Commentary

Cowboys can ground and pound

Against porous Carolina D, run game has prime opportunity to build on momentum

Updated: October 17, 2012, 1:15 AM ET
By Calvin Watkins | ESPNDallas.com

It was an impressive showing by the Dallas Cowboys' running game Sunday afternoon in Baltimore -- a display of power, speed and finesse.

[+] EnlargeFelix Jones
Mitch Stringer/US PresswireFelix Jones reconnected with his old self against Ed Reed and the Ravens. The Cowboys will need a repeat effort from the running back in Carolina.
But it was against one of the worst run defenses in the NFL.

Still, the Cowboys rushed for 227 yards, the most the Baltimore Ravens have allowed in their history. Now, the Cowboys' rushing offense must show its performance wasn't a fluke.

In the season-opening victory over the New York Giants, the Cowboys rushed for 143 yards. Over the next three games, the run game mustered just 128 yards.

Then came the Ravens with veteran linebacker Ray Lewis. The Cowboys smashed them on the ground.

"I thought we executed better," Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. "It's not like we came in here and said we're revamping our running game and changing everything up. We didn't do that. Every week you run runs from different formations for different reasons and you try to create some matchups up front from a scheme standpoint, based on the look that you're in."

Center Phil Costa returned to the starting lineup a different man. He was finally healthy after he lasted just three plays before reinjuring his back against the Giants. The Cowboys put him to work by sending 21 of their 41 called running plays toward the interior of the offensive line.

Mackenzy Bernadeau was criticized last week for his poor play and said himself his performance was unacceptable. He lost some practice reps to Derrick Dockery during the week.

Bernadeau responded by sending Ravens defenders to the ground, and clearing a path so runners such as DeMarco Murray, Felix Jones, Phillip Tanner and Lance Dunbar could push their way for a 5.4-yards-per-carry average.

Fullback Lawrence Vickers had a strong performance, too. While the Cowboys had said they were fine with his play, we hadn't seen enough knockout blows from him so that Murray or whoever else was running could get through.

Against the Ravens, Vickers delivered. He found Lewis, a man he had exchanged words with through the media, and -- using Vickers' own words from earlier in the week -- stood stiff and strong.

The key is to do this again at Carolina. The Panthers are 23rd against the run at 127.4 yards per game and have allowed 21 runs of at least 10 yards. When opponents rush for 100 yards, the Panthers are 1-2.

"I thought we did a good job running the ball [against Baltimore], making some plays in the passing game and ended up scoring 29 points," Garrett said. "So we did a good job capitalizing on some of that yardage that we had. I think it was the most yards they've given up rushing the football in their team's history, so we feel good about that. But again, there's so many areas where we can get better."

Murray won't play at Carolina because of a sprained foot, and his return the rest of the way is uncertain.

Jones will start and must find a way to salvage something of his career with the Cowboys. The 2008 first-round pick hasn't been spectacular enough.

He found a way in Baltimore. Jones displayed a burst and speed to rack up 92 yards on 18 carries. On his touchdown run, he barreled into safety Ed Reed while breaking free of a Lewis arm tackle.

The Cowboys need that same Jones in Charlotte. It doesn't matter how bad this run defense is; the Cowboys need to establish they can take pressure off the passing attack.

If things fail Sunday for the Cowboys, all the good work from the Baltimore game is lost and the questions about a failing running game will start again.

"They stepped up in there, and they dove into their role and did it to the best of their ability," Garrett said. "And guys rallied around each other. And that's a sign of a team that has a chance to be a good football team. Again, there is a lot of stuff to build on. We have to clean up a lot of stuff from [the Baltimore] ballgame in all three phases, but we are excited about the opportunity to get to Carolina this week and get another chance to play."

Calvin Watkins joined ESPNDallas.com in September 2009. He's covered the Cowboys since 2006 and also has covered colleges, boxing and high school sports.

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