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Opponent Scouting Report: Cowboys offense — Not as good as the national media seems to think.

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NFL: Philadelphia Eagles at Dallas Cowboys Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Overview

On December 16, 2018 the Indianapolis Colts will host the Dallas Cowboys. In this week fifteen match-up I sought to understand our opponent and get a better idea of how they may attack our Colts.

Let’s figure out what we can expect in week fifteen.


Offensive Scheme

When I set out to figure out what the 2018 Dallas Cowboys offense was all about, I didn’t have a lot to go on. The Cowboys get talked about so much, despite spending most of the past couple decades being almost completely irrelevant, that I mostly tune out most talk about them.

The Dallas Cowboys have been known as “America’s Team” for a long time and most of American sports media is still obsessed with the franchise in 2018. So when I set out to research their offense, I assumed there would be breakdown after breakdown, especially since they’re housed in the most football obsessed state in the universe. To my surprise there wasn’t a lot that fit what I normally like to present.

What I was able to find lacks the gifs, videos, and diagrams I like to give but it goes a long way to explain the Cowboys tendency so far this season. If you want to read the entire article from cover1.net it’s worth your time. On the Cowboys tendency to use motion from the article:

...Dallas doesn’t use a lot of pre-snap motion. The offenses trending in today’s NFL often send a player in motion before the snap. Regular pre-snap motion adds a layer of perceived complexity for opponents to contend with.

The Cowboys had 440 snaps of regular offense through seven games. Kneel downs, clocks or spikes, and their lone two-point conversion attempt were excluded. Only 90 of those 440 snaps used pre-snap motion. That was a usage rate of 20.5 percent or 12.9 times per game.

So the Cowboys, through the first seven games, rarely used pre-snap motion. Teams like the Chiefs and Rams use motion more often than not and we’ve seen a lot of motion from our Colts as well.

The author of the article Allan Uy, goes on to explain “condensed formations” which refers to how closely the receivers line up to each other.

Here’s an example of a condensed formation from Dallas’ Week 6 win over Jacksonville. Although the receivers are a little more spread out, they’re still in minus splits on each side.

These types of formations are not a frequent part of Scott Linehan’s offense. Only 37 of the team’s 440 plays have come from a condensed set...

What’s most revealing was 33 of the Cowboys’ 37 condensed snaps were throws, an 89.2 percent pass tendency (in these sets)...

On spread formations:

The Cowboys often use spread formations, that’s a plus or wide split by both outside receivers. Of their 440 regular snaps, 210 feature receivers in a plus split on each side.

Dallas threw the ball on 140 of those 210 plays, 66.7 percent of the time. So, whenever the defense saw a formation like the one below, there was a two-thirds chance of the Cowboys passing.

When the Cowboys stack or bunch their wide receivers:

There have only been 53 snaps that deployed a stack or bunch in the formation. Dak Prescott threw the ball on 49 of them, 92.5 percent of the time.

The information Allan Uy provides on play action passes, I tend to doubt. I thought I noticed a lot more play action in the past few weeks, which could explain some of their recent success, with that said I’ll give you what he wrote as it’s an interesting piece to this puzzle.

For a team as reliant upon the run game as Dallas, they didn’t utilize play-action as often as some expected. Adjusting for plays that occurred during the “normal” course of a game, the team threw 231 passes. Of those, 65 used a hard play fake for a rate of 27.2 percent.

In their three wins, the Cowboys called play-action during the “normal” course of the game on 32 percent of their passes. During their four losses, that rate dropped to 18.6 percent.

Even with adjustments, the passing numbers could still be inflated by game flow. Still, this is a glaring discrepancy. These figures also coincide with the fact that their run game has been anemic on the road, therefore they’ve been forced into more passing situations.

On to the run game:

Although Dallas executes both zone-and gap-scheme runs, they’ve had more success on gap runs in 2018, particularly sweeps. Of the Cowboys’ 23 explosive runs, where they gained 12 or more yards, seven came off power/counter sweeps. That’s over three times more than any other run aside from Prescott’s read-option keepers. On those, he has three explosive gains.

In total, there has been 97 gap/power runs through seven games. In their wins, the team has dialed up a gap/power run 16 times per week. That number falls to 12.3 per game in their losses.

On power/counter sweeps, Linehan called 4.7 per home game. He called one-and-a-half less on the road at 3.3 per game.

He goes on to talk about the Cowboys jet motion tendencies but they had only run 17 on the season and more than 70% were runs, hardly noteworthy.

