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Eagle Eye: What's happened to Dallas' offense?

For this week’s preview of the Dallas Cowboys, I want to focus on quarterback Dak Prescott and the offensive side of the ball.

This is a team that wants to establish the run and be a force on the ground, hence the contract the Cowboys gave to running back Ezekiel Elliott this offseason. But the passing game is the reason why the Cowboys got out to such a hot start this season, and why they’ve been competitive in this three-game losing streak. This is a bit of a reversal from what we’ve seen from Jason Garrett’s teams in recent years, so what changed? Well, the quarterback is obviously a year older and another year ahead in his development, but Kellen Moore’s impact as the newly minted offensive coordinator is apparent as well. Just look at some of these rankings when compared to the other 31 teams in the league.

  • 2nd in third-down conversion percentage (50.7 percent)
  • 2nd in 20-plus yard touchdowns (6)
  • 3rd in yards per pass attempt (8.92)
  • 3rd in 10-plus yard runs (27)
  • 4th in touchdown efficiency (reaching the end zone on 30.2 percent of drives)

This offense has been vertically more explosive this year, picking up big plays in bunches. The presence of Amari Cooper, who is banged up heading into this game, has certainly helped, but I think Moore’s presence has been even bigger based on what I’ve seen schematically on film.

Traditionally, the Cowboys' offense has relied heavily on isolation routes. Instead of constructing concepts where routes work together to manipulate coverage and get players open, the Cowboys typically depended on receivers to win one-on-one (not always, but more often than not). That is not the case this year, as they’ve made the passing game much more "quarterback friendly" with the use of motions, shifts, stacks, bunches, and an increase of play-action to go along with Elliott and the run game behind that offensive line. Here’s how it all comes together.

ALL OF THE VIDEO CLIPS FEATURE AUDIO ANALYSIS FROM FRAN DUFFY

Using pre-snap motion is a great tool for an offense. Depending on the situation, the coaches can create room for the intended pass target, find a favorable matchup, diagnose a defensive scheme, and create confusion for the opponent, all with the movement of one player. Most teams in the NFL use motion regularly, but the Cowboys did not typically use it as often until this year, and it’s paid dividends for them.

One thing the Cowboys do often is motion receivers into "stacked" sets, meaning they put two receivers very close together before the snap. The benefit is that it creates room for those receivers to get off the line of scrimmage. Why? Defenses typically do not use press coverage against stacked looks, worrying that a rub route will cause those two defenders to run into each other and create an explosive play after the catch. On third down, in particular, the Eagles must beware of these stacked sets, whether it’s with the wide receivers, tight ends, or running backs.

I thought one play, in particular, really represented both of these new themes. I asked Greg Cosell to break it down in this week’s episode of Eagles Game Plan.

Off of these pre-snap alignments and movements, the Cowboys are utilizing several quick-game concepts. One of the most prevalent ones, however, is the "wrap" concept, especially on third down.

The wrap concept is outstanding against zone coverage, and work against man-to-man defenses as well. Basically, a wrap is a two-man route, where the inside receiver runs a quick hitch or a stop route, taking the eyes of a defender and pulling him toward him. Then, an outside receiver runs toward the middle of the field, just beyond that slot receiver and into the void created by manipulating the defender underneath. The wrap concept has been a popular one for the Cowboys, particularly on third down. Don’t be surprised to see Dallas run these plays if and when they expect the Eagles to be in Cover 2 or Cover 3 on Sunday night.

With Elliott and the run game, the Cowboys have always been a pretty good play-action team. This year, however, they’re a great play-action team. Play-action is a great tool for your quarterback. It not only manipulates defenders at the second level as they come up to defend the run, but it also creates simple, one-read concepts. Quarterbacks don’t have time to read the full field after turning their back to the defense from under center, so play-action passes are designed to get the ball out of the quarterback’s hand quickly. This is why we’ve seen teams use play-action so often against the Eagles, because it’s a great way to negate the pass rush of the opposing defensive line.

Whether they’re little "pop" play-action passes to quickly get the defense to think run before firing the ball past their facemask for a solid gain, or deeper passes intended to attack downfield, you can bet that the Cowboys will be using a heavy dose of play-action on Sunday, particularly after watching what the Minnesota Vikings and Kirk Cousins did to the Eagles last week. It will be a point of emphasis for the Eagles' defense to be ready for these concepts at all three levels of the field.

I know what you’re probably asking yourself. If the Cowboys’ offense is so good, how come they’re in the midst of a three-game losing streak? Well, we crunched some numbers, and here’s what we’ve found when comparing Dallas' 3-0 start with what’s happened over the last handful of games.

