Our offseason Four Downs series continues with a division-by-division look at each team's biggest remaining holes and their most notable UDFA signings. In the NFC North, quality wide receivers and defensive backs are in short supply.
20 Dec 2006
By Michael David Smith
The Dallas Cowboys' two running backs, Marion Barber and Julius Jones, couldn't have been more different in Saturday night's 38-28 win over the Atlanta Falcons. Barber carried the ball 11 times for 69 yards and two touchdowns; Jones carried 13 times for 26 yards and no scores. Barber picked up a first down rushing six times; Jones did it once. Barber's median run went eight yards; Jones' median run went two yards.
It's been like that all year. They play in the same offense behind the same line, but Barber consistently gives his team more production than Jones. Barber has 122 carries for 636 yards, a 5.2 yards per carry average; Jones has 247 carries for 1019 yards, a 4.1 average. Barber has 43 first downs, meaning he gets one on 35.2 percent of his carries; Jones has 41 first downs, meaning he gets one on 16.6 percent of his carries. Barber has 13 rushing touchdowns; Jones has five.
What can Barber do that Jones can't that makes Barber such a superior runner? And why does Bill Parcells continue to make Jones his starter? To find out, I watched and then re-watched every play of the Cowboys' victory over the Falcons. Although I came away thinking Jones has better straight-line speed than Barber and is a better blocker, Barber is so superior at finding holes, breaking tackles, and getting open on pass plays that the Cowboys are making a big mistake by having Jones as their featured back.
Jones' first run came on first-and-10 on the Cowboys' first possession, and it showed his inability to find openings in the opposing defense. Jones had fullback Lousaka Polite in front of him in the backfield, and tight end Anthony Fasano went in motion from left to right before the snap. If Jones had cut to the outside, around Fasano's block, he appeared to have enough space to pick up at least a few yards. Instead he stayed to the inside, running directly into Atlanta defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux. He was stopped for no gain.
Contrast that with Barber's first run, on first-and-10 from the Atlanta 21. It was typical Barber: He took the handoff, took a hard step toward the left tackle and then changed direction quickly behind the line of scrimmage when he saw a hole between the left guard and center. He exploded through that hole, and if a collision with the umpire hadn't slowed him down, he probably would have scored. Instead, he gained 13 yards.
Jones does have a good burst of speed. On his second run, a toss sweep to the left side, his blockers didn't do much to clear space for him, but Jones accelerated and picked up a quick six yards before Michael Boley made the stop. Barber, on the other hand, tried on one run to cut to the outside and showed that he doesn't have as much speed as Jones. As he got to the left tackle, he wasn't quick enough to get around Boley, and Boley slowed him down before Atlanta cornerback Allen Rossum tackled him for a gain of just one yard.
Jones' superior speed is nice, but Jones doesn't maneuver enough in traffic to be an effective short-yardage back. After a penalty in the second quarter, the Cowboys had first-and-5 and figured they could pick up the first down with a couple handoffs to Jones. On first down, Jones was alone in the backfield until Jason Witten motioned in to play fullback in an offset I formation. Jones ran into the middle of the line and was tackled immediately by defensive tackles Grady Jackson and Rod Coleman. On the next play, second-and-5, Jones again ran directly into the heart of the Falcons' defense. This time his offensive linemen got a better push, so he gained three yards, but it was a lackluster run that showed no vision or cutting ability, just a straight-ahead run into a hole that wasn't there.
Barber is great in short yardage. On a second-and-1 in the third quarter, Barber was behind Polite in an offset I formation. Two Falcons linebackers, Boley and Edgerton Hartwell, had a shot at Barber before he got to the line of scrimmage. If Jones had had the ball, it's a near certainty that one of them would have tackled him, but Barber bounced off both of them and picked up eight yards. Barber ran through and around tackles all night. On first-and-10 late in the first quarter, Hartwell met Barber two yards beyond the line of scrimmage, but Barber made a great spin move to get past Hartwell and pick up six more yards.
Barber's first touchdown came on first-and-goal from the 9-yard line. It was a stretch handoff to the right side, and in the same situation Jones almost certainly would have tried to break to the outside and run out of real estate. But Barber saw a small gap in the line and cut back to the inside, and as soon as he did he made a beeline for the end zone. Atlanta linebacker Keith Brooking got a clean shot at him at the 3-yard line, but Barber simply lowered his shoulder, knocked Brooking to the ground and went into the end zone.
My favorite Barber run of the night came on third-and-1 with just under four minutes left in the game. Dallas had a three-point lead, and Atlanta desperately needed a stop. Everyone in the building knew the ball was going to Barber, and the Falcons put nine in the box to try to stop him. The play was designed to go off tackle, but Barber read Atlanta's defense and bounced it to the outside to pick up the first down. But he wasn't done; Atlanta safety Lawyer Milloy came to try to push Barber out of bounds to stop the clock, but Barber stiff-armed him and dove forward to stay in bounds. Two plays later Barber scored on second-and-goal from the 3-yard line, and the game was over.
Barber's superior running ability is undermined by his failures in blitz pickup. On a few pass plays Barber made only halfhearted efforts to block, and on one he allowed his quarterback to get drilled: That one was on a third-and-10, with Barber lined up as a lone setback responsible for picking up whoever got through the line first. Barber turned his head back and forth twice, never seeming to know where the rush would come from, and he stepped to his right just as Falcons linebacker Demorrio Williams got into the Cowboys' backfield to his left. If Barber had read the Falcons' blitz properly, he only would have had to step in front of Romo to give his quarterback enough time to get rid of the ball. But he didn't, and the sack was Barber's fault. Jones isn't a spectacular blocker â€“ he didn't pancake anyone â€“ but he was better than Barber because he managed to get in front of blitzing linebackers and safeties any time they try to pressure Romo.
Although Parcells was no doubt unhappy with Barber's blocking against Atlanta, he seems to realize that his strategy of giving Jones so many more carries than Barber was flawed. In the Cowboys' first eight games this year, Jones had 164 carries and Barber had 59. In the last six games, Jones has had 83 carries and Barber has had 63. By January I expect Barber to get the ball more than Jones does. That's the game plan that gives the Cowboys the best shot at the Super Bowl.
Each week, Michael David Smith looks at one specific player or one aspect of a team on every single play of the previous game. Standard caveat applies: Yes, one game is not necessarily an indicator of performance over the entire season.
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