In 2017, it was evident just how much the Dallas Cowboys were hurt by their lack of linebacker depth. When Sean Lee and Anthony Hitchens were injured, especially Lee, the defense struggled. Look to the games against the Green Bay Packers and Los Angeles Rams and it's easy to see just how ineffective the defense was without their top two linebackers.
With more and more teams employing RPO and read-option concepts, more is expected of linebackers as they read the quarterback.
With teams like the Carolina Panthers, Philadelphia Eagles, Houston Texans, Washington Redskins, Seattle Seahawks, Jacksonville Jaguars, and Tennessee Titans all on the 2018 schedule, the Dallas Cowboys' linebacker corp is going to have their hands full each and every week defending quarterbacks who are really good at utilizing these concepts.
While the edge defenders are instrumental in containing the run concepts in the read-option and RPO, the linebackers are the next line of defense against the run and their discipline in the run-pass action is monumental to defending the passing concept of the RPO.
Jeff Ratcliffe from Pro Football Focus broke down who the best and worst teams using RPOs were in 2017 by quarterback yards per attempt and quarterback yards per carry.
The Philadelphia Eagles ran the most RPOs and, as Ratcliffe described in his article, “For Doug Pederson, no run concept could not have an RPO attached to it.”
The Kansas City Chiefs were second in the NFL in the amount of RPOs utilized with quarterback Alex Smith, now with the Washington Redskins, under center. Speaking of the Redskins, with Kirk Cousins at quarterback, they accrued the highest yards per attempt of any team in the NFL when throwing out of an RPO.
So, if you do the math, you can bet that the Washington Redskins will utilize a lot of RPO and read-option concepts in their offensive game plan.
Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers, the Cowboys' week one opponent, ran RPOs the fourth most of any team in the NFL and had 5.5 yards per carry when Cam Newton kept the ball himself. Cam is one of the best running quarterbacks in the history of the NFL. Newton is the only quarterback since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970 to rush for double-digit rushing touchdowns twice in his career. Before he did it in 2011, no quarterback had accomplished the feat since Daunte Culpepper in 2002. The Dallas Cowboys and their front seven will have their hands full containing Newton in week one.
Also according to PFF's Ratcliffe, the New York Giants were the fifth best team in 2017 when the quarterback decided to keep the ball and run as they averaged 5.5 yards per carry out of RPOs. That has to be the most shocking element of his post. When you think of Eli Manning, you don't think of a running quarterback.
That just shows you how effective the RPO and read-option can be in the NFL.
With the speed of the game light years faster than it was 20 or 30 years ago, teams are having to use more and more misdirection to gain an edge in the run and pass game.
Another team on the Dallas Cowboys schedule was very effective throwing out of RPOs: the Jacksonville Jaguars. In the AFC Championship Game, they made a lot of headway against the New England Patriots using this concept.
Will be interesting to see how the Pats gameplan for the Eagles RPOs. Jaguars shredded them with same RPO 4 times in first half last week pic.twitter.com/gYJWIPYIjj
— Mike Renner (@PFF_Mike) January 30, 2018
In 2017, the Jaguars averaged 8.2 yards per attempt, the fifth best number in the NFL, just 0.3 yards per attempt behind the Philadelphia Eagles, who were fourth in the league when throwing out of RPOs.
This note from Jeff, I found particularly interesting:
“When the quarterback did pull, league-wide last year, the average yards per attempt was 6.52 and there was a 78.8 completion percentage. Once again, easy money.”
Jeff Ratcliffe – Pro Football Focus
Most of the NFL is beginning to employ more and more RPO and read-option concepts into their offensive game plans, making the defense's job a lot more challenging. Especially at the linebacker level.
No longer can the linebacker just simply read run or pass based on the way the quarterback drops or turns to hand off, but they have to determine:
- Is the quarterback giving the ball to the runner?
- If the quarterback kept it, is he looking to run?
- If he's going to pass, where's the ball going?
All of that has to be decided within one to two seconds of the play. A linebacker is taught to read and react to the play as quickly as possible, which can create a significant advantage for the offense if the linebacker reads wrong.
The whole point of the read-option and the RPO is to create a lose-lose situation for the defense.
No matter what they do, it's a wrong choice.
If they read pass and drop into coverage, the ball carrier gets an advantage as he begins to go downhill. If the linebacker reads run and begins to attack the line of scrimmage, the QB pulls it and throws it to the spot vacated by the linebacker.
Having linebackers with elite athleticism, range, and coverage ability, like the Dallas Cowboys do in Sean Lee and potentially Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch, will help them minimize the damage potential as they face increasing RPO usage.
Even if we talk about standard run and pass play calls, the defense was a much better unit when Sean Lee and Anthony Hitchens were in the game. Points per game, rushing yards per game, and passing yards per game were all lower when those two were available. When the team had to rely on Jaylon Smith and Damien Wilson as their top two linebackers, they were lit up like a pinball machine.
The Cowboys hope Jaylon Smith can return to the All-American type of player he was with Notre Dame, but if he doesn't, Vander Esch is a good insurance policy for 2019.
The Boise State product is good in the run game, but he excels in the passing game when he drops into coverage.
Having three linebackers that can play the run and pass like these three potentially can will be a huge key to the Dallas Cowboys success on defense in 2018. They will make life a lot easier for the rest of the defense if they are able to maintain play discipline against the read-option and the run-pass option.
Having these three linebackers and their dual-threat ability in the run and pass game will help the Dallas Cowboys be in far less lose-lose situations than they might otherwise be. And for the Dallas Cowboys to achieve the goals the hope to achieve, namely a sixth Lombardi Trophy, these three will be the key to that success.