The Dallas Cowboys hope to even their record as they host the Jacksonville Jaguars at AT&T Stadium Sunday afternoon. Fans of defensive football should enjoy this meeting since all indications are that it will be a low-scoring affair.
However, if Jaylon Smith and his fellow defenders wish to keep pace with one of the NFL’s top defenses, they can’t afford to take the Jaguars’ offense lightly. Although Jacksonville quarterback Blake Bortles has many critics, he benefits from various weapons at the skill positions, and offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett does a fine job of scheming opportunities for a unit that will be without Leonard Fournette.
Here’s what fans should expect when the Jaguars have the ball:
RPOs are a fixture in the Jacksonville offense. Hackett will pair a multitude of concepts together. This includes the outside zone or sweep runs with double slants, or the inside zone with bubble screens.
The overall concept of the RPO is simple. The offense executes both a run and pass simultaneously while the quarterback reads a specific defender. Based on that defender’s actions, the quarterback will either hand the football off or throw.
In the season opener at the New York Giants’ 20 yard line on 1st-and-10, Bortles saw the linebacker play the run. This left space in the middle of the field for Keelan Cole’s slant on an easy 10-yard pick up.
Hackett will dial up this concept to open drives or even on 2nd– or 3rd-and-short.
Although there are similarities between the RPO and read-option, the two are different concepts. Still, Rod Marinelli and Kris Richard may use similar coverage rules to defend Jacksonville’s RPOs as they did this read-option at Houston last week.
Great mental processing by Jaylon Smith here. If he doesn't immediately read the option and expand outside, the HOU LT likely has the time to get to him at the 2nd level. However, because he reads and identifies the play immediately, he can scrape over the LT and stop Watson. pic.twitter.com/gndxQUw4wG— John Owning (@JohnOwning) October 9, 2018
On the above play, each player was assigned a specific man to defend. Jaylon Smith was responsible for Deshaun Watson while No. 94, Randy Gregory, had the running back. This scrape-exchange technique allowed the defense to play fast and not get bogged down by conflicting responsibilities.
Essentially, the defense plays some form of matchup coverage. This type of scheme won’t always work, as offenses will adjust by inserting man-beater route combinations in their RPOs. Also, the receiver could simply beat his defender one-on-one or Bortles can hand-off whenever there’s an equal number of run blockers to defenders in the box.
Regardless of the defensive scheme used, whenever the Jaguars employ an RPO, Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch must react quickly to limit its effectiveness.
Jacksonville is crazy for crossers. Bortles appears quite comfortable targeting receivers over the middle of the field at short, intermediate, and deep depths.
Shallow crosses or overs, where receivers run across the field within five to seven yards of the line of scrimmage, were the most common elements of the offense. In fact, a rough count of the last two games revealed that 53 of 99 drop backs featured at least one shallow crosser, a usage rate of 53.5 percent.
Each of the team’s receivers executes a shallow cross at least once per game. The most common are Dede Westbrook, Donte Moncrief, and Cole. In Week 4, Westbrook broke loose on a 20-yard gain when the Jets sent a blitz but failed to account for the former Sooner.
Last week at Kansas City, Westbrook used the tight end’s release as a rub versus man coverage to scamper free for 30 yards on 1st-and-10.
There’s no doubt the Cowboys’ coaches are aware of this tendency.
Given how badly they were beaten by DeAndre Hopkins on multiple crossing routes in Houston, don’t be surprised if Dallas employs more zone coverage to defend receivers over the middle.
Jacksonville’s receivers aren’t as physical as Hopkins, but they’re faster, so having defenders pass them off across zones makes sense and is already part of the team’s identity.
One of the many features of the Jaguars’ offense is the use of stacks and bunches. They’re a regular sight on Sundays.
Whenever Hackett lined tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins as the point man of a bunch set, Jacksonville ran the same play virtually 100 percent of the time.
With Seferian-Jenkins now on injured reserve, that tendency should decrease. But watch for the concept below whenever tight ends Niles Paul or James O’Shaughnessy man the point. However, they’ll also execute RPOs from this look, particularly if O’Shaughnessy is at the front of the bunch.
Hackett has typically called the curls-wheel concept on both long and short distances on 2nd and 3rd down. The play works against both man and zone and can be used to extend drives or as a shot-play downfield, depending on coverage.
The design requires the tight end to run a curl/sit route over the middle while the outside-bunch receiver also executes a curl. If the deep third defender of a Cover 3 zone falls asleep, then the wheel route from the inside-bunch receiver could come open. Against man, the curl routes act as a rub or pick on the defender covering the wheel route.
But when put into practice, Jacksonville has Bortles peek at the isolated receiver first. That lone man executes a hitch, stick/out, or go route. If Bortles likes the look on that side, that’s where he’ll throw.
In Week 3 against the Titans, the Central Florida alumnus targeted the tight end both times the play was called. The below video was essentially a checkdown to Seferian-Jenkins on 2nd-and-19.
Here’s the same play from the end zone angle.
When Jacksonville hosted the Jets in Week 4, Bortles threw to the iso-route both times in the third quarter. The first time was on a back side stick route.
The second was a well-executed go route by Moncrief. Bortles threw a great pass and Moncrief caught it in stride for a 67-yard touchdown.
One other formational tendency to note was that Moncrief was the iso receiver nearly every time the Jaguars ran this play since Week 3.
Whenever Jacksonville aligns in a bunch formation with the tight end as the point man, especially if No. 10 is the X-iso receiver, Cowboys defenders must be aware of this concept, and the backside defender has to know he’ll be the first read.
3 to a Side
One bonus piece of information involves Dallas’s offensive line. The Jaguars’ pass rush has only garnered 11 sacks through five games, good for 19th in the league. But they’re still one of the top defenses in the country and boast pro-bowl talent at every level.
A handful of passing downs per game, they place three defensive linemen to one side. This puts stress on the offensive line by creating one-on-one matchups for all three rushers.
Jacksonville’s defense has been pretty lethal in these spots. They used a three-to-a-side defensive front five times against the Jets. They blitzed on some snaps and stunted on others. In the end, Sam Darnold was sacked twice and threw incompletions the other three times.
In the video below, No. 97 Malik Jackson and No. 93 Calais Campbell execute a T-T stunt. The twist game beats the center, who’s late to react to the looping Jackson.
The Dallas offensive line has performed below expectations this year, even with Travis Frederick on injured reserve. Watch for the Jaguars to utilize three linemen to either side and threaten Dak Prescott.
Despite the ominous feeling many fans share for the season, the Cowboys have a better shot to win than most think. However, this doesn’t mean their odds are as good as 50/50.
The team has played better at home this year. If they protect the ball on offense, their defense should keep the score close. Don’t be surprised if Jason Garrett plays the field position game. This will make Sunday more boring for a lot of fans, but it could be their best chance to win.
Ultimately, this game will hinge on mistakes. Whoever makes the fewest will probably be victorious. Turnovers and negative plays should determine Sunday’s contest. If the game is lopsided or four or more touchdowns are scored, then some serious defensive mistakes will have been made.
You can follow Allan on Twitter at @AllanUy22
*Animations derived from NFL Game Pass.