ARLINGTON, Texas — For an uncomfortable stretch there Sunday night, the wrong team’s running game was wreaking havoc.
The Dallas Cowboys were supposed to be hobbled without Ezekiel Elliott, serving the second installment of his six-game league suspension — especially given that Dallas was also missing all-pro left tackle Tyron Smith.
But former Washington Redskin Alfred Morris had 91 yards on 17 carries through the first three quarters of what became a 37-9 Eagles victory at AT&T Stadium, for a Dallas team that had passed for only 73 yards. By running effectively and, even more to the point, shutting down the Eagles’ vaunted running game, the undermanned hosts actually carved out a 9-7 halftime lead – the first time since the Week 2 loss at Kansas City that the Eagles had trailed at the half.
“That’s the way their team’s built, to run the football,” Eagles defensive end Chris Long said. “Even with ‘Zeke’ out, they still have one of the better offensive lines in the league, and they’re committed to it.”
“It was a lot of things we hadn’t seen before that they were doing,” said Eagles linebacker Nigel Bradham, who capped the scoring with his first career touchdown, scooping up a Dak Prescott fumble after a Derek Barnett strip-sack and running it in from 37 yards. “We had to make some adjustments, and we did that. Still held them to no touchdowns.”
Actually, it’s isn’t quite right to say Dallas shut down the Eagles’ running game in the first half. The first drive, eight plays, 75 yards, ending with a 4-yard TD run by Kenjon Barner, the Birds just pounded the ball right at the Dallas defense, which was missing leader and middle linebacker Sean Lee. Four Eagles carries netted 21 yards and the TD.
After that, the Dallas defense tightened. The Eagles’ longest run the rest of the half was 6 yards, by Carson Wentz, who was uncharacteristically erratic with his throws. The Birds went into halftime with 35 rushing yards on 10 carries.
“We didn’t call as many runs there for a while, just ran some things into some bad looks,” left guard Stefen Wisniewski said. “We really felt like we could run the ball if we stuck with it. The second half, we called a lot of runs, and it went really well. Two-fifteen rushing [the Eagles’ final total] is really hard to do in this league.”
In the third quarter, the Birds got their run blocking straightened out and, probably not coincidentally, Wentz started looking like Wentz again.
First drive after the second-half kickoff, five runs, 29 yards, including the final two plays as the visitors took the lead for good. Rookie Corey Clement scooted up the middle for 8 yards, then followed some devastating blocking by Halapoulivaati Vaitai, among others, for 11 yards and the TD.
The next drive, Jay Ajayi romped 71 yards on the second play of the possession, helping set up a beauty of a clutch third-and-6 touchdown pass Wentz threaded to Torrey Smith. Ajayi’s run was the longest gain of the night by either team.
“It was a good play. We pulled ‘V’ [right tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai], kind of blocked down and out on the front side. [Center Jason] Kelce and V blocked the linebackers well. It wasn’t a huge hole, but Ajayi hit it hard and just took off,” Wisniewski said.
“It was kind of like a mind-set that we came into the second half [with]. Let’s get our big guys up front pushing them, and that’s what they did,” said Ajayi, who has 15 carries for 168 yards in two games since coming over from Miami in a deadline-day trade. “I definitely feel like I’m comfortable in this offense.”
After that, and two two-point conversions, with kicker Jake Elliott sidelined by a concussion, it was 23-9 and the Cowboys had to start throwing. Morris didn’t carry the ball in the fourth quarter, missing his chance to become the first 100-yard individual rusher against the Eagles this season.
The final totals were more along the lines of what most observers expected: 215 rushing yards on 33 carries for the Eagles, 6.5 yards per carry, 112 yards on 27 carries for the Cowboys, 4.1 yards per carry. Ajayi netted 91 yards on seven carries, LeGarrette Blount 57 on 13, Clement 50 on six. Barner’s only carry of the game was his touchdown run.
“Everybody has their role,” Clement said. “We’re not selfish out there. When you have four guys in the rotation, it means a lot, because defenses can’t really keep up with the style of running we have.”
“A lot of good running backs and a lot of different run schemes … it’s probably hard to prepare for all of them, for a defense,” Wisniewski said. “Even if someone closes us down for a little while, we’re not going to panic. We’re just going to keep believing in what we do, keep swinging.”
The other guard, Brandon Brooks, said: “There’s no change in blocking scheme for us, as far as who’s back there, but it’s exciting to have a stable of running backs, no matter who’s back there, they can take it.”
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