Film study: Necessary evolution from Cowboys’ offense

In what was supposed to be a knock-down, drag-out defensive battle, the Cowboys’ offense didn’t get the memo.

With few weapons other than Ezekiel Elliott and Cole Beasley, Dak Prescott & Co. took it to Jacksonville’s vaunted defense to the tune of 378 yards and 40 points, both easily season highs.

At the heart of the success was a refreshing approach from coordinator Scott Linehan, who wisely ditched the straightforward passing game from early in the season to help his players get open against an excellent secondary.

Scott Linehan
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Linehan historically preferred pass designs that spread receivers out to run routes independent of one another.

This theoretically allows for more targets to come open on a given play. But it also requires receivers to win without much schematic help.

That might work with Jason Witten and Dez Bryant, but this motley crew of wideouts and tight ends needs any edge it can get. After stubbornly sticking with his approach early this season, Linehan changed things up Sunday.

Far more of his designs against the Jaguars featured two- or three-man route concepts that worked off of each other, often from 3×1 sets. Many also included motion or formations with stacks or bunches, which create free releases for receivers by forcing defenders to back off to avoid getting picked.

Beasley’s 21-yard gain on third-and-11 in the second quarter combined several of these tactics, as the Cowboys ran a flood concept against the Jaguars’ Cover-4. From a stack release, Michael Gallup’s post cleared out cornerback Jalen Ramsey while Beasley ran a deep out behind it. After chipping Dante Fowler Jr., Geoff Swaim snuck into the flat on the same side to draw the attention of underneath coverage, and a huge window opened up for Beasley, giving Prescott an easy throw.

The slot wideout’s 17-yard touchdown to cap that drive also came out of a stack release, this time out of the slot against the Jaguars’ Cover-3. Swaim’s deep-over route lifted Myles Jack — the backside hook/curl defender — vertically, and Beasley’s crosser attacked the void created underneath, which was big enough for him to waltz in after catching it 11 yards out.

Linehan didn’t rely solely on such designs. He also found success with a number of plays that got Prescott on the move — both as a passer and a runner (11 carries, 82 yards, both career highs) — and used misdirection in the run game with zone-reads and jet-sweep motion.

When he did employ his preferred isolation routes, Linehan called them primarily out of empty sets that spread the Jaguars out and created space underneath. Beasley — who caught nine of Prescott’s 17 completions, with Swaim (two) a distant second — was clearly Prescott’s favored target here. The two repeatedly connected on third downs as Beasley worked option routes, like those Witten mastered, often against linebackers and safeties.

Empty formations are a heavy burden for the offensive line, but Dallas’ front five handled them beautifully, even when Prescott held the ball. (Most empty sets are designed for the ball to be out quickly). The group mostly took care of a frightening Jacksonville front, both in protection and the run game (42 carries, 206 yards).

Dallas caught a few breaks, including two fumbles that bounced right back to Prescott and a too-many-men penalty on Jacksonville while lining up for a punt on fourth-and-2, which kept a TD drive alive. But the Cowboys also failed to take advantage of one of Linehan’s best designs, a scissors concept (combination of a post and a corner) featuring Elliott out of the backfield against Cover-3 late in the first quarter.

Gallup and Deonte Thompson ran post routes to occupy Ramsey and free safety Tashaun Gipson, while Elliott ran vertically out of the backfield before breaking to the corner. This concept often works with wideouts and tight ends, but it was even more difficult to cover in this case because running backs rarely run vertically between the numbers. Elliott came wide open for what should have been a 25-yard score, but Prescott bailed to run the other direction from a relatively clean pocket.

Given the Cowboys’ lack of threats, an approach with fewer isolation routes and more intertwined concepts that scheme targets open is exactly what this offense needed. The question is whether Linehan will stick with it against less talented defenses moving forward, or if this week will prove to be an outlier for an offense that struggles to recreate the magic.

It will get worse for Kolton Miller before it gets better

Kolton Miller
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Despite being a first-round pick, Miller was expected to have a bumpy NFL transition. He was drafted with far more potential than polish, a physical freak (6-foot-9, 309 pounds, 4.95 40-yard dash) who had pass protection issues at UCLA stemming from a key mechanical flaw: a false first step out of his stance.

Rather than loading his right foot — the one planted on the line of scrimmage at the snap — and exploding off of it backward into his kick-slide, Miller habitually took a tiny step forward with his right foot before kicking back, putting him a step behind an opponent’s speed rush and forcing him to open his hips upfield and chase.

Coaching can soothe this issue, and it has somewhat for Miller, as his false step has faded for stretches as a rookie. But even when he doesn’t take that step, Miller still tends to lean heavily on his right foot after the snap, when he should instead be kicking hard off of it.

That’s exactly what happened on Frank Clark’s first strip-sack of Derek Carr on Sunday in London, as Miller looked stuck in the mud coming off the ball and could never recover as Clark sped around the corner. It wasn’t an isolated occurrence. Sixth-round rookie Jacob Martin and even 291-pound Quinton Jefferson turned the corner on Miller on a few occasions.

His trouble getting off the ball against speed rushes is exacerbated on the road, as linemen are usually a step slower off the ball when they can’t time the snap based on their quarterback’s cadence.

