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Eagle Eye: The Vaunted Cowboys' Attack

With two new shiny toys in the Dallas backfield, I was anxious to watch this new-look Cowboys offense. Dak Prescott, along with Carson Wentz, has been one of the hot topics of the NFL season, and Ezekiel Elliott is the league's leading rusher through seven weeks behind the highly touted Dallas offensive line. What I was most interested to see was how the Dallas offensive coaching staff was using both rookies. Have the coaches deviated from what worked for them in the past? How were they managing the rookie passer? How many tough situations has Prescott been in as a thrower with that line and running game? I searched for answers and found them as I churned through the tape. I want to start with the Cowboys' rushing attack.

First, let me start with my base evaluation of Elliott coming out of Ohio State, so I can share my frame of reference. When it was all said and done, I thought Elliott was the fifth-best non-quarterback in this draft class. A great talent. When I watched him last season with the Buckeyes, I saw a feature back in the NFL and a three-down player because of his vision, competitiveness, and abilities as a receiver and blocker. Without question, he would be a future Pro Bowl back. When you put him behind one of the best run-blocking units in the league, it was a foregone conclusion that I would be impressed with the rookie based off his first six games.

A couple of years ago, when DeMarco Murray led the NFL in rushing, Dallas' staple run play on the ground was the Outside Zone, or Stretch, run play. This is one of my favorite plays in football because of how it looks up front. It's a very detailed blocking scheme that can hit in any one of a number of gaps for the running back. What are its basic principles? Well, it's simple.

On Outside Zone, the offensive linemen on the front side, or play side, are trying to stretch the defense horizontally. You want to get defenders running laterally toward the sideline. The backside linemen are then trying to cut off their defenders. With the mix of stretching and cutting, creases are formed naturally at the first- and second-levels of the field, giving the back room to move north.

For the running back, he is often taught to start with his eyes on the farthest blocker outside and, more importantly, the defender outside of him, typically a defensive end or linebacker. Those edge defenders are taught to "set the edge," staying outside to force runs inside. That's why it's so rare for outside zone runs to actually hit outside, making this one of the better "inside runs" in the game. So, if the defensive end does his job and sets an edge, the back then keys on the defensive tackle. If that defensive tackle has lost his gap, then there's the hole for the back. If that player has maintained his gap responsibility on the play, then the back will cut even further back against the grain. A crease will form somewhere, and if everyone up front does his job correctly, you rarely see negative runs with this scheme.

Shot 1 - Beautiful example of #Cowboys Outside Zone at work. Stretch the front side of the play, cut the back side. Create creases for RB — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) October 27, 2016

This is a perfect example of the Outside Zone at work and what makes this play so effective. Elliott takes the handoff from Prescott, and his first read is that playside outside linebacker, who sets the edge for San Francisco. Elliott shifts his eyes inside to the playside defensive tackle, who also does his job and is in the correct gap. Elliott cuts upfield (this is where the term "one cut" comes into play). Thanks to center Travis Frederick washing out the linebacker at the second level and a great cut block from right guard Zack Martin on the nose tackle, Elliott has plenty of room to operate. He cuts upfield into open space and this is where his natural instincts as a runner take over. He makes a safety miss and picks up a 26-yard gain for a first down.

Shot 2 - G Zack Martin and C Travis Frederick really help make this run game go. Really strong/athletic pair inside #Cowboys — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) October 27, 2016

Here's a play from the same game against the 49ers. This time, San Francisco slants inside from the defensive line, trying to get early penetration into the backfield. The problem is the 49ers slant away from this run play. Martin actually gets beaten off the ball here, but he has the wherewithal to whip his head around and pin the defensive tackle back inside, essentially cutting him off from Elliott's running lane. Frederick, who has been playing at an extremely high level, gets up to the second level again to block a linebacker, and the front side is effectively stretched. Look at this gaping hole in the defense for Elliott to run through. This turns into a 17-yard gain and a near touchdown for the rookie tailback.

Pure Outside zone isn't the only run scheme the Cowboys use to get Elliott going, however, as they have a number of plays that they lean on in their rushing attack.

Shot 3 - Great crease on the Split Zone. Watch backside S/LB react to release by the TE due to #Cowboys strong boot-action game plan — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) October 27, 2016

Here's an example of the Cowboys' Split Zone run. Now, there's a facet of this play that I'm going to come back to later in this piece, but just look at the blocking concept along the offensive line. This is a basic zone play in most ways, but one of the differences is you have a tight end coming from the front side of the play to block a backside edge defender. This creates a giant crease off of what should be an easy block for that tight end. A huge hole opens up for Elliott as he runs 60 yards into the end zone for a touchdown.

You may think to yourself, "Why was NO ONE on the back side to make that play?" Where was the linebacker? Where was the safety? Well, go back to the start of the play. Notice that tight end Jason Witten is lined up on the right and he releases into the route, taking both of those defenders with him away from the run. Why is that relevant? I'll come back to that.