When they have the ball between the 35 yard lines:

In all four losses on the road, the team has become pass-heavy in the middle of the field. When adjusting for plays during the “normal” course of the game, the Cowboys have thrown nearly 68.8 percent of the time.

With their wins at home, they passed 51.7 percent of the time in the middle of the field, a nearly even split. No doubt playing from behind affected their play-calling to an extent. When looking only at first down plays, they passed 32.4 percent of the time in their wins and 50 percent of the time in their losses.

He also notes that of the 23 sacks the Cowboys had allowed at the time, 17 of them occurred on the road.

These tendencies show us a lot of what the Cowboys were doing earlier in the year and it doesn’t paint a pretty picture. If the Cowboys come out in a spread, bunch or condensed set, it’s a safe bet Dak Prescott is throwing the ball.

While the Cowboys have recently turned things around, it’s impossible for a play caller to completely change tendency. Instead it seems that the addition of Amari Cooper has made what they do that much more effective. It’s no secret that good players make good plays and Cooper has been getting open consistently and picking up yards after the catch. The Cowboys will also stick with the run come hell or high water. Even if we stop Ezekiel Elliot for no gain 10 times in a row, they’re going to hand it off to him an 11th time.

For our sake, let’s hope the Colts can limit him to very little output on Sunday.


Quarterback:

Dak Prescott has received a lot of praise and a lot of criticism. I do have to hand it to Cowboys fans, they are in my experience, a blindly loyal bunch. I saw a fan recently say that Prescott was the best quarterback under thirty. He wasn’t trolling, he wasn’t kidding, he honestly believes that. While the rest of the football world disagrees with that assessment, I understand how deeply Cowboys fans love their team.

I say that to hopefully ease the blow of what I’m about to say about the Cowboys starting quarterback. Dak Prescott won’t be the best quarterback under 30 to play in this Sunday’s game. Andrew Luck is 29, but more than that, Dak Prescott, based on what I’ve seen from him, won’t be the second best quarterback in the stadium in Indianapolis this Sunday. Jacoby Brissett will be.

Dak is often an accurate passer and he can identify a defense and usually progresses through reads well enough, the problem lies in what happens when he faces pressure.

Here Prescott makes one read, feels the defensive tackle nearby and pulls the ball down to run. It was unnecessary and resulted in a sack.

I wouldn’t note what’s about to follow because Prescott does take care of the ball through the air, but it’s a serious issue:

At this point I think it’s safe to call Dak Prescott’s fumbles an issue. On the season he has fumbled 12 times, though he’s only lost 6. Prescott leads the league in fumbles by a fairly wide margin. To be completely fair he’s recovered 7 fumbles, which would be a really weird thing to brag about.

Pressure:

To be fair to Prescott, he did a good job preventing a safety and ideally he would have had an option to get the ball out quickly, even if it was just a built in throw away.

This is where Prescott is good:

He excels with play action passes and short throws. One thing I noticed about Scott Linehan’s offense were the number of screens and quick hitting passes. Dak eats on these routes, as all NFL quarterbacks should. A lot of the best plays I saw came from runs after the catch.

For every Cowboys fan who I have just offended (at the same level of insulting their mothers) Dak isn’t a bad quarterback! He isn’t. He’s a good running QB, he is largely an accurate thrower and he has good arm strength. By all accounts he’s a good leader and I come away impressed every interview I see with the guy.

With that said, he is limited. He can identify defenses and he can work progressions but he tends to pull the ball down quickly and doesn’t get his eyes back up field often enough. The Colts will try to pressure the young passer and it wouldn’t surprise me to see more blitzes this week than normal.


Running Back:

Ezekiel Elliott was a top five pick in the 2016 NFL draft. We can argue the merits of drafting a running back that early (and come February I will absolutely begin to argue it), but the fact is, Elliott has lived up to his billing and is one of the best backs in the NFL, which is exactly what you expect when you draft one that early.

Another great debate for another day is how many wins a great back will get you in 2018, my argument; not that many. That said, Zeke is a special player who has the ability to take over games if given the opportunity.

It’s tough to know what would have happened had Zeke hit that hole sooner but don’t be quick to assume it would have been positive. Zeke was trying to run behind his blockers, which isn’t a bad thing considering his right guard is Zack Martin. You can see Martin was trying to turn his defender toward the hole. This was a gap scheme run and cutting back with man blocking is risky at best. Had Martin won his block Zeke is running right into a defensive tackle. He was smart enough to try to use his blockers and then get as much as he could when things broke down.

