Much is made about Dallas' battering ram of a running back in the 225-pound Marion Barber, but lately, the Cowboys' ground game has been in the hands of rookie Tashard Choice.
No, not high-profile first-round draftee Felix Jones, the scat back out of Arkansas.
Instead, Choice, a fourth-rounder from Georgia Tech became the top backup after Jones was placed on Injured Reserve Nov. 26 with a toe injury.
Then, a dislocated pinkie toe for Barber promoted Choice to a starting role two weeks ago. The unheralded rookie responded by rushing 23 times for 88 yards – adding a team-high 78 receiving yards on five catches – against the Pittsburgh Steelers' vaunted defense.
Choice again led the Cowboys last Sunday in a 20-8 win over the New York Giants, tallying 91 yards on only nine carries, including a touchdown scamper of 38 yards that effectively put the game out of reach.
With 309 yards of total offense in the last two games, Choice has produced the most yardage by a Cowboys rookie running back in a two-week span since Julius Jones had 358 yards in back-to-back contests in 2004.
"He's shown a lot of potential," said linebacker Terrell Suggs!(/team/roster/terrell-suggs/ad26be43-1380-45f1-b047-a91e850d9761/ "Terrell Suggs"). "He's shown that he can pop one for a big gain, which he did last week. He looks like a good back, and they're using him really well in their scheme. I think he's still someone we have to be concerned about."
But the Ravens – and their second-ranked rush defense – must perform due diligence when it comes to the young prospect.
With only 62 carries on the season, mostly in spot duty for Barber and Jones, there is little film of Choice.
According to defensive tackle Haloti Ngata!(/team/roster/haloti-ngata/9225ada6-37a5-4b66-9776-1b6e4df2fb50/ "Haloti Ngata"), Baltimore will usually watch three or four full games to prepare for an opposing running back, but the Ravens have had to consume Choice's entire body of work.
Ngata, the keystone of a unit that hasn't allowed a 100-yard rusher in an NFL-best 33 consecutive game, compared the 5-foot-10, 208-pounder to explosive Tennessee Titans rookie Chris Johnson and the Houston Texan's Steve Slaton.
"He's a fast, quick guy – kind of like all those other rookie running backs we've faced this year," said Ngata, who boasts 70 tackles. "He's definitely one of those guys that can hit the hole really quick and then make a move on you."
The Cowboys' contrast is the bulldozing Barber, who hasn't practiced this week because of his toe. By all reports out of Dallas, Barber will be a game-time decision.
When he is in the active lineup, however, Barber couples with Choice to offer yet another "thunder and lightning" challenge, with Choice taking receiving out of the backfield. Over the past three games, Dallas has averaged 103.7 rush yards per contest.
"I think he's a combination platter," defensive coordinator **Rex Ryan** said of Choice. "He can run it inside, [is] a good receiver. "And then there's Barber. So it's a combination of those guys. He's a pretty good back."
For their part, the Ravens have answered the call nearly every week this year.
Only one opponent has topped the century mark for rushing yards all season, when the Giants totaled 207 yards on the ground in Week 7. Take that game out of Baltimore's season total of rush yards allowed, and the Ravens' average for opponents' gains falls to an eye-opening 68.1 yards a game.
And that mantra continues this weekend, no matter who is in the backfield.
"Just like every week, we have to go in there to stop the run and make them a one-dimensional team," Ngata simply stated.