SPECIAL FEATURE: Dallas Cowboys looking to plug exposed middle of offensive line by utilizing all of their offensive tools

IRVING — It happened in an instant. During the second quarter of the New York Giants’ 41-35 victory over Dallas in October 2010, linebacker Michael Boley flashed through a gap and slammed Tony Romo to the turf, fracturing the Cowboys quarterback’s left collarbone.

The impact of Boley’s devastating hit reverberated the rest of the season because Romo would never take another snap after being injured.

More than a year later, Cowboys coach Jason Garrett was asked to reflect on the collision that rocked the Cowboys’ universe in 2010.

"That’s a long time ago," Garrett said Friday. "That’s really not part of our concern right now."

Boley’s hit may no longer be on the Cowboys’ minds but what caused it to happen – poor pass protection – is.

"That’s one of the things we have to work on," said Cowboys offensive line coach Hudson Houck.

Last week, in Dallas’ 19-13 overtime loss to Arizona, the Cardinals were able to create sustained pressure by attacking the interior of the Cowboys’ line – just like Boley did when he blitzed up the middle a season ago.

Against Arizona, the Cowboys conceded five sacks – two of which were surrendered by center Phil Costa and right guard Kyle Kosier. The Cowboys are under the assumption the Giants, who have recorded 33 sacks, will copy the Cardinals’ plan.

"Whatever they throw at us, we’ve got to deal with it," left guard Montrae Holland said. "But we’re trying to solidify the middle."

Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo working with a young, but improving, offensive line in 2011.

Star-Telegram/Max Faulkner

Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo working with a young, but improving, offensive line in 2011.

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The Fiammetta Factor:

The numbers don’t lie.

Running back DeMarco Murray rushed for a team record 601 yards in four games with fullback Tony Fiammetta leading the way.

With Fiammetta out the past three games with an illness, Murray has tallied 198 yards.

It goes without saying that Murray is excited to have Fiammetta back in the lineup for Sunday’s game against the Giants.

“He’s a hard working guy,” Murray said. “He does all the dirty work for me. I am very excited to have him back. I definitely I knew I wasn’t going to go for a 150 every game. I understand that. You are going to have ups and downs. You got to continue to get better, it’s all about the next game. But I’m feeling good about this week.”

Beginning this weekend, we’ll see how the Fiammetta Factor effects both DeMarco Murray and running back Felix Jones.

Dallas Cowboys DeMarco Murray runs for a touchdown

Dallas Cowboys DeMarco Murray runs for a touchdown

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Dallas Cowboys running back Felix Jones (28) runs past New York Jets Ropati Pitoitua (79) and Eric Smith (33) to score a one-yard touchdown.

Dallas Cowboys running back Felix Jones (28) runs past New York Jets Ropati Pitoitua and Eric Smith to score a one-yard touchdown.

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The Austin Impact:

Perhaps the law of averages goes a long way toward explaining the recent downturn in production for DeMarco Murray, who has averaged only 66 yards per game over the last three weeks.

Or perhaps its the absence of the fullback, Tony Fiammetta, or the star wide receiver, Miles Austin, who can discourage defenses from stacking the line. It all works together.

For the most part, the running game has been productive, even if the average is down. Last week, Murray’s 12 carries produced gains of 7, 3, 5, 7, 6, -3, -3, 1, 4, 0, 6 and 5.

The negative runs and the no gain are a problem, but what’s really missing are the long gains. In his first four games as the Cowboys’ lead back, against St. Louis, Philadelphia, Seattle and Buffalo, Murray was busting long carries each week – 91, 26, 32, 25.

Even against Miami, Murray had an 18-yarder. But his longest against Washington was 8, and his longest against Arizona was 7.

"Last week we ran the ball efficiently, but no long runs," running game coordinator Hudson Houck said. "So the yards per carry were going to be down. The average is going to be down. But I think the success of each play, the four yards or more, was extremely high last week. We just didn’t get any long runs, and that’s where you get your average."

Again, it all works together. The shortage of long runs may have a lot to do with the absence of Fiammetta, and Austin being out might have allowed safeties to creep up to the line of scrimmage.

Last week, the Giants were able to stop the run while still playing their safeties back in coverage most of the time.

"Maybe that’s more so what we’ve seen," Houck said. "The team we’re playing right now (New York) . . . Green Bay, they averaged 2.1 yards per rush against them, and that’s not very good.

"They’re pretty good against the run, even when it wasn’t an eight-man front."

Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Miles Austin (19) runs past San Francisco 49ers cornerback Carlos Rogers (22) as he scores on a 53-yard touchdown pass

Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Miles Austin (19) runs past San Francisco 49ers cornerback Carlos Rogers as he scores on a 53-yard touchdown pass.

