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Three things I learned: Dallas Cowboys

  1. DeMarco Murray is a good RB having a great season behind a fantastic O-line. It’s not like they have a Pro Bowler at every position, but they do have studs at left tackle (Tyron Smith), center (Travis Frederick) and right guard (Zack Martin). Right tackle Doug Free can be beaten. Free seemed to do well on the move, but when just one-on-one straight up, he had more issues. But, again, those issues rarely hurt Dallas. Martin blocks with a bit of an attitude and works well to the second level. When he blocks a linebacker, the guy typically gets moved back. Washington’s guards might get there, but they don’t move anyone. Smith is a wonderful athlete, who will pull on occasion. Also saw him cut two defenders on one play while on his knees. This group has enabled Dallas to stay committed to the run. The Cowboys have run the ball an NFL-high 235 times, compared to 148 at the same point last season, according to ESPN Stat & Information. The result: an NFL-best 31 runs for 11-plus yards (no one else has more than 22). Murray is a good back and you need to stop him; his vision is solid and he’s doing a good job finding the holes -- patience helps, as does knowing those holes will develop. Backup Joseph Randle can be a shifty back and has 18 carries for 120 yards.

  2. Tony Romo uses the talent around him well. It’s not just about Dez Bryant or Jason Witten, it’s also tight end Gavin Escobar and Terrance Williams (19 catches, six touchdowns; likes post-corners if a safety covers him) or, on occasion, Cole Beasley. Those players get in favorable spots because of what’s around them. But Romo also is given time to find those players; they’re not always a first option. For example, on a 15-yard touchdown pass against the Giants, Romo faced a four-man rush, had 3.2 seconds to throw and was never in danger before throwing to Escobar, likely a third option, in the back of the end zone. Romo trusts his line and it shows. Escobar will line up wide as well. Dallas will run some misdirection on occasion – faking an end around to the left and throwing a screen back to the other side. The Cowboys will sometimes send a back on a route on what essentially is a pick from the receiver. Mostly, though, they execute well and if a team doesn’t stick in its rush lanes, Romo will buy time. Bryant is fantastic and does a terrific job fighting for the ball in the air. He’ll also nudge off corners on back shoulder throws in the end zone, much like a basketball player getting free from his man. It’s subtle; it works.

  3. The defense does just enough. They’re helped by an offense that dominates time of possession. The only defenses that have faced fewer plays than Dallas are those that have played one fewer game. It matters. This is a blue-collar unit that hustles and stays after quarterbacks, but lacks a playmaker. They will mix coverages; last season it was a lot of Cover 2, but they’ve used more of the Seattle-type looks this season. They don’t trick teams up front, though they will stunt. Teams have had success spreading them out with three receivers and running (85 carries, 500 yards). File that away for Monday. They will give up yards after contact -- an average of 1.94 per carry (27th in NFL). They have some who can rush with a little power and the Redskins have holes on their line, but overall the Cowboys only have seven sacks and no one has more than 1.5. Corner Orlando Scandrick has played well against Washington. Linebacker Rolando McClain is a surprising twist, leading Dallas with two interceptions and playing well for the first time in a tumultuous career. The Cowboys rank ninth in points allowed. The key: few big pass plays (only 16 for more than 20 yards, which is best by a team with seven games and second overall) and few trips to the red zone (19 -- only one team with seven games has faced fewer). Again, when your offense controls the ball, scores a lot and doesn’t turn it over, it helps your defense a lot.