After a contentious overtime victory to sweep the division series against the Philadelphia Eagles, the Dallas Cowboys own the longest active winning streak in the NFL at five games. This week, they fly to Lucas Oil Stadium in hopes of earning a sixth-straight win over the Indianapolis Colts.
In his first year as head coach, Frank Reich has driven his team from the depths of a 1-5 record to wins in six of their last seven games. Their resurgence has largely coincided with quarterback Andrew Luck’s performance. He’s thrown for three or more touchdowns in eight of his last ten contests, five of those eight being at home.
The Dallas defense was outstanding through three-and-half quarters of their win over the Eagles. But they lost the initiative in the final 21 minutes as they allowed scores on three of the last four Philadelphia possessions.
A similar regression this Sunday against a passer of Luck’s caliber could delay the team’s bid for the NFC East crown. The former Stanford Cardinal is fully capable of exploiting good defenses if allowed to hang around. To prevent that from happening, the Dallas Hotboyz and their back-seven teammates must be prepared for the following concepts.
Scissors is a switch-release or route-crossing combination that can be utilized in the red zone or as a deep shot play. In recent weeks, the Colts have run this concept with an offset stack in a near or minus split.
In this red zone variation, the receivers cross as they release off the line of scrimmage. At around 10 yards, the outside receiver breaks for the post while the inside receiver cuts to the corner. Against zone, the switch-release can confuse defensive assignments downfield. Versus man coverage, the crossing routes will rub defenders to create separation.
The Dolphins were fortunate to sack Luck on this play in Week 12. The former first-overall draft pick had T.Y. Hilton wide-open for an easy touchdown.
The Texans were not as fortunate last Sunday. They lined up in a matchup-type coverage when Luck found Eric Ebron for a 14-yard score. Safety Justin Reid was rubbed out of the way by Hilton’s post route.
3×1 Pass Tendency
Indianapolis being a “pass heavy” team should come as no surprise. According to pro-football-reference, they’ve thrown on 62.8 percent of plays.
However, coach Reich has a preference to throw out of 3×1 formations. A rough sampling from three of their earlier games reveals a tendency to pass more than two-thirds of the time when lining up in a 3×1 set.
Kris Richard and Rod Marinelli are likely aware of this. As long as the score is close or the Colts are behind, watch for DeMarcus Lawrence, Tyrone Crawford, and the other defensive linemen to play with a pass-first mentality whenever they see a 3×1 formation.
Another way Reich could attack Dallas’ single-high scheme is with a three-level, vertical-stretch play sometimes referred to as a sail concept. Essentially, three players attack at three different depths along the same sideline. This “floods” the zone scheme which can’t handle the overflow of receivers.
The primary intent behind this design is to open a hole in zone coverage for the sail or corner/out route. The outside receiver usually runs a vertical or deep post to occupy the deep defender in Cover-3 or Cover-4. The flat route holds the flat zone defender near the line of scrimmage. Between those two defenders is a wide swath of real estate for offenses to claim.
Although Indianapolis was shutout at Jacksonville a couple of weeks ago, Luck managed to hit Ebron for a 20-yard gain on the final drive.
This play is a great Cover-3 beater which also happens to be one of the Cowboys’ base coverages.
The sail is an excellent chunk play the Dallas secondary will likely see on gameday.
The snag concept is a spacing play often designed to attack a single defender with two receivers. The defender is put into conflict because he can’t cover both players at the same time.
The snag is a sit-or curl-type route that settles between the corner and flat routes. This is a popular fixture across the league. It’s an easy zone beater but can also be effective against man coverage as the routes create traffic to rub nearby defenders. The Cover-3 flat defender is often the target on this play.
The Colts converted a 3rd-and-6 with the snag in Week 13, hitting Hilton for seven yards.
Reich could call this play on any down but watch for it on the first play of a drive if his team is struggling. The snag is a good concept to help jumpstart the offense and get Luck into rhythm. Also look for the play on 2nd-or 3rd-and-mid, especially if the Cowboys are in zone.
The Eagles converted only a solitary third down on nine attempts at Dallas. Their lone conversion came on a spacing-like concept to Zach Ertz for nine yards. This F-Post play is similar to the snag, basically pitting Jeff Heath against Ertz and the running back.
The route concept on this play is virtually identical to the one the Cowboys frequently use to target Cole Beasley in the slot.
Another aspect of the snag is the receiver’s ability to alter his route if initially covered. That’s what Hilton does against Miami in this Week 12 play. His elite speed helps him break this short-yardage pass into a 36-yard gain on 3rd-and-1.
Speaking of Hilton’s top-end speed. Byron Jones, Chidobe Awuzie, Anthony Brown, and Jourdan Lewis can’t afford any split-second lapses in technique like on this Nelson Agholor 42-yard catch last week. No. 31 Byron Jones at the bottom of the screen has had a pro-bowl year or better in 2018, gets burned on a go route. There appears to be some last-second communication from Anthony Brown that could’ve caused Jones to hesitate for a split second. Regardless, this can’t happen against a faster receiver like Hilton.
Expect Dallas’ corners to jam the Florida International alum whenever he’s lined up outside. Not letting him get a free release off the line will be critical in disrupting his connection with the quarterback. However, if they miss on their jam, the result could be an explosive touchdown.
Lastly, the speed flat is a quick throw, often with a pick or rub element. It has the potential to spring a short pass for a huge gain. If the Cowboys play a lot of man coverage, Indianapolis will likely call concepts similar to Darren Sproles’ 25-yard catch and run on 4th-and-3.
Here’s a quick swing pass from the Colts in their win over the Dolphins. Although there isn’t a rub on this play, they can easily add one in.
The Dallas Cowboys have all the tools needed to earn a sixth-straight victory. If they can consistently frustrate Hilton off the line and limit Ebron’s separation on his route breaks, then the pass rush should pressure Luck enough to limit his downfield opportunities.
However, if they don’t do all three of those things, then this will likely be another back-and-forth contest. Should that happen, the defense will need to win the turnover battle to prevail. If the Cowboys have the chance to pull away by the late third quarter, they have to cash in. Not closing the door on Luck is likely to have disastrous consequences.
You can follow Allan on Twitter at @AllanUy22
*Animations derived from NFL Game Pass.