During his post-draft press conference, Stephen Jones likened running back Tony Pollard, their fourth-round pick out of Memphis, to the Saints’ Alvin Kamara. “It’s a little unfair — he’s certainly not at that level, don’t get me wrong — but a little Kamara to him, as to how he complements Ingram down in New Orleans,” said Jones.
Seth Galina, a college coach and analyst who contributes to SB Nation, wrote an article on “The Legend of the Saints’ weak side option”. His excellent piece dissected a base passing play in their offense that often saw Kamara as the beneficiary.
The Option Route
Since his entry into the NFL in 2017, the former Tennessee Volunteer has consistently exploited defenses thanks to his route running and Drew Brees’s proficiency. The option route, which is a route whose final direction is determined by where a defender is lined up as the receiver makes his break, is a frequent aspect to Kamara’s game. In simple terms, if the defender is shaded inside, the receiver runs an out. If the defender is shaded outside, the receiver breaks in. If the defender sits in zone coverage, the receiver settles in the void between zones or breaks upfield behind the defender.
Cowboys Running the Option
But Kamara isn’t the only player to make a living running option routes. Former Cowboys receiver Cole Beasley is well known for his prowess on them. In fact, a major reason the Buffalo Bills signed him in free agency is because they want to add his ability to create and find space versus man or zone coverage running the option.
Against the Seahawks in last year’s wildcard playoff matchup, Beasley gashed Seattle’s defense for 14 yards on 2nd-and-5 while running either an option route or an improvisation off of a curl.
Notice how the Seahawks were in zone coverage and that Beasley was defended by a linebacker. That was a major mismatch in favor of Dallas and one they’ll attempt to replicate throughout the 2019 season with Kellen Moore taking the reigns as offensive coordinator and play-caller.
Is Pollard an Option?
Tony Pollard was equally lethal as a runner and receiver during his college career. In his three seasons, he scored nine rushing touchdowns and nine receiving touchdowns, not to mention the seven kicks he ran all the way back. It was this versatility, along with his speed and playmaking ability in space, that enticed Jason Garrett’s staff.
Although he ran many more bubble screens than any other route, Pollard shows the capability to run the option.
This seam route out of the backfield for a touchdown is a prime example of why Stephen Jones mentioned him as a ‘poor man’s Alvin Kamara.’
Depending on how quickly he learns the necessary nuances to execute the route properly, Pollard should be a candidate to replace a portion of Beasley’s targets. He, along with Randall Cobb, Tavon Austin, and Amari Cooper, will allow Kellen Moore to achieve multiplicity.
In a recent quote from the team’s rookie minicamp, Moore mentioned 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.”
Being “multiple” and running the same concepts from “different looks” means the rookie coordinator is seeking to create the illusion of complexity, thereby keeping defenses guessing as to his true intentions. By running the same types of plays from different personnel groupings and formations, Moore can “simplify” the offense for his players while simultaneously confusing opponents and manipulating them into a disadvantage.
The Patriots are a good model to follow in this regard. Seth Galina mentions a specific play in his article that New England called repeatedly to make the eventual game-winning score in the Super Bowl. For Dallas’s purposes, executing a slot-option concept from an empty set out of 21-, 22-, or even 31-personnel could pay huge dividends.
In the past, the Cowboys often called option routes when in 11-personnel with Beasley as the slot receiver. It was effective until defenses began bracketing Beasley with two defenders more frequently. That’s one of the reasons his productivity dipped in 2017. However, it did rebound last season.
And although Dallas did run plays from numerous personnel sets and formations in years past, they didn’t employ that multiplicity as often as teams like the Patriots or Chiefs. Expect there to be more of an emphasis on perceived complexity in 2019.
Option Routes from Run-Heavy Personnel
Watch for the Cowboys to put Pollard on the field at the same time as Ezekiel Elliott and/or Jamize Olawale. When the offense enters the huddle in run-heavy personnel, the defense typically uses their base package. This means they’ll have an extra linebacker on the field instead of an extra defensive back. With one less defensive back, a potential mismatch is created in the passing game by having a linebacker defend a running back. For a speedy player like Pollard, it’s an excellent opportunity to punish opponents.
On the play below, Dallas is in 21-personnel on 2nd-and-8, but they line up in an empty set with all five skill players out wide. The defense is in a 4-3 base package and plays zone with linebackers as the closest defenders to the slot receivers.
Now imagine that Pollard is running an option route from the right slot instead of Jamize Olawale. That matchup might be enough of a pre-snap indicator for Prescott to target the right side. Although the quarterback is correct to target Gallup versus a linebacker, the chances of a touchdown would be as high or higher on the right side of the field with Pollard in the game.
The option route can be deployed as the featured concept on a given play or as a single component in a larger design. Its rules are relatively easy for both receivers and quarterbacks to understand and execute. That’s why teams such as the Dallas Cowboys and New Orleans Saints call them so frequently. And for Dak Prescott, who’s more of a “see it then throw it” type of passer than an anticipatory one, the option fits his skillset.
Add to that rookie running back Tony Pollard who can execute various routes from the slot and backfield, along with wide receivers Amari Cooper, Tavon Austin, and Randall Cobb, and Kellen Moore’s offense has the makings of a lethal and seemingly complex attack. The first-year play-caller now has the ability to force defenses into run-heavy packages and then exploit them through aerial mismatches.
This provides an excellent changeup or tendency breaker for a team with a run-first mentality. Should Pollard gain a strong enough grasp on Sanjay Lal’s and Gary Brown’s teachings, then use of multi-running back personnel groupings could see a sharp increase this season.
You can follow Allan on Twitter at @AllanUy22
*Animations derived from NFL Game Pass.