(Sports Network) - Dallas Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray had his breakout performance of the season and took pressure off quarterback Tony Romo. Murray will try to establish a running theme when the NFC East-leading Cowboys visit the San Diego Chargers Sunday afternoon.
Murray averaged 55.5 yards over the first two games of the season and busted out for 175 yards and a touchdown on 26 carries in Sunday's 31-7 demolition of the St. Louis Rams. Murray had 20 carries in a Week 1 win over the New York Giants and it appears the Cowboys are in good hands when they feed him the ball regularly.
"If you give DeMarco holes, he can make great cuts and can take it all the way," Cowboys linebacker Sean Lee said. "He's a complete back, and so it was fun to see him break out a little bit."
Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett said after Sunday's game that establishing the run was important because the line was able to get physical up front with the Rams and set the tone early. The ground attack, plus an efficient performance from Romo, allowed the Cowboys to take over the sloppy NFC East, which has two 0-3 teams in New York and Washington and 1-2 Philadelphia.
Dallas, which has led the entire way in two of the first three games of the season, allowed Romo to do just enough to pick apart the Rams. Romo was sacked only once and completed 17-of-24 passes for 210 yards and three TDs.
"We're as strong as we've been on the interior of our offensive line in about three years," Garrett said. "We've made some personnel moves to help make that happen. We've been healthier and I think that's helped make that happen. We're just a stronger team. I think you see that in our running game and you use that in our pass protection and that's been a real positive. So hopefully we can build on some of the things we did."
The Cowboys are facing a Chargers squad that has given up the second-most yards in the NFL at 470.7 ypg and can earn a commanding lead in the division by taking advantage of every opportunity. That would mean giving the ball to Murray, who faces a San Diego run defense that allows 130 ypg this season. Murray racked up 37 yards on his first four carries against the Rams.
"I just think in general we need to run the ball better, and he's the guy running it," Garrett said. "I think everybody needed that kind of game ... offensive linemen needed that kind of game, our offense in general ... and obviously he's the beneficiary of it as the guy with the ball in his hand."
San Diego's running game could use a boost because Ryan Mathews hasn't been getting the job done with a team-leading 164 yards on the season. That's less than what Murray ran for last week. Mathews, a lightning rod for injuries, had 58 yards on 16 carries and still hasn't found the end zone running the ball.
It's been a topsy-turvy season for the Chargers. They blew a significant lead to Houston in Week 1, then handed Philadelphia a loss on its home turf and dropped another heartbreaker Sunday versus Tennessee. Titans receiver Justin Hunter caught a 34-yard touchdown pass with 15 seconds left for a 20-17 win over the Chargers, whose three games have been decided by three points.
Penalties hurt San Diego on Sunday, as it was flagged 11 times for 116 yards.
"There were a lot of good things and that's what we stressed to the team," Chargers head coach Mike McCoy said. "We have to build off the good things, but really clean-up the mistakes as soon as possible. There are a lot of little details of things we are doing offensively, defensively and on special teams."
Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers has been impressive the past two weeks with a QB rating no less than 112.5. Rivers, who shredded the Eagles for 419 yards and three TDs, threw for 184 yards with a touchdown on 20-of-24 passing versus the Titans. The reigning AFC Offensive Player of the Week had seven touchdown passes through the first two weeks.
"The game kind of goes through spurts," Rivers explained. "They (Titans) were playing a lot of two-deep coverages or man underneath. I don't know how many total plays we had, but it didn't feel like we had the ball as much as we did last week. And we had some short fields."
Rivers was the subject of controversy in the second quarter, when he was whistled for unsportsmanlike conduct when he argued an offensive pass interference call on wide receiver Keenan Allen. The penalty erased a five- yard TD catch by Eddie Royal and the play would have made it 14-3.
"I have not seen the replay. I'm not sure if it was the right call or not," Rivers told the San Diego Union Tribune. "Obviously, that's what I was so upset about. That was a big play. It was a big play in the game. It was a touchdown, and it gets called back."
For how porous the defense has been, San Diego cannot afford to give away points. That will cost them down the road if it continues. Rivers, though, has shined throughout the last three weeks and has completed 70-of-100 attempts (70 percent) for 798 yards, eight touchdowns, one interception and a rating of 116.2. Among starting QBs, Rivers is second in completion percentage, touchdowns and passer rating.
Whether that translates into a win over the Cowboys is a mystery.
Dallas leads the all-time series with San Diego, 6-3, and the two teams haven't met since a 20-17 win by the Chargers on Dec. 13, 2009. Rivers threw for 272 yards with a touchdown, while Romo passed for 249 yards and two scores. The Chargers have won two of the past three in this series.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
The Cowboys defense racked up six sacks against the Rams and will try to get in Rivers' face Sunday. Rivers has been sacked five times this season and went down just twice versus Tennessee behind a solid offensive line.
Dallas will try to bust that line and held the Rams to 232 total yards, including 35 rushing. All-Pro linebacker DeMarcus Ware and linebacker Justin Durant each had six tackles Sunday, but Ware also posted two sacks to pass Harvey Martin as the team's all-time sacks leader.
"He's one of the best that ever did it. He's the best, in my opinion," Cowboys defensive end Jason Hatcher said. "It's a privilege to play alongside a guy like that, a future Hall of Famer. He's just a great teammate. He loves his teammates. It couldn't happen to a better guy."
Expect Ware's role to expand even further with the recent injury to defensive end Anthony Spencer, who may need microfracture surgery on his left knee. Spencer underwent knee surgery at the end of July and missed the Cowboys' season opener against the Giants. He returned in Week 2 against Kansas City and just missed Week 3's win against St. Louis.
"It's a real setback," Cowboys owner Jerry Jones told 105.3 'The Fan' in Dallas on Tuesday morning.
The Cowboys made some moves across the defensive line by signing former Colts defensive tackle Drake Nevis and waiving Jerome Long. Nevis was released at the end of training camp and was claimed off waivers by the Chargers, who then released him.
So far this season the Chargers have been able to keep Rivers' jersey clean. They have turned away three decent pass rushes over the first three weeks, which has led to the re-emergence of Antonio Gates (228 yards, TD) and the breakout of Eddie Royal (148 yards, 5 TD). The Chargers will have to keep airing it out until Mathews proves he can help move the chains and give San Diego some options other than passing the ball.
The Cowboys can grab a stranglehold on the NFC East with a win Sunday and that will come via another strong outing by Murray. It appears Murray has found his groove and nobody is more appreciative than Romo, who is hoping this lasts so he doesn't have to carry the team. Wide receiver Dez Bryant said his ailing back is getting better and should be "100 percent" by Sunday. Bryant has to like what he sees from San Diego's weak pass defense and will contribute immediately. Rivers will still get his numbers, but it won't be enough.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Cowboys 24, Chargers 17