Back to Future: Run Game Shows Promise, But Week 4 Injury Sets The Group Back

Editor's Note: The Cowboys suffered their worst season in 25 years, winning just four games. As the team looks to improve in 2016, the writers of DallasCowboys.com will go through each of the 16 games in 2015, picking out both a positive and negative occurrence from each week of the season as the Cowboys try to build for the future.

 

Game 3: Falcons 39, Cowboys 28

Quarterback Brandon Weeden made his first start of the season for injured starter Tony Romo (fractured collarbone), and for a half, it appeared the offense would be OK without Romo and Dez Bryant (broken foot). But the Falcons scored 25 unanswered points, including 22 in the second half, and wound up winning comfortably at AT&T Stadium. The Cowboys' defense didn't have an answer for Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones, who caught 12 passes on 20 targets from quarterback Matt Ryan for 164 yards and two touchdowns.

Encouraging: After rushing for 189 yards in the first two games, the Cowboys got 126 in the first half alone from Joseph Randle and Darren McFadden. The duo combined for four touchdowns, the most by the Cowboys in a first half since 1991. Like most everything else in the game, the running game was less productive in the second half – the Cowboys rushed only five times for minus-4 yards, moving into a pass-first mode after the Falcons took the lead. But the offensive line showed its vast potential in the running game, and this was La'el Collins' first career start at left guard. The rookie will be fixture on line entering 2016.

Discouraging: The second half presented the first signs of trouble at the backup quarterback position, an area the Cowboys aim to address in the offseason. Weeden completed 13 of 14 passes in the first half for 164 yards on four run-heavy touchdown drives, his one incompletion an interception. Over the final two quarters he was 10-of-12 for 68 yards, and his most popular passing target was running back Lance Dunbar (10). The postgame chatter centered on Weeden's conservative decision making and whether the offense needed more vertical throws.

Game 4: Saints 26, Cowboys 20 (OT)

The Cowboys' first of six losses by a touchdown or less in 2015 came inside the Superdome on Sunday Night Football, dropping their record to .500 after a 2-0 start. They tied the game at 20 with under two minutes left and forced overtime after Saints kicker Zach Hocker missed a 30-yard attempt seven plays later. But Drew Brees, whose status was uncertain during the week due to a shoulder injury, ended the game on the second play of overtime with an 80-yard touchdown pass to C.J. Spiller that gave the Saints their first win of the season and snapped a six-game home losing streak dating back to 2014.

Encouraging: Weeden's first start in Week 3 against Atlanta was largely characterized as efficient but not aggressive enough. With the game on the line in New Orleans, he took control of the offense and led the Cowboys 91 yards in just over two minutes. Terrance Williams tied the game with a 17-yard diving touchdown grab. Weeden completed passes of 24, 28, 19, 17 and 17 yards on the eight-play series, getting the ball downfield without Dez Bryant in the lineup for the third straight game. Weeden eventually was waived and claimed by the Texans, but this drive -- aggressive and precise -- is exactly what head coach Jason Garrett and Scott Linehan will want their 2016 backup quarterbacks to be capable of doing if ever asked to step in for Romo.

Discouraging: Already without Bryant and quarterback Tony Romo, the offense suffered another devastating injury, this time to the running back position. Lance Dunbar, the most versatile of the team's three-man running game committee, tore the ACL in his left knee on the opening kickoff of the second half and would be placed on season-ending injured reserve the following week. Dunbar had led the offense in receiving through the first three games, and on the second play from scrimmage against New Orleans he broke off a 45-yard run that led to a field goal. To make matters worse, newly-acquired wide receiver Brice Butler injured his hamstring on his first catch as a Cowboy – a 67-yard completion from Weeden – and would miss the following game against New England. Butler is under contract for another year and and could provide a consistent speed element to the offense in 2016 with a full offseason in the system. Dunbar is a free agent, and although it remains to be seen whether he'll return to Dallas, he can be a dynamic player as a receiver or rusher when healthy.

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