For years, NFL offenses have trended in a spread /11 personnel (3WR set) direction. Teams were focused on beating the popular single high safety coverages (Cover-1, 3 that Seattle made famous) by spreading the field and attacking with big plays. The Dallas Cowboys were the perfect example of these trends, using a single high blueprint on defense and engineering a pass-happy spread attack on offense.
But in recent years the tide has changed. With most of the NFL’s top offenses playing heavy 11 personnel and going deep early and often, defenses reverted back to the 2-high looks of yesteryear. With shells over the top, big play machines like the Dallas Cowboys find themselves throwing into the strength of the defense’s coverage. Good for them – bad for us.
Elite quarterbacks like Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, and Dak Prescott all saw increased 2-high looks last season. They also generally saw their numbers suffer against those looks as a result (Patrick Mahomes was faced with it more than anyone).
The use of 2-high is only expected to increase here in 2022 (fun fact: Super Bowl QB Joe Burrow was one of the worst in the NFL against it last season) and offenses like the Dallas Cowboys will have to adapt or die.
The Dallas Cowboys can flip the script on defenses by playing more 2TE and 2RB personnel and forcing 2-high defenses into the box.
A basic strategy of offensive play-calling is to attack weaknesses rather than strengths. If a defense is playing deep, you want to get the ball short. If they are all bunched up in the box, you go outside or long. If they leave the box thin, you pound the rock. There’s obviously much more to it that just that but that’s a premise in which to build an offense.
Based on historical data from the past 15+ seasons, we also know early downs are passing downs and provide far more expected points and a far better success rate rushing. This is especially true in this Zeke/Dak era here in Dallas where the offense has been four times more profitable in the air than on the ground (see also linked article above for further explanation).
Defenses want offenses to run the ball on early downs because it’s statistically advantageous for them to force third downs
This clearly isn’t breaking news or anything – it’s why teams are playing 2-high coverage and daring teams like the Dallas Cowboys to run on early downs, in the first place. They want you to run it because it will force third downs. And the more third downs a team faces on a drive, the more the advantage shifts to the defense.
If you’re an elite rushing offense like the Ravens or 49ers, you can roll with the punches and run the ball with near-equal efficiency as passing. Dallas is not close to that level. What Dallas has to do is force more defenders into the box on early downs. Doing so opens up opportunities downfield and keeps the Cowboys operating at optimal levels (and giving them more big play opportunities).
When the Cowboys trot out 12, 21, or 22 personnel (2TE or 2RB) they signal they are going heavy and intend to run the ball. It begs the defense to dump their nickel personnel and go to base (an extra LB). If the offense lines up with the extra TE or RB in the box, it forces defenses to come into the box as well.
If defenses have to switch to base personnel and move extra player(s) in the box, opportunities passing open up outside and downfield. If the defenses resist the urge and stay back in shells and spread out on the boundary, the offense has opportunities running between the tackles. It’s a win-win for the offense.
Look at the numbers for second:
When teams go to 12 personnel, defenses stack the box close to 50% of the time per PFF. 11 personnel sees just an average of six players in the box, giving the secondary a numbers advantage over the pass-catchers. Clearly here the Cowboys want to pass against stacked boxes, not coverage heavy looks.
There is a linear progression between the number of players in the box and EPA/drop-back. In other words, the more players in the box, the more fruitful a passing attempt becomes. With five players up in the box, a pass attempt barely moves the needle (0.02 EPA). But when eight players are in the box, the average NFL drop-back rockets to 0.13 EPA.
So for the Dallas Cowboys, the smart way to play this situation is to put in personnel and line up in a formation that would pull the defense in. Then, more often than not, throw the ball. When the defense refuses to comply, you simply play the numbers game and run the ball. It won’t be as fruitful as the passing game will be on average, but easy yards are easy yards, right?
Obviously individual execution and performance play a big part in winning on a given play, but from a pure scheme perspective, expecting average NFL execution from the players, we can see the blueprint Kellen Moore should follow this season.
I believe so. Before they lost Blake Jarwin, the Dallas Cowboys were in 12 personnel at the fifth highest rate last season. After they lost him, they dropped to 19th in the NFL. They feel good about what Jake Ferguson can bring this offense so fans should fully expect them to use 12 personnel often.
Tony Pollard has also been deployed heavily with Zeke in the backfield. Pollard can line up in the backfield, motion to the slot, or even run routes out of the backfield. Fans can expect more 2RB sets in 2022 as well.
It’s a chess match – same as it’s always been. but we’re witnessing an adjustment period right now and the first teams t respond correctly will have the advantage.
Luckily for us, the Dallas Cowboys seem to be ahead of the curve on this one.
11 personnel is still the dominant grouping in the NFL and as long as the game heavily favors passing, it probably always will be. But the 2-high look has brought on a rebirth of the 2TE and 2RB sets and the Dallas Cowboys are perfectly equipped for it.