Since 2016, I have charted every snap of the Dallas Cowboys offense. Every. Single. One. For those unfamiliar with play-charting, the process is often slow and time-consuming. But when one has the opportunity to analyze that mountain of data, interesting bits of insight can be gleaned. For example, read the article on the 10 revealing tendencies of last year’s offense I wrote back in February.
Since the team is on bye in Week 8, there’s enough of a break to sift through the charts. In doing so, I have found some intriguing stats and tendencies when comparing the games Dallas won to those they lost. These discoveries may provide a little more context to why the Cowboys sit at 3-4.
As highlighted in an article from the Ringer in September, Dallas doesn’t use a lot of pre-snap motion. The offenses trending in today’s NFL often send a player in motion before the snap. Regular pre-snap motion adds a layer of perceived complexity for opponents to contend with.
The Cowboys had 440 snaps of regular offense through seven games. Kneel downs, clocks or spikes, and their lone two-point conversion attempt were excluded. Only 90 of those 440 snaps used pre-snap motion. That was a usage rate of 20.5 percent or 12.9 times per game.
For comparison, when the Los Angeles Rams played at Denver in Week 6, 33.8 percent (25 of 74) of their snaps used pre-snap motion.
When a team has the ball late in a half or is behind late in a game, there isn’t much time for this type of deception. So, we’ll eliminate plays that occurred in the second and fourth quarters and overtime with three minutes or less remaining. Essentially, we’re only interested in plays that take place during the “normal” course of the game. Stats that take this into account will be referred to as adjusted.
Using this adjustment in Dallas’ three victories, they employed some form of pre-snap motion 15.3 times per game. In their four losses, that adjusted rate fell to 9.5 per game.
Condensed Formation Tendency
A common fixture of a Sean McVay offense is the abundance of condensed formations. This is when receivers on both sides of the formation are close to the box as opposed to spread out. When used properly, offenses like the Rams deceive and manipulate defenses to “scheme” receivers open.
Here’s an example of a condensed formation from Dallas’ Week 6 win over Jacksonville. Although the receivers are a little more spread out, they’re still in minus splits on each side.
These types of formations are not a frequent part of Scott Linehan’s offense. Only 37 of the team’s 440 plays have come from a condensed set.
But for Los Angeles in Week 6, 48 of 74 offensive snaps featured a condensed formation. They used reduced splits on both sides more in one game than the Cowboys did in seven.
What’s most revealing was 33 of the Cowboys’ 37 condensed snaps were throws, an 89.2 percent pass tendency. For the Rams, 25 of their 48 condensed formations against the Broncos were passes, a tendency of only 52.1 percent.
This is partly explained by the fact that condensed formations draw defenders to the box, making it more difficult to run. Still, Dallas is missing an opportunity to take advantage of their pass-happy pattern. The video below is of Alfred Morris running a toss play for nine yards in 2017. Notice how the team uses their minus splits to keep more defenders in the middle of the field so that Morris has room to run on the perimeter.
Surprisingly, the Cowboys have only executed one toss or pitch play in 2018. They’ve used a fake toss a number of times on play-action but have only run one solitary toss or pitch through the first half of the year.
Spread Formation Tendency
The Cowboys often use spread formations, that’s a plus or wide split by both outside receivers. Of their 440 regular snaps, 210 feature receivers in a plus split on each side.
Dallas threw the ball on 140 of those 210 plays, 66.7 percent of the time. So, whenever the defense saw a formation like the one below, there was a two-thirds chance of the Cowboys passing.
Part of the reason Linehan called pass plays so often was due to defenses placing an extra defender in the box. From a numbers standpoint, the receivers faced a lot of single coverage on the outside. The coaches had said before the season that they expected this and needed to take advantage of these situations.
Unfortunately, that hasn’t been the case so far. Perhaps the addition of Amari Cooper will help in that regard. But calling more runs from spread should be a consideration, even with the team facing an extra box defender.
Stacks and Bunches
Stacks typically have one receiver in front of the other, but most consist of a staggered coupling. In a bunch set, the trio usually forms a triangular pattern. These groupings can help disguise routes and rub defenders to create separation for receivers.
These groupings aren’t a regular fixture of the Cowboys’ offense. There have only been 53 snaps that deployed a stack or bunch in the formation. Dak Prescott threw the ball on 49 of them, 92.5 percent of the time. This is another aspect of the offense that the coaches must revisit during the break.
For a team as reliant upon the run game as Dallas, they didn’t utilize play-action as often as some expected. Adjusting for plays that occurred during the “normal” course of a game, the team threw 231 passes. Of those, 65 used a hard play fake for a rate of 27.2 percent.
