Cowboys-Redskins Preview

Associated Press  |  Last updated November 16, 2011
The Dallas Cowboys are set to have their top rusher from last season return, but they're not expecting him to provide much of a boost. DeMarco Murray has already done that. The rookie's emergence has opened up the offense and helped turn around the season for Dallas, which seeks a season-best third straight win Sunday when it faces the woeful Washington Redskins at FedEx Field. The Cowboys (5-4) and their Felix Jones-led running game struggled out of the gate, compiling 84.8 yards per game on the ground while opening 2-3. Jones failed to reach 60 yards rushing in four of those games - he totaled 800 last season - and suffered a high left ankle sprain in a 20-16 loss at New England on Oct. 16. That opened the door for Murray, and the third-round pick out of Oklahoma hasn't looked back. Murray has rushed for an NFL-best 601 rushing yards and two touchdowns since taking over as the lead back Oct. 23, leading the Cowboys to three wins in four contests. While Jones is expected to return following a four-game absence, Murray will remain No. 1 on the depth chart. He tops all NFL running backs with 6.7 yards per carry - Jones was averaging 4.0. Murray ran for 135 yards and a score in a 44-7 rout of Buffalo last Sunday. Tony Romo also came up big, completing 23 of 26 passes for 270 yards and three TDs. With defenses focusing in on Murray, Romo has shined, throwing eight TD passes and one interception over the last four games. "When you can run the ball to eight-man fronts, it puts a dent in the defense," tight end Jason Witten said. "And then when you have the weapons we have on the outside, and at quarterback, it puts a smile on your face. "(Murray's) expectations have not been a good run here and a good run there. His expectations and his standard have been high. That's good to see, because a lot of rookies aren't that way." Largely thanks to Murray - also keying the passing game the last two weeks with 10 catches for 83 yards - Dallas has moved within one game of the NFC-East leading New York Giants and is very much in the running for a wild-card berth. The Cowboys seem to have a golden opportunity to increase their postseason chances with their next three opponents - Washington, Miami and Arizona - having a combined 8-19 record. The Redskins (3-6) have been outscored 115-53 during a five-game losing streak. They haven't lost six in a row since opening 0-7 in 1998. "We're just going to keep on fighting," said coach Mike Shanahan, who hadn't previously suffered five consecutive defeats in his 17 seasons as coach. While it looked like quarterback John Beck was in line to make a fourth consecutive start last Sunday, Shanahan made a late switch and went with Rex Grossman, who threw for 215 yards and two interceptions in a 20-9 loss at Miami. Grossman, who began the season as the starter, has been picked off 11 times over his last five games while throwing for just four TDs. He's recorded a 55.8 passer rating in that span but is expected to keep the starting job for the time being. "Rex is going to be our quarterback," Shanahan said. "When you go with a veteran quarterback, it's pretty easy - because usually that situation stays pretty much status quo. Unless there's an injury during the week, Rex would be the quarterback." In another somewhat surprising move, Ryan Torain started over rookie Roy Helu, who compiled 146 yards from scrimmage while catching a franchise-record 14 passes in a 19-11 loss to San Francisco the previous week. Torain, averaging 1.5 yards per carry over his last four games, ran for 20 yards on 10 attempts against the Dolphins. Helu had 41 yards on six carries, but it's unknown who will start Sunday. Washington, though, will surely look to get its ground game going against the Cowboys, who have surrendered 536 rushing yards over the last three weeks - the second-highest total in the league during that span. The Redskins also have had difficulty stopping the run, allowing 149.2 rushing yards per game during their skid. While they'll surely have their hands full with Murray, they can't be happy about having to also face Jones, who ran for a regular-season career-high 115 yards during an 18-16 Cowboys win Sept. 26. Dallas has won five of six in this series but is 1-3 on the road this season. Washington, already dealing with season-ending injuries to tight end Chris Cooley, running back Tim Hightower and left guard Kory Lichtensteiger, placed promising rookie wideout Leonard Hankerson on injured reserve Monday. Hankerson, who had eight catches for 106 yards before tearing the labrum in his right hip late last Sunday, was the Redskins' first rookie receiver to post a 100-yard game since Rod Gardner in 2001. Defensive end Kedric Golston also was placed on IR.
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