Why the Dallas Cowboys 2TE (12 personnel) offense works so well

(Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
(Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images) /

The Dallas Cowboys are an ever-evolving team. One season they appear to have one identity, the next season they change and have a completely different identity. It’s an annual metamorphosis that’s a little uncommon for many carryover offensive coordinators, but a common occurrence with Kellen Moore.

This season Moore has moved away from the spread 11-personnel looks of 2021 and gone to bulkier personnel packages that involve extra tight ends. It was a shift we predicted before the season and a shift Moore indicated he wanted to make as early as last season. But as we explained before, Blake Jarwin’s injury in 2021 scrapped those plans (Dallas was top-5 in 12 personnel before Jarwin was lost).

12 personnel is a key grouping for the Dallas Cowboys designed to beat 2-high shells by pulling defenders back into the box

The NFL is a copycat league, full of trends and countermoves. When defenses saw the success the Seattle Cover-3 was having by stopping the run and challenging short passes, offenses spread out and started going deep.

When defenses realized they were getting beat too often by big plays, they adapted, shifting back to the old 2-high looks of before, using shells on early downs to force opponents to run. Now, offenses are trying to adapt again, and Kellen Moore is finding that 12 and 20 personnel (2TE and 2RB packages) are a great way to beat that.

the Dallas Cowboys ran 12 personnel more than any other grouping, Accounting for 49% of their plays

Defenses want opponents to run on early downs. They want to force as many third downs as possible and drag drives out, because statistically, it works in their favor. Early downs are considered passing downs but if all the defenders are back in coverage, it’s hard to pass.

So the solution to the problem is either to have passing game-level success running the ball (see also: Baltimore and San Fran) or get those pushed-back defenses to move up into the box. Kellen Moore has chosen the later.

By showing 12 personnel, defenses expect you to run. It’s a running personnel grouping that often forces defenses to swap their nickel CB for their base LB. Based on spacing of the formation, it could also force defenses to crowd the box, begging offenses to flip the script and throw the ball.

That’s exactly what the Cowboys did early last season, making their 12 personnel group their best passing package in both yards/play and success rate.

On Sunday, the Dallas Cowboys ran 12 personnel more than any other grouping. Accounting for 49% of their plays, 12 personnel delivered 4.83 yards/play for a 45% success rate. Not too shabby….

This week the Dallas Cowboys face an obstacle: Dalton Schultz is injured and his status for Monday Night is in doubt. If the Cowboys only have rookies at TE, I’m not sure they can continue their 12 personnel-heavy ways (I’m not sure they can’t either).

But with Michael Gallup set to make his 2022 debut, I’m not sure the Dallas Cowboys even have to force the issue. If Gallup plays 15 snaps, that should ease the burden of Schultz being out. The Cowboys can dial back their 12 usage for a week and keep opponents guessing.

Hot. Should the Cowboys move Tyler Smith back to guard?. light

There is logic behind the Dallas Cowboys heavy 12 personnel usage and it goes way beyond being thin at WR. It’s a strategy used to beat shells and soon to be a common trend in the NFL once again. Because it’s all about trends and countermoves.