The Dallas Cowboys are dangerously predictable in this personnel group

David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports
David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports /

The Dallas Cowboys boast one of the most talented offenses in the league this year. Stacked at every level, they are pick-your-poison type of attack. Versatility and depth make them nearly an unstoppable force.

If the opposing defense wants to shut down the run, Dallas will attack through the air. If the opposing defense wants to limit big plays by playing 2-deep, Dallas will attack underneath. Pack the middle – Dallas bounces it outside. Double the WRs – Dallas sends the TEs. The list goes on and on…

No matter how you slice it, the Dallas Cowboys are one of the hardest offenses to stop because when Dallas lines up, you have no idea how they’re going to get you. Thanks to Kellen Moore and Mike McCarthy, they are multiple, deceptive, and adaptable.

There’s one personnel group where the Dallas Cowboys are extremely predictable and it dates back to last year…

When the Dallas Cowboys lost Michael Gallup in Week 1 this season, the offense took a major hit. Gallup wasn’t just part of their WR Big-3, but he was a major component of Dallas’ identity. No matter how fondly we all thought of Cedrick Wilson, he didn’t match the pedigree or physicality Gallup offered, and play-calling would have to respond appropriately.

Luckily for Moore, he had two good tight ends in his stable. Dalton Schultz and Blake Jarwin are two ascending talents that are as dangerous catching balls downfield as they are effective blocking on the line. Moving to more 2-TE sets seemed like an obvious adjustment and as it turns out, that’s exactly what Moore and McCarthy did.

When Dallas rolls out 12 personnel, they rush the ball 64% of the time. That’s 11% more often than league average and makes this their most predictable personnel package

In weeks 2-6 Dallas deployed 12 personnel 33% of time. Only three teams did it more frequently. This frequency is a huge departure from last season when Dallas rolled with 12 personnel just 21% of the time.  As many sources have illustrated over the bye week, that adjustment has paid off well, since Dallas is enjoying a league-best 61% success rate out of this 2-TE set.

Dallas has the most rushing yards in the NFL out 12 personnel this year. And averaging nearly 3x the league-wide average in rushing yards per game, it’s hard to argue with the results.  But those numbers are high for a reason and it’s not all because of their league-high success rate. It’s because they are extremely unbalanced.

When the Dallas Cowboys roll out 12 personnel, they rush the ball 64% of the time. That’s 11% more often than league average and a pretty clear indicator of Moore’s intentions in these packages.

The heavy use of 12 personnel over the past year+ may have exposed something. It’s shown how predictable the Dallas Cowboys are when they go to their second-most used personnel group. If defenses haven’t taken notice of this trend, they soon will. Or heck, maybe they already have and Dallas is just reacting.

There are a couple directions to go from here and I’m not pretending to have all the answers but I’m happy to lay out the numbers and let you decide:

  1. The Dallas Cowboys are extremely transparent and still extremely successful. Teams already know what’s coming but they’re powerless to stop it. Last season Dallas was more unbalanced than they are now, yet they’re finding more and more success.
  2. Or, Dallas is using their run-heavy approach to set big passing plays. Despite running ball nearly twice as often, the Cowboys have a higher success rate passing out of 12 personnel than running (64% compared to 59%).
  3. Or better yet, Perhaps Dallas might just taking what’s given to them. Perhaps opponents are still more afraid of getting passed on and are willfully handing Dallas easy yards on rushes out of 12 personnel. Once opponents start fearing the run more, Dallas will start passing more.

If you’ll remember, that last situation is exactly what happened in New England. Dallas came out in 12. Schultz and Jarwin were lined up on the right side and CeeDee Lamb was on the left. The Pats committed eight to stop the run and CeeDee waved them all adieu.

That could be the master plan – win modestly by running the ball at a heavy rate and then right when they fully commit, hit them with the big play.

Whatever the answer it seems to be working. Dallas is winning in both EPA and success rate running the ball out of 12. And when they do decide to pass out of it, they win even bigger.

The pattern is certainly worth addressing, though. In most areas of the game the Dallas Cowboys are not a transparent or predictable offense. But when they line up in 12 personnel, you can bet they’re running it because when they field two tight ends they become one of the most transparent offenses in the NFL.

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Let’s see how this plays out going forward. Will Dallas save those rare passes for high leverage situations or is this not a long-term strategy thing and simply another case of taking what the defense gives them? We will see.