When discussing the Dallas Cowboys’ ground attack, most people refer only to the number of defenders in the box. They talk about “stacked” boxes or Ezekiel Elliott facing seven, eight or nine-man boxes. But context is lacking when no one compares these figures to the number of blockers.
To improve upon these stats, I counted how many run blockers there were on each play. For consistency, blockers consisted of the five offensive linemen plus any attached tight ends or half-backs to the formation or in the backfield. Wide receivers were also considered to be run blockers when they “attached” themselves to the offensive tackle or tight end or aligned behind them in a “sniffer” position. They were not included in my charts when in a minus or near split.
What’s in the box?
To determine what the box actually is, some people use a strict definition. Others have a looser interpretation because not every defender or formation lines up perfectly.
My charts allowed for some wiggle room. The box was outlined as seven yards from the line of scrimmage and included defenders around two yards from the outermost run blocker if they weren’t in coverage on a “detached” receiver.
Below is an example of a formation with eight blockers — with a wide receiver in a sniffer position — against nine box defenders.
The difference between box defenders and run blockers was referred to as blocking differential. For example, a differential of minus-one meant there was one fewer blocker than the number of defenders in the box. When both blockers and defenders were equal, the differential was called even or zero.
2018 Run Performance
It should come as no surprise that the majority of Cowboys runs were executed at a numbers disadvantage because defenses stressed stopping the run. Of the 448 designed runs in 2018, 280 were with a minus-one blocking differential, while 132 had an even differential.
Notice a pattern in the table above?
Here’s the same chart with the yards per carry and blockers columns highlighted.
On both the even and minus-one differentials, as the number of blockers increases, the yards per carry decreases. So, even when the offense has enough blockers to match up with every defender in the box, the more players, the less efficient the run game.
Many fans and critics are already of the opinion that the team’s new offensive coordinator must use less dual and triple tight end runs and that they should utilize lighter boxes more often on early downs. Now they have more definitive and contextual data to support that argument.
Also notice that the “sweet spot” for yards per carry, touchdowns, and explosive runs appears to be at six blockers.
Comparing these numbers to past years
If run efficiency dwindled as the number of blockers increased, why did the team call so many runs from 12 and 13 personnel? Was it out of stubbornness or ignorance?
Take a look at the team’s run performance in 2017 and 2016 below.
Interestingly, outside of a few discrepancies, Dallas’s yards per carry average was largely stable. There were even a couple of instances in which their efficiency improved as the number of blockers increased. So, perhaps the coaching staff held to their belief in the heavier run game because of past performances.
Why was 2018 different?
Reasons 2018 was different than 2017 and 2016 likely begin with Jason Witten.
Watching the film, when a run failed for Dallas, it was often due to a missed assignment or a failed block. Although no longer in his prime, the Cowboys seemed to miss the future Hall of Famer’s presence and experience at the line of scrimmage. However, the young tight ends improved as the season progressed.
Other, more speculative reasons involve play-calling/tendencies, health, and struggles in the passing game. All of these variables likely affected the team’s performance.
Although the Dallas Cowboys have moved on from Scott Linehan, much of the coaching staff remains intact. This means a lot of their run blocking concepts probably won’t change. However, with the addition of Jon Kitna and the likely promotion of Kellen Moore to offensive coordinator with increased input from Doug Nussmeier, the team is probably willing to adopt current offensive trends and utilize more of Dak Prescott’s strengths.
Doing so could go a long way toward returning this offense to its 2016 level of production. Despite the downward trend in efficiency, the team’s run game should hold on to its elite status with the return of Travis Frederick and growth of Connor Williams and the current crop of tight ends.
But whoever the new play-caller is, they mustn’t allow the offense to bog itself down with inefficient play calls. Executing dual and triple tight end runs against seven, eight, and nine-man boxes is a proposition they can’t blindly commit to in 2019.
You can follow Allan on Twitter at @AllanUy22
*Mandatory Photo Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports