For Eagles, DeMarco Murray is Dallas' top threat


For Eagles, DeMarco Murray is Dallas' top threat

They don’t have Tony Romo to worry about, but the Eagles have spent the entire week preparing for another weapon in the Dallas offense whose status was never in doubt.

Not only is Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray healthy, but he’s also the single biggest threat to the Eagles’ pursuit of an NFC East title.

If you haven’t noticed, Murray has emerged as one of the NFL’s more impactful ball carriers. In his third season, the former Oklahoma record-setting running back has cracked the 1,000-yard barrier for the first time.

His 1,073 yards rank 10th in the league, but his average of 82.5 rushing yards per game ranks fourth. His 1,384 total offensive yards are eighth-most among NFL running backs.

Murray isn’t often mentioned in the same breath as LeSean McCoy, Jamaal Charles and Marshawn Lynch, but over the past few weeks, only McCoy has more rushing yards than Murray, an impressive feather in Murray’s cap given McCoy’s 217-yard effort a few weeks ago against the Lions in the snow and his 133-yard performance against Chicago.

McCoy’s 388 rushing yards in that span lead the NFL, but just 12 more than Murray.

“He’s a powerful back,” defensive tackle Bennie Logan said. “He can break tackles. Once he gets to the edge on stretch plays, he can take it to the house. The main thing is, we have to make sure we set the edge and don’t allow him to get started. Once he gets started it’s pretty hard to stop him.”

An MCL injury kept Murray from playing against the Eagles earlier this year, a 17-3 Dallas win at the Linc, but the Eagles figure on seeing heavy doses of him Sunday as the two teams battle to decide the NFC East title at AT&T Stadium.

Without the services Romo and with an NFL-worst defense that has to figure out how to stop Chip Kelly’s offense, Cowboys coach Jason Garrett might elect to put the ball in Murray's hands frequently in an attempt to execute a clock-control game plan.

If that’s the plan, Eagles defensive coordinator Bill Davis said he’s ready for it.

“We were anticipating them to do that anyway,” Davis said. “But they might do more. Only they can answer that question. We've got to prepare equally for the run game and the pass game. Each game takes on its own life. Whether they gave him the ball more or not, we'll be prepared to it.”

A third-round pick in 2011, Murray has always been a game-breaking halfback with plus speed and breakaway ability. He ran a 4.41 at the Scouting Combine. Injuries were always his Achilles heel. He suffered various injuries in college, but still set the school’s record for touchdowns and all-purpose yards.

He played 13 games his rookie season in Dallas, sharing carries with Felix Jones, but fractured his ankle in late December. The Cowboys made him their No.1 halfback last year, but he missed six games.

This year, after a brief MCL scare that ended up being just a two-game absence, Murray has finally shown his potential. He busted loose for 175 yards in Week 3 against the Rams. Since Nov. 10, he’s had just one game under 65 rushing yards. Murray’s 5.4 yards-per-carry average is the league’s highest among running backs with at least 110 carries.

The Cowboys are 11-0 when Murray carries the ball at least 20 times, 12-2 when he gets at least 18 carries. When he rushes for just one touchdown, Dallas is hard to beat. The Cowboys are 10-3 in games when Murray finds the end zone.

“We’ve got to stop the run. That’s the No. 1 thing,” outside linebacker Brandon Graham said. “We didn’t see him in the first meeting. He’s very good. He’s somebody we’ve got to attack early. We can’t get him going at all, because he can beat us.

“He’s patient, somebody who waits on the hole to open up. He’s s a 4.4 (speed) guy and you know you don’t want to get him out there in space. He’s somebody you don’t wanna play with.”

Murray has brought some stability to Dallas' offense down the stretch, with 136 yards against Chicago and 134 more against the Packers in consecutive December games, both Cowboys losses in which the play calling drew criticism for ignoring Murray down the stretch.

Last Sunday, Murray rescued Dallas’ season in the final moments of the fourth when he caught a 10-yard touchdown pass from Romo on 4th-and-goal that propelled Dallas to the 24-23 comeback win that set the stage for Sunday’s winner-take-all showdown against the Eagles.

Murray’s 48 receptions yards are seventh-most among starting running backs, giving the Eagles another dimension to guard against.

“We just have to make sure we get all 11 hats to the ball,” Logan said, “and just just slow him down from the beginning of the game. We don’t want to give him any momentum going into the second half.”

Doug Pederson not afraid to get aggressive with play-calling

Doug Pederson not afraid to get aggressive with play-calling

Talk to Doug Pederson and he comes across … what’s a nice way to put it … dry?

Very nice guy. Very friendly. Very down to earth. But not the most dynamic personality in public.

Which is why his personality on gameday has been so surprising.

Pederson is a risk-taker as a play-caller. Aggressive and fearless.

Whether it’s going for it on fourth down with the lead, going for two after a successful PAT or throwing deep in a situation that doesn’t necessarily call for it, Pederson has proven to be the proverbial riverboat gambler that Chip Kelly was expected to be but never became.

“My personality is probably a little more conservative by nature, I think,” Pederson said Monday. “You'd probably agree with that.”

Pederson got a laugh with that comment because his public persona is exactly the opposite of his gameday demeanor.

It only took one day before we all got a taste of Pederson’s fearlessness.

In the season opener against the Browns, with the Eagles clinging to a 15-10 lead and a rookie quarterback making his first NFL appearance and a 4th-and-4 at the Browns’ 40-yard line, he kept the offense on the field.

