Cowboys power on despite injuries
ARLINGTON -- The Dallas Cowboys lead the NFL in rushing by more than two first downs per game.
Here's an even more impressive stat for the suddenly smashmouth Cowboys: They've rushed for more than 200 yards in consecutive games for the first time in 30 years.
Think about that for a moment. That's a feat the Cowboys never accomplished when Emmitt Smith was gashing defenses en route to the NFL's career rushing record.
"For real?" Pro Bowl offensive guard Leonard Davis said. "We might have to make it a weekly thing."
Don't rule it out as long as the Cowboys, who had only one 200-yard rushing game last season, have at least one healthy running back.
That's all they had for most of the second half in Monday night's 21-7 win over the Panthers at Cowboys Stadium. Marion Barber didn't play because of a strained quadriceps. Felix Jones' final carry was a 40-yard burst around the left end on the Cowboys' first series of the second half. With Jones watching with a sprained knee from the sideline, Tashard Choice finished the game strong, rushing for all but 9 of his 82 yards in the second half.
"We've got a lot of confidence in the guys who are back there," Davis said. "It's almost like we don't even really pay attention to who's back there. We just know when the play is called that we're going to be efficient running the ball.
"We didn't change our game plan at all. We just kept doing what we do. We've got three guys that can share the load."
In part because of the depth in the backfield, the Cowboys were determined to be more committed to the running game this season. They ranked 21st in rushing offense last season (107.7 yards per game). That total has shot up to 193.7 yards three games into this season, with offensive coordinator Jason Garrett coming close to a 50-50 run-pass balance.
"You know we're going to run," Choice said. "It's if you're going to stop us or not."
Barber, who was rendered inactive after coming up lame on his final carry of a 124-yard effort in the loss to the New York Giants, implored the younger running backs to "give me a little extra" in the locker room before the Monday night game.
Choice and Jones responded by combining for 176 yards and a touchdown on 26 carries. The Cowboys rushed for 212 yards on 32 attempts.
Jones (eight carries for 94 yards) was electrifying before his injury, the severity of which the Cowboys didn't immediately know after the game. He had three double-digit gains, one of which was a shoestring tackle away from being a long touchdown.
As was the case last December, when Barber and Jones were dealing with toe injuries, Choice (18 carries for 82 yards and a touchdown) proved that he can carry the load when given the chance. His effectiveness running between the tackles was a key as the Cowboys dominated time of possession. Dallas controlled the ball for more than 37 minutes.
"It can be any one of those three guys," Pro Bowl center Andre Gurode said. "It doesn't make a difference. They're all great backs. We just want to do the best job we can to make sure they see what we see and can get to the next level.
"We as a group take pride in it. We just try to make sure we stay on our blocks. We try to give our guys some daylight, and we have fun watching them run downfield."
Tim MacMahon covers the Dallas Cowboys for ESPN Dallas.