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Robinson’s Roll (Role):

Following Friday’s return to practice, wide receiver Laurent Robinson said his injured shoulder felt good and he’s "ready to roll" Sunday night against the Giants.

Robinson started the last four games in place of Miles Austin (hamstring), who’s expected to return Sunday as well. A healthy Robinson would give quarterback Tony Romo his full complement of receivers and for really the first time all season.

Robinson ranks third on the team with 42 catches for 626 yards and seven touchdowns, briefly left last week’s loss to Arizona but was able to finish the game. He didn’t practice Wednesday and Thursday.

If active Sunday, he’d likely work as the third receiver and move outside in three-wide sets whenever Austin moves into the slot.

Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Laurent Robinson (81) catches a 27 yard pass from Tony Romo

STAR-TELEGRAM/RODGER MALLISON

Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Laurent Robinson (81) catches a 27 yard pass from Tony Romo

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What Diamond Dez Does:

Dez Bryant knows if he keeps working and playing hard, breakout performances will follow.

The Cowboys’ second-year receiver has 46 catches for 706 yards and seven touchdowns this season. He showed signs of becoming a go-to receiver for Tony Romo in Miles Austin’s absence, making overtime catches that put the offense in field goal position in a recent win over Washington and a recent loss to Arizona.

Austin’s return from a hamstring injury excites Bryant because it will create more matchup issues for defenses. Coverages can’t key on everyone.

“Any one of us could make a play," Bryant said Thursday. "It could be a game where Laurent (Robinson), Miles, K.O. (Kevin Ogletree) or me don’t catch a ball at all, but I guarantee those next couple of guys are going to make big plays and have a huge game and we’re still going to win a game.”

Even when there’s a stretch without a catch, Bryant is finding another way to contribute late. His 20-yard punt return on Thanksgiving led to Dan Bailey’s winning field goal against Miami, and he ripped off another return near the end of regulation against Arizona that was nullified by a penalty.

“I’m always in rhythm," Bryant said of staying patient. "In that case, I’d be screwed on punt returns. My mind would be gone.

"It’s just a lot of different ways that you can make a play, because you know who you’ve got on offense. This is a blessed team when it comes to the offense.”

Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant (88) celebrates with Dallas Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett after his touchdown

Star-Telegram/Max Faulkner

Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant (88) celebrates with Dallas Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett after his touchdown

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The Wonders of Witten (Romo’s relief valve):

Cowboys tight end Jason Witten praised Robinson for his play at wide receiver but admitted longing for Austin to return to the lineup.

Witten said he can notice a difference in defenses when Austin does not play. Without Austin, defenses tend to focus on Witten.

"You feel respect for that, but at the same time, you’re a little upset by it, because it gets you out of your rhythm," Witten said. "You have to keep your poise. When the opportunities come, even though they may be lesser, you have to take advantage of them."

Witten has been shut out in the first quarter of each of the last two games. Overall, his production has not suffered during Austin’s absences this season. In six games with Austin in the lineup, Witten has 30 catches for 394 yards and three touchdowns. In five games without Austin, Witten has 26 catches for 319 yards and two touchdowns.

Without a doubt, it’s Jason Witten that has become the glue that holds the entire offense together for the Dallas Cowboys. His role in blocking, bumping, and being there for Romo’s insurance receiver has been instrumental. Witten is one of the best in the business at doing what he does. Tight ends John Phillips and a healthy Martellus Bennett can also make important contributions as blockers and momentum-sustaining receivers.

Dallas Cowboys' Jason Witten scores a touchdown

Dallas Cowboys’ Jason Witten scores a touchdown

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Dallas Cowboys tight end John Phillips (89) makes a one handed catch

Star-Telegram/Max Faulkner

Dallas Cowboys tight end John Phillips (89) makes a one handed catch

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The Romo Rollout:

The final element on the effectiveness of the Dallas Cowboy offense falls to Tony Romo. His ability to rollout, buy time, and occasionally run for the first down is essential.  When an opposing defense has to account for the quarterback, along with all of the other offensive weapons, it makes for a long day at the office!

Tony Romo’s elusiveness helps cover the young offensive line’s weaknesses … and generally helps to move the chains. The planned Romo rollout (and scramble) is one of Dallas’ most valuable resources.

Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo (9) eludes a sack by Arizona Cardinals defensive end Calais Campbell (93) and makes a completion to Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant

Star-Telegram/Max Faulkner

Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo (9) eludes a sack by Arizona Cardinals defensive end Calais Campbell (93) and makes a completion to Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant

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Photographs courtesy: Ft Worth Star-Telegram and San Antonio Express-News

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