The spotlight will be squarely on the quarterbacks when the Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins square off Sunday night with the NFC East title on the line.
But with forecasts calling for temperatures at FedEx Field to dip into the 20s, the focus could shift quickly from the Cowboys’ Tony Romo and the Redskins’ Robert Griffin III to running backs DeMarco Murray and Alfred Morris.
Griffin was the catalyst for Washington’s 38-31 victory over Dallas on Thanksgiving, completing 71.4 percent of his passes for 311 yards and four touchdowns in one of the rookie of the year candidate’s top performances. But Morris, another rookie, did plenty of heavy lifting with a rugged 24-carry, 113-yard, one-TD showing.
“RG3, everybody’s enamored,” Cowboys defensive end Marcus Spears told reporters in Irving. “But it’s not like he’s back there alone. He can hand the ball off to a guy that can make plays.”
Indeed, Morris is fourth in the league with 1,413 yards on 302 attempts, a major reason Washington leads the league in rush offense at 162.3 yards per game. His big game against Dallas was the first of three 100-yard games in a row during a six-game winning streak that propelled the Redskins (9-6) from cellar dwellers to division leaders.
Another big game could be in store for Morris, considering he’s going up against an injury-depleted defense that ranks 17th against the run (115.3 yards per game) and will be without five of its best run stuffers.
“RG3 is the phenom that everybody loves, but this running back has been killing people and may be the most dangerous guy on the field,” Spears said in an eyebrow-raising comment given Griffin’s otherworldly skills.
“That’s not to take anything away from RG3. But when you look at the film, (Morris) is averaging almost 120 yards rushing per game. Usually when teams do that, they win. So we got a lot on our hands.”
A sixth-round pick from Florida Atlantic, Morris is the latest late-round or undrafted gem at running back to be unearthed by Redskins coach Mike Shanahan.
“Not too many rookies can handle the load he has,” Shanahan said of Morris, who has rushed for 10 TDs in the coach’s famed zone-blocking scheme.
“But he’s a special guy, a very humble, hard worker.”
The Cowboys (8-7) were without Murray in the first meeting with the Redskins and gained only 35 yards on 11 attempts. In his four games since returning from a foot injury that sidelined him for six contests, the second-year pro from Oklahoma has rushed for 80-plus yards twice and has run for a TD in three of those outings.
“The game kind of dictated them not being able to run the football as much on Thanksgiving,” said Washington linebacker London Fletcher, noting the Redskins led 28-3 at halftime after Griffin and Morris combined for four scores in the second quarter.
“With Murray, he’s a big back, breaks tackles, runs hard. Obviously, having him in the fold makes their run game better.”
Still, Murray managed only 40 yards on 11 carries and failed to score a TD in last week’s 34-31 overtime loss to New Orleans, a contest in which the Saints controlled possession for almost 65 percent of the game.
The Cowboys are 31st in rush offense, averaging 77.7 yards per game.
Washington is fifth in rush defense, yielding 95.5 yards per outing.
“They are a very good run defense and have been for a number of years,” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said while heaping praise on Redskins defensive coordinator Jim Haslett.