Cowboys gearing to stop Davis

Thursday, September 14th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

IRVING – Coach Dave Campo spent much of training camp praising the Cowboys' defensive line and linebackers.

Their depth and ability, he said at the time, should allow the Cowboys to stuff opposing running games.

It hasn't happened yet.

Dallas, 31st in the NFL against the run, has allowed 202.0 yards rushing per game, including 306 in the opener to Philadelphia. Baltimore, the league leader, has allowed 76 yards rushing in two games.

Stopping the run is paramount to the Cowboys' success.

Since 1996, Dallas is 24-7 when it holds teams to fewer than 100 yards rushing and 11-28 when it doesn't.

So it should come as no surprise that stopping Washington Redskins running back Stephen Davis has been a hot topic in the Cowboys' defensive meeting rooms this week.

Davis, third in the league in rushing last season with 1,405 yards and 17 touchdowns, has 192 yards and a 4.8 average after two games.

The Redskins use a power running attack – coach Norv Turner likes formations with two tight ends and one back – that confuses defenses with shifting and motion to disguise the strength of the formation until just before the ball is snapped.

Then Davis runs between the guards and picks his hole.

The Redskins also rely on play-action passes to freeze linebackers and safeties, allowing their receivers to get one-on-one coverage. That philosophy helped Washington lead the NFL with 45 completions of 25 yards or more last season.

But it doesn't work without a strong running game.

To slow down Davis, the Cowboys will probably use more defensive formations this week with Alonzo Spellman at left defensive end and Brandon Noble at defensive tackle.

The Cowboys like Spellman at end because he has the bulk to handle tackles and tight ends on the strong side. Most teams run the ball on the tight end side of the formation

Noble and Chad Hennings are the Cowboys' best run defenders.

"He's very physical," Campo said of Noble, "yet he can come off a block and make a play."

The Cowboys would like to get their safeties involved in stopping the run, either by committing Darren Woodson to playing near the line of scrimmage in run support, or by using Cover 4, a scheme in which Woodson and free safety George Teague play near the line of scrimmage, and each member of the secondary covers a quarter of the field.

This coverage allows Teague and Woodson to provide help on deep patterns down the middle but forces the cornerbacks to play man-to-man on the outside.

"It's a coverage that gives you great run support because the safeties are near the line of scrimmage," said Campo, "and it still allows you to double-cover the receivers, if they do certain things."

Inexperience has been part of the Cowboys' problem against the run.

Defensive ends Ebenezer Ekuban, Dimitrius Underwood and Peppi Zellner are still learning the game's nuances. Middle linebacker Dat Nguyen, who will miss 2-4 weeks with a sprained left knee, doesn't provide the physical presence Randall Godfrey did last season.

Spellman, who originally moved from end to tackle to help the Cowboys' inside pass rush, has never been strong against the run. And Ellis, who broke his leg in two places last December, hasn't returned to form yet.

"I don't think we overestimated the talent of our front seven, but the experience level is something that we may have lost sight of in our exuberance," Campo said. "I think this is going to be a good defensive football team before the year is out, but unfortunately, we don't have a lot of time."