When Kellen Moore took over as the offensive coordinator for the Dallas Cowboys a lot of expectations came that he would improve the offense. Though a lot of the parts coming into 2019 were the same as 2018, the anticipation of improvement was more about what Kellen Moore’s mind would bring to the table.
From Moore’s first interview with the press about his offensive philosophy to the preseason to the Cowboys victories in their first two regular-season games, the Dallas Cowboys look like a much different team. One area where the Dallas Cowboys are finding much more success in 2019 compared to last year, is in their success using 11-personnel (1 running back, 1 tight end, and 3 wide receivers).
As the NFL has evolved and began adopting more spread concepts into the offensive gameplans, 11-personnel has become the predominant formation in the league. 19 of the NFL’s 32 teams use 11-personnel more than 60% of the time and 14 of those teams run it at least 70% of the time. The Dallas Cowboys are one of those as they deploy 11-personnel at a rate fo 73%.
The reason 11-personnel has become so popular is that it doesn’t give away run-pass tendencies quite like two or three tight end formations typically signify a run or like a four or five wide receiver set can signify a pass. With the rate tight ends and running backs are catching the football in the modern NFL, this formation allows teams to hide their intentions before the snap. Many teams, the Dallas Cowboys included may start out with the tight end lined up next to the tackle and the running back in the backfield and then motion those players out into an empty backfield set with a spread look. This formation allows the Dallas Cowboys and other teams to give defenses multiple looks out without having to change the personnel grouping.
The Dallas Cowboys offense led by Kellen Moore calling the plays and Dak Prescott at quarterback has taken a significant step forward as an offense and a lot of that is because they’ve increased their use of 11-personnel and their efficiency when deploying it.
In looking at some of the data from last year to this year, we’re going to be looking at Warren Sharp’s Football Stats and success rates. Sharp Football Stats defines a successful play as one that, “gains at least 40% of yards-to-go on first down, 60% of yards-to-go on second down and 100% of yards-to-go on third or fourth down.” So even if a run on 3rd and 10 goes for nine yards, it’s deemed an unsuccessful play because it was unable to pick up the first down yardage. If a 2nd and 10 play picks up six yards, it is considered a successful play. If on 3rd and 1, the offense gets one yard and picks up the first down, the play is deemed successful.
In 2018 under Scott Linehan, the Dallas Cowboys deployed 11-personnel (3 WR, 1 TE, 1 RB) 66% of the time, per Sharp Football Stats. That personnel rate was right at the league average of 65%. The Cowboys success rate in 2018 when running 11-personnel was just under the league average at 45%. It was arguably the Dallas Cowboys most effective personnel grouping when they threw the ball as Dak Prescott had a passer rating of 100.6, but he only averaged 7.2 yards per attempt last season in this formation. They were successful on only 45% of their pass attempts, which put them in the bottom half of the league when throwing out of 11-personnel. Though they averaged 5.2 yards per carry, when the Dallas Cowboys ran the ball out of 11-personnel, they ranked 18th in the NFL in success rate at 49%.
In 2019, the Dallas Cowboys are playing out 11-personnel 77% of the time. That’s more than a 10% bump in 11-personnel through the first two games of the season. The Dallas Cowboys have a success rate in 11-personnel of 60%, which is second in the NFL only to the New England Patriots. Currently, the league average success rate out of 11-personnel is only 47%.
When Dak Prescott throws the ball out of 11-personnel, he has a passer rating of 145 (league average is 97), 11.4 yards per attempt (league average is 7.4) and 8.3 air yards per attempt (league average is 7.4). The Dallas Cowboys when passing out of 11-personnel have a success rate of 65%. That’s a huge bump from their success rate in 2018 of 45% and much higher than the league average in 2019 of 46%. No team in the NFL has a higher success rate when throwing out of this formation than the Dallas Cowboys.
Let me say that again. No team in the NFL has a higher success rate when throwing out of 11-personnel than Dak Prescott and the Dallas Cowboys. Not the Kansas City Chiefs, not the Patriots, not the Los Angeles Rams. Nobody.
When the Dallas Cowboys run the ball out of 11-personnel, they gain the necessary yardage on the down at a rate of 56%. In running success rate, the Dallas Cowboys rank 11th in the NFL, just behind the Los Angeles Rams and the Los Angeles Chargers.
Though the offense has a higher success rate when running 12-personnel (1 running back, 2 tight ends, and 2 wide receivers), they only use this formation 15% of the time. Dak Prescott’s a perfect 8 for 8 when throwing out of 12-personnel with a perfect passer rating. While they’ve been good throwing out of this formation (100% success rate), it hasn’t been nearly as successful for the running game (36%). Much of that is due to the tight formation that comes with running out of a two-tight end set and the extra defender it brings into the box.
