ARLINGTON, Texas – For the first time this season, everything the Cowboys envisioned in training camp about their new-look running game materialized in the first half of Sunday's 39-28 loss to the Atlanta Falcons at AT&T Stadium.
Starter Joseph Randle used his burst and vision to gain 92 yards on 10 carries, and Darren McFadden had five carries for 34 yards as a fresh, electric change of pace.
By halftime the pair combined for four touchdowns, the most by a Cowboys team in a first half since 1991, and Lance Dunbar – the versatile third component in the running back committee – had a game-high 59 receiving yards on four catches.
By the end of the game, the Cowboys' halftime 131 rushing yards decreased – not increased – to 127. The backs had only five more carries for minus-four yards.
"They did a good job as the game wore on stopping the run," Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett said of the Falcons' defensive effort under first-year head coach Dan Quinn. "A commitment by those guys to get around the line of scrimmage and they made some stops. We want to be able to sustain that throughout and be balanced throughout, but we weren't able to get that done."
Early on, the Cowboys' running backs made quarterback Brandon Weeden's job easier in only his second start since 2014 replacing Pro Bowl veteran Tony Romo, who wore a sling on the sideline for the fractured left collarbone that will sideline him a minimum of eight weeks.
With true balance to the offense, Weeden completed 13 of his first 14 passes and the Cowboys led decisively at halftime, 28-17.
In the second half, the Falcons clearly prioritized stopping the run and forcing Weeden to throw under more difficult down-and-distance. Throughout the game Atlanta often crowded the line of scrimmage with an eighth defender and only one safety deep.
Randle became only the third player in team history to total three rushing touchdowns in a first half, joining Don Perkins (vs. N.Y. Giants, 12/1/63) and Ron Springs (vs. St. Louis, 9/13/81). He gained 85 yards on his first three carries and only two yards on his final 11 carries.
"They (Atlanta) definitely made some adjustments," Randle said. "We can't focus on it, though. We just have to get ready for New Orleans (next week).
Odd circumstances prevented the Cowboys' running game from finding a true rhythm in its first two games. In the season opener against the Giants, four of the Cowboys' 10 total possessions were two-minute, pass-heavy drives. In Week 2 against the Eagles, excessive penalties put the offense in difficult down-and-distance situations.
On Sunday the Falcons' coverage forced Weeden to work the middle of the field, where Dunbar, tight end Jason Witten, receiver Cole Beasley and Randle caught most of his 22 completions.
The short passing game helped supplement some of the running game, but the Cowboys clearly would've liked more production on the ground to help sustain drives. They didn't have many plays to work with: only 19 in the second half.
"Our running game – just like everything we do on our team – is a collaborative effort," Garrett said. "It starts with the guys up front, the guys blocking on the edges and certainly the runner. So it wasn't as good as the game wore on. We needed it to be better to stay balanced throughout. That's when we play our best football."