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Things of that nature: Defending the Cowboys' rushing attack

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The playoffs are here. Let's talk about the most intriguing matchup of the weekend.

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For the second week in a row, the holidays conspire against us. So, for the second week in a row, I have the pleasure of bringing you "Things of that nature" one day early. Consider it your first shot toward having a wonderful New Year's Eve. Even with the tomfoolery of Wednesday night's festivities and Thursday's College Football Playoff, the biggest party this weekend needs to occur on Sunday night.

You're obviously aware of the Dallas Cowboys' success on the ground this season. DeMarco Murray led the league in rushing by about 6,000 yards behind the best run-blocking offensive line in the NFL, per Football Outsiders' DVOA (though only 17th in pass protection). My nightmare for this game involves the Cowboys running the fake dive/weakside pitch (which Scott Linehan is still calling!) for a backbreaking gain in the fourth quarter. My dream involves something like this. Weakside pitch or no, if the Cowboys are going to have success on the ground against the Detroit Lions on Sunday, odds are they'll do it the same way they've done it all season.

If I had to venture a guess, I'd say that approximately 35 to 40 percent of the Cowboys' run plays are zone calls. We've spent plenty of time here in the past talking about zone runs in a Linehan offense, but I don't think I've ever seen an offensive line that blocks them as well as the 2014 Cowboys.

Dallas Zone 1

This is your basic outside zone call. The Cowboys motion Dwayne Harris to the tight end side as an additional blocker against J.J. Watt before running Murray to the weak side. That TE/WR combo also presents devastating possibilities on the play-action boot, but otherwise, there's nothing specific about the formation to tip off the play call. The Cowboys run zone out of virtually all formations and personnel groups. What doesn't change is the way the Cowboys' offensive line executes combo blocks and gets to the second level of the defense ahead of Murray:

Dallas Zone 2

I illustrated the screenshot out of adherence to tradition, but it's almost entirely unnecessary. You can obviously tell where Murray is headed. What's more impressive is how smooth Ronald Leary (65) and Tyron Smith (77) are in sealing off the backside. Leary is already turning away the backside ILB while Smith keeps leverage on the 3-technique.

As you'd expect, the Cowboys' offensive line does an equally admirable job blocking the inside zone:

Dallas Zone 3

Murray has taken his first step, and Travis Frederick (72) is already on his way to the second level. Notice the inside position that the 1-tech has on Leary, and keep it in mind on the next shot. Meanwhile, Zack Martin (70) helps secure the 6-tech before sealing the remaining ILB to the outside:

Dallas Zone 4

This is the type of image you put in a coaching manual. It's the Platonic ideal of an inside zone block.

Of course, at the center of all this is Murray himself. The Cowboys could very well have produced a 1,000-yard season out of a ham sandwich this year, but Murray is more than a product of his offensive line. He's fast, he runs through tackles and he's patient. Seemingly every time defenders overpursue down the line on a zone play, Murray makes a cutback to break away for a big gain.

Given the extent to which the Cowboys run zone, it seems prudent to review the ways in which defenses can stop it. And, like they have been all season, the Lions are better equipped than almost any team in the league to do so.

Taylor Edge 1

Zone runs rely on stretching defenses and creating creases for the running back to cut upfield. Thus, the first step in preventing that is for the playside defensive end (in a 4-3 scheme) to set the edge. If the edge defender isn't moving horizontally with the play, the rest of the offensive line comes together like an accordion. The Lions may not have a ton of speed at the defensive end position, but they do have size.

Taylor Edge 2

Devin Taylor is the playside defensive end on this play. Taylor is barely from where his pre-snap alignment is. And, as Ndamukong Suh and Andre Fluellen come crashing down from the left, Lamar Miller has nowhere to run. He tries to slip through a narrow gap, but Taylor is there to take him down for a minimal gain.

Gap integrity is another crucial element of defending the zone run. In situations that get the playside defensive end moving horizontally, the rest of the defensive line has to stay square to the backfield; turned shoulders create running lanes.

Additionally, just as defenses have to avoid being stretched horizontally, they also have to avoid being staggered vertically against the zone. Defensive linemen penetrating too far into the backfield can create a crease just as easily as one running toward the sideline.

Minny Zone

If anything presents a problem for the Lions' run defense against Dallas, it's probably this. The defensive line thrives on penetration, which is inherently a gamble against a zone team. When things go right, the play is stopped before it starts. You've seen enough tackles for a loss by Suh to know what that looks like. When things go wrong, running backs split those north-south gaps for big gains. I highly doubt that's going to change with the Lions on Sunday -- and you certainly can't argue against the results -- but it's something to keep an eye on.

Finally, any successful defense against a zone team requires discipline from backside defenders. We already noted Murray's propensity for cutting back against the grain when the opportunity presents itself, but Tony Romo has been rolling to the backside on bootlegs his entire career.

Ziggy Back 1

The Miami Dolphins run an outside zone out of the shotgun to Miller here. (Technically, I believe it's a zone read with Ryan Tannehill, but that's not something to worry about from Romo these days.) The Miami offensive line attempts to turn Suh, George Johnson and DeAndre Levy inside to the right of the image on this play.

Ziggy Back 2

Suh, Johnson and Levy all establish leverage to the play side, leading Miller to cut back toward Ziggy Ansah, who is alone on an island. Ansah makes an athletic spin move around the left tackle to bring down Miller for no gain when he tries to cut outside. As athletic a play as it is, it does give me slight pause. Ansah has the tendency to allow himself to be washed inside on plays like this. His athleticism allows him to get out of a potential trouble spot here, but against more talented left tackles (i.e., Tyron Smith) and backs, that may not always be the case.

Noted concerns aside, the Lions are the NFL's best run defense for a reason, even during a season in which the team has lost two-thirds of the middle of its defense. Losing Suh would have been crippling. With him back, the Lions have as good a shot as any team in the league. My Kool-Aid glass is filled to the brim. Bottoms up, friends.