But perhaps the bigger concern for Miller right now is his lack of a strong anchor. Like many athletic tackles, he entered the NFL without great lower-body strength, and his height makes it extremely difficult to bend low enough to get leverage against bull rushes.

An offensive tackle struggling against the bull rush is like blood in the water. Opponents see it on tape and test it endlessly, knowing Miller doesn’t have the anchor to stop it even when he knows it’s coming. On Sunday, he was put on his back three times and bulled into Carr’s lap on several other occasions, with Clark, Martin and Jefferson practically taking turns.

This weakness also springs other leaks — like trouble picking up stunts — and is difficult to soothe with typical protection tactics, like using a running back to chip the edge rusher. On Clark’s second strip-sack, he went right through Miller and pancaked him — Miller’s helmet actually jarred the ball from Carr’s hand — despite running back Jalen Richard waiting on the outside to chip Clark. Because Clark knew he could go through Miller, he engaged him head-on immediately, leaving Richard almost no target to chip as Miller was knocked backward.

This, too, was a recurring issue against Seattle. Martin twice bulled Miller into Carr’s lap despite a running back being assigned to chip, an awful result given the back’s route was sacrificed to improve the protection. The alternative is to chip with a tight end (or wideout) immediately off the snap, but even that failed on one occasion Sunday as Jefferson still beat Miller.

All told, the rookie allowed 2.5 sacks (two of which were sack fumbles), a third nullified by a facemask penalty and seven other pressures. The results were disastrous for Carr, who was also besieged on the other side, as third-round rookie Brandon Parker — also uber athletic but even more raw than Miller — made his second career start.

Amid six sacks (plus two nullified by penalty) and 10 QB hits, Carr essentially turtled, throwing 29 of 31 attempts within 8 yards of the line of scrimmage and 17 of them at or behind the line. He gained just 142 yards on 23 completions, the second-lowest such total on at least 23 completions in NFL history.

Notably skittish of pressure dating back to college, Carr has been sheltered by a good-to-great offensive line for a few years, but Sunday’s mess could become closer to the norm. Injured left guard Kelechi Osemele (knee) should return soon, but right tackle Donald Penn (groin) is out until December, and the bull’s-eye on Miller is only growing larger.

He’s allowed six sacks through as many games, and while slick turf might have contributed on Sunday, his anchoring issues were laid bare for all future opponents to see. That weakness could get even worse late in the year, as rookies often struggle to keep on weight during the grueling 16-game schedule.

This isn’t to say Miller will be a bust. Despite some struggles Sunday, he has mostly impressed in the run game, and he could take a major leap in protection in 2019. He should add mass and strength with a full offseason in an NFL weight room, and he’ll have time to further scrub the false step from his pass sets.

But the growing pains aren’t going away yet, and they’ll likely swell as the 1-5 Raiders play out the string.

Rams’ offense can do the dirty work, too

Sean McVay
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

We think of Sean McVay as an offensive mastermind (he is) who always springs players open for big plays (he does), but one area the 32-year-old doesn’t get enough credit is in killing clock while leading late.

The so-called four-minute offense is inherently an uphill battle — you want to remain conservative but still gain yards against an aggressive defense that knows you’ll be conservative — but the Rams do it better than anyone else.

On drives that started with a lead in the fourth quarter in 2017, the Rams ranked first in average drive time (3:25), third in plays per drive (6.4), sixth in yards per drive (28.7) and third in punt percentage (32.0).

Through eight such drives this season, those numbers are improved across the board: 4:10 average drive time, 8.5 plays and 45.4 yards per drive, 25.0 punt percentage. That includes a 13-yard, 72-yard drive that took 5:39 on Sunday, and doesn’t count a 12-play, 51-yard march starting in the third quarter that took 6:20 off the clock.

Having great personnel, including an excellent offensive line and all-world back Todd Gurley, certainly helps. But Gurley doesn’t do it all, as backup Malcolm Brown showed with three carries for 15 yards in the final 15:25 in Denver.

McVay gives his offense as many small edges as possible. He keeps 11 personnel (three wide receivers, one running back, one tight end) on the field so opponents can’t stack the box with eight or nine defenders. He can do this in part because his wide receivers are excellent blockers, especially Cooper Kupp, but even the backups impress, which speaks to coaching. They routinely hammer defensive backs and often take on linebackers or defensive ends.

McVay also makes sure to vary his run schemes in late-game situations to avoid predictability. Beyond his staple outside zone, he mixes in inside zone, split zone, crack tosses and misdirection pitches, along with end-arounds and jet sweeps to wideouts, like a 12-yarder to Robert Woods on Sunday. The regular use of jet or reverse motion — a tactic the Rams have embraced in all situations this year, with tremendous results — spreads defenses wider and opens up cutback lanes while forcing edge defenders to be less aggressive.

The Rams remain more aggressive than most teams in these situations. They have thrown it more than they’ve run it (27 to 25), while the league average team throws it just 41.7 percent of the time. The pass plays are calculated, with most coming off play-action to punish an overaggressive defense. L.A. has also mastered the quick screen, like a 19-yarder to Woods to convert third-and-13 against an all-out blitz by the Broncos.

McVay’s offense is a highlight machine, but it’s just as good doing the dirty work to close games. Paired with a defense — built on pass rushers and cover corners –that is at its best playing with a lead, this is the type of team that wins games in January (and February).

–David DeChant (@DavidDeChant), Field Level Media

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