Holy Cow, Boys Are Blocking
Is it Zone? Is it Duo? It's good when the Cowboys are running it.
While QB Dak Prescott has been playing at an extremely high level - dare I even say the forbidden phrase of an elite level - the other members of the Dallas Cowboys offense has led to one of the most enjoyable watches so far of this young season: the Cowboys run game.
Yes, their run game. A run game combined with a brutally efficient passing attack & creative play designs has made the Cowboys offense a joy to watch this season on their way to a 3-1 record. They run an assortment of different run concepts from a variety of personnel groupings and formations with sound designs and structures. You understand the why a certain play is being called when watching this offense and what they’re trying to accomplish.
Kudos to the Cowboys coaches for understanding the defenses they are going against but more importantly this speaks to the level of talent the Cowboys are able to deploy every snap, even with a couple of injuries. The passing attack is led by Prescott and receivers CeeDee Lamb and Amari Cooper, but there are good players littered throughout the whole offensive unit. Running backs Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard have great synergy with their skillsets and the offensive line is led by RG Zack Martin and a healthy LT Tyron Smith:
Also important to talk about is the two-way play of tight ends Blake Jarwin and Dalton Schultz that have unlocked the entire offense. Having two TEs that can actually block on any given run play and hold their own against NFL EDGE players is an incredible luxury for any offense. Hell, having one of those guys would have most offensive coordinators doing backflips. With the ability to threaten defenses with a full range of play designs in the run & pass games allows offensive coordinator Kellen Moore to dial up plays based on how defenses match their 2-TE looks.
So, we have sound play designs and talented players able to operate those plays at a top-tier level. What does it look like? Well, it looks like the number 1 run game by Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric accomplished with a rainbow of concepts. Let’s take a peek.
Outside Zone is not exclusive to being only called by people with the last name Shanahan or Kubiak. The Cowboys have been able to get to outside zone out of both 12 and 11 personnel groupings against the Panthers:
The first play took advantage of a busted front by the Panthers defense (#43 and #21 couldn’t quite sort it out). But the second play featured some outstanding blocking by the Cowboys OL and TEs.
Outside Zone is a “run-it” type of run. Meaning that it can be called and run against any defensive look or front (in theory). So the late Safety blitz from the Panthers doesn’t have a negative effect on the play. And in fact watching the Cowboys TEs sort out the late movement speaks to the good eyes that they play with. The other thing to notice on this play - and my tweet at the beginning of the article showed this - is the backside blocks by LT Tyron Smith and LG Connor Williams.
Smith being able to flip his hips and seal the Defensive Tackle in a 3-techinque (the outside shade of the OG) is rare, rare stuff. It not only looks great but also helps the outside zone play as well. With Smith hooking the DT and Williams washing down the Nose Tackle. Elliott is able to plant his foot and get north, with the first defender making contact with him being the unblocked (by design) Brian Burns way upfield.
Other zone run concepts have been successful for the Cowboys this season. Inside or Weakside Zone (zone runs to the “open side” away from an attached TE) was successful versus the Eagles and Panthers defenses out of both 12 personnel and 11 personnel.
The 12 personnel version came out of the Cowboys preferred “Hip” formation. Hip formations - also known as Wing - are when the two TEs are aligned next to each other attached to the formation. It is a nice versatile formation because of the availability of runs and passes from it (if you have the personnel for it, of course). It can also help get defenses to declare their coverage intent pre-snap based on where you align the WRs as well.
The backside of these run plays is so fun to watch. The offensive line and tight ends are all fighting to get their heads across - attempting to give the running backs true run lanes to find and attack.
If you look on the first play, you can also see the Cowboys motion down WR #85 Noah Brown into a blocking position between the TEs.
This is the Cowboys way of attempting to “marry” their run plays to look similar out of the Hip formation. In this case that run play is Duo, which we will get to in a moment. But being able to play rock, paper, scissors with defenders out of the same formation looks can be an absolute pain in the ass to stop over the course of the game.
The Cowboys version of Inside Zone out of 11 personnel also ties into other run and pass looks that they get to.
With defenses having to worry - rightfully so, I might add - about the Cowboys passing attack, there is no real hurry to load the box with bodies. And actually two of those clips feature Dime DBs playing in the box as de facto LBs. The problem is the Cowboys offense is willing & able to take advantage of the light bodies and box count with no need to worry about having to work their blocking to Safeties playing from depth.
If you watch how the LBs (or Dime Safeties) are aligned on all of those clips, Weakside Zone is able to take advantage of the natural angles of that alignment.
