Welcome to the first-ever playoff edition of Opposing Player to Watch. This week, there is no shortage of options to highlight on the Dallas Cowboys' roster. Quarterback Tony Romo just finished arguably his best season as a pro, Dez Bryant is a top-tier receiving threat and the defense remains stout despite losing several key contributors like Sean Lee, Justin Durant and Henry Melton. Even with this talent on their roster, one Cowboys player stood out this season: running back DeMarco Murray.
In the era of running back committees and passing attacks, Murray continues to serve Dallas as an every-down workhorse back. This season, the durable Murray received 392 rushing attempts -- 80 more than any other player -- and proceeded to churn out 1,845 yards to secure the league rushing title and break Emmitt Smith's single-season rushing record for the Cowboys. That is impressive, but does not tell the whole story, as Murray also caught 57 balls for 416 yards and scored 13 total touchdowns on the year.
On paper, this matchup is the No. 1 rushing defense in the NFL against the league's top rusher. Given Detroit's incredible success this year against the run, I would normally feel somewhat confident in the defense's ability to slow Murray down even if they are not able to totally eliminate his impact. After watching Green Bay running back Eddie Lacy cut through the defense with ease last week, I am less confident. Both Murray and Lacy are big power backs and play with similar styles. Murray, like Lacy, has the ability to turn a small interior hole into a big gainer and blow through any arm tackles along the way.
To make matters worse, the Cowboys boast one of the best offensive lines in the league in contrast to the inconsistent Green Bay Packers offensive line. The Detroit Lions are very fortunate that they will have defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh in the lineup after all, because his interior presence will be critical this week. Even that may not be enough, and defensive coordinator Teryl Austin may have to abandon the coverage-heavy scheme he employed against the Packers and dedicate more players to the line of scrimmage to stop Murray from taking over the game. That will obviously open the Lions up to a passing attack by Romo and Bryant, but those are the choices the Lions have to make against playoff-caliber teams like the Cowboys.
Ironically, facing Murray may also provide an opportunity. The Lions are a very opportunistic defense this year and forced fumbles from the stingy Lacy both times they faced the Packers this year. Murray, by contrast, is not stingy with his turnovers and has struggled with ball control during his career. He had five fumbles lost during the regular season, and the Lions winning the turnover battle will be hugely important this week.
Bottom line: This week will not be a cake walk. The Lions have to go on the road and beat a good team for the first time this season and in Matthew Stafford's career. The Cowboys' offensive attack is balanced and is coming off of a great month of performances. The strength-on-strength matchup in the rushing game will be great to watch and may determine the outcome of the game. Hopefully the Lions' interior rush defense is up to the task.