Dallas uses a lot of other run concepts as well, and with its personnel they're often executed at a high level. They have their Counter G scheme (which we'll cover this week on Eagles Game Plan), the Sweep, Inside Zone and Mid-zone, as well as basic Power football. The element that is new to their rushing attack this year though? The Zone Read.

Shot 4 - QB reads are a new part of what #Cowboys do in the backfield with Prescott. Not often, but something that must be prepared for — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) October 27, 2016

Having a quarterback like Prescott certainly allows you to make these types of plays a big part of your game plan. The Cowboys are not afraid to use them in key spots, whether it's down in the red zone or on third down. What you get is Prescott reading a defender at what's called the "mesh point," the moment when he can hand the ball off to Elliott or keep it himself. His job is to make that defender wrong. On the first play against Cincinnati, Prescott reads the defensive end and gives the ball to Elliott, who makes a cut off a beautiful block from Martin at the second level for a 13-yard touchdown. The week before on third down, Prescott sees that defensive end cheat just a hair inside, so he decides to keep the ball and run behind a pulling Witten for 11 yards and a first down. The addition of Prescott to this run game adds another layer to the ground attack. It's a good example of how this coaching staff has tailored the game plan to the personnel through the team's first six games.

The Dallas offensive coaching staff has done a great job managing Prescott. Much like the Seattle Seahawks and Washington Redskins did with Russell Wilson and Robert Griffin III back in 2012, the Cowboys are running the football at a high level, moving the pocket, and for the most part they are keeping things pretty well defined for the rookie. This is not to say that Prescott hasn't made what most would call NFL throws because he has. Just like at Mississippi State, Prescott has shown off his arm talent and ability to throw on the run, but what has really impressed me are two things. First, his poise under pressure which, for the most part, has been very good. Second, his accuracy and ball placement, and this can be said from both inside and outside the pocket.

Shot 5 - #Cowboys love to get Prescott out on the edge with boot-action, and he has been so accurate on the run — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) October 27, 2016

The Cowboys love to get Prescott out on the perimeter with boot-action, faking run one way and having him keep the ball and roll out in the opposite direction. His athleticism allows him to be effective out of the pocket, but what's impressed me has been his accuracy on the move. Here he delivers a dime to Witten on an over route for a first down. The Eagles' defense has to be ready for these boot-action plays, meaning that the backside defenders have to be disciplined in their contain responsibilities to keep him inside the pocket.

Shot 6 - Great job by Prescott climbing the pocket off a deep play-action drop. Drops a pass into a moving target in Terrance Williams — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) October 27, 2016

Here's another shot off play-action where Prescott climbs the pocket against pressure and delivers an accurate through. When you face this Dallas offense, you have to stop the run game with Elliott first and foremost, even with the return of Dez Bryant, but they complement the run game so well with their play-action and boot-action passes. Discipline will be key for the Eagles' defense. It will also be important for the Eagles' defensive front to make Prescott uncomfortable throughout the game, which to this point in the season has been easier said than done.

Shot 7 - Great job by Prescott here in an empty set. First target taken away by zone dropping DT, comes backside with a dime to Dez on dig — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) October 27, 2016

This is an NFL throw from Prescott. The Cowboys are facing third-and-10. Washington is hoping to confuse him with an eight-man drop and just a three-man rush. Eight men in coverage means windows are even tighter. When Prescott's first read, Witten, is taken away, he immediately checks to the backside dig route from Bryant for a first down. That's a great throw against a zone concept down in the red zone out of an empty set, and one of my favorite plays from Prescott this season that I saw on film.

Shot 8 - #Cowboys love to incorporate the screen game as well with lots of different misdirection looks off end around- or jet-action — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) October 27, 2016

While this is a very smashmouth-type offense, there's a misdirection element at play as well. If a defense isn't careful, the Cowboys will hit you for a big play. With all of the personnel groupings and different combinations of backs and tight ends, they like to do things with some of their satellite players who they place all over the field. Those two players are running back Lance Dunbar and receiver Lucky Whitehead. On these plays, you see how both are used as decoys to get the ball to Elliott in the screen game, just another layer of this offense the Eagles must prepare for.

Shot 9 - #Cowboys create plays for Whitehead a handful of times a game. Screens, Jets and other Gadgets to get him the ball — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) October 27, 2016

It's third-and-1 against Green Bay, and the Cowboys come out in a heavy set with 13 personnel - one running back, three tight ends and just one receiver (Whitehead). They go play-action here and send Whitehead on a vertical route from behind the line of scrimmage after he pretends to be a lead blocker. This turns into a big play and a first down. Whitehead is a player who they will try to get the ball on screens, Jet Sweeps and different misdirection or gadget plays. With the return of Bryant, this is an offense chock full of weapons for Prescott.

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.

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