Patience is a virtue:

This is where Zeke excels. He does a good job waiting for a hole to open and then he accelerates through it to the second level where he uses his block and his agility to get to the third level, forcing defensive backs to tackle him.

Zeke isn’t just a good runner. He has caught 65 passes for more than 500 yards and is a top five pass blocking running back. Zeke is a complete back, with enough speed, acceleration, power, vision and effort to take over games. If our Colts can bottle him up, their chances to win the game will be good.


Pass Catchers:

Amari Cooper is and has always been a yards after catch monster. It’s difficult to find exact statistics, so if you’ve got them or know where to find Cooper’s YAC for 2018, let me know in the comments. The sources I’ve found I don’t trust enough to cite here, but universally it’s accepted that Cooper is very effective with the ball in his hands and that matches with what I’ve seen on tape.

Cooper’s impact on the offense has been palpable, before his arrival in week 9 the Cowboys were averaging 320 total yards per game. In the six games since week 9 they have averaged 386 total yards per game. Weeks 1-7 they averaged 183 passing yards per game, weeks 9-14 they averaged 259 yards. I’m sure, at some point in NFL history, there has been an in season trade that has yielded a bigger instant return than the Amari Cooper trade, but I can’t think of one. I’ll be the first to admit that I believed the Cowboys lost the trade, and in the grand scheme of things, it’s too early to call this a win, but the early results have been great for the Cowboys.

Amari Cooper’s arrival coincided with an improvement of 76 passing yards per game and it’s no accident. His breakout has opened the door for his teammates as well:

Rookie 3rd rounder Michael Gallup has been inconsistent but has flashed, like in the play above. This is another example of Dak Prescott throwing a good ball off of play action in a clean pocket. Either way Gallup gets a step on his man and makes a long grab that went on to set up the Cowboys first field goal of the day.

This is where Amari Cooper shines:

As a defender you have to respect Cooper’s speed, you can’t let him get over the top. On the other side of that coin is the fact that he is very difficult to bring down with the ball in his hands.

If the Colts can limit Ezekiel Elliot they’re still going to have to make tackles in the open field or this is going to be a long day.


Offensive Line:

It wasn’t long ago these Cowboys were the gold standard for offensive line play. Tyron Smith, Zack Martin and Travis Fredrick are all easily top five at their respective positions when healthy.

Fredrick has missed the entire season due to a serious illness and Smith has missed two of the Cowboys last three. Martin is battling an MCL sprain. Both Smith and Martin are expected to play but both are listed on the injury report this week.

The Cowboys have started Joe Looney (center), La’el Collins (right tackle) and Connor Williams (left guard) and all three men have struggled at times. Williams a rookie from Texas has struggled with strength on the inside after starting at tackle in college. Collins has struggled at times with speed on the outside and Looney, well Looney could be worse but at least he’s healthy and consistent.

This is what happens when your all pro left tackle is out

Cameron Fleming is probably a nice guy, he’s probably a good teammate, he’s a better athlete than I could ever dream of being, but here, well here he sucks. He bends at the waist, gets over extended and Jonathan Allen discards him. That makes it tough to win downs consistently even if Zeke can make guys miss.

Collins struggles:

To be fair to Collins, that is Cameron Jordan and this is just one of his 12 sacks on the season. Even still, Collins should be tested with speed on the outside.

This offensive line is beatable with what has been a surprisingly stout defensive front and Matt Eberflus’ well timed blitzes. I expect to see the Colts challenge center Joe Looney and Connor Williams early and often and I expect to see them send blitzes off the edge against Collins. If Smith is even somewhat healthy I don’t expect to see much positive movement against the best left tackle in football.


Final Thoughts:

This Cowboys offense is vastly improved over what they were in the first half of the season but I believe their success has been overstated. Yes they have been better, yes they beat the Saints but they’ve also posted two wins against a struggling Eagles team, a win against a complete disappointing Falcons squad and they beat the Redskins without their starting quarterback.

It’s tough to criticize a team for winning games against weak opponents, you can only play who you play. It’s the NFL, you don’t get to choose your out of conference opponents. To give them credit where it’s due, since the bye they’ve won every game they should have won and one against a great Saints squad they had no business beating. With all of that said, this offense is beatable. The Cowboys defense on the other hand, will present some challenges.