The Dallas Cowboys travel to Mercedes-Benz Stadium to meet the Atlanta Falcons this weekend. With both clubs sitting at 4-5 and fighting to keep their playoff hopes alive, the loser will face a six-game hole that may be too deep to overcome.
Longtime USC coach Steve Sarkisian is in his second season under Dan Quinn as the team’s offensive coordinator. With Sarkisian calling the plays, Atlanta has scored 30 or more points in four of their five home games.
The Flacons’ offense boasts fast and dangerous weapons at every skill position. The receiving corps, anchored by premier wideout Julio Jones, and the ground attack, led by the speedy Tevin Coleman, make this offense one of Dallas’s toughest challenges of 2018.
Here are some concepts the Cowboys and their fans can expect to see on Sunday.
Much of the damage Atlanta inflicts on the ground comes from zone runs. These plays often rely upon angle, reach, and double team blocks to succeed.
One of their base run calls is the outside zone, where the offensive line moves laterally and in unison to create creases in the defensive front. This can be a highly effective run that’s easy to understand in overall concept but is nuanced in detail and takes a lot of practice to become proficient.
A variation of outside zone that could make an appearance on Sunday is the zone lead.
Normally, the outside zone is executed with a single running back in the backfield. The zone lead uses a half-back as a lead blocker for the runner. Atlanta will vary this design even further by tossing the ball to the back instead of using the standard handoff.
In Week 7, Coleman burst through the New York defense for a 30-yard touchdown on a zone lead toss.
Like Dallas, the Falcons tend to pass the ball when lining up in a condensed formation. That’s an alignment when receivers on both sides are in a minus or reduced split.
In their last two victories, Atlanta threw the ball on 37 of 42 snaps from a condensed formation, a pass rate of 88.1 percent. Also, against the Giants in Week 7, three of the Falcons’ four explosive passes came out of a reduced look.
Sarkisian will call various concepts from these alignments, but one of the most effective is the simple out. Julio Jones provides a reliable target on both out-breaking and in-breaking routes at short to intermediate distances. This is a quick and easy way to pick up yards, as the minus split provides Jones more room to work. And to the defender, he’s as likely to break inside as he is outside.
Rollouts and Bootlegs
A frequent fixture in the Falcons’ weekly gameplan is the bootleg or rollout pass. Sarkisian often calls these plays on first down using outside zone or split zone action.
At Cleveland last week, these play-action passes were heavily featured. And against the Giants, they executed some form of rollout five times. All were on first down. Two were converted, while the rest were successful gains eight, five, and nine yards.
Because these bootlegs share the same initial look as Atlanta’s base zone runs, they’re difficult to defend. Jaylon Smith, Leighton Vander Esch, and the Cowboys’ secondary should be challenged by these plays early and often.
Since Dallas’s base coverage is Cover-3 zone, teams try to attack this scheme along the sideline. An effective way of creating explosive opportunities against this defense is with the post-wheel concept.
The outside cornerbacks are responsible for the deep third of the field and are occupied by the vertical stem of the post. At the same time, the slot receiver wheels outside and up the sideline, where the post route has drawn the corner inside. Unless the flat zone defender carries the wheel, that receiver will be wide open.
The Dallas defense was almost gashed by this play in the early second quarter of Sunday night’s win at the Eagles. Fortunately for Rod Marinelli and Kris Richard’s unit, Carson Wentz didn’t see Nelson Agholor open up.
Matt Ryan found himself in a similar situation this past Sunday against the Browns. For some reason, he failed to deliver the ball to tight end Austin Hooper along the sideline for what would’ve been an easy touchdown.
Don’t be surprised to see Tevin Coleman or Hooper break for a big gain on a similar concept.
Watch for the Falcons to deploy quick screens throughout the day. One example is the tunnel screen.
This is a quick pass outside where the receiver cuts underneath his blockers, who create an alley into the second and third levels. Although receivers like Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley, and Mohmed Sanu are frequent targets of this concept, the Falcons will also throw to running backs Tevin Coleman and Ito Smith.
Sarkisian can dial up this play on nearly any down and distance at any point in the game. But look for him to call these when they’re in Dallas territory or even in the red zone. Such is the case in the video below from last year at Carolina.
At Washington in Week 9, Coleman struck early with a 39-yard touchdown on a quick screen in the first quarter.
Although the Dallas Cowboys have a fast-flowing and talented defense, they’ve proven to be exploitable by above average quarterbacks with above average receiving corps. The shootout against Matthew Stafford and the Lions in Week 4 is a good example. A similar affair will likely be the case this Sunday.
The good news for Dallas is that the Falcons allow as many yards and points on defense as they score on offense. Even with the possible return of linebacker Deion Jones, the Cowboys should be able to move the ball against Atlanta’s defense, provided they show the same grit they did last week. If that’s the case, then they have a realistic chance of winning two straight games for the first time this year.
However, the odds will still be against them, as they’ve only managed one winning performance on the road in 2018. The Falcons could easily pull away with a series of big plays if the defense gets exposed.
You can follow Allan on Twitter at @AllanUy22
*Animations derived from NFL Game Pass.