Word of Muth: Cowboy Zone
by Ben Muth
This week, we’ll revisit the Cowboys for the first time since their Week 1 win over the Giants. Just like in in the opener, Dallas was matched up against an NFC East rival on Sunday Night Football. And, just like in Week 1, the Cowboys went wire to wire for a victory.
Despite a pretty convincing win, it wasn’t a great performance from the Dallas offense. As a team they put up 31 points, but 17 of those were the result of a punt-return touchdown and short fields. I think they missed DeMarco Murray once he went out, but mainly it just seemed like an off-night from Tony Romo that held Dallas back. In fact, it’s pretty humorous that Romo will get basically zero flak this week for being sub-par after he was killed last week for playing absolutely outstanding.
But we aren’t here to talk about Tony Romo, we’re here to take a look at what happened up front for Dallas. The column is going to be a little disjointed this week. This is largely because the Cowboys offense was a little off, but not in particularly interesting ways. So this week I’m just going to try to pick the plays I found the most interesting with little regard for a cohesive theme throughout the column.
Let’s start with a play from the Cowboys first, and best, drive of the game. It was a simple halfback draw play from a pistol alignment.
The first thing you’ll notice is that the Cowboys are a man short. They have six blockers and the Redskins have seven men in the box. I’m not a math genius, but I don’t like those odds. It turns out that the Cowboys don’t have anyone to block Perry Riley (56). Typically, you want to try to block the inside linebackers on inside running plays.
Luckily for the Cowboys, Riley (arrowed) is on a stunt and just about runs himself out of the play right at the snap. If Murray can keep the run playside, he has a chance to get loose. But unfortunately for Dallas, Travis Frederick gets beat across his face by the nose tackle right at the snap. That puts a lot of red in Murray’s vision, and he cuts it back right to where Riley was blitzing.
Riley just barely tripped Murray up, and he stumbled forward for a gain of four. It was very close to being a classic example of an unblocked defender somehow finding a way not to make a play, and it was still a 4-yard gain. But what interested me about this play is why the Cowboys ran it in the first place. You shouldn’t run plays on the "maybe they’ll blitz themselves out of position" theory, unless you’re playing a Nick Holt team.
So, I had to go to the sideline camera (confession: I pretty much just pay attention to the end-zone camera when I watch film) to figure out why Romo didn't get out of the play at the line of scrimmage when he realized they couldn’t block it. The answer was that he didn’t have to, because the play was already designed to beat the look that Washington gave them. It was just designed to beat it outside the numbers.
If you’re reading this, you’re probably familiar with the concept of packaged plays. Essentially it’s where you combine two or more plays (usually a running play and a short pass) into one and let the quarterback read what play would work best against a given defense. Here, Dallas has the draw packaged with a bubble screen.
I have no idea why Romo didn’t throw the bubble screen. Ryan Kerrigan did move into the box late but Romo had plenty of time to see him. (Doug Free did, and kicked out to him because of it.) Maybe it’s because he’s opening up the other way for the handoff and he was looking in that direction and just missed Kerrigan ... but that would be stupid (analysis!), because it’s not like he’s actually running a read option here. He should be staring at the read he needs to make pre-snap: how many guys are in the box.
This is the look you dream for on a bubble screen. It’s off-coverage to the wide side of the field with DeAngelo Hall as the unblocked defender. DeAngelo Hall. He has as much interest in tackling as I do in food labeled "gluten-free."
Plays like this are the ones that are the most frustrating during film sessions the day after. The plays where the defense gives you exactly what you want, and you just miss it for one reason or another.
Moving on from the missed chance, we get to the final play of the first drive, Murray’s 4-yard touchdown run. The Cowboys had three wideouts to the left (off screen in this shot,) and Jason Witten lined up to the right. They ran a basic inside zone from the shotgun.
A couple of weeks back I diagrammed a really great inside zone play from the Bengals. In that column, I said "On just about every successful inside zone play, there’s going to be a combination like this from either the backside guard and tackle or the center and backside guard." Here, you can see that the double team is going to be with the backside guard and tackle.
Right guard Brian Waters blocks the double team perfectly. In the Bengals column, I talked about the need for the lineman closer to the playside (the center if it’s a center-guard combo, the guard if it’s a guard-tackle combo) to blow the shoulder off during the double team, but that’s because the defender they were double-teaming was over that near lineman. Here, the defensive end isn’t covering any part of Waters, so if the veteran wanted to fire out into the end he would be going against the block of his tackle Free.
So instead of firing out of his stance, Waters just kind of oozes out and waits for Free to block the end into him. Then, Waters just rocks back into the block enough to stop the end's momentum and allow Free to get his helmet inside of the end. It was a savvy and patient double team as opposed to an ass-kicking, but sometimes scheme get the job done just as well.
The other key block on this play is Travis Frederick’s on the nose tackle. The rookie is one-on-one and needs to completely cover the defender up without giving up any push. The key for Frederick is that he gets his helmet playside right off the snap. That forces the nose tackle to make an immediate decision: does he try to fight up the field, through the backdoor, and risk the running back scoring in his playside A-gap for a chance to make a tackle for loss? Or, does he fight back across the center’s face to maintain his gap integrity and risk getting washed past the hole?
Now that Waters has helped secure Free’s block, he still has to come off and block the linebacker. When you watch it live, it doesn’t look like Waters is going to get there in time. When he does, you almost can’t believe how quickly he accelerates moving from the down lineman. But when you think about it, it makes perfect sense.