Carson Wentz responded by connecting with Zach Ertz on a five-yard gain to move the chains, and one play later, the Eagles took command on Wentz’s 35-yard TD pass to Nelson Agholor.

Six weeks in, the Eagles are 5 for 5 on fourth down. Only the Falcons have converted more fourth downs in the NFL this year, and they’re 6 for 10.

In the win over the Bears, the Eagles were 3 for 3 on fourth down, their best fourth-down conversion day in nine years.

This is the first time in 14 years the Eagles have converted five or more fourth downs through six games.

According to Pro Football Reference, the Eagles are one of only seven teams in NFL history to attempt five or more fourth-down plays through six games and still be at 100 percent. The Lions are also 5 for 5 this year.

Pederson said analytics are a big part of his decision-making process, but he also trusts his instincts.

“I think it's both,” Pederson said. “But I trust our guys and I trust our offensive line and I think it sends a great message to the rest of the team, to the defense and special teams, that, ‘Hey, if we can convert this and stay on the field,’ it sends a good message.

“And on the other side of that, if you do convert, [it’s about] the message you send to the other team and the fact that you're going to stay aggressive.”

The Eagles are 29th-best in the NFL on third down at just 34 percent. But they’re one of only three teams that’s at 100 percent on fourth down.

“It's kind of a crazy deal when you're not great on third down, but you can be 5 for 5 on fourth down and convert them,” Pederson said. “It's a weird deal. But credit to the guys for the execution.

“I'm going to continue to look at it. I don't ever want to be in a position that I'm going to jeopardize the team at the time [by being too aggressive]. Looking at the five fourth-down decisions this year, I don’t think they put us in any harm at that time.”

Wentz is 3 for 3 for 21 yards on fourth down, with the four-yard completion to Ertz, a seven-yard first down to Jordan Matthews in the Bears game and a nine-yarder to Dorial Green-Beckham, also in the win in Chicago.

He also rushed six yards for a first down on a 4th-and-2 Sunday in the win over the Vikings. The Eagles’ other fourth-down conversion this year was Ryan Mathews’ one-yard TD on a 4th-and-goal against Chicago.

Pederson said as an assistant coach under Andy Reid, he always found himself asking himself whether he would be conservative or aggressive in crucial situations.

We’re all learning the answer now.

“Yeah, you definitely put yourself in those situations, as a coordinator and a position coach,” he said. “Putting yourself in those spots, it's a lot easier when you're not making the decision obviously to go, ‘Oh, yeah, I would have not gone for it there or not gone for it there.’

“Now, being in this position, it's my tail on the line if we don't convert.”

NFL Notes: Giants release kicker Josh Brown

NFL Notes: Giants release kicker Josh Brown

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The New York Giants have released placekicker Josh Brown after police documents revealed Brown had admitted to repeatedly abusing his former wife while they were married.

The release came Tuesday shortly after the player issued a statement insisting that he never hit his wife during a six year period when he admits spousal abuse.

Giants President John Mara says the team was "misguided" in how it handled its relationship with Brown. He says the team hopes Brown will dedicate himself to rehabilitation and becoming a better person and father.

Brown was previously suspended for the opening game of the season for violating the league's personal conduct policy after the NFL investigated his arrest in May 2015 for spousal abuse against his now ex-wife, Molly. Brown was not charged by local authorities in the case in Washington state.

Dolphins: RB Foster abruptly retires
MIAMI -- Four-time Pro Bowler Arian Foster says he can no longer take the punishment an NFL running back endures, so he is retiring midway through an injury-plagued season with the Miami Dolphins.

Foster, 30, tried to come back from a torn Achilles tendon, but was slowed this season by groin and hamstring injuries. He announced his retirement Monday on the website Undefeated as the Dolphins began their bye week.

The team confirmed the decision, effective immediately.

"There comes a time in every athlete's career when their ambition and their body are no longer on the same page," Foster wrote. "I've reached that point. It's hard to write those words because this game has been everything to me ... my therapy, my joy, my solace and my enemy."

Foster signed a $1.5 million, one-year contract with the Dolphins in July after spending his first seven NFL seasons with the Houston Texans. He holds the Texans' franchise record with 6,472 yards rushing.

This season he rushed for 55 yards on 22 carries, and he had 5 yards on three carries Sunday against the Buffalo Bills.

"My father always said, `You'll know when it's time to walk away,'" he wrote. "It has never been more clear than right now. I'm walking away with peace. I know it's not commonplace to do it midseason, but my body just can't take the punishment this game asks for any longer."

Foster was one of several Miami players this season to kneel during the pregame national anthem to protest social inequality. His playing time was curtailed with the emergence of Jay Ajayi, who tied an NFL record by surpassing 200 yards rushing in consecutive games (see full story).

Jaguars: DT Miller out for year with torn Achillies
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The Jacksonville Jaguars will be without defensive tackle Roy Miller for the rest of the season because of a torn right Achilles tendon.

The Jaguars (2-4) made the announcement Tuesday, two days after Miller left the game against Oakland and did not return.

A disruptive run-stopper whose 10 tackles this season don't show how important he is to Jacksonville's defense, Miller will be placed on injured reserve and undergo surgery later in the week.

Abry Jones is expected to replace Miller in the starting lineup when the Jaguars play at Tennessee (3-4) on Thursday night.

Miller has 244 tackles, eight sacks and a forced fumble in eight seasons. He has missed just six games in his previous seven years.