Zeke-less offense lets Dallas Cowboys experiment with spreading out

Dak Prescott #4 of the Dallas Cowboys (Photo by Steven Ryan/Getty Images)
Dak Prescott #4 of the Dallas Cowboys (Photo by Steven Ryan/Getty Images) /

Fourth-year running back, Ezekiel Elliott, is absent from training camp, so this makes for a great time for the Dallas Cowboys to practice empty backfield sets

As they say in politics, with great crisis comes great opportunity. Never letting a good opportunity go to waste, savvy politicians have always known when’s the best time to seize control and unilaterally employ change. The same can be said for the Dallas Cowboys and their running back “situation”.

I use the word “situation” because the Ezekiel Elliott holdout is about as much of a crisis as you want to make it. Since an extended holdout will delay his free agency by one year (per CBA), the idea of him actually extending this holdout beyond the August 6th seems unlikely. If the Dallas Cowboys are smart, they’ll use this opportunity to focus on other areas of the game…

Great Opportunity

Pivoting agendas based on the resources available is just good business. While a Zeke-less training camp hardly prevents the Dallas Cowboys from operating business as usual (especially with Alfred Morris now here), it does provide opportunities to focus on other things not traditionally revolving around Zeke.

Let’s say the Dallas Cowboys ignore the analytics so many other teams are now finally embracing. Let’s say they want to stick to an evenly split attack and plan to give Zeke 20+ touches a game again this season. That doesn’t mean they can’t improve in other areas of the game – areas like a spread offense, no-huddle attack, and empty backfields

Empty backfield sets

Tony Pollard was drafted to serve that illusive Lance Dunbar role the Dallas Cowboys have been searching for since…well…Lance Dunbar. Alvin Kamara in New Orleans has shown the league what a versatile running/receiving weapon can do for an offense. Kamara was impactful in both areas of the game and much of that success can be attributed to how he was deployed.

Zeke may have led the Dallas Cowboys in receptions last season but he was ridiculously ineffective. Since his average depth of target was the line of scrimmage and most of his receptions occurred in check-down situations, he actually finished the season with a negative EPA (meaning the Cowboys were better off before throwing to Zeke than they were after throwing to Zeke).

What New Orleans did differently was motion Kamara out of the backfield and have him line up at or near the line just like a receiver. Not only would this put him in better position to run a downfield route, but it would expose the defense’s coverage better and tip off the quarterback before the snap. As a WR/RB combo, Pollard can be the Kamara for this offense.

At Memphis, Pollard ran more routes than he carried the ball. He knows how to play in the slot and how to be a weapon downfield. I’m not insinuating Zeke doesn’t, but rather pointing out the Cowboys are more likely to use Pollard in this role than redefine Zeke’s role (even though they really should, given what we know).

This may also be a good time to practice a little 01 personnel. 01 personnel means the Dallas Cowboys would huddle up four receivers and one tight end (zero running backs). They could always motion one of their receivers into the backfield (Tavon Austin) and it wouldn’t change the personnel package since personnel is based on official positions and not spots they line up on the field for a given play.

A Zeke-less backfield

To opponents, a  Zeke-less backfield means there’s probably no need to pack the box with defenders – rather it’s time to spread out and defend the pass (Although an elite RB demands less attention in the box than you think). Contrary to popular belief, Dak Prescott has had enormous success in these passing situations (which usually occur as a 4-minute or 2-minute drill).

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With each receiver running worthwhile routes downfield, Dak is presented with better opportunities to move the ball. The degree of difficulty increases since extra defenders are in coverage, hence the desire to practice it more here in camp.

Passing situations

Since 3rd and >2 yards is widely regarded as a passing situation, it makes sense to practice these 3rd down passing scenarios with Zeke absent camp. In the past, Zeke has been ineffective converting these as a pass-catcher. This was Cole Beasley time.

With Bease gone, the job shifts primarily to Jason Witten (TE1) and Randall Cobb (the new slot). Together with Tony Pollard in at RB, the Cowboys have a number of ways to attack a defense on 3rd down passing situations (again, Pollard can motion out as a receiver and actually run routes beyond the sticks).

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IF the Dallas Cowboys find themselves in a Zeke-less regular season, they’ll be happy they devoted some time to these situations. And IF Zeke ends his absence in the next week (as we expect), they’ll be all the better for it as well.

  • Published on 08/02/2019 at 11:01 AM
  • Last updated at 07/30/2019 at 14:15 PM