CHART

Table inside Article
Timeframe Record Red Zone Passing First-Down Rushing Third-Down Passing Third-Down Conversions Play-Action Passing Times Under Pressure
Weeks 1-3 3-0 11-of-13, 5 TDs 253 yards, 4.15 yards per carry 13-of-20, 10.75 YPA, 96.9 QB Rating 18-of-31 (58.1 percent) 30-of-37 (81.1%), 4 TDs, 1 INT, 137.5 QB Rating 21 Plays
Weeks 4-6 0-3 2-of-9 165 yards, 3.67 yards per carry 14-of-26, 7.12 YPA, 76.6 QB Rating 16-of-36 (44.4 percent) 15-of-21 (71.4%), 2 INTs, 44.6 QB Rating 56 Plays

The numbers in those key situations are much, much worse. Conspiracy theories in Dallas point to potential changes in philosophy, but I think two things stand out to me.

First, the schedule. Dallas opened the season at home against the Giants, then played Washington and Miami. In Week 4, the Cowboys traveled to New Orleans, then faced Green Bay, and lastly, the New York Jets. The difference between the defenses the first three weeks when compared to the last three weeks is certainly visible both on film and the stat sheet.

Second, the offensive line. Starting tackles Tyron Smith and La’el Collins have been banged up, and both missed last week’s game. Connor Williams, the second-year guard, has been up and down. Right guard Zack Martin is battling an ailment as well. Center Travis Frederick is still getting back into the swing of things after missing all of 2018. The amount of pressure against Prescott has nearly tripled in the last three weeks. Pressure, believe it or not, impacts the quarterback negatively, and that’s felt across the board. Schematically, yes, play-action has been down (which can also be explained by the fact that they’ve largely played from behind during the losing streak), but everything else from a playcalling standpoint has remained status quo.

What does this all mean for Sunday night? Both Smith and Collins have been limited practice this week. Star receiver Amari Cooper and free agent signee Randall Cobb have not practiced. If Dallas is missing all four players, how does that change their plan of attack?

Second-year receiver Michael Gallup will be the wideout to worry about. A long, lanky receiver with some vertical ability, Gallup has been impressive for them this season. He’s turned into a better player than I envisioned when he was coming out of Colorado State just 18 months ago. Gallup missed two games with a knee injury, so he’s banged up as well, but he’s emerged as the No. 2 passing target in this offense. He is a player who Prescott has a lot of faith in at all three levels, as well as outside the numbers and over the middle of the field. The Eagles must keep Gallup from getting going.

Stopping the run will also be a clear point of emphasis, as it always is. Ezekiel Elliott has never lost a game against the Eagles when he’s suited up for Dallas, a trend that the Eagles will look to reverse on Sunday night. As they’ve done all season long, shutting down the opposing No. 1 running back is going to be key, particularly if the Cowboys are missing their top passing target.

Stopping Zeke on the ground isn’t enough, however, because they also use him a lot in the passing game. With Cooper out for the majority of the game against the Jets, the Cowboys found lots of ways to get Elliott the ball in space.

Whether it’s in the screen game, on routes out of the backfield, or flexed out into the slot, Dallas will make it a point to get the ball to Elliott in the passing game a handful of times. Whoever is matched up with him, whether it’s a linebacker or a safety, he has to be ready for those targets when they come.

Another running back to keep an eye on in this game is rookie Tony Pollard. The fourth-round pick from Memphis was the star of the preseason, but has taken a back seat with Elliott back in the fold. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t see the field, though.

Pollard has a wide receiver background as a hybrid player at Memphis. His versatility absolutely could come into play on Sunday if the Cowboys are missing Cooper. Pollard is both quick and fast. Dallas’ coaching staff could try and find ways to get him into space with his ability to line up anywhere on the field.

The other X-factor is Prescott. The fourth-year passer has seen an uptick in production this year, and you have to give credit to him for his improvement as a passer. Prescott is letting the offense do work for him, hitting the layup throws, and making some big-time throws in between. He’s been far from perfect, and leaves a handful of passes on the field every game, but as a fan of the game, it’s good to see him take the next step in his progression.

Then, of course, you have to account for Dak’s legs. He’s beaten the Eagles before by using his feet in critical situations. Whether it’s down in the red zone or on third down, both he and his coaches know that his legs can win them games.

Whether it’s in the option run game, on designed quarterback runs, or if he’s breaking the pocket on pass plays, the Eagles have to keep Dak contained in this game.

Fran Duffy is the producer of the Emmy-nominated Eagles Game Plan show which can be seen every gameday during the season on NBC10 in Philadelphia. He is also the host of two Eagles-related podcasts, Eagle Eye in the Sky, which examines the team from an X's and O's angle each and every week as well as the Journey to the Draft podcast, which covers college football and the NFL Draft all year round. Fran also authors the Eagle Eye in the Sky column, which runs four times a week during the football season to serve as a recap for the previous game and to preview the upcoming matchup. 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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