With Vikings, Cowboys have a run to stop

Posted: January 16, 2010

IRVING, Texas - Igor Olshansky can bring out his pads again tomorrow. He looks forward to that.

Given the Eagles' reluctance to challenge the Cowboys' run defense in last week's first-round playoff game, Olshansky could have played in a T-shirt and shorts. The Eagles gave up on the ground game early and ran only 13 times.

For a run-smothering tackle like Olshansky, that amounted to a waste of time. He looked at his equipment after the game and said, "Why did I even wear that?"

It will be different in the divisional playoff at Minnesota.

A significant subplot to this game will be how the Cowboys' stout run defense fares against an offense that features an elite running back in Adrian Peterson. The Vikings will run at least twice as often as the Eagles did, using the ground game in hopes of slowing the Cowboys' pass rush. Peterson, who finished fifth in the league in rushing despite a lackluster final month, is the most productive back the Cowboys have faced.

The Eagles lost with flag-football plays. The Vikings will not make that mistake.

"If you do finesse stuff [on offense], you see what happens," said Olshansky, making a pointed reference to the Eagles. "This might be a passing league, but if you want to win championships, you'd better be able to run the ball."

And stop opponents who run the ball. Since a momentary flub in the opener, when coach Wade Phillips realized he had asked too much of the defense too soon, the Cowboys have stonewalled runners.

Tampa Bay's Cadillac Williams hit them for 97 yards in the opener. That remains the season high against the Cowboys. They are the only NFL team that has not allowed an individual 100-yard rusher.

For the season, the Cowboys ranked fourth against the run with 90.5 yards allowed per game and gave up the ninth-lowest per-carry average at 3.97 yards. It was their best performance against the run since 2003.

The run defense asserts itself on first and second downs, forcing opponents into a pass-only situation on third down. The inside five of linemen Jay Ratliff, Marcus Spears, and Olshansky, along with linebackers Bradie James and Keith Brooking, usually makes runners disappear.

They play an air-tight gap-control defense, never sacrificing position for the lure of making a dramatic play. It is not dramatic, but it is stifling.

The front-seven play spares the defense the hardship of bringing a safety into the run defense, which weakens pass coverage. Fox analyst and former NFL coach Brian Billick said the ability to play the run with the front seven separates the Cowboys from many teams.

"That's what we live by," James said. "If we can't stop the run, we're in trouble. There have been a few good runs against us, and we've lost sleep at night over that. Outside of winning, that's our goal: Stop the run."

The run defense keyed the late-season rush. In the current four-game winning streak, the Cowboys have allowed only 50.3 yards rushing per game. In the Cowboys' last loss, San Diego ran for 73 yards but averaged a pitiful 2.3 yards per carry.

"They have all the elements of an outstanding defense," Billick said. "They're playing the run very well."

Time to do it again. It's a game made for Igor Olshansky and his run-stopping partners.

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