Cowboys' 1-2 Punch Churning Out Yards
IRVING, Texas – Two-back offenses in the NFL aren't an anomaly but rarely are they as balanced as the system the Dallas Cowboys have employed since Marion Barber and Felix Jones returned to full strength at midseason.
Sunday's 24-0 beat-down of the Philadelphia Eagles at Cowboys Stadium was stunning in its defensive efficiency, but it was the diversified Dallas offense -- anchored by two media-shy running backs and their willingness to share the load -- that mowed down one of the NFL's best defenses and dominated time of possession and ultimately, the game.
Barber, the bull-rushing short-yardage specialist, muscled his way to 91 yards, while speedy Felix Jones matched him with 91 yards on the ground. Jones' 49-yard rushing touchdown in the third quarter was more than the Eagles gained on the ground the entire game (39).
"They came out running the ball. You have to expect that when you have playoff football -- teams are going to want to come out and establish the run," Eagles linebacker Jeremiah Trotter said of a Cowboys' attack that gashed Philadelphia's front seven for 179 rushing yards.
And the balancing act of using both Barber and Jones in a platoon system within each offensive series, which replaced the more confusing, hand-wringing schemes of starting one over the other, or rotating the two as single backs by series, has emerged as a rousing late-season success.
"[Jones] is our home run threat. He'll hammer up in there and hammer up in there," coach Wade Phillips said. "All of a sudden, he'll break one. He's consistently done that since we've had him. With Marion in there, he started out with 68 yards in the first quarter, he hammered them pretty well. Then Felix came in and made some really good plays."
So many NFL running backs need -- or demand -- a minimum number of carries, usually 15 to 20 or more, to build the rhythm necessary to pile up yardage. Barber and Jones have been unique in that both have been effective as pinch-hitters.
That likely comes from their backgrounds in college.
"Both of these backs came from (college) systems where they were used to rotating or playing every other down," Cowboys running backs coach Skip Peete said. "So they've been able to do that for us very effectively, and it's working really well. Nobody is demanding the ball here."
Barber, a fourth-round draft pick in 2005 out of Minnesota, split carries with Laurence Maroney in 2003 and '04 for the Golden Gophers. Jones came out of owner Jerry Jones' alma mater, Arkansas, as a first-round selection in the 2009 draft. In the Razorbacks' system, Jones shared carries with Doak Walker winner (and Raiders' first-round pick) Darren McFadden. It was there that Jones developed his versatility as a runner, receiver and blocker.
Dallas' rushing attack was 21st in the NFL in 2008 and badly needed an overhaul. Offensive coaches experimented with different schemes during training camp that would feature one back or another.
Phillips said this week the current system of utilizing both backs throughout the game came about in October, when Jones was full strength after recovering from a bruised left knee. The idea was to get Barber and Jones into an early rhythm with equal work so that both would be ready to get the ball at any time.
"Yeah, both of them go into the game and they're ready to go, and that's what we've found out," said Phillips, whose many years as a defensive coordinator reminded him how difficult it can be to defend a play-to-play running back rotation.
"I just noticed it with our guys on offense," Phillips said. "I'm sure it's not that way with every team and every two players. Some of them can do it, and some of them have to be in there for awhile, I think. I've been around guys that need to be in the ballgame for awhile to get a rhythm going as far as the running game is concerned. But these two guys are a little different."
So far, Barber has been receptive to Jones' expanding role and a rotation that has seen both backs finish with at least 10 rushing attempts in each of the last four regular-season games. As a result, Dallas' rushing attack is now seventh in the NFL, averaging 131 yards per game.
"We wanted to utilize his talent," Phillips said of Jones. "I do think rather than playing them series by series, playing them in and out has helped us there. Substituting during the series, those two guys are so much different running the football that defensively it's hard to think."
The more Dallas can pound the ball in Saturday's prime-time NFC first-round rematch against Philadelphia at Cowboys Stadium, the less pressure quarterback Tony Romo will face from the Eagles' attacking defense.
So how will Philadelphia game-plan this go-around against a Cowboys' rushing attack that also can go to Tashard Choice as a change-of-pace back?
Every linebacker combo will be utilized, Trotter said.
"They are not going to let us just blitz and tee off on Romo." Trotter said. "They did exactly what I expected, and we just have to do a better job next week of not letting it happen again."