Cowboys’ Murray will provide ‘best test’ for Packers’ improved run defense

The Cowboys' DeMarco Murray became the NFL's premier running back this season with 1,845 rushing yards, the fifth-most by any one player in the past decade.

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GREEN BAY, Wis. — There is only so much that a coach can learn about an opposing player from watching film. For Mike McCarthy, it’s not until he gets an up-close, in-person look that he truly knows just how talented a player is.

McCarthy had that experience with Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray late in the 2013 season when the Packers were in Dallas. As Murray ran for 134 yards on 18 carries (7.4 average) with one touchdown, McCarthy understood very clearly what type of player he was dealing with.

"Anytime you see a player for the first time live, they leave an impression on you, and I was very, very impressed with him," McCarthy said.

Murray was a very good running back last season, finishing the year with the best per-carry average of the 22 NFL running backs who had at least 200 attempts. He earned his first Pro Bowl nod as a result.

This season, though, Murray became the NFL’s premier running back. With 1,845 rushing yards, Murray was 484 yards ahead of the league’s second-place rusher, Le’Veon Bell. It was the fifth-most rushing yards by any one player in the past decade. Only Adrian Peterson (2012), Chris Johnson (2009), Shaun Alexander (2005) and Tiki Barber (2005) had more.

Now, in order for Green Bay to advance to the NFC Championship Game, it will take a great effort from its defense to stop Murray.

"The Dallas Cowboys’ run game is excellent," McCarthy said. "Murray is a big-time back. He’s definitely a difference-maker.  . . . He’ll definitely be a focal point for us."

Defensive coordinator Dom Capers pointed to size, vision and instincts as being what makes Murray a special runner.

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"This offense is kind of built for (Murray), too, because he can really press the hole," Capers said. "And with their line, their line’s very athletic, so if they get you moving laterally, he’s got the ability to plant his foot and then cut the thing back to the open area. He does a nice job of that."

Based on the end-of-season rankings, the Packers faced four of the NFL’s top-10 rushing teams in 2014. The results were mixed.

In Week 1, Seattle (the only team with more total rushing yards than Dallas) ran all over Green Bay with 207 yards and a 5.6 per-carry average. A week later, the New York Jets’ third-ranked rushing attack had 147 rushing yards. But, if isolating just the Jets’ two key running backs, Chris Ivory and Johnson, New York only had 65 yards on 25 carries (2.6 average).

Carolina, which finished the season ranked seventh in rushing, had 108 yards and a 4.3 average in Week 7. Philadelphia’s ninth-ranked rushing offense was held to 109 yards and a 3.5 average in Week 11.

Murray, however, is on a level all by himself.

"This is will be the best test that we’ve had," Capers said, speaking about his run defense. "I think this (Cowboys) offensive line is as good as there is in the league. Obviously by this running back’s statistics, he can run and does a nice job receiving the ball out of the backfield. So this will be a challenge."

Statistically, the Packers’ defense has enjoyed a fairly significant climb out of the league’s basement in stopping the run. Due to their performances against the Seahawks, Jets and Panthers, Green Bay was the NFL’s last-ranked run defense for five out of six weeks between late September and early November.

That the Packers were able to finish the regular season ranked 23rd against the run isn’t going to strike any fear in Murray or Dallas’ offensive line. It’s not like Green Bay can think of itself in terms of being anywhere near the run-stopping group that still-alive playoff teams such as Seattle, Baltimore or Denver are. But it’s still an improvement from what the Packers had been before their Week 9 bye.

With the universal belief that good defense begins with stopping the run, Green Bay’s turnaround in that area sparked the overall defense to finish the regular season ranked 15th in total yards allowed. That’s a lot better than where the Packers had been, sitting in the 26th spot in total defense as recently as Week 14.

It was Green Bay’s ability to stop the run by the end of the year that helped McCarthy feel like he had lived up to his preseason proclamation that the defense would be much better in 2014 than it was a year earlier.

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"I think we’ve clearly reached that target the last eight weeks of the season," McCarthy said. "What gave me the confidence to say it back then was clearly the players and really the path. We felt that we had the right plan for using our players: being a little more creative, playing more personnel packages, not trying to lock into 11, 12 or 13 players.

"I just think the way you practice in April, May and June and then the way you practice in training camp, if you’re still doing the same things in the second half of the season, that’s a good plan. I think that’s what you’re seeing with our defense."

Dallas’ offense will test the Packers in many ways. But with Murray’s season average of 24.5 carries per game, it’s a safe bet that Green Bay will find out with certainty this Sunday whether its run defense really has turned a corner.

"We just have to make sure we do our best," defensive lineman Mike Daniels said. "Make sure we prepare the right way this week, make sure we come out and, it sounds really rhetorical, but just get after it. It’s just plain and simple. That’ll solve a lot of problems if we just buckle down and play our best fundamentally sound game and play it as hard as we possibly can. That’ll take care of a lot of things."

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