With the acquisition of Tavon Austin for a sixth-round pick in this year’s draft, Scott Linehan’s offense has regained the dynamic element it sorely missed in 2017. The former Ram possesses the speed and playmaking skillset to operate as a critical space player for the Cowboys.
Austin’s versatility allows him to line up as a running back or wide receiver. One of the numerous ways Dallas can utilize him comes from the Washington Redskins in week 10 last year. The slot wheel concept is most effective against man coverage but can also be called when facing a zone defense.
Most defenses play man-to-man on 3rd and short. The first two receivers on the trips side clear space for the wheel route. The running back has the benefit of the other receivers’ routes acting as a natural rub on his defender, or he simply uses his speed to out-leverage his man toward the sideline and up the field.
On this 4th-and-2 play, the Vikings ask second-round linebacker Eric Kendricks to cover Chris Thompson one-on-one. Although the former UCLA Bruin is a good player on a top-end defense, he simply doesn’t have the ability to keep up with the running back, who easily breaks into the open field for a 27-yard gain.
Should the Cowboys want to better disguise this route, they could align him in the backfield instead of in the slot. The wheel route would take a little longer to execute, but Austin has the speed to get deep, even when starting from the backfield.
Against Atlanta in 2016, he ran a similar concept to the diagram below. This time, the defense was in a Cover 3 zone. Focus on the post route and wheel route. On this play, the outside receiver runs a vertical route to occupy the deep third defender and clear space along the sideline.
Below the deep third defender is the flat defender. His first responsibility is to cover any shallow routes near the sideline. Depending on his rules in this coverage, if there are no shallow receivers in his area, he’s then free to carry players up the field. But because Austin is such a fast athlete, he’s able to quickly climb upfield before the shallow defender can transition to him.
Watch as No. 30 at the top of the video, former Dallas cornerback Deji Olatoye, is no match for the West Virginia Mountaineer.
Unfortunately for Austin, the pass is a little out of reach. However, the speed he brings out of the backfield is undeniable.
Although the vast majority of Austin’s catches occur within a few yards of the line of scrimmage, the wheel concept requires him to be a deeper threat. Fortunately, he’s shown the ability to make plays beyond 20 yards downfield. His success in this area is vital if the Cowboys want to maximize the usefulness of their new weapon.
In this example of his downfield playmaking ability, he speeds past a two-high zone defense and easily gets behind former Buffalo Bill Stephon Gilmore.
Wide-open throws along the sideline aren’t the only passes he can catch. The lightning-in-a-bottle player further demonstrates his deep threat ability by tracking passes over his shoulder and cradling the ball away from his body. Watch as he catches a 24-yard touchdown pass in the Superdome against New Orleans. His ability to enlarge his catch radius, even if it’s only a small amount, enhances his value to Linehan and Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott.
The wheel route is a perfect fit for the explosive veteran, and the team is sure to shred defenses throughout the league if he and Prescott can develop solid chemistry. Should he make the most of this opportunity in 2018, Austin has a chance to carve out a role that’s as important to the Cowboys as Tyreek Hill’s is to Kansas City.
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*Animations derived from NFL Game Pass.