Strength vs. strength: Lions run defense against Murray

Rod Beard
The Detroit News
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Allen Park — If it's true that everything is bigger in Texas, so goes the challenge of stopping the Cowboys offense.

In Sunday's wild-card matchup against the Cowboys, the Lions defense will have another big test in trying to corral one of the best players in the league this season.

Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray won the NFL rushing title with 1,845 yards — by a wide margin of 484 yards. Murray was a thoroughbred all season, pacing the league in carries (390) and tying for the lead in rushing touchdowns (13).

It's strength versus strength, as the Lions top-ranked run defense will try to do what few teams have been able to do: keep Murray in check. Murray surpassed the 100-yard mark in 12 of 16 games this season; the Cowboys went 2-2 in the other four contests.

Lions coach Jim Caldwell knows how critical it is to win in the trenches and to try to make teams one-dimensional. The quandary is that Dallas' offense is a rarity in the NFL, excelling at both running and passing.

It's not just the running game that has Caldwell concerned. With quarterback Tony Romo playing at an optimal level, receiver Dez Bryant on the outside and tight end Jason Witten, the Cowboys have a formidable arsenal.

"I'm not certain that we've seen a more complete team," Caldwell said Monday in his weekly press conference. "Just in terms of how explosive they are, (Romo) is certainly a strong MVP candidate; so is Murray. They've been able to run the ball extremely well, and they've been lighting it up on the outside.

"Dez Bryant is setting record after record in terms of touchdown catches. They have one of the best tight ends in the business. They have an offensive line that's incredible in terms of what they've been able to accomplish."

Controlling the run is the biggest challenge, though, and will be made tougher with the Cowboys' tough offensive line, which is regarded as one of the best in the league, facing the Lions defensive line.

"Buckle your chin straps tight — it's going to be one of those hard-hitting football games and be very physical, and we're taking that mindset that it's going to be," safety James Ihedigbo said. "The way they run the ball and the way we stop the run. It's going to be that type of matchup."

They won't have Nick Fairley, who has missed the last eight games, but otherwise, the Lions are almost at full strength with the return of Ndamukong Suh, whose suspension was overturned Tuesday. Suh can clog the middle and cause some headaches for the Cowboys' front.

"They have a great running back, a solid quarterback that understands what he needs to do for that team to win," Suh said. "He's playing at a very, very high level — probably an MVP level at this point in time. We have a tough task ahead of us."

The Lions' run defense was tested in the regular-season finale against the Packers' Eddie Lacy, who became the first back this season to rush for 100 yards in a game against them. Caldwell noted that Murray is a similar type of runner as Lacy and the defense will have its hands full.

"They both are powerful backs with speed, downhill runners and highly productive," Caldwell said. "Murray's been having a great year as well, so he'll be a tough guy to handle."

But the Lions are looking forward to the challenge and finding a way to stop one of the hottest offenses in the league. That could entail moving up one of the safeties into the box to try to help with the run defense. Caldwell, though, indicated that they might not need to do much different with their front seven in order to compete.

"It's going to be a good matchup. In both categories, if you look at the numbers, they'll tell you that they run the ball as well as anybody in the league," Caldwell said Wednesday. "You look at the statistics for us, we're right up there in the top of the rankings just in terms of stopping the run. Overall, I think it's going to be a real good battle."

In a rush

The Lions had the NFL's No. 1 rush defense at 69.3 yards per game this season. The Cowboys' DeMarco Murray led the NFL in rushing with 1,845 yards. These players led their teams in rushing in each game against the Lions:

Sept. 8, Giants: Rashad Jennings, 46

Sept. 14, Panthers: Jonathan Stewart, 37

Sept. 21, Packers: James Starks, 38

Sept. 28, Jets: Chris Ivory, 84

Oct. 5, Bills: Fred Jackson, 49

Oct. 12, Vikings: Jerik McKinnon, 40

Oct. 19, Saints: Khiry Robinson, 26

Oct. 26, Falcons: Steven Jackson, 60

Nov. 9, Dolphins: Damien Williams, 34

Nov. 16, Cardinals: Andre Ellington, 42

Nov. 23, Patriots: LeGarrette Blount, 78

Nov. 27, Bears: Ka'Deem Carey, 8

Dec. 7, Bucs: Doug Martin, 22

Dec. 14, Vikings: Matt Asiata, 36

Dec. 21, Bears: Matt Forte, 55

Dec. 28, Packers: Eddie Lacy, 100

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