Team 40-burger. We all talked about it going into the league year. Mike McCarthy and the whiz Kid Kellen Moore were going to open this offense up and take it to new heights in another year of Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, and Ezekiel Elliott. And in limited action in 2019, the duo of Tony Pollard and Blake Jarwin both brought a level of explosiveness that could make anyone wonder what they could look like with more playing time. The addition of the 17th overall pick, CeeDee Lamb, was the icing on the cake. Then they scored just 17 points on Sunday Night Football in Week 1, and suddenly it felt like the sky was crashing all around them. How can the Cowboys fix their offense in Week 2?
Fixing the Cowboys offense in Week 2
It would be arrogant of me, a casual writer with a couple paid subscriptions and a Gamepass account (which doesn’t help when the NFL doesn’t drop the film) to tell you, the reader, that I have all the answers. Surely I do not. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have any answers.
Run a lot more play action
This one is pretty simple. Of the 35 passes Dak Prescott attempted prior to the final drive (to include penalties and one sack), only 11 of those attempts came from play-action attempts. Of those 11 attempts, Prescott completed nine of them. He completed passes to Cooper, Gallup, Lamb, Jarwin, and Pollard. In my preview piece of the Cowboys offense, I said they needed to attack the Rams young and unproven linebackers using hard play action. They really could have done that more.
It isn’t easy, without the coaches’ film, to get a firm grasp on what the secondary looked like on some of these plays, but there was consistently better spacing and separation from the wide receivers. That checks out when you see that on Prescott’s nine completions, his receivers amassed 122 yards. That was good enough for second in the entire league, despite attempting just the 10th most passes from play action.
So from a pure play-action perspective, they are still in the top third of the NFL. However, they were particularly deadly when they went to it. Play action gave them their only intermediate and downfield passes outside the late game toss to Gallup that was called back by an offensive pass interference.
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Use motion a lot more
The Dallas Cowboys aren’t the worst team in the league here either, but they did rank 25th in motion at the snap rate and in the bottom third of the NFL in general motion as well. It’s a small sample size of just one week, but of the top 16 teams that used a player in motion at the snap of the ball, only three lost their Week 1 matchup. The top 12 teams in motion at the snap of the ball won their games.
There is a lot of talk about why this matters at all. What makes motioning at the snap or, in general, more effective than regular alignments? The advantages actually seem to help more in the run game over a large sample than the passing attack. One thing is for sure, motion helps offenses overall. As of November 27, 2019, in the NFL the Estimated Points Added (EPA) per rush with motion at the snap was .11 EPA/play higher than normal run plays. Passing plays with a man in motion at the snap was also more efficient, adding .08 EPA/play.
Hard play-action, especially from under center or on RPO’s, forces defensive linemen to flap their ears a bit and slow down their path to the quarterback, which allows for an extra split second to push the ball downfield.
What are the positives of motion?
One positive, and maybe the largest of them all, is the necessity for the defense to communicate coverage and alignment checks just blinking moments before the snap of the ball, which can lead to missed assignments in the defense.
Another positive, obviously exclusive to the passing attack, is the ability to more easily identify what coverage the defense will be running. When teams carry motion across the field, suffice to say there will probably be some sort of man coverage coming.
But what helps so much in the run game is that motion makes run fits for defenders so much more difficult, particularly when there is motion at the snap of the ball. Defensive linemen and linebackers have to bump at the last second depending on what’s communicated, and that can give blockers leverage against them. At the most basic level, motion adds another rushing threat to the defense, which can take a player out of the fit entirely.
Use misdirection and the screen game to help a poorly performing offensive line
The Cowboys’ right tackle situation is being handled by a rookie undrafted free agent in Terence Steele. Although he certainly wasn’t Chaz Green level bad, the performances of Connor Williams, Joe Looney, and Zack Martin weren’t up to snuff either, resulting in 17 pressures on 48 pass-blocking snaps. The Rams used this tactic to thwart a Cowboys pass rush that looked decent against the Rams offensive line.
One way to avoid putting so much pressure (pun intended) on Prescott is allowing him to maneuver the pocket and find throwing windows for quick passing attacks in the form of running back and wide receiver screens. Bubble screens, tunnel screens, bootleg throwbacks, misdirection screens are all different ways to force the defensive line to think about more than one thing and change up their attack angles through moving Prescott around.