receiver set.
However, the Cowboys have really struggled to run the ball out of traditional two tight end looks. Reserve tight ends James Hanna and Gavin Escobar need a lot of development as blockers and often get pushed into the backfield, particularly on stretch plays to their side.
"I think '12' is kind of a grinder formation," offensive coordinator Bill Callahan said. "You're going to take your H-back and you're going to go to work and pound it. Those are tough yards. I think those are the heavier boxes. We're trying to balance up that menu a little bit. We're trying to become a better running team in '12.' That's a challenge for us. ...
"I think you've got to be creative in terms of how you scheme and position those blockers."
The trend has been for the Cowboys to position those extra tight ends on the sideline. In the last few games, Dallas has run 109 plays out of three-plus-receiver sets, compared to 68 with an extra tight end.
The hope was for 12 personnel to be the Cowboys' base offensive package. The reality is that the Cowboys are better with three receivers on the field.