Either with them kicked over:
Or walked up near the line of scrimmage, thus negating any ability to flow back into the run play:
With more defenses running two-high safety structures in the NFL this season. We will start seeing more and more weakside zone run plays to take advantage of the lack of numbers in the boxes. And also Bubble throws to take advantage of Nickels and Outside Linebackers trying to peek inside from the slot.
Another way to take advantage of two-high Safeties more worried about coverage assignments than playing the run? The good ol’ RB Draw play. A concept the Cowboys ran to great success against the Eagles in Week 3, taking advantage of the Eagles defense fondness for playing Cover 2:
Can see the angles created on these Draw plays and how good the Cowboys are at blocking on them. Prescott just giving the quick look to throw the ball gets the Eagles LBs thinking coverage and allows the OT and TE to climb up to them and make key blocks for good gains.
The Cowboys may run a good deal of “static” 3x1 and 2x2 formations, but being able to attack defenses out of those looks allows them to so effective. It’s just simple, good football. There are plenty of pass plays that can attack 2-high, just like there are plenty of run plays. But making defenders have to hesitate for even just a moment at the snap of the ball can create huge advantages for the offense.
It’s a run game article so you better believe I’m not missing a chance to talk about Duo. And I’m pleased to report that the Cowboys, unsurprisingly, are wonderful at the Duo run concept out of all personnel groupings.
The main thing to look at on here is how the Cowboys tie-in their formations for their other run plays. Notice the Hip formations and also the WR being asked to motion down (he’s needed to essentially lead block on any down Safety in a Duo concept").
That weakside zone run from 12 personnel earlier looks similar doesn’t it?
Now what if out of a very similar look - a Hip formation with the ‘Z’ WR in a close split - and the offense now calls another run play you have to worry about. This time the Split Zone concept that has the TE cross the formation and attempts to take advantage of bad LB eyes:
And it’s not just Hip or spread formations that the Cowboys are tying their play designs together. On a different formation look, this one being a Dot or Ace formation which means two TEs attached on either side - again taking advantage of having two legit TEs. Look how the Cowboys married up a run play to look just like a Naked they called later in the game against the Eagles:
The Cowboys use of personnel groupings has also been fun to watch. Not only the 12 personnel usage but also getting creative like utilizing a 6th offensive lineman. And not just getting Jumbo personnel onto the field, but using that 6th lineman as a Fullback to insert plays with instead of as an attached TE:
I’ll be curious to see what wrinkles Kellen Moore and the Cowboys coaches have off of this personnel grouping. As it has been effective so far but it has been a 100% tendency to run one play out of it. Defenses still have to show they can stop it, of course.
So, the Cowboys are good at their core runs of zone plays and Duo. Some personnel flourishes like using Jumbo. The last thing to point out is their other counter-punch and situational calls they have in their gameplan.
First is their counter-punch against the Eagles by running, well, the Counter run play. Again, look at the first personnel grouping and formation the Cowboys run Counter out of:
And also when there was a need to start burning some clock against the Panthers. The Cowboys were able to get into 13 Jumbo personnel (#66 McGovern is an in-line TE now) and run G-Pull to success:
Just so enjoyable to watch a unit be able to run such an assortment of runs at such a high level. And it may seem simple but also the awareness of the Cowboys coaching staff to just hit defenses in a different way. You can see how tightly packed the Panthers defense is on the G-Pull runs. Rather than just attempting to play bully ball against a packed defense and hoping everyone executes, the Cowboys simply wad the defenders inside and attack on the outside with a puller out in front.
Again: Simple. Good. Football.
The Cowboys have been an exciting team and offense to watch so far this season. They have a fantastic QB, a laundry list of other good players at every position and run tried & true concepts. Not only are there many talented players on the Cowboys offense, but the effort and pride that they play with makes them such a pleasure to watch. The offensive line wants to bury opponents in the run game, the running backs run hard, every player goes to the right assignment and plays with good eyes. And that level of “want to” is contagious for the whole unit. It’s not only the OL and TEs fighting their asses off, but even former 1st round pick WRs Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb bring pop on their blocks and try to help spring open their teammates:
That’s the good stuff.
Down Block Beats
Hey Nate! Been a fan of your work on the Athletic pod (except your Ja'Marr Chase pre draft eval). Your articles, clips, and overall analysis have made me a smarter fan and understand the in and outs of the game. One of the hallmarks of Dak's career, especially after year one, has been his control over protections and changing plays. Why don't more NFL teams run plays with two plays, where the second is triggered after the first one is "killed?" I've seen the Cowboys run a few of these during the two minute drill late in games, but I feel like it is a bit of an inefficiency overall in the NFL. Is it not worth the work to prepare for this in practice or are coordinators so good that the play rarely needs to be changed? Thanks and keep up the great work!