Film Room: Dallas Offense

Film Room: Dallas Offense
Film Room: Dallas Offense
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Derrik Klassen

The year is 2018. Eli Manning is near retirement, the Washington Football Team is on their way to a good-not-great season with their good-not-great quarterback, and the Philadelphia Eagles certainly have not won a Super Bowl or anything of that nature, giving the Dallas Cowboys the perfect opportunity to remain atop the division as they carry over success from their 2016 dream season. With an explosive offense lead by young stars Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott, surely there is no way the Cowboys could squander this chance to regain their former glory.

Err, hold on. That's what we thought was going to happen. The Cowboys actually blew their opportunity in spectacular fashion.

Just two years removed, the 2016 season feels like a millennium ago. Dez Bryant and Jason Witten were core pieces of the offense, the offensive line was the best in football, and the offensive design was built around leaning on the rushing attack and protecting Prescott. The season was near-perfect and the offense was menacing, so much so that they took the Green Bay Packers to the wire in the playoffs.

None of this is the case in 2018. The passing offense, in particular, has fallen a long way.

The Cowboys receiving group is a Frankenstein's monster of cast-offs and role players, ranging from Tavon Austin's gadget skill set to Allen Hurns' underneath iso ball. All of Dallas' receivers have narrow skill sets, but are not excellent within those skill sets, resulting in an offense that often feels telegraphed. It does not help that recently extended Terrance Williams has only seen 38 snaps and three targets this season.

Rather than approach the lack of wide receiver talent by using them less often, Dallas has done the opposite. Through three games, the Cowboys have used three or more wide receivers on 73 percent of their offensive snaps, which is up almost 10 percent from last season, according to SIS charting data. Granted, Dallas' tight ends are subpar pass-catchers as well, so the idea may be that keeping them off the field instead is better, but that strays from what Dallas' core offensive principles should be.

The Cowboys offense should be an under-center, play-action attack that incorporates quarterback run concepts heavily into their shotgun and empty formations. Dallas' shotgun percentage has gone up from 53 percent (21st in the league) last season to 74 percent (eighth in the league) this season (subscription required). That shift in itself is not necessarily bad, but Dallas currently has the second-highest negative discrepancy between yards per play in shotgun (4.8 yards, 27th in the league) vs under-center (6.4 yards, eighth in the league). Only the San Francisco 49ers have a wider gap between their shotgun success and under-center success, yet they use shotgun formations at nearly half the rate Dallas does.

Similarly, Dallas' play-action rate (subscription required) is not as high as it should be. Dallas has used play-action on just 20 percent of its passing plays this season, good for 20th in the league. On play-action passes, Dallas is averaging 6.9 yards per play, which only ranks 23rd in the league, but is considerably better than their 31st-ranked 4.5 yards per play on non-play-action passes. In theory, Dallas has the personnel to threaten more with play-action concepts, be it Austin down the field or Cole Beasley cutting across the middle behind linebackers, but they do not lean on it and instead opt to spread the formation and rely on wide receivers to win their matchups without any help. It is not working and runs counterintuitive to what should be asked of Prescott, whose college offense used play-action at a particularly high rate.

On top of the perplexing shifts in philosophy and personnel focus, the play calling between the 20s has been lackluster. For one, too few of Dallas' route concepts are designed to beat coverage, instead counting on receivers simply winning their routes. There is precious little creativity in regards to spacing and route synergy. The offense feels too much like a store brand offense, which was the same issue the New York Giants faced with Ben McAdoo.

Additionally, offensive coordinator Scott Linehan has been dismal on third downs this season. The Cowboys have converted just eight of their 34 third-down attempts, earning them the second-worst conversion rate in the league, just a smidge ahead of the Arizona Cardinals. For context, the Cowboys have the fourth-highest average yards to go on third down, but Linehan regularly shies away from enabling Prescott to make a play past the sticks. On a number of occasions, Linehan has called screen passes on third-and-medium or -long rather than even give Prescott a chance. Maybe Prescott fails if given chances to throw past the sticks on those plays, which is plausible given he has not been good at attacking beyond the sticks this season, but for Linehan to consistently concede drives is unsettling. Linehan's conservatism only serves to reinforce that nature in Prescott.

(Ed. Note: By DVOA (subscription required) the Cowboys offense ranks 11th in third-and-short, 17th in third-and-medium, and 24th in third-and-long through three weeks this season.)

