Through three full games this season, Dallas Cowboys’ starting running back DeMarco Murray has registered 213 yards on exactly 50 carries for a 4.3 yard average. That’s not awful, but when you look closer there is reason for concern. Subtract the one fairly miraculous 48-yard yard run he had against the New York Giants and his numbers are a lot more pedestrian: 49 carries for 165 yards or a 3.4 yard average.
The trend is also a bit of a red flag. After gashing the Giants defense for 131 yards, he gained only 44 yards in 12 carries in the loss to Seattle (3.7 yd avg) and just 38 yards in 18 carries this last Sunday against Tampa Bay (2.1 yd avg) – including his 11-yard touchdown run. That trend is headed in the wrong direction. Murray currently is tied for 29th in the league among running backs based on average yards per attempt and is tied for 15th in total yards. That is a pretty precipitous drop from the 5.5 yards per carry he averaged last season before going down with a season-ending injury against the Giants.
So what’s changed? Murray is coming back from a fairly serious ankle injury. But, he does not appear to have lost a step and has stated he is fully recovered. I don’t think he is any less talented.
So, are the Seahawks and Buccaneer run defenses just that good? Currently, Tampa Bay is ranked as the #1 rushing defense in the NFL while Seattle is ranked #2 based on average rushing yards allowed per game. The Bucs are giving up 47 yards a game while Seattle is only slightly more at 59 yards per game. Based on the same measure, the Giants are all the way down at #10 yielding 94 yards per game on the ground. (The Cowboys’ defense by comparison is giving up on average 113 yards per game rushing, ranking them at #19. Seattle getting 182 yards rushing in game 2 did not help that average).
So, yes these are very good run defenses although through only 3 games, it is very much a function of who they’ve played. Tampa Bay was helped immensely by the fact that Carolina only netted 10 rushing yards on just 13 attempts in their opening game. They gave up 94 yards to the Giants before holding Dallas to 38 total rushing yards. Seattle held their first two opponents to under 50 yards rushing before surrendering 84 yards to the Packers in last Monday night’s “gifted” win. DeMarco’s output (or lack thereof) has to be tempered against the quality of the defenses he faces. These were in fact two pretty good ones.
What else? Well, how about the fact that Tony Fiammetta is gone and replaced with Lawrence Vickers? The Cowboys were excited to get Vickers but so far I’ve not seen him make the same kind of impact on Murray’s production that was obvious when Fiammetta missed a few games last year. As good as the Cowboys think Vickers is he simply has not been to date as effective as Fiammetta was in opening holes for DeMarco. With Fiammetta last season, the Cowboys were averaging almost 146 yards rushing per game. When he went down with his mysterious illness, that average in the next 4 games he missed dropped to 86 yards per game. Clearly, he made a difference and Vickers has so far not been able to replicate it.
Last but not least, look at the offensive line. Not a single player is in the same position he was last year. Tyron Smith and a clearly struggling Doug Free have swapped tackle spots while both guards – Mackenzy Bernadeau and Nate Livings – were free agent acquisitions in the off season. The team traded for center Ryan Cook only a couple of weeks ago and while he’s played well enough, the cohesiveness of the unit is clearly still missing. Murray can’t open holes by himself no matter how talented he might be and this unit has underperformed to say the least.
Are we looking at the proverbial sophomore slump for #29? Probably too early to tell, but I certainly don’t think he’s lost any ability. He’s not the unknown he was last year and defenses are game planning specifically to stop him now. With the Chicago Bears coming to town this week, it will be another tough test for the Cowboys offense. The Bears are ranked 6th in the NFL against the run giving up an average of 76 yards per game. We’ll need DeMarco to deliver at least that much to help deliver a win. But, it will take better offensive line play, better play calling by Jason Garrett (Murray needs to get at least 20 touches), and a strong defensive effort to keep the game close. Garrett has shown he will quickly abandon the run when playing from behind. This would be a great opportunity for DeMarco to bounce back with 120-140 yard effort. This team must find a way to scratch and claw its way to 3-1 going into their bye week. Go Cowboys!