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Cowboys’ Pass and Run Looks to Be More in Sync in 2020

For as good as the Dallas Cowboys offense was in 2019, there were times that it didn’t function as well as it should have given the talent and the quarterback play. In particular, at the beginning of games, the Cowboys struggled. Their slow starts generally put them behind their opponents, and they were forced to play catchup in a lot of games. Unfortunately, that led to unfortunate endings for America’s Team.

There seemed to be a disconnect between what Kellen Moore wanted to do offensively and the philosophy that Jason Garrett had built his team around. You could see it when the team was in difficult matchups or at the beginning of football games where teams generally script their first 15 plays. While the start of games looked disjointed and inefficient, after the scripted play sequence, they generally took off as an offense.

During the Jason Garrett era of offense, he didn’t mind being predictable, and a lot of times, it worked despite the predictable nature of the offense. However, there were a lot of times that it didn’t work. Speaking to the media yesterday, Ezekiel Elliott was asked about the differences in the offense from 2019 to 2020. Predictability came up.

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Ezekiel Elliott was asked tonight about the biggest differences in the offense under Mike McCarthy. A few minutes later he expounded on it a bit (that’s the second quote, obvs).I thought his answers were … interesting.

Elliott mentions having the run and passing game married. Meaning, they won’t be so tied to running the ball out of traditional running formations or throwing the ball out of traditional passing formations. The Cowboys will look to keep teams off-balance in their run and pass looks. We started to see some of this under Kellen Moore, who looked to be more aggressive offensively but also wanted to keep teams off-balance with his playcalling. Moving forward, in 2020, the Cowboys will likely run the ball out of shotgun formations more frequently than they have in the past.

Dating back to his time at Ohio State, Ezekiel Elliott has always been an effective shotgun runner.

The benefit of running the football out of shotgun is that the defense is already threatened by the pass and has to account for the receivers outside of the box. While the Cowboys liked to run with fullbacks and extra tight ends under Jason Garrett and Scott Linehan, Mike McCarthy and Kellen Moore are going to remove a player from the box by playing and running out of 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WRs) more frequently.

This will give Ezekiel Elliott and the Cowboys offense more options to find mismatches. If teams leave just six in the box as would be standard against a three-wide receiver look, then the Cowboys have a more favorable run matchup than if the defense put seven or eight in the box. If the Cowboys are in 11-personnel and opposing defenses put seven or eight in the box, that leaves just three or four to cover the Cowboys group of wide receivers, leaving them in more favorable matchups.

Per Sharp’s Football Stats, when the Dallas Cowboys were in 12 personnel (1RB, 2TEs, 2WRs), they ran the ball 63% of the time. When they were in 21 personnel (2RBs, 1TE, 2WRs), they ran it 57% of the time. Compare that to when they were in 11-personnel, and they threw it 68% of the time. When they ran out of 11-personnel, they averaged 5.5 yards per carry. Out of 12 personnel, they averaged 4.6 yards per carry. On the flip side, when they threw out of 11 personnel, they averaged 8.4 yards per attempt and recorded a passer rating of 100.4. When they threw out of 12 personnel, they averaged 9.1 yards per attempt and a 112.5 passer rating.

Predictability had become a buzz word from the Garrett coaching era as it could easily define both the offense and the defense. The run-heavy nature of Jason Garrett’s coaching philosophy helped define the Cowboys and establish one of the more dominant running games in the NFL from 2014-2019. And there’s nothing wrong with having a running identity. However, you have to be able to keep teams off-balance in some way.

The Cowboys will continue to feature Ezekiel Elliott heavily in the offense under Mike McCarthy. When you have the best running back in football, you continue to use him to the tune of 300 carries a season. However, instead of running him out of obvious running looks as much moving forward, they’ll look to keep teams off balance by using him in not so obvious running formations or downs and distances.

You’ve heard the saying, “work smarter, not harder.” Well, the Dallas Cowboys are going to look to apply the same thing to offensive football as well. They’ll try to find the path of least resistance with opposing defenses. Even when they use Ezekiel Elliott, they’ll look to do so in ways that can help him be more explosive and efficient, which means running against more favorable defensive alignments.

What do you think?

John Williams

Written by John Williams

Dallas Cowboys optimist bringing factual, reasonable takes to Cowboys Nation and the NFL Community. I wasn't always a Cowboys fan, but I got here as quick as I could.

Make sure you check out the Inside The Cowboys Podcast featuring John Williams and other analysts following America's Team.


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  1. We saw a glimpse of this sort of thinking from Moore last year with increased use of play action and pre snap movement from the WRs and TEs. Amari Cooper addressed that during last year’s training camp when talking about running the same routes out of different formations as a way to keep defenses off balance.

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