Although it’s a small sample size, the Rams in Week 6 used play-action 38.9 percent of the time.
In their three wins, the Cowboys called play-action during the “normal” course of the game on 32 percent of their passes. During their four losses, that rate dropped to 18.6 percent.
Even with adjustments, the passing numbers could still be inflated by game flow. Still, this is a glaring discrepancy. These figures also coincide with the fact that their run game has been anemic on the road, therefore they’ve been forced into more passing situations.
Although Dallas executes both zone-and gap-scheme runs, they’ve had more success on gap runs in 2018, particularly sweeps. Of the Cowboys’ 23 explosive runs, where they gained 12 or more yards, seven came off power/counter sweeps. That’s over three times more than any other run aside from Prescott’s read-option keepers. On those, he has three explosive gains.
In total, there has been 97 gap/power runs through seven games. In their wins, the team has dialed up a gap/power run 16 times per week. That number falls to 12.3 per game in their losses.
On power/counter sweeps, Linehan called 4.7 per home game. He called one-and-a-half less on the road at 3.3 per game.
Perhaps he and his fellow coaches should make a concerted effort to call more sweeps on the road.
Jet Motion Tendency
In recent years, jet motion, where a receiver streaks behind the line, has grown in usage almost everywhere except Dallas. They only have 16 snaps with jet motion through seven games.
When the quarterback was under center with a single back in the backfield, and they used jet motion, they ran the ball 72 percent of the time. Most of those were jet sweeps, but they also executed duo and trap runs. Ezekiel Elliott’s late touchdown against the Jaguars was a trap with jet motion.
Interestingly, on the few passes they called from this formation and this motion, they scored touchdowns on two of them. Linehan must incorporate more of these passes in the second half of the season.
Pass Heavy in the Middle of the Field
One way to look at an NFL football field is to break it down into thirds. Doing this allows us to analyze how teams behave when they’re in their own territory, in the middle of the field, or in scoring range.
Last year, one of Dallas’ tendencies was to become more run-oriented when in scoring range. In 2017, the Cowboys had a significantly higher run percentage from 12, 13, and 21 personnel when inside field goal range.
Although those personnel groupings are run-heavy for any team, Dallas had a more than 80 percent chance to run when using multi-tight end or multi-running back groups. When they aligned three tight ends together along the line of scrimmage, they were 100 percent run. That was also the case when in an I-formation. Outside of the opponent’s 35-yard line, those percentages dropped by at least 20 points.
These were missed opportunities to use play-action. When asked in April about this tendency, Jason Garrett couldn’t give a complete answer from memory as to why they ran so often in these spots. But he did say they were likely related to the game situation.
In all four losses on the road, the team has become pass-heavy in the middle of the field. When adjusting for plays during the “normal” course of the game, the Cowboys have thrown nearly 68.8 percent of the time.
With their wins at home, they passed 51.7 percent of the time in the middle of the field, a nearly even split. No doubt playing from behind affected their play-calling to an extent. When looking only at first down plays, they passed 32.4 percent of the time in their wins and 50 percent of the time in their losses.
Whether the offensive line has trouble communicating on the road or Linehan simply loses confidence in the run game away from home or both, the team doesn’t stick to the run in the middle of the field.
Sacks Allowed at Home vs. On the Road
Lastly, Dallas has given up 23 sacks, including one negated by an unnecessary roughness penalty. Only six of 23 occurred at home.
Much of this was on Dak Prescott and the offensive line. Of the 23 total sacks, 15 happened when there were four pass rushers battling the offensive line.
Almost all of the Cowboys’ stalled drives can be traced to a negative play like a sack, tackle for loss, or offensive penalty. The fact that 17 of 23 sacks have happened on the road is troubling.
All teams, even the best ones, have tendencies. Figuring out those of the Cowboys doesn’t mean the offense needs to be overhauled. There are plenty of tweaks that can be implemented to improve their performance. However, identifying some of their patterns and not using them to their advantage with tendency-breaking plays would be a massive mistake.
Dallas added an explosive playmaker in Amari Cooper, but that shouldn’t stop them from using more play-action passes and motions and condensed formations.
Maybe he is the answer to making defenses pay for loading the box when they’re in spread sets. Or perhaps his addition won’t move the needle much in the next 18 months. Regardless, everyone from the coach to the player has a hand in this team’s current status and a chance to right their future.
You can follow Allan on Twitter at @AllanUy22
*Animations derived from NFL Game Pass.