It’s obvious that the Dallas Cowboys are having a ton of success when deploying 11-personnel, but why? What can we take away from this?
Kellen Moore Effect
Kellen Moore’s playcalling has been a breath of fresh air in 2019. Though we’re only two games into the season, clearly he knows what he’s doing. Sure, the Dallas Cowboys haven’t faced the toughest NFL defenses yet in 2019, but they’ve put 35 and 31 points on the board against division rivals in double-digit victories to start the season. That’s not an easy thing to accomplish.
His use of pre-snap motion and varying route concepts has helped the Dallas Cowboys find openings in the defense for their pass catchers. Moore has employed rub routes and picks into the offense as well as more RPO (run-pass options) and read-options that it seemed Scott Linehan was willing to do.
Dak Prescott’s Progression
It’s really easy to look at what Dak Prescott and the offense have done in 2019 and lay all of the credit at the feet of Kellen Moore the offensive coordinator, but that would short the most important player on the offense; Dak Prescott.
The mental and physical development that Dak Prescott has undertaken over the last nine months has really shown in these first two games. He’s shown excellent command of the offense and has been a tactician before the snap. Several times his checks have led to seemingly simple completions because of what he’s been able to accomplish before the snap. Because of that, he’s been a much more decisive player after the snap, getting the ball out quickly as soon as he makes his reads.
Another thing that’s stood out a lot is the way he’s used his eyes and body to manipulate the defense or to keep the defense from sitting on throws. Before pretty much every throw from Dak this season, he’s checked the coverage on his primary option, looked away, and then came back to the target and delivered the ball on time.
Prescott’s always been a sharp player, but he’s stepped up his understanding and application of the mental side of the game.
On the physical side, Prescott’s showing a lot of development there as well. He’s throwing from a better base and maintaining better balance in the pocket and on the move. It appears that he’s throwing with more power, which comes from having better lower body mechanics.
Though it’s only two games, it’s apparent that Prescott’s taken a huge step forward and in ways that will translate throughout the rest of the season and his career.
Spreading the Ball Around
Dak Prescott’s always been a player that loved to spread the ball around and it has continued in 2019. Through two games, Prescott’s completed passes to nine different players. In week one against the New York Giants, he completed passes to seven players and in week two against the Washington Redskins, he completed passes to eight different players. Five different players have a touchdown reception through two weeks.
In this offense, everyone is going to get an opportunity and Dak Prescott is going to flourish with the plethora of weapons.
One thing that has helped has been the chemistry that has developed between Dak Prescott and Michael Gallup, Amari Cooper, and Randall Cobb. Jason Witten returning gave Dak another reliable weapon in the passing game.
Opposing teams can’t focus their attention on one player throughout a game, because the Dallas Cowboys have too many weapons that can hurt you in the passing game. Even with Michael Gallup out for the next 2-4 weeks, the Dallas Cowboys will look to get Devin Smith, who had a really nice day last Sunday, involved in the passing game in his absence.
Use of Play Action
In 2018, the Dallas Cowboys used play-action on only 24.9 percent of his dropbacks In 2019, the Cowboys are using play-action on 43.1% of his dropbacks. The threat of handing off to any running back, but especially to Ezekiel Elliott, is a powerful weapon in a play-callers’ arsenal and Scott Linehan inexplicably didn’t use it near as much as he should have.
Under Linehan in 2018, Dak Prescott ranked only 10th in play-action attempts among players with at least 110 play-action attempts per Pro Football Focus. Through two games in 2019, Dak Prescott ranks second in pecent of dropbacks that are play-action and fifth in total play-action dropbacks.
Kellen Moore understands what a weapon play-action is for an offense because it forces defenses to account for their responsibilities in the running game. When defenses don’t have to be concerned with the threat of a handoff, then they can key in on their passing game responsibilities, making it more difficult for a quarterback to do his job. When a linebacker or safety has to account for the running game on a given play, it causes hesitation in that player’s reaction to the play. Along the defensive line, when they have to account for the running game, they cannot fully commit to their rush right away.
Dak Prescott’s always been a really good play-action quarterback, so it’s nice to see Kellen Moore utilizing that ability even more than has been in the past. You could argue that the Cowboys could employ some kind of play fake on every play and they’d be able to find success with it.
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The Dallas Cowboys are off to a tremendous start on the offensive side of the football and that’s a trend that should continue throughout the 2019 season. Sure, the Cowboys will face much tougher defenses in the second half of the year, but by that point, this will be a team that is firing on all cylinders as long as they’re able to maintain a reasonable level of health.
The combination of Dak Prescott’s ability and Kellen Moore’s offensive philosophy has been a match made in efficiency heaven. With these two working at such a high level, the Dallas Cowboys have an offense that can lead them to the football Promised Land and that elusive sixth Lombardi Trophy.