In an earlier article this month about the Dallas Cowboys utilizing Tony Pollard, I relayed a quote from Kellen Moore during rookie minicamp. He told the press that “the beauty of our current roster is we have a lot of versatility…Hopefully we can be multiple and present things in different ways…You can run similar plays just out of different looks.”
What exactly does the first-year play-caller mean by this? In short, his offense will run a lot of the same concepts as before, but they’ll do so from different formations and personnel groupings. By dressing up his concepts with added shifts and motions, as well as calling the same pass plays from run-heavy personnel groupings and calling run plays from pass-heavy ones, he can keep defenses from keying in on his tendencies. Doing this can prevent individual defenders from gaining a feel for the flow of the game and cause them to slow down as they second-guess what their eyes tell them.
The Patriots as an Example
The New England Patriots are a good case study when it comes to dialing up staple passing plays from two-running back sets like 21- or 22-personnel. In recent years, they’ve been a team that likes to force opponents into heavier but slower packages to stop the run, only to stress the linebackers by putting them into coverage.
In what was the lowest scoring Super Bowl in history, the Patriots’ and Rams’ offenses were bogged down by stellar defensive play on both sides. The deadlock was finally broken in the middle of the fourth quarter, when Patriots Offensive Coordinator Josh McDaniels and quarterback Tom Brady rattled off four consecutive passes from 22-personnel, traveling 67 yards in the process. New England called the same base concept on three of those last four passes.
That staple passing concept was Hoss Y-Juke. Essentially, two slot receivers (the tight ends, in this case) ran seam routes while the outside receivers (the running back and fullback) executed short hitch or stop routes. At the same time, inside slot receiver Julian Edelman was free to run an option or juke route to find open space over the middle.
This is the type of pass play New England will also call from 11- or 12-personnel, with Brady under center, as part of play-action, and various other formations.
How the Drive Played Out
On the second play of the drive near midfield, the Patriots went into an empty set. Wade Phillips’s defense responded by playing a standard quarters coverage. This left only three linebackers underneath, which gave Edelman a lot of real estate. Brady saw this and hit his receiver for an easy 13 yards.
After that gain put the offense in fringe field goal range, the Rams switched to a more matchup-type coverage. On the next play, Brady targeted Rex Burkhead, who was covered by Marcus Peters, on a stop route for a gain of seven.
New England then dialed up the Hoss concept one final time. The Rams made a late switch that saw linebacker Corey Littleton guard Rob Gronkowski in man coverage. Brady recognized this matchup and threw a tight-window ball down the seam that set his team up for the game’s only touchdown and eventual winning score.
Los Angeles was in a base or heavy package the entire drive and never faced a single run until the goal line score from the two yard line. The Patriots ran the same play three times in a row with 22-personnel. Two times, linebacker Littleton was put into a mismatch and beaten.
Can the Cowboys emulate this drive?
Dallas has done something similar in the past but rarely from multi-running back packages. For example, they’ve aligned two-running back personnel groupings into an empty set — meaning no one in the backfield except the quarterback — only twice in 2018.
From a previous piece based on my play-charting, one of the Cowboys’ most frequently used passing concepts was the slant-flat. Last year, they called plays that featured this combination at least 2.6 times per game.
The slant-flat sends the outside receiver on a slant while the slot or backfield receiver crosses underneath to the flat. This play is particularly effective against man coverage because it creates traffic for defenders to sift through. But it can also be successful versus zone. The team runs this play from numerous personnel packages and formations similar to how the Patriots use their Hoss Y-Juke concept.
Once, in Week 2 against the New York Giants, Scott Linehan sent the offense onto the field with 21-personnel on first down. They lined up in an I-formation, a clear run-first look. However, before the snap, Dak Prescott signaled a shift that saw both backs and the attached tight end split wide, showing an empty backfield. As a result, the Giants changed their coverage to a “softer” zone scheme. Their corners, previously aligned in a press technique, moved off the line of scrimmage. This gave the receivers a free release into a coverage with exploitable windows by shorter routes underneath. Dallas then executed a mirrored slant-flat combination where Prescott found Deonte Thompson for 12 yards.
The only other time last season that the Cowboys tried to take advantage of the defense in a similar manner was in Week 5 at Houston.
To be fair, Linehan called passes from 12-, 13-, 21-, and 22-personnel about 39.7-percent of the time, with 57.6-percent of those being play-action. But only twice all of last season did they use two-running back personnel groupings to influence defenses into their base package before spreading them out wide and having them cover an empty formation.
It’s not that Dallas is incapable of throwing out of run-based formations and personnel or vice versa. They’ve done it before, and with some regularity. But to keep defenses confused by going against the grain to the extent of the Patriots and other teams around the NFL is something they’ve simply chosen not to do in recent years.
Regardless of personnel, when the Cowboys are in shotgun, they pass 82-percent of the time. When the quarterback is under center, they run 71.1-percent of the time. If Dallas uses 11-personnel, they pass on 69.8-percent of plays. They run around 60-percent of the time if they break the huddle with 12-personnel.
Basically, schematic disguise or tendency breakers and constraint plays through the use of personnel groupings and formations is a rarely-explored aspect of the game for this team. However, with a bright young offensive mind in Kellen Moore calling the plays, maybe that will change this year. At the very least, the rookie coordinator is talking as if it will.
You can follow Allan on Twitter at @AllanUy22
*Animations derived from NFL Game Pass.