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Thursday, November 19, 2009
Running game stopped in its tracks

By Calvin Watkins
ESPNDallas.com

IRVING, Texas -- There is this perception that Dallas Cowboys offensive coordinator Jason Garrett doesn't like to run the ball.

Helping that perception is the fact that the Cowboys ran only 14 times for 61 yards in Sunday's loss to the Green Bay Packers.

The reality is Garrett wants to run the ball, but the team's inconsistency pushes him to do something he loves: pass.

"I just go back to what our objectives are," Garrett said. "Our objectives every week are to be balanced, to run the football and throw the football and do different things within the run game and within the pass game. That's what we're always trying to do. I think we've done a pretty good job of it over the course of the first nine games. It's not perfect. We've got a long way to go."

Marion Barber
After leading the NFL with 193.7 rushing yards per game after three weeks, the Cowboys -- now ranked eighth (130.0) -- have been stopped in their tracks. "It's not perfect," offensive coordinator Jason Garrett said. "We've got a long way to go."

After the first three weeks of this season, the Cowboys had the best rushing attack in the NFL. They averaged 193.7 yards per game and had 18 runs of 10 yards or longer. Dallas rushed 85 times for 581 yards with five touchdowns and 31 first downs.

But something happened that forced the Cowboys to become unbalanced in their offensive attack. Marion Barber injured his thigh in Week 2, and he won't be 100 percent until December. Felix Jones injured his knee in Week 3 and is playing with a knee brace and a lack of confidence. Tashard Choice is the only healthy back, but the Cowboys have relegated him to third-down duty and the Razorback formation.

In the past six weeks, with two injured running backs, the Cowboys have had 145 rushing attempts for 589 yards, 33 first downs and four touchdowns. Dallas has fallen to eighth in the NFL heading into Sunday's game against the Washington Redskins, who are ranked 24th against the run.

It would seem the Cowboys should run the ball effectively against their NFC East rivals.

"Definitely. You want to run it as much as possible," right guard Leonard Davis said. "Sometimes things happen, and hopefully we're going to run the ball and just be more balanced."

Running backs coach Skip Peete says you can look at the numbers all you want, but defenses are trying to prevent Jones from getting into open spaces, where he excels.

Defenses also are slowing Barber by sending two or three defenders at him when he's running. Barber not only is slowed by his thigh injury but also doesn't have the same burst that he had at the start of the season. Those reasons alone have led to inconsistency in the run game.

The ups and downs for the two lead backs are troublesome. Sometimes poor runs are related to the offensive line's missing a block or not sealing it properly. And now, the offensive line likely will be without right tackle Marc Colombo (ankle surgery, cracked fibula) for the season.

Doug Free will make his first career start at right tackle Sunday. And with Jones and Barber not running at 100 percent, it's not helping build any confidence.

So why isn't Choice getting more carries? The Cowboys insist Jones and Barber are healthy enough to lead the running game. Dallas is stuck with this situation for several reasons. Coach Wade Phillips wants Choice on passing downs over Jones because he's a better blocker and knows his assignments. Barber, who has a fractured thumb, is also somewhat limited in pass protection.

The Cowboys remain in sole possession of first place in the NFC East. But regardless of whom they play in the next six weeks, the running game must re-establish itself before it's too late.

Calvin Watkins covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com. E-mail him at calvin.watkins@espn3.com.