By waiting for the end to run into him, not only does he secure Free’s block (I love Free’s position in this shot), he gets help from the end to get going towards his linebacker. When the end feels Waters’ body presence, he gives the guard a shove to try to split the double team, but all he’s doing is giving Waters a jumpstart to get to the backer. Waters timed the whole thing brilliantly and knocks the linebacker right past the cutback lane.
Just like with the Bengals play, I’m amazed how little room a play blocked this well actually yields, particularly on the goal line. The Cowboys get three strong blocks from the left tackle, left guard, and center, and Murray just barely scores from four yards out. The NFL is a tough league.
The final thing I want to point out on this play is how much movement Frederick got on that nose tackle. Lateral movement on zone plays is just as valuable as vertical movement. Before the snap they both had one foot on the hash mark. By the time Murray breaks the plane, Frederick is almost on the opposite hash. That’s a big boy block on the goal line without any help. Really impressive job by the rookie.
Moving on, let’s go to Dallas’ other rushing touchdown in the game. This time, the Cowboys ran outside zone down on the goal line. I don’t want to spend too much time on this play since it’s really just here to set up our next stop. I do want to focus on Waters again though.
The Redskins are in a very similar alignment to what they were on the first touchdown run. Since Dallas is running outside zone this time though, Waters doesn’t have time to ooze into anything: he needs to get going and get to that linebacker now.
Waters goes for the cut block here, which is always a viable strategy on the zone stretch, particularly on the goal line. The problem is that he doesn’t quite get the linebacker's playside leg, and as a result the defender is able step over the cut (arrowed in frame three) and meet Joseph Randle in the hole. Randle ended up fighting for the touchdown, but he really had to earn it.
I circled Waters in frame two and Free in frame three to show the difference between a successful cut and a missed one. It’s not much; maybe a helmet’s length difference from where they make contact with a defender, but one results in a guy plugging the hole and the other results with a guy on the ground (arrowed in frame four).
With that, we get to my favorite play in the game on Sunday. It also happened to be Dallas’ next offensive play from scrimmage and the exact same concept as their touchdown run.
So, once again we have a basic outside zone. The only thing even remotely unique about it is that the Cowboys motioned Witten across the formation beforehand (something they’ve done a lot this year and last Sunday). One advantage to motioning the tight end across on outside zone is that it lets him get a little wider than normal without allowing the defense the time to be aware that the tight end is aligned two feet wider than usual. This gives you the advantage of cheating your alignment to help a specific play -- if the goal of the play is to stretch the defense stealing an extra two feet by alignment helps a lot -- without tipping the defense that you’re doing it.
Witten does a pretty good job of playing Brian Orakpo to a draw here, and giving the play a chance to get started. If the tight end gets his ass kicked, the back has to cut back too soon and the play looks terrible. Here, Witten isn’t widening the defender much, but he’s not getting knocked back and is threatening the edge enough to keep Orakpo from just sitting down and squeezing everything back inside.
The thing I really wanted to point out in this shot is what Frederick is doing inside (hence the bright yellow circle). We all know that chop blocks, where one guy blocks high and another comes in low, are illegal. On this play, Frederick knows that Waters wants to cut. Frederick doesn’t really know when he’s going to do it. Frederick also wants to give Waters as much help as possible without getting called for a penalty, because, again, he can’t technically block the nose tackle in case Waters gets a great jump and can cut the defender right at the snap.
So Frederick doesn’t try to block the nose tackle, he just fires off at an angle where it is impossible to avoid him, and then stiff arms himself away from the nose tackle so the defender doesn’t hold him. Refs won’t call a chop block (usually) because you aren’t really actively engaging the defender; he’s engaging you and you’re just trying to hold him off and climb to the second level. Notice how Frederick isn’t looking at or turning his shoulders into the defender at all. If Waters were to just so happen to dive into the nose tackle's knees it would just be a terrible coincidence, not an illegal chop block. The refs typically allow simultaneous contact if it doesn’t look like the high guy is actively engaging the defender.
Because Frederick slowed the nose tackle down, Waters has a chance to get to the defender’s playside thigh. Despite my long explanation for why the Cowboys could get away with a chop block, they don’t need to here as Frederick has disengaged completely by the time Waters gets to the nose tackle. Free also gets his helmet on his target and Dallas has officially got a stew going.
That’s the prettiest sight in football. Two backside defenders on the ground as the running back sticks his foot in the ground (for what would be a gain of 12). To make it even sweeter, you can see the unblocked backside defensive end just miss the running back as he squirts through the hole. If you block the stretch play right (meaning you get enough stretch on the playside), that backside edge guy should never be able to make the play. He should always be a step slow. As soon as the defensive end does make that play, it’s time to run the boot off the zone fake.
To wrap things up, I want to bring up one last negative thing that caught my eye. It was from late in the game when Dallas was trying to run out the clock. Everyone in the stadium knew Dallas was running the ball, so you can’t expect to catch anyone totally off-guard, but I think the Redskins had picked up a pretty big key from the Dallas offense. Let’s take a look.
At this point in the game, Washington seemed to have picked up on the fact that when the Cowboys motioned Witten, they ran it to his side. In particular they ran outside zone to his side from single back looks. Look at the before and after shot up there. I know the Redskins knew that Dallas was running the ball, but in theory they should’ve only had a 50-50 chance to guess the direction -- and that's if they've guessed the play right. The Cowboys would be in okay shape if they were running inside zone left, because it would be an easy cutback. That looks like Washington is more than 50 percent sure up there, and they were right as they tackled Randle for a loss of three.
Again, I know it was late and the game was in hand, but it’s something to keep an eye on as the season progresses to see if the Cowboys start countering off their tendencies.