Packers Xs and Os Film Session: Previewing the Cowboys Run Game

Photo credit: Rueters

This weekend, the Dallas Cowboys invade Lambeau Field to take on the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Divisional Playoff Round.

They bring with them one of the best running backs in the game, DeMarco Murray, who rushed for 1845 yards this season, and one of the most feared running games in the NFL. The Cowboys were the second best rushing team in the league, averaging over 147 yards per game.

We should expect the Cowboys to stay true their offensive identity this weekend, especially as the weather turns cold and it may be more difficult to pass the ball.

For this film session, I break down the major running plays we can expect to see this Sunday from the Cowboys.

While watching film, I was highly impressed with their entire run unit. Their line does an excellent job creating holes and Murray has excellent vision. Altogether, the Cowboys have one of the most diverse run games I’ve seen because they utilize several concepts.

Their absolute number one running play is the outside zone. Their next most important running play is the Power O, which is man running scheme. They also utilize a good mix of secondary running plays that keep the defense guessing.

Let’s take a look at their primary and secondary running concepts.

Primary Run: Outside Zone

This is their bread and butter. The outside zone calls for the entire offensive line to slant in the same direction with the idea of creating multiple cutback lanes for the running back. The lineman block specific gaps rather than specific defenders. When the quarterback hands the ball off the running back, he aims for the outside hip of the play side tackle. As the play develops, he may have the option to cutback inside if a lane opens or continue to the outside hip of the tackle.

In the play below, Murray (29) aims for the outside hip of the left tackle (77). There was no clear inside cutback lane, so he continued to run outside for a sizable gain.

Credit: NFL Game Rewind
Credit: NFL Game Rewind

Primary Run: Power O

This concept is an old school power running play. It’s man blocking, and it calls for the backside guard to pull play side, along with a fullback (or H-back) to kick out defenders at the point of attack. Man blocking calls for the linemen to block specific defenders and not specific gaps.

In the play below, the back side guard (70) and H-back (82) pull around the formation to seal the edge and kick out defenders who filled the gaps. Murray (29) does cut it back inside the blocks of 70 and 82, which highlights his excellent vision and decision-making ability.

Credit: NFL Game Rewind
Credit: NFL Game Rewind

Secondary Run: One Back Power

This concept is typically run from substitution packages and the shotgun formation against six-man fronts. The idea is to spread the defense out horizontally, but still use a man power blocking scheme. The back side guard or tackle pulls around the formation to trap block the defender at the point of attack.

In the play below, the Cowboys’ best offensive lineman, left tackle Tyron Smith (77), uses his athleticism to lead Murray (29) into the hole.

Credit: NFL Game Rewind
Credit: NFL Game Rewind

Secondary Run: Inside Zone

After an offense successfully establishes the outside zone, defenses begin to anticipate the play and will aggressively flow outside. The inside zone is designed to counter that and discourage the defense from pursuing the edges.

The inside zone also has the entire offensive line slant in one direction to provide multiple cutback lanes for the running back. The slanting isn’t as aggressive as the outside zone and the running back aims for the inside hip the guard, not the outside hip of the tackle.

In the play below, Murray aims for the left guard’s hip en route to a touchdown.

Credit: NFL Game Rewind
Credit: NFL Game Rewind

Secondary Run: Dive

The Cowboys run a fair amount of the most simple running play ever conceived: the dive. In the dive play, the offensive line blocks each defender man-to-man and the running back runs through the hole between the center and guard. There’s no lead blockers, slanting, power, or misdirection. It’s man on man, and may the best man win.

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

Secondary Run: Split Zone

The split zone is a variation of the outside zone. Everything is basically the same, except the tight end or H-back cuts across the back side of the entire formation to seal the back edge as the offensive linemen block down.

In the play below, the offensive line slants to the left and the H-back (84) cuts back across the formation to the right.

Credit: NFL Game Rewind
Credit: NFL Game Rewind

Secondary Run: Stretch G

The Cowboys use another variation of the zone run scheme called Stretch G. This play has the offensive line sliding in one direction, but this time the play side guard pulls around the tackle to meet the first defender in the gap. The play is designed to run outside, just like the outside zone, but the pulling guard kicks out unsuspecting defenders pursuing aggressively in anticipation of the outside zone.

In the play below, the play side guard (70) pulls around the right tackle (78) and leads Murray (29) into the hole.

Credit: NFL Game Rewind
Credit: NFL Game Rewind

Secondary Run: Lead Open

The Cowboys also use one of the most basic power run schemes that is a staple at all levels of football: the lead open. The offensive line blocks man-to-man with their defenders and the fullback leads the running back through the hole, kicking out the first defender in the gap.

In the play below, the fullback (44) leads Murray (29) through the hole.

Credit: NFL Game Rewind
Credit: NFL Game Rewind

These were the eight running plays that I saw when scouting the Cowboys while they were playing the San Francisco 49ers and the Arizona Cardinals. They probably use other runs as well throughout the season, but these are the most likely runs we’ll see them use against the Packers. I hate making comparisons, but I felt the 49ers and Cardinals have the most similar defense as the Packers because they are all base 3-4 and like single-high and odd-high coverage shells.

