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 https://t.co/gYJWIPYIjj
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.
Tony Pollard, Supporting Cast or a Co-lead with Ezekiel Elliott?
Since the Dallas Cowboys drafted Running Back Ezekiel Elliott fourth overall in the first-round of the 2016 NFL Draft he's been the star of the show. Any of their other offensive weapons have been nothing more than supporting cast the past three years, but rookie RB/WR Tony Pollard could prove to be more than just supporting cast and become more of a co-lead in Zeke's show.
Suggesting Tony Pollard has a chance to be more than just supporting cast with Ezekiel Elliott is a lot to put on a rookies shoulders, but that's the kind of hype he's receiving already. He hasn't even put on the pads yet with the Dallas Cowboys, but he's already receiving Alvin Kamara type comparisons due to the versatility he's expected to bring with him to the NFL.
Living up to those Alvin Kamara comparisons might be even more difficult than becoming anything more than just an extra behind Zeke anytime soon, but it's doable. After all, Kamara immediately stepped in as a rookie and became a costar with Mark Ingram in New Orleans. It's certainly feasible to think Pollard can do the same.
There's of course only one problem with this way of thinking. Mark Ingram is no Ezekiel Elliott. And, no RB on the depth chart behind Zeke the last three years has been good enough to cut into #21's heavy workload. Is the hype surrounding Tony Pollard justified? Is he talented enough to cut into Zeke's playing time?
Those are some really big questions we don't have an answer to as of yet. Training camp could help determine the type of role Tony Pollard will have with the Dallas Cowboys in 2019 and beyond, but even that can be thrown out the window once games start to matter in the regular season.
Personally, I think Tony Pollard will be part of a supporting cast behind Ezekiel Elliott this year. I just don't think he's ready to step in and costar with Zeke just yet. I think he will be more of a comedic relief that will be used from time to time to keep things interesting. That's not necessarily a bad thing though considering his versatility to contribute in the running or passing game.
In time though, Pollard could prove worthy of an increase in playing time and become more of a co-lead with No. 21. It may very well be in his rookie season, but he's really going to have to prove himself and that will need to start this week when the Dallas Cowboys kick off their training camp in Oxnard, California.
What do you think? Is Tony Pollard supporting cast or a co-lead with Zeke?
Randy Gregory can Make the Perimeter Pass Rush Extremely Formidable
Randy Gregory showed flashes last season of the potential he has as a pass rusher. Even though he only managed one start he did see action in 14 games. Had registered 6 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, a fumble recovery, 7 tackles for loss and 15 hits on the quarterback. That's very good production with limited opportunities. Now, this sets up the Dallas Cowboys on the edge getting to the quarterback, and here's how.
The Cowboys acquired Defensive End Robert Quinn via trade from the Dolphins back in March. He is set to start at right defensive end opposite All-Pro DeMarcus Lawrence. Gregory, who lines up on the right side as well, can potentially make said side a huge problem for offenses on 2019.
Let's just take a typical season from Quinn which is between 8-9 sacks. If Gregory can give at minimum what he did last season, that's around 15 sacks just between the two of them alone. Now, as we all know, Lawrence can be penciled in for double-digit sacks routinely at this point. So given this information that's a potential 25-30 sacks just from these three players. This is without including guys such as Taco Charlton, Dorance Armstrong, Kerry Hyder, and rookies Joe Jackson and Jalen Jelks (assuming they make the final roster).
Why is Gregory's potential impact so important? For me, it's simply where he lines up at defensive end, on the right side. Most quarterbacks are right-handed, which means when they drop back to pass they face left side defensive ends, with their backs to defensive ends coming off the right side. If you can consistently pressure a quarterback from his blindside the opportunities for sacks and fumbles increase. Regardless of how skilled a quarterback is you can't avoid what you can't see.
Of course, this all depends on what the NFL does regarding the reinstatement of Gregory. He was suspended indefinitely in February for violating the league's substance-abuse policy, a situation he is all too familiar with. My guess is Gregory and the Cowboys will ask for a conditional reinstatement like he was given by the NFL in 2018. What this would do is allow Gregory to participate in meetings and condition work until he's a full participant. He is set to apply for that reinstatement within the next few days.
The only thing Randy Gregory can do now is play the waiting game. The league is currently considering the possibility of softening their stance on marijuana use. If they are serious about it I can see Gregory getting reinstated even if it's on a conditional basis. If this is granted the Cowboys will be getting big-time pressure off the edge with Lawrence, Quinn, and Gregory in 2019.
CB Jourdan Lewis Getting Ready For Bounce-Back 2019 Season
For a third round pick, cornerback Jourdan Lewis sure did come to Dallas with his fair share of hype.
In fact, much of Cowboys Nation was more excited about Lewis joining the Cowboys than they were about either of the team's first two selections in that same draft, Taco Charlton and Chidobe Awuzie. But while Awuzie has soared to starting cornerback levels with Dallas during his first two seasons, Jourdan Lewis has been forced to take a back seat.
After a promising rookie season, Jourdan Lewis didn't get much playing time at cornerback in 2018. Anthony Brown took over as the starting slot corner, while Byron Jones and Awuzie manned the outside. This left Lewis as the odd man out, despite what many consider to be impressive cover skills.
Lewis is not allowing this down season to eat away at him too much, though. While speaking with the media last week at SportsCon in Dallas, Lewis gave his thoughts on how his year spent behind the other young Cowboys corners is only fueling him for the future.
"As a competitor it's always tough, especially as a rookie and you're playing all of the time. It's definitely when you take a step back it humbles you. Sometimes you gotta understand that you have to wait your turn and work on your craft. Understand that you always have to stay a professional no matter your situation. And that's what I learned last year."
Considered undersized by the standards typically used by Cowboys secondary coach Kris Richard, some have argued that Lewis was never given a fair shot to earn playing time once Richard took over in 2018. Whether or not this is true can't ever be said for sure, and the level of play Anthony Brown exhibited from the slot in 2018 didn't leave much room for substitutions either.
Still, Jourdan Lewis says he appreciates that time he spent on the bench, and he hopes that it will only drive him towards bigger and better things down the road.
"I appreciate the time that I sat last year honestly...Because it made me a better player, maybe a better person honestly."
The Cowboys cornerback situation didn't get any less crowded this offseason. Not only is Dallas bringing back all three of the aforementioned starters from a year ago, but they also drafted Miami's Michael Jackson in the fifth round of the 2019 draft.
That cornerback room is full of talent. Not only does this create a luxury for the Cowboys at one of the league's most important positions, but it also breeds immense competition between the corners come training camp.
Which, if you didn't know, begins on July 26th.
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