How the Dallas Cowboys reached offensive balance

Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports /

The Dallas Cowboys offense has looked really good often validating the praise analysts and fans gave to them during the preseason. Within one season, the return of many crucial starters from injury has, unsurprisingly, resulted in peak efficiency for the team.

The team has the third-highest rushing DVOA in the league and the eighth-highest passing DVOA in the league. QB Dak Prescott is completing 77.5 percent of his passes at 7.9 yards per attempt. RB Ezekiel Elliott is back to averaging 4.5 yards per carry and already has three rushing touchdowns on the season. His backup, Tony Pollard, is averaging an unreal 9 yards per carry and is the best running back according to rushing DVOA. (Elliott is second)

The Cowboys’ offense is humming it has everything to do with the greatness of Kellen Moore and Dak Prescott. Moore has preached having balance on offense and weekly installs and game plans that cater to that week’s opponent. This is why the team passed the ball 60 times against Tampa while only attempting half as many passes against Los Angeles and Philadelphia with a greater emphasis on running the ball.

However, don’t let this confuse you into thinking the Cowboys stressed “establishing the run” these last two weeks. As Moore has often pointed out, running the ball the last two weeks made more sense because of the opposing personnel. Tampa Bay has some of the best interior run defenders in the league so running up the middle was bound to result in a negative play. It was why Prescott had checked out of 12 run plays that game.

Even with players like Linval Joseph and Javon Hargrave on the Chargers’ and Eagles’ defensive lines, it was still favorable to run the ball because of how much push the Cowboys could get on run plays. These defenses don’t have fast linebackers like Tampa Bay and they are willing to play lighter boxes more often with 4 players pretty consistently on the ball.

The Dallas Cowboys offense has started the season incredibly balanced on offense and it is the result of a systematic change to the team.

First, how are we defining balance? Balance in football is often seen as calling run and pass plays with a good efficiency such that one can call either and it is successful at a high rate. Run and pass plays are incredibly different in structure and execution; them being two very different things does give an offense the ability to try plays out without getting overly predictable. (Stop me if you’ve heard this before)

When you break it down a step further, you can find balance within the run and pass games. Not every run is the same; there are two different running schemes with subcategories of their own. We generally split passes into short, intermediate, and passes, but when you account for play-action passes and RPOs (run-pass options), there are too many pass concepts and plays to imagine.

In a game with so many variables and so much variation defining balance to be the unpredictability of calling pass and run plays seems awfully vague. Fundamentally, the most efficient offenses are trying to eat up as much space on the field in the most optimal way possible because the objective is to score more points than your opponent. Oddly, coaches seem to forget that at times.

As it relates to the Cowboys, let us review their season opener. They threw the ball 58 times but not every throw came on a traditional drop-back pass. The team integrated RPOs for lighter box looks such that if the read was favorable, Elliott would run the ball. In most cases, Elliott wouldn’t tote the ball and the result, more or less, was a short pass which likely resulted in a small gain. Nonetheless, it was still a positive play and it forced the Buccanneers to respect that element of the short passing game.

With Tampa Bay forced to respect the threat of the run, without actually running the ball might I add, Dallas incorporated play action to give Prescott and his receivers time to work the intermediate and deep areas of the field. A traditional dropback pass working the same area of the field likely wouldn’t have the same effect purely because Tampa Bay’s pass rush was very good even without All-Pro guard Zack Martin not playing that game.

Mixed in with the RPOs and play-action passes were traditional dropbacks. The most common instance of this was when the Buccaneers played off coverage against Amari Cooper, the Cowboys immediately attacked with a quick out or curl to take the quick yards.

In all, the Cowboys found ways to move the ball strictly through passing because they got the Buccanneers to respect all aspects of the passing game. The balance of the offense existed in the unpredictability of how Kellen Moore and Dak Prescott called passing plays, not because they were trying to establish the run against a defense that won’t ever let you do that.

In the case against the Chargers and Eagles, the Cowboys made it a point to run the ball when the defense showed six or fewer defenders in the box because they felt there was a numbers advantage. It resulted in some ridiculous rushing efficiency as we see today.

In a game as vast and complex as football, defining balance as the split between running and passing is awfully old-school. Teams like the San Francisco 49ers, Los Angeles Rams and Cleveland Browns have some of the highest run rates in the league, but their rushing efficiency comes from the variation in how they run the ball. What results is an opposing defense trying to focus on how to stop the run while having to take into account the possibility that at any time they COULD choose to pass the ball even though they likely won’t.

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Rant over, Carolina should be a fun opponent this week.