Dallas Cowboys: Expect more 2 RB sets from this prolific passing offense

The Dallas Cowboys are expected to borrow from San Francisco’s playbook meaning more 2 RB sets in 2020

Before Mike McCarthy even interviewed for the Dallas Cowboys coaching job, he did a series of TV specials discussing his 1-year hiatus from the NFL and what he’s learned from playing the observer role. During these discussions, he mentioned Kyle Shanahan, the 49ers offensive architect, as a bright mind he planned to steal from.

Shanahan has built a reputation over the years as someone who gets the most out of what he has. He’s improved the offensive production at nearly every stop in his career because his brand of offense is a blend of scheme and deception. What does this mean for the Dallas Cowboys?

Dallas Cowboys: More Wide Zone 2 RB Sets

Mike McCarthy specifically named the 2 running back set as something he’s like to take from Kyle Shanahan’s offense in San Francisco. Running a 21 personnel group is not foreign to Dallas, by any means (per Sharp stats, Dallas ran 94 plays from a 21 group last season), but they didn’t employ it with the frequency or “style” that San Fran did.

21 personnel, which means 2 RBs, 1TE, and 2WRs, is traditionally considered a running package. The extra running back is more often than not a fullback/lead blocker, and with only two receivers on the field, defenses typically respond with a base 4-3 package (removing the nickel CB and inserting a third LB).

Last season, Kyle Shanahan used 21 personnel 28 percent of snaps (compared to Dallas who used it just 9 percent). His 312 plays from 21 personnel were by far the most in the NFL, making it basically his signature package.

As such, his success rate was through the roof, and his 55 percent successful play rate was more than any other personnel group. The reason being, running scheme, multiple motions, and downfield mismatches.

The 49ers offense runs a wide zone running scheme that thrives in 21 packages. It creates great cutting lanes that carve up defenses for relatively big plays. The Dallas Cowboys happened to bring in a wide zone offensive line coach in Joe Philbin. He has spoke of incorporating many of the same things Shanahan runs in San Fran already. It’s pretty darn clear right now McCarthy, Philbin, and Kellen Moore are all on the same page here regarding more 21 personnel and more wide-zone runs from it.

But it doesn’t end there.

Where the 49ers really separated from the pack and made the 2RB set a dominant weapon, was their ability to pass from it. Shanahan surprisingly had a 56 percent successful play percentage passing out of 21 personnel. Why, you may ask?

Remember earlier when we mentioned that defensives almost always respond to 21 personnel with their base defense? While that extra LB may help against the run, his presence hurts the defensive unit against the pass. So when Shanahan shows his running formation, runs a play-action, and passes downfield to his tight end or fullback, the defense is ill-prepared to stop it.

Having the best tight end and fullback in the game obviously help in this regard since George Kittle and Kyle Juszczyk are both excellent receivers, but the fact they offer such a mismatch against the linebackers/safeties guarding them is what Mike McCarthy hopes to gain.

The question on many inquiring Dallas Cowboys minds is whether or not Blake Jarwin can be George Kittle and Jamize Olawale can be Juszczyk in this scenario. From a talent perspective, the question is laughable. But from a mismatch perspective, yes they can.

But the Dallas Cowboys need to do a few things in order to approach similar success:

  1. Motion and play-action: we’ll get into this in an upcoming article but this plays a huge role in Mike McCarthy’s, Kellen Moore’s, and Kyle Shanahan’s offenses so it stands to reason we’re about to see more of this than ever seen before ‘round these parts.
  2. Pass deeper downfield: something that jumps off the page comparing the 49ers passing game in a 21 group compared to the Dallas Cowboys’ is how much more productive Shanahan was downfield. He may have run more often than passed but when he passed he went for the jugular. While the Cowboys just averaged 5.9 yards per attempt , San Fran averaged 9.7 yards per attempt.
  3. Give your play-makers a chance: at face value it looks like Shanahan passed deep downfield while Dallas just settled for what they could get, but the reality is San Fran just had better designed plays that freed up their play-makers (often the TE and RB) that gave them room to make plays in space.

So to that final point, we can see San Fran may have had 9.7 ypa, but they only had 7.3 air yards per attempt. Dallas, on the other hand, had 6.8 air yards per attempt to go with their 5.9 ypa. Among a few other things, this tells me the Dallas Cowboys didn’t put their playmakers in position to do much of anything once they caught the ball.

Most Cowboys fans know Blake Jarwin is a weapon in space. It behooves Dallas to scheme better so they can do what Shanahan did and free up his tight end (again, by using motion and deception). But did you know Jamize Olawale is one of the fastest skill players on the Cowboys roster and if given the opportunity in space, is more than capable of beating just about any LB or SAF matched up against?

In other words – he’s not your typical lead blocker and not making him a somewhat regular target is wasting what makes him special. That’s probably why the Dallas Cowboys re-signed Olawale to a 3-year deal last season and why we saw Olawale run so many wheel routes out of 21 personnel last year in camp.

As mentioned before, there are many layers to Kyle Shanahan’s offense and we’ll go over them in coming days and weeks. They are shared beliefs of Kellen Moore and specifically cited by McCarthy as something he’d like to do more of.

The 2020 Dallas Cowboys offense is still going to be a pass-heavy attack  with a West Coast feel, but Mike McCarthy has pointed out elements of Shanahan’s offense that will pair nicely with what’s going on in Dallas. One of those elements is using more 21 personnel than before.