The team's use of their three active TEs against the Giants showed however that Gathers was going to struggle to see any meaningful playing time this regular season.
The ability to block in the running game is what Dallas values the most out of TEs Geoff Swaim and James Hanna, and with both of them on the field against the Giants along with Jason Witten the Cowboys were very effective in their 13 personnel packages.
The “13” simply means that the Cowboys had one running back on the field on these downs, and all three tight ends. At times, their use of extra blockers has been criticized as the Cowboys' offensive line has seemingly played at its best with just their five up front in space.
An added wrinkle to this personnel grouping is the motion man across the line of scrimmage, which the Cowboys used here to soften up the stacked boxes the Giants typically throw at them. When this ball is snapped, there are still nine defenders around the line of scrimmage, but before Ezekiel Elliott takes the hand off going left, the pull from Geoff Swaim essentially takes two defenders out of the play.
What develops is a seven on six situation in favor of the Cowboys. Zack Martin's cut block allows Travis Frederick to clear to the second level (find me a more versatile center in the NFL), and seal blocks from Chaz Green and James Hanna create a crease for Ezekiel Elliott despite the Giants loading up against the run.
Meeting power with power was something that helped Dallas wear down New York in this game with a high volume of offensive snaps, doing so with well-timed runs out of 13.
This next play looks at a concept that I discussed in my previous edition of Sean's Scout, centering around Travis Frederick (I'll be here all season):
“Particularly, C Travis Frederick was able to take advantage of Damon Harrison – likely the best run stopping DT in the NFL – the best he could out of 13 personnel, with Harrison forced to line up over him as a one or zero technique.”
Giants DT Damon Harrison still understandably made his impact on this game, but the Cowboys did get the best of him when he was forced to line up inside of Travis Frederick. Executing this reach block to perfection with consistency, you see above that the blocks of Frederick and Green spring Elliott up the middle – where the backside pursuit from the second level is slowed down by the two TEs on the right side of the line.
The Giants adjusted later in the game to shift Harrison into a 3T position, and it blew up the above Alfred Morris carry.
Selling play action throws is never going to be a problem for this Cowboys team for a number of reasons. The offensive line's ability to play on the move, Ezekiel Elliott, and Dak Prescott's ball handling are at the forefront. On this play though, it is Alfred Morris in the backfield receiving the play fake, and watch how the heavy package from Dallas forces the Giants to immediately flow to the ball.
Prescott misses Jason Witten on the move here, but roll out throws like this were a huge part of his success as a rookie. I would expect that to continue as he settles into his second season.
This was also the only pass the Cowboys attempted out of 13 personnel on the night.
Speaking of Jason Witten, his struggles as a run blocker have been well documented recently. A play like this is a good example of one that could have been a much bigger gain if not for Jason getting beat across the face, but the use of 13 personnel here still forced the Giants to shift their line towards Geoff Swaim on the right side. Ezekiel Elliott does his best to make the most of this and fight for dirty yards.
Most of Alfred Morris' work in this game came out of 13 personnel, and his lackluster night was not due to lack of execution in the blocking scheme. Morris' struggles were caused by a combination of indecisive running and lack of speed. With the latter, the Cowboys seemed willing to go with the tough running style of Morris compared to the more all-around game of McFadden (who was inactive) or Rod Smith, pounding the ball in 13 with plays like the one above – as Morris is forced to just put his head down and push the pile.
This Morris run is the same play as the Elliott wide zone carry at the top. It won't take long to notice the hole that opens up, in fact, you'll probably notice where the ball needs to go before Morris did. Alfred bounces this outside where Olivier Vernon had set the edge against Tyron Smith, limiting the gain from this play.
As we continue to study the team's use of 13 personnel though, pay closer attention to the blocks from Hanna, Witten, and Swaim above.
This last play that we'll take a look at features a great effort from New York DT Robert Thomas (#99). His ability to stay outside of Frederick's frame and flow against the run frees up the Giants' linebackers to fill the gap. Witten and Swaim do a great job of sealing the edge on the play side here.
When you line up in 13 personnel, you are creating extra gaps that the defense must account for, and directly giving the LBs on the second level more responsibility in their lanes. If there is one unit on the Giants' defense that is not at the same talent level as the rest, it is their linebackers in comparison to this elite defensive front and deep secondary.
With Jason Witten, Geoff Swaim, and James Hanna, the Dallas Cowboys have a very versatile group of tight ends that – above all else – help them tremendously in the running game. The ability to be multiple on offense with 11 personnel and trust in the five linemen up front paired with these physical 13 packages is going to help the Cowboys go far this year by sticking to their ultimate game plan of dictating the game on the ground.
Against a Denver Broncos team that will over-pursue and allow lanes in the running game this Sunday, I would expect the Cowboys to balance nicely between 13 personnel runs, PA throws, and spread looks against a secondary that will also allow shot plays down the field if routes are given time to develop.
For more thoughts on the Cowboys' match up with the Broncos, check out my initial reaction to their week one win over the Chargers, along with Staff Writer Kevin Brady's breakdown on Denver.
Not only do the Cowboys have the best group of five linemen in the NFL, but they can add to their blocking presence up front at will with three capable TEs.