Explosive Ability Fueling DeMarco Murray's Breakout Season

Matt Bowen @MattBowen41NFL National Lead WriterOctober 10, 2014

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DeMarco Murray is a one-cut runner, a “slasher” who has produced multiple explosive plays this year for the 4-1 Dallas Cowboys off both zone and power schemes.

There’s no question that Murray can grind out carries based on the tape. Look at the number of carries the running back has seen through the first five weeks of the season (130), including the 31 times he ran the ball in last Sunday’s 20-17 win over the Houston Texans.

However, I want to focus on the runs that produce “chunks” of yardage for a Cowboys offense that is winning with a balanced game plan. With a true test this Sunday versus the Seattle Seahawks defense, let’s focus on the core schemes in the Cowboys playbook that are allowing Murray to find running room and push the ball up the field.

The Zone Schemes

Murray runs “tall” (which exposes his lower body to contact), but his ability to cut through rush lanes in the Cowboys zone schemes really jumps off the tape. Whether that is the inside zone, outside zone (stretch) or the split zone, Murray can press the edge of the formation and attack defensive pursuit behind a young (and talented) offensive front.

NASHVILLE, TN - SEPTEMBER 14:  DeMarco Murray #29 of the Dallas Cowboys runs the ball against the Tennessee Titans  at LP Field on September 14, 2014 in Nashville, Tennessee.  (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)
Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

This offensive line in Dallas is impressive on the film because of its ability to use the “zone step” while creating positive interior angles to fit up on the second-level defenders scraping to the football. Plus, we can’t forget about the blocking ability of tight end Jason Witten at the point of attack. The veteran has been dominant in one-on-one matchups on the edge of the formation.

Let’s start with the two-back outside zone out of Regular/21 personnel (2WR-1TE-2RB) versus the Titans in Week 2.

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

Out of Pro Weak I formation, the fullback blocks the open- (weak-) side contain (“crunch” block) with rookie guard Zack Martin cutting down the nose tackle (eliminates inside pursuit).

To the closed (strong) side of the formation, both Witten and the guard turn out the defensive end and edge backer with left tackle Tyron Smith fitting up on the inside backer.

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

This creates an opportunity for Murray to cut up inside the guard and accelerate vertically into the secondary.

Murray will also show patience as he presses the edge of the formation in the zone schemes to allow the offensive front to get a “hat on a hat” before declaring with the ball. Here’s an example from Week 5 with Ace/12 personnel (2WR-2TE-1RB) on the field for the Cowboys versus the Texans’ 30 front.

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

Murray works the ball laterally to the edge of the formation as Martin “chips” on defensive end J.J. Watt before climbing to the inside ‘backer. Again, we see that one-cut, slashing style from Murray to push this run through the second level of the defense once the Cowboys offensive front established its blocks.

The last play I want to look at in the zone-based schemes focuses on the ability of Murray to read frontside and cut the ball back to the open edge of the formation. Check out this run from Murray on the two-back stretch scheme (Regular/21 personnel) versus the Rams’ eight-man front.

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

With Murray identifying the open-side pursuit and defensive end Robert Quinn taking a vertical path up the field (taught to play cutback, boot and reverse versus run away), the running back can cut to the closed side of the formation.

This allows Murray to attack the open edge and produce an explosive gain with Witten controlling the strong safety walked down into the run front. These zone schemes are a fit for Murray because of his running style and the strength to finish plays along with the quick, lateral movement to make defenders miss in the open field.

The Power Run Game

I would call the Cowboys a zone-heavy team after watching the tape, but they will use the power schemes (Lead Draw, Counter OF, Crack Toss) out of Ace/12, Regular/21 and Posse/11 (3WR-1TE-1RB) personnel groupings.

Here’s a quick look at the two-back Lead Draw versus the Texans to highlight the Cowboys ability to secure blocks at the point of attack.

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

This is a teaching-tape example with the fullback leading up on the linebacker and the Cowboys getting a “hat on a hat” along the front. Murray can make one cut (off the fullback lead) and force the safeties to fill downhill to make the tackle.

In Week 3, the Cowboys utilized the Counter OF scheme (open-side guard, tight end pull) out of Posse/11 to produce versus the Saints nickel fronts. This is a static look from the All-22 tape of the blocking scheme with Witten in a “Y off” alignment to the closed side of the formation.

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The Cowboys will pull left guard Ronald Leary and Witten to the open side of the formation with center Travis Frederick blocking down on the defensive tackle. Murray will take a quick slide step and attack downhill as both Leary and Witten pull up through the hole (off the block of Martin) to fit up on the second-level linebackers.

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

As you can see, Murray finds running room in the power scheme and displays his ability in the open field versus safety Jairus Byrd to pick up another “chunk” of yardage. 

Dallas came back to this same scheme to pick up a score with the Saints aligning in their “ruby” front (3DL-3LB) just before the half when Murray bounced the ball to the edge of the formation. Take a look at the run with the Saints playing Cover 2 in the secondary and Byrd running the alley (between the cornerback and edge of formation).

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

With the Saints in the “ruby” front, Witten adjusts his blocking path and works to the edge of the formation. That allows Murray to bounce the run to the outside, accelerate up the field and eliminate a very poor angle from Byrd on his way to six points.

Let’s look at one more power scheme and focus on the Crack Toss (jet motion) versus the Rams with Ace/12 personnel on the field in a Unit Slot formation.

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This is a smart call versus defenses that want to play Cover 1 (eight-man front) against the Cowboys, as the wide receiver jet motion forces the cornerback to “travel” with his coverage. That removes a defender to the playside and creates an opportunity to block down on the edge while pulling the open-side tackle and guard to account for the secondary run support.

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

With the cornerback widening the edge versus the tackle pull (instead of squeezing down) and the guard fitting up on the safety, Murray has a clean running lane to turn up the field and rip off a 44-yard gain versus the Rams.

As I said above, the Cowboys lean more on their zone schemes, but the tape tells us Murray can produce explosive gains in the power game as well.

The Matchup with Pete Carroll’s Seahawks

The Cowboys' offensive line and Murray will be tested this Sunday by a Seahawks defense that plays with speed at the second level and shows discipline in its gap fits.

Carroll’s unit is excellent at setting the edge, filling downhill and using the proper pursuit angles in the Under front (nose aligned to the closed side of the formation) with a safety walked down into the box (Cover 1, Cover 3).

Seattle shut down the running game of both Washington and Denver (zone-based teams) and is only giving up an average of just over 62 yards a game on the ground this season.

I would expect the Cowboys to work more out of their Posse/11 personnel in the "nickel runs" to force the Seahawks to limit the one-back runs with their subpackage on the field. However, if the Cowboys want to continue showing balance in the offensive game plan, they must establish the run out of both Ace/12 and Regular/21.

The tape tells the story on Murray’s ability, and the numbers back it up (670 yards rushing). But to beat the Seahawks—on the road—a couple of those explosive plays we broke down have to show up Sunday.

Seven-year NFL veteran Matt Bowen is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report.