The Cowboys have a very diverse run game, and it’s very polished, efficient, and effective. The Packers defense has their work cut out for themselves this Sunday to keep the Cowboys in check.

In case you’re wondering what the Cowboys’ pass game is, it’s Air-Coryell. They like to attack inside the numbers. I nominate someone else to break that down further.

I believe the GIFs embedded above to be fair use under the premise of being short clips of the original broadcast that are transformative for news reporting, commentary, critique, illustration, and teaching purposes.


Jay Hodgson is an independent sports blogger writing for and

Follow Jay on twitter at @jys_h.


19 thoughts on “Packers Xs and Os Film Session: Previewing the Cowboys Run Game

  1. Great stuff Jay!

    Not confident in the Packer’s defense, I feel they are going to get lit up. Offense is going to have to score on EVERY possession if they are to win. Again, I hope I am dead wrong and on Monday everybody is calling me names including Mr. Dickson, Since ’61 and Marpag.

    We shall see, won’t we?

    Go Pack Go!

    PS I am not, and never was Cow42!

    1. David – to my recollection I have never called you any names and don’t intend to on Monday or any other time regardless of how the game turns out. You are entitled to your opinion, same as everyone. Sometimes we agree and sometimes we don’t, either way it’s OK with me. Thanks, Since ’61

    2. E.A.G.L.E. fan dave…boo-hoo,anycow,i mean anyhow, see david made you old are you anyway 42

  2. Very informative as always… But it is interesting that Cowboys scored only 17 points all together against SF as well as against Cards. WE know that SF D this season was not that good and that Cards are playing 3-4 D. Still, against 4-3 D (like Seattle and Rams) thery scored 30 or 34 points. And I think we can agree that Seattle and Rams have (had) very very good D. I think that is something that is worth of reaserching…
    Anyhow, thank you again!

    1. Very astute observations! I will say that those results are more the result of QB play. Romo was old Romo against San Francisco and backup QB Weedon played against Arizona. At least that’s my opinion on matters.

      1. You are right! Brandon Weeden played instead of Toni Romo. Well I did not try to be clever or astute, just wonder that they were able to score more points against 4-3 D than against 3-4 D. Look at Washington at Dallas! They scored 17 points! Or 10 points against Eagles. But, at games away they destroyed Redskins & Eagles… I have only one wish! I would like officiating to be flawless, no matter who win. For the sake of football!

  3. Excellent information. Sure looks like #52 is having a really bad day in the 1st couple of examples (is that Willis playing at 240 pounds?). Murray steamrolls him even though he is in the hole to make the play. All Murray on the goal line score. #50 also doesn’t look like he is having any fun. Seriously, I do see consistent movement from the offensive line on these plays. I’d have to give LT Smith a plus grade on every one except perhaps one, where the play went away from his side. The right tackle changes. We are going to see Doug Free at RT, correct?

      1. According to the Dallas Morning News, Free is not expected to play. Also, Rolando McClain is iffy, as his his backup, Hitchens.

  4. Murray appears to be a very explosive back, but not as powerful as some of the backs the Packers have struggled with. My thought is that with the footing at Lambeau, it will limit Murrays effectiveness and the Packers have a good chance of keeping him contained. Just my opinion. Any thoughts?

    1. Murray is very decisive and has a very good cut back plant foot. Creases only open for a second, but he seems to find them. Barrington, Jones, and Hawk will be liabilities.

  5. Great Stuff as always Jay. Thanks.

    Couple of questions for you – to my uneducated eye, it seems that ARod/Jordy/Eddie/Randall and company will put up monster numbers on Sunday and Dallas will have to score a lot. I like our secondary against anyone – so that leaves the run game.

    Our run D has been very good against mediocre competition since week 8. Do you think Dallas will be able to ram us with the run game badly enough to keep up?

    1. Dallas runs the cover 2 defense, which has been known to give the Packers trouble in the passing game. With QB1 still hurt, I expect a dink and dunk passing game. Eddie will also need to pound out several yards on the ground.

      I’m actually more concerned with the Packers’ passing defense. Romo loves to use the middle of the field and get Dez on the crossing route, which is exactly what the Packers have trouble with, just like the Falcons game second half.

      I’m concerned, but optimistic.

  6. What an epic game and we should be very amped. I know I am. I have waited a long time for Dallas to come back to Green Bay in the playoffs. I hope just proving that the one and done days are over should be added motivation. On talent, I love the position we are in. If Rodgers plays his game, and we play fundamental football like the NE game…… Hell if we play like we are capable at home, we can win out and oh how sweet that would be. Wipe out Cowboys, exact revenge on Seattle the SB would be anticlimactic in a way. Go Pack Go. Plus my ex is a Cowboys fan (should have know better)

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