A version of this article was published by the Detroit Free Press.
The Lions’ defense has been stout against the run all season, but in their wild card playoff matchup against the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday afternoon, they will face a beast of a rushing attack.
Running behind one of the better offensive lines in the game, workhorse DeMarco Murray amassed 1,845 yards (4.7 YPC) and 13 touchdowns, averaging a remarkable 115 yards per game on the ground. His 392 rushing attempts tied for seventh-most in a single season. He added 57 receptions for 416 yards in the passing game.
The Lions struggled to stop the run in last week’s loss to Green Bay as Detroit gave up a season-high 152 yards on the ground. Eddie Lacy became the only running back to reach the century mark on the Lions this season, rushing for 100 yards on 26 carries. He broke numerous tackles early in the game to keep the chains moving, which took pressure off an injured Aaron Rodgers. The Packers spread the Lions out with three receivers (11 personnel) and pounded the rock in the pistol formation against Detroit’s nickel package. They gashed the Lions on the opening drive of the game for 56 yards on the first four runs using an uptempo offense to push the pace and deny defensive adjustments.
On the year, the Lions have allowed just 69.3 rushing yards per game (3.2 YPC) and boast the top run defense according to Football Outsiders. The Cowboys possess the third-best rushing attack per FO by posting 147 rushing yards per contest.
Let’s examine the staple run play from the Cowboys and explain what the Lions can do to contain it.
Against Washington last week, the Cowboys ran their core play, the stretch run. The Cowboys like to run out of a one-back set, but here they lined-up in their goal line package with an extra lineman and two tight ends. They tabbed fullback Tyler Clutts as the lead-blocker for Murray on this third-and-one play from late in the first quarter.
At the snap, the offensive linemen employ a zone-step to the left to force the defense to flow with them. Clutts will seal the edge against the first ‘free’ defender.
Washington’s defensive end and defensive tackle (DT) to the play-side tried to shoot the gap to the inside to thwart the play in the backfield. However, they were picked up by the guard and center, which allowed extra lineman Tony Hills and Pro Bowl left tackle Tyron Smith to head straight to the linebackers.
Smith (No. 77) showed off his athleticism at the second-level by smothering the linebacker and Hills (No. 67) held his block. Murray had a huge hole to his right but stayed to the outside until he saw the only unaccounted for defender in veteran safety Ryan Clark. Murray used a quick jump cut inside and broke loose.
Murray’s 32-yard gallop set the Cowboys single-season rushing mark, surpassing Emmitt Smith’s 1995 season total.
In the second quarter, the Cowboys ran the stretch play in the red zone out of a more traditional formation. Jason Witten took out the edge defender. The play-side tackle and guard, and center and backside guard, used combinations block to first double-team Washington’s left DT (No. 72) and NT (No. 92) before sliding up to the second level. To the backside, Smith executed a one-on-one with the right DT, while the edge defender (not pictured) was left unblocked because he should not be able to chase down a speeding Murray.
You can see the two great double-teams by the offensive line, which moved the line of scrimmage and allowed Murray ample room to navigate.
The Cowboys line held their blocks for long enough, and Murray showed good patience and strength as he bounced off a few would-be tacklers for the touchdown.
Against this run, the defense has to play together and keep their gap integrity to stifle Murray. The Philadelphia Eagles were the first team to stop this play and the Cowboys run game in general with Tony Romo behind center.
Throughout the game on Thanksgiving Day, the Eagles used an eight-man front by dropping a safety into the box and played man on the outside with a single high safety. This left them susceptible to the pass but for this game, they won those matchups.
On the opening play, the Cowboys called their bread-and-butter stretch run to the left, utilizing double-teams on the nose tackle and right DT. The Eagles showed an eight-man front with safety Malcolm Jenkins lined up outside the tight end to the right.
The first key is that stand-up linebacker Trent Cole set the edge, and forced Murray to cut to the inside. The inside linebacker filled a hole and both defensive lineman held their gaps against double-teams, which formed a wall against Murray. The backside defensive tackle, linebacker, and safety flowed to the ball but stayed in their gaps and did not allow a cutback lane.
Murray was forced to put his head down and fall forward into the line for a minimal gain.
In order for the Lions to slow Murray and the ground game, the front seven must build a wall, shed blocks, avoid missed tackles, and rally to the football. Murray is powerful in the hole and quick for his size making him difficult to bring down in the open field. It will be a team effort in stopping the run, but the Lions have the personnel to do so.
If they can slow Murray, it will be up to the pass-rush and secondary to stifle a white-hot passing game led by the duo of Tony Romo and Dez Bryant. The Cowboys are a complete offensive team, but it all starts with the run game and that stretch play. Look for Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin to prioritize stopping the run and put the confidence in his secondary against the pass.
Credit to NFL Game Rewind for the game film. All Illustrations and GIFs were created by Marlowe Alter for the purpose of reporting, commenting and critiquing.