This Dallas offense can present anyone with a number of challenges both on the ground and through the air even with running back Ezekiel Elliott out of the lineup.
It all starts with second-year quarterback Dak Prescott. He is a talented player who can make throws from anywhere on the field with timing and touch. Prescott has developed into a formidable opponent.
Dallas' offensive staff has done a lot to try and make the most of Prescott's strengths, and have helped him transition from a shotgun spread offense in college to the NFL. With Prescott's athleticism, his legs have been an integral part of the offensive attack in both the run and pass games. Here's how Dak's movement skills are used in this offense.
Shot 1 - With Zeke out, one of the biggest things to worry about with the #Cowboys run game is the involvement of Dak Prescott. They love to run different versions of the option, and when they get inside the 30 Dak is a keeper of the football pic.twitter.com/DlA2mTJf28 — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) November 15, 2017
The first method is in the option run game. The Cowboys don't run as much of the option as a team like Carolina or Kansas City, but it's still a part of what they do. Here are three examples of Dallas running the option, with two zone reads and a Triple Option run scheme. Prescott used the read-option to waltz into the end zone against the Eagles last season in the second example. To stop the option, the defense needs to be assignment-sound in its run fits. If you're responsible for an inside gap, stay in the inside gap. If you're responsible for taking care of the edge, take care of the edge! Do your job in the run game and you'll be prepared to stop the option.
One tendency to note from watching the tape. When the Cowboys get inside the opponent's 30-yard line, it seems like Prescott is more likely to keep the football. Does that mean the Eagles should sell out to stop Dak on these read plays? Absolutely not. Remember, do your job!
Shot 2 - Inside the 10, the #Eagles have to watch out for Dak on designed QB runs. They love the QB Draw, spreading defense out and hitting them betweent he tackles for a walk-in TD #Cowboys pic.twitter.com/eXOrjojMO5 — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) November 15, 2017
Prescott is prone to keeping the football close to the red zone, but the Cowboys are also likely to call designed runs for him in that area of the field as well. Dallas' favorite quarterback run play is the quarterback draw, whether he runs it from an empty set or with a running back out in front as a lead blocker. When the Cowboys get inside the 10-yard line, look out for these designed quarterback runs.
Dak isn't just a runner, obviously, because he can hurt teams as a passer when he's on the move as well. Dallas knows this, and the Cowboys structure plays that get him outside the pocket where he can make those throws on the run with accuracy and touch. The Cowboys move Prescott out of the pocket on bootlegs off of play-action.
Shot 3 - Dak excels at throwing on the run, and the #Cowboys ask him to do it a lot. They love to move the pocket off boots and sprint outs, creating layered pass concepts with options at all levels pic.twitter.com/zszLhckter — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) November 15, 2017
There are two plays in the shot above, one where Prescott throws a short pass for a first down, and his touchdown run last week against Atlanta. Dak isn't one to force the issue. He's a safe decision-maker who will take the checkdown before going downtown for the big play, and if he doesn't like what he sees he will take off and run. The threat of Prescott running on these bootleg passes is real, and defenses must account for it.
Shot 4 - The threat of Dak keeping the football on these boots is real, and defenses respect it...sometimes too much. Watch how the boot-action affects the defense, creating a run lane. Doesn't matter who the RB is here #Cowboys pic.twitter.com/MITcP39SwP — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) November 15, 2017
This is a shot against Washington earlier this year. Prescott's ability to sell the boot-action impacts defenders at every level of the field. The running lane opens for Elliott here because of the threat Prescott presents of getting to the edge. It doesn't matter who the running back is here because Alfred Morris, Rod Smith, or Darren McFadden would've taken this to the house as well. Just like with the read-option plays, defending this team means everyone up front on defense must do their job in the run fits. Don't get too nosy and play outside of the scheme!
Through the air, Dallas has several weapons that must be accounted for, and the biggest one is obviously wide receiver Dez Bryant.
Shot 5 - In the passing game, I know the numbers aren't there, but Dez is a legit threat at every level of the field. Will go up and fight anyone at the catch point. #Cowboys pic.twitter.com/ncgYPk6cQ9 — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) November 15, 2017
Bryant has the ability to win any one-on-one matchup because of his size, physicality, and ferocity at the catch point. He leads the Cowboys in targets both in the red zone and on third down, and Prescott has a lot of faith in his ability to make plays. Last year, Bryant caught four passes for 113 yards and a touchdown against this Eagles secondary in the lone game he faced them. He caught eight passes for 104 yards and a touchdown in one game against them the year before. He scored three times in one game against the team back in 2014 as well. He's been a thorn in the Eagles' side throughout his career and is someone who the secondary must contain in this game.
Shot 6 - Cole Beasley is one of the best slot WRs in the league. Very crafty route runner. On third down and in the red zone he's going to get his share of targets. Challenge for #Eagles inside. pic.twitter.com/cuzKPFc5xH — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) November 15, 2017
On the inside, Cole Beasley is a one of the most effective slot receivers in the league. His ability to separate with both quickness and technique as a route runner makes him a tough cover, and he consistently makes difficult catches every time I watch the Cowboys on film. He will be a test for veteran Patrick Robinson.
Shot 7 - Jason Witten is also a huge part of the passing game. Great route runner. Such a reliable target for Prescott. Must be accounted for between the numbers #Cowboys pic.twitter.com/fiDnok2DfU — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) November 15, 2017
At tight end, Jason Witten is still making plays in the passing game. He's a quality route runner who is able to make plays down in the red zone and is extremely reliable on third down as well.
Shot 8 - Perhaps most importantly, the #Eagles front seven must have eyes on Prescott when he drops back to pass. Against man coverage he WILL take off and pick up chunks of yardage. Takes a full team effort to keep him contained #Cowboys pic.twitter.com/qrJUKmWhA5 — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) November 15, 2017
If the Eagles want to spend resources to cover Bryant, Beasley, Witten, and the rest of this receiving corps, they must also be wary of Prescott's ability to scramble. Against man coverage, Prescott is outstanding at recognizing the opportunity for himself and taking off for big gains on the ground when defenders have their backs turned to the quarterback downfield. Against Carolina, the Eagles used a spy on Cam Newton. The Eagles are already a big zone coverage team already, so inherently there will be eyes on the quarterback. I expect a good mix of tactics to keep Prescott contained on the ground in this game.
Fran Duffy is the producer of "Eagles Game Plan" which can be seen on Saturdays during the season. Be sure to also check out the "Eagle Eye In The Sky" podcast on the Philadelphia Eagles podcast channel on iTunes. Prior to joining the Eagles in 2011, Duffy was the head video coordinator for the Temple University Football team under former head coach Al Golden. In that role, he spent thousands of hours shooting, logging and assisting with the breakdown of the All-22 film from the team's games, practices and opponents.