The Dallas Cowboys travel to NRG Stadium to face in-state rival Houston Texans on Sunday Night Football.
Although sitting at 1-3, their offense has gained more than 425 yards a game for the past three weeks. They’ve also averaged 24 points per game which is eight more per contest than the Cowboys.
However, the Bayou City’s team has drastically underwhelmed with the return of Deshaun Watson and J.J. Watt. Their starting quarterback has lacked consistency after setting the NFL on fire for six games in 2017. Their four-time All-Pro from Wisconsin has captained a defense that’s allowed 20 or more points every week. The talent-laden unit also gave up 100 or more rushing yards and 379 or more passing yards in three of four games.
Despite all of this, the Texans’ three losses were by a single score with two of them by less than seven points. When these teams faced off in 2014, the crowd noise was so deafening that both squads had to operate under the silent count. A similar hostile environment should be expected in Week 5.
Here are a few things fans should watch for Sunday night:
One of Head Coach Bill O’Brien’s most common looks on offense is deploying all five receivers out wide with only the quarterback in shotgun. These empty backfield formations stress defenses by pulling defenders out of the box and make disguising coverages more difficult. If an opponent lacks defenders that can cover, empty sets will quickly expose them.
Depending on game flow and opponent, O’Brien could use an empty backfield by up to a third of offensive snaps.
That was the case in their Week 4 overtime win at Indianapolis. In a random sampling from two of Watson’s starts last year, the Texans were in empty around 20 percent of the time.
This was likely a coincidence, but over the last two weeks, Houston had a pass-to-run ratio of 75 percent when the ball was set in the middle of both hash marks. Outside of two-minutes in each half, there were 12 snaps with the ball between the hashes. The Texans passed on nine of those 12 plays.
Among the many formations the Cowboys defense must recognize, two stood out to me. The first is when there’s a tight end in the wing position with two additional receivers, often in some form of stack grouping, in a minus or reduced split.
The second formation involves a wide receiver in a reduced split with a regular Y-tight end on the line and a running back in the backfield on the same side.
Whenever Houston lines up in one of these looks on short-to-middle distances, Rod Marinelli and Kris Richard’s defenders must be on alert for the snag concept.
The traditional snag is a type of spacing concept. The play uses a three-receiver combination that consists of a corner, flat, and snag (curl) route. Although not a deep-shot play, the snag is useful in critical situations when a 1st down is needed.
Against man coverage, the routes cause defenders to run into each other, making space for the receiver. Versus zone, the design often creates 3-on-2 or 2-on-1 opportunities, particularly on the snag and flat routes. This puts defenders in a bind because if they cover the flat, then the snag will open up. If they focus on the snag, the flat will be unguarded.
The exception would be Cover-2 as there are five underneath zone defenders. However, the snag design allows for a deeper throw to the corner.
When facing Cover-3, there are four underneath zones. The quarterback will read either the flat or hook/curl defender and pick whichever receiver that man doesn’t cover.
If the defense is in Cover-4, that tells the quarterback to ignore the corner route. Since there are only three underneath defenders, hitting the snag or flat is even easier.
Snag in Action
O’Brien dialed up this concept at least two to three times per game. Against the Titans in Week 2, they ran a variation of a snag, five times. In fact, whenever the offense faced a 2nd-or 3rd-and-4 or less and lined up in one of the two formations above, they executed some form of the concept nearly every time.
One way Houston tweaks their design is to have the receiver running the snag (curl) continue moving inside instead of stopping at his usual spot.
But whenever the snag is called, Watson isn’t confined to throw only to that side. Depending on how defenders line up over his receivers, he’ll turn to the back side of the play. A good example came on the last play of the third quarter at Tennessee.
The former Clemson Tiger did a good job processing what the defense gave him, throwing for 13 yards and a 1st down.
In the early second quarter against the New York Giants in Week 3, Watson again ignored the snag concept in favor of the hitch on the back side isolation route. The cornerback gave Will Fuller plenty of cushion. Unfortunately, the pass was incomplete.
Look at the video again and watch how Deandre Hopkins runs his snag route. He appears to adjust his stem on-the-fly as the linebacker approaches. This indicates that the coaches give the receivers leeway in how they execute the play.
A full quarter later on 3rd-and-3, the Texans called the same play. This time, the defense unexpectedly dropped into zone coverage on the play side, forcing Watson to hesitate. But he was able to buy time and make an improvisational pass for 28 yards with his athleticism and scrambling ability.
At the Colts last week, O’Brien called the snag two more times. The first was in the early second quarter on 3rd-and-2. However, the pass was a tad too high and fell incomplete.
The second ran in the early third against a zone blitz on 2nd-and-3. Watson reacted well to the blitz and found his tight end for a 12-yard gain and a 1st down.
J.J. Watt’s Swim Move
Dallas’ offensive line faces a tough challenge from J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney, and Whitney Mercilus. The unit must be prepared for various pressure packages including Clowney rushing from an off-ball linebacker spot.
Watt, the eleventh overall pick in 2011 and physical freak of nature, says he’s not back to 100 percent yet but he looks close to it on film. Watt uses his lateral quickness and play strength to defeat opponents. He has an uncanny ability to time the snap, giving himself an even bigger edge.
One of his techniques is a nasty swim move that allows him to immediately knife into the backfield. Below is an example of two plays against the Giants. He feints inside then quickly pops outside, using his arm strength to move past the blocker.
Any lineman who faces him one-on-one will have their hands full. The one drawback to his swim move is that he allows access to his chest. If the blocker keeps his balance and reacts quickly, he’ll have a shot at getting both hands into Watt’s breastplate.
On this third play, tight end Rhett Ellison does a good job of not over-committing to the inside move and gets both hands inside to push Watt off-balance. Although, the powerful Texans’ defensive lineman regains his footing and tosses the smaller Ellison aside.
Watch out for one or two receivers in a reduced split with a wing tight end or a running back on the same side in the backfield. If the down is 2nd-and-5 or 3rd-and-5 or less, expect to see the snag concept.
Watson isn’t close to the passer that Matthew Stafford is, but he still has a top receiving duo in Hopkins and Fuller. Keke Coutee’s 11 catches off 15 targets in his NFL debut last week could be the makings of a top trio.
On the other hand, Watson and his offensive line have given up the second most sacks with 17. So, DeMarcus Lawrence and his fellow “Hot Boyz” should be frothing at the mouth.
If Dallas’ offense executes like last week, they’ll have a good chance to fly home with a win as the defense should do their part. However, the Cowboys have struggled mightily on the road this year. Expect the crowd to be a major obstacle they must overcome. If Dak Prescott and his linemen are unable to communicate through the noise and have another down performance, they’ll be shut down.
If that happens, the defense will once again face a steep, uphill climb as they have yet to carry the team at an elite level. In the event the offense flounders, Jaylon Smith and his teammates will have to generate turnovers, something they’ve failed to do in two-straight contests.
Should that be the case, then victory is a less than 50/50 prospect unless Houston drops the ball in Dallas’ lap.
You can follow Allan on Twitter at @AllanUy22
*Animations derived from NFL Game Pass.