Are the Dallas Cowboys preparing for a run-heavy approach in 2022?

(Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images)
(Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images) /

The Dallas Cowboys ended last season limping to the finish line. After posting one of the top offenses in the NFL the first eight weeks of the season, they fell back to earth down the stretch. By the time the postseason rolled around, the Cowboys struggled to do much of anything effectively on offense.

One of the primary reasons for their struggles was how defenses chose to play Dallas. For the past few years the Fangio/Staley defense has been picking up steam around the NFL. Their usage of 2-High/Shells has been effective in shutting down some of the league’s most explosive offenses – offenses designed to beat the Seattle Cover-3. Offenses like the Dallas Cowboys.

So when defensive coordinators started heavily deploying these 2-High concepts against Kellen Moore’s top-ranked offense, the impact was significant.

The Dallas Cowboys appear to be gearing up for a run-heavy approach to combat the NFL’s latest defensive schemes.

The NFL is cyclical. Trends have a way of coming and going and this defensive philosophy is certainly no exception. For years teams have mimicked the Seattle single-high-safety scheme. By closing the middle of the field they lean on Cover-1 and Cover-3 looks that move an extra player (safety) into the box. As a result, high powered spread offenses that lean on space, motion, speed, and play-action, thrived.

So the market corrected itself.

The rise of the 2-High (Cover-2, Cover-4,Cover-6, etc…) worked to take away the strengths of these offenses. It places shells over the top to limit the big plays. It forces plays into the shallow portions of the field (known as the kill zone) where defenders can collapse and limit yards after the catch. It drives aggressive QBs like Patrick Mahomes and Dak Prescott nuts because it takes away the big shots downfield those QBs thrive on.

It’s effective in its approach because by playing gap-and-a-half up front, it packs the secondary with coverage. It offers light boxes and delivers brutal secondaries. It begs offenses to run on it because it seeks to limit explosive plays and test the opposition’s patience. And last season…it worked against the Dallas Cowboys.

The offseason has given the Dallas Cowboys a chance to catch their breath and reassess. They know what beat them last season and they know their running game failed them. When defenses begged Dallas to beat them on the ground, Dallas wilted to the challenge.

65.8 percent of the time, the ground game hurt the Dallas Cowboys on early down runs.

Ezekiel Elliott’s health played a role in that ground game failure, as did the health and execution of the offensive line. The Dallas Cowboys worked to correct that this offseason.

The Cowboys dedicated themselves to the task of fixing their offensive line. They let inconsistent performers like Connor Williams and La’el Collins leave, and they brought in high ceiling developmental players like Tyler Smith and Matt Waletzko to replace them. They added a handful of challengers to push Tyler Biadasz at center, and they made sure to get Tyron Smith, Ezekiel Elliott, and Zack Martin healthy again.

They built their ground game up so when defenses inevitably dare them run in 2022, the Dallas Cowboys will be ready and able to oblige.

The Dallas Cowboys can’t have a repeat of last season. Even against light boxes later in the season, the Cowboys ground game had a negative expected points average on early down runs (-0.120 EPA/Play, 19th in NFL) and a success rate of just 34.2 percent (25th in the NFL). That means 65.8 percent of the time the ground game hurt the Dallas Cowboys on early down runs.

Because of this, Dak Prescott repeatedly faced 3rd-and-long situations against defenses that were built to win third-and-long situations. No wonder the Cowboys offense was stuck in the mud.

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The NFL is a passing league and the pass will always be king. But the running game figures to play a vital role in the Dallas Cowboys plans this season and based on the direction defenses are trending, a more run-heavy approach may be all Dallas needs to stay ahead of the curve.