That brings us to Prescott himself, the man who should be responsible for moving Dallas' offense. When Prescott was lighting up the league in his first NFL season, he did so through careful field vision and a quick trigger in the short to intermediate area, complemented by play-action deep passing and option run plays. Prescott was extremely efficient, but furthermore, he was confident, especially for a fourth-round rookie. However, the devolution of Prescott's supporting cast has led to Prescott being more hesitant and less sharp than he was when he first entered the league. He is not the same player anymore.

This concept is a variant of smash. The deep corner route by Austin will clear the coverage vertically for Beasley in the flat. With Geoff Swaim's crosser also clearing out space between the numbers and the left hash, Beasley will get a large chunk of the field to work with as he pushes to the flat and returns back to the hash. If Prescott reads the match coverage correctly, he will know that Beasley has a good chance to be open upon his return to the hashmarks and hit him in stride for a decent gain.

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Up until the point where the ball needs to come out, Prescott does well. He reads the deep corner route and recognizes that it is double-covered through a man-to-man defender and a deep-half safety. At that point, Prescott should just turn to Beasley and let it rip, but he glances at Beasley and hesitates. Instead of throwing to Beasley, Prescott bails out of a pocket that was not yet fully compromised. Thankfully, Prescott merely throws the ball away instead of forcing a bad ball, but Prescott had a free completion to Beasley if he had been aware of the coverage and patient in the pocket.

Prescott's sense of anticipation has also dissipated. Prescott was never an elite anticipation thrower, but he did have moments early on that suggested he could further develop in that area. His anticipation has noticeably declined this season, likely due in part to playing with less confidence overall.

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Prescott ought to know Beasley will be open in the middle of the end zone on this play. Right as the ball is about to be snapped, the Giants' safeties split apart into a split coverage look, meaning the middle of the field is vacated other than by linebackers. By all accounts this is the exact look the offense wants for this particular passing concept. Prescott should understand that Beasley's job is to get behind the linebacker then work toward the middle of the field, which is now vacated. Unfortunately, Prescott turns away from Beasley rather than anticipate him coming open and checks down to Elliott, who goes nowhere. What could have been a touchdown instead becomes a failed third down in scoring range.

To compound Prescott's vision and confidence issues, his accuracy under any amount of pressure has been disastrous this season. Even the slightest break in the pocket or possibility of getting hit has led to Prescott misfiring on throws that should be "free" for any half-decent quarterback.

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On this play, Dallas is running a double China concept, one of the deadliest red zone concepts around. The two outside receivers run routes cutting inside to draw defenders low and toward the middle of the field, while the tight end on the corner route gets to run free high and to the sideline. Tight end Rico Gathers runs wide open on the corner route, but Prescott misses the throw as result of trying not to get hit in the pocket. Upon throwing, Prescott puts all of his weight on his back foot and makes no effort to bring his weight forward to drive into the throw. In turn, the ball sails on him and drops 5 yards in front of Gathers out of bounds. Prescott had a touchdown here if he had been slightly more willing to take a hit and deliver the throw as necessary.

Every aspect of Dallas' offense is worse off than it was two years ago. The offensive line has taken a step back, the skill position talent is lacking, Linehan's play calling and offensive design has regressed, and Prescott looks like a shell of the player who won the 2016 Rookie of the Year award.

There is no chance the Cowboys offense will return anywhere close to 2016 form over the course of this season, but they can take steps toward being a functional unit by better leaning into the offense's talents. Regularly playing with wide-open formations despite minimal wide receiver talent and an offensive line that is no longer dominant in pass protection is not the right formula. Linehan needs to play more under-center and with heavier personnel packages, as well as make better use of play-action. That step is counter to the overall direction of the league, but it is what Dallas is best at right now. For the time being, Dallas would be better off doing what they do best instead of struggling to mirror the rest of the league.


3 comments, Last at 28 Sep 2018, 12:57pm

1 Re: Film Room: Dallas Offense

Good stuff Derrik, I always enjoy your work.

One note, there's a broken image link one paragraph before the first link. I assume it's supposed to be a play diagram, but it isn't showing up.

2 Re: Film Room: Dallas Offense

There's a server issue that is not only causing the problem, but also preventing us from fixing it. One of those days.

The image that is supposed to be showing up is a still shot of the formation in the first GIF, with the routes drawn in.

3 Re: Film Room: Dallas Offense

Good article. On Twitter, Brian Baldinger gave an example of what you said with the coaches not giving the offense a chance to make plays beyond the sticks on third down. Against the Seahawks, on a third down, the inside receivers ran to the first down line and turned around; the outside receivers went a few yards farther before turning. Every defender knew what was coming.

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