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Dallas Cowboys

Film Room | How Cowboys got run game back on track

SANTA CLARA, CA - OCTOBER 22: Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott (21) runs the ball against the San Francisco 49ers during an NFL game on October 22, 2017 at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, CA. (Photo by Daniel Gluskoter/Icon Sportswire)
Daniel Gluskoter/Icon Sportswire

It’s not a secret: the Dallas Cowboys heavily rely on their running game. Their offense is predicated on establishing the run and exploiting heavy boxes in the passing game.

Through the first three weeks of the season, the Dallas running game just wasn’t cutting it. Against the New York Giants, Denver Broncos and Arizona Cardinals, Dallas carried the ball 91 times for just for 268 yards — an anemic 2.94 yards per carry — for one touchdown. The Cowboys had just six explosive run plays (runs of 10 yards or more) — an explosive run rate of eight percent (21st in the NFL) — per Sharp Football Stats.

Some of that was due to the caliber of run defenses they were facing. The Broncos lead the league in run defense DVOA and the Cardinals and Giants rank 11th and 24th respectively, per Football Outsiders.

In the three games since, however, the run game improved, exploding for 617 yards and five touchdowns on 105 carries — 5.87 yards per carry — with 19 explosive run plays, an explosive run rate of 18 percent (second in the NFL) against the Los Angeles Rams (15th in run defense DVOA), Green Bay Packers (18th) and San Francisco 49ers (25th).

While one may chalk up the Cowboys’ success to playing inferior competition, which surely doesn’t hurt, there are many other reasons why Dallas has been more effective. Let’s take a look at each.

Better play at LG

It is apparent that the Cowboys like Chaz Green, but the fact of the matter is that Jonathan Cooper has severely outplayed the former third-round pick.

While Green is a better athlete who works to the second level well, Cooper eclipses Green in power, hand technique and mental processing, a big reason why Dallas’s running game has been more successful.

This play is a good indicator of why Cooper is an upgrade over Green:

On this play, the Cowboys are running a “Duo” concept — named after the two double-teams that take place up front — and Cooper has dominant interior defender DeForest Buckner shaded to his left. After the ball is snapped, Cooper blocks down on Buckner and generates a ton of force at the point of attack, illustrating Cooper’s impressive play strength and the ability to maximize his power output by marrying his hips and elbows. From there, Cooper works to the second level and gets a hat on the filling linebacker, giving Elliott a runway to the end zone.

These are the types of plays where Green struggles, because he lacks the requisite play strength and rotational power to generate movement in the run game.

Here’s another example of Cooper’s play strength adding value to the Cowboys’ running game:

On this play, the Cowboys are running another “Duo” concept, but this time, Cooper is working in combination with All-Pro center Travis Frederick. Packer defensive tackle Kenny Clark does a good job trying to split the double-team, but Cooper is able to wash him down. Cooper’s block, combined with Tyron Smith’s, creates a crease big enough for the Cowboys to convert on fourth down.

The one area where Cooper currently struggles is with reach blocks on outside zone runs. He doesn’t possess the quickness to reach and cut off defenders.

Still, Cooper has proven to be the most reliable option the Cowboys have at left guard. Against the 49ers and Packers, Cooper’s level of play was eerily similar to what Leary gave Dallas at the same spot a year ago.

Interestingly enough, the Cowboys’ run game now looks eerily similar to last year, too.

All-Pros playing like All-Pros

The Dallas Cowboys are the only team in football which can boast three offensive linemen who are arguably the best at their positions in the NFL. Tyron Smith is a four-time Pro-Bowler and All-Pro (2013-2016) left tackle who has freakish size, athleticism, strength and technique.

Travis Frederick is a three-time Pro-Bowler and All-Pro (2014-2016) center who displays great football intelligence, play strength and hand usage. Lastly, Zack Martin has been an All-Pro and Pro Bowl right guard in each of his three seasons in the NFL, and is uniquely dominant in pass protection and the run game.

Early this season, however, the Cowboys’ All-Pro trio struggled, especially in the run game. They failed to create many open running lanes against the New York Giants and got utterly dominated against Denver, unlike anything we’ve seen before.

Luckily for Dallas, Frederick, Martin and Smith have returned to their old form since then.

Smith has been battling back problems for much of the year, but he has looked like his dominant self as of late. Here’s a great example:

Offensive tackles aren’t supposed to climb and reach a linebacker with that sort of ease. When combining the skills illustrated above with Smith’s raw power and ability to uproot defenders at the line of scrimmage, you have an elite offensive tackle who may be one of the best to ever play at his position once he hangs up his cleats.

Frederick has authored the biggest rise in his level of play since Week 3. The former first-round pick looked more like a journeyman center than the perennial All-Pro the Cowboys are used to having. Frederick’s hand placement, footwork and body positioning have been much better, allowing him to show his play strength and rotational power with more frequency.

This play epitomizes Frederick when he is at his best:

One of the most difficult blocks for a center to make is a reaching a shaded nose tackle to the same side as his snap hand. Frederick makes it look easy — he employs a “gallop” technique, a little hop-step to gain ground prior to the point of attack in an attempt to get underneath the nose tackle and create movement at the point of contact. He does a great job of working his hips around to cut off the nose tackle from making an impact on the play.

Martin has been the best of the bunch, for the most part, this season. While Frederick and Smith initially struggled, Martin has played at a Pro Bowl level for most of the year. He did struggle a lot against Green Bay but bounced back for an outstanding performance against the 49ers.

Using Prescott’s feet as a red-zone weapon

Taking out any QB kneels, Prescott has run the ball 19 times for 153 yards and three touchdowns this season, but only eight of those were designed QB runs (or read-options where Prescott kept the ball). They went for 49 yards (6.13 yards per carry) and three touchdowns.

Prescott’s ability to make plays as a ballcarrier is useful in the red zone, where it has been especially effective. Here’s an example:

Here, the Cowboys use the read-option as a constraint play for the “Duo” concept, meaning that Dallas is taking advantage of the Green Bay defenders cheating to stop Ezekiel Elliott. Prescott reads the crashing edge defender, who leaves a wide-open running lane for the touchdown; Dak keeps the ball and cashes in for six.

The Cowboys don’t just use the read-option as a constraint to their “Duo” concept; they also use it as a constraint to their inside and outside zone schemes.

The read-option isn’t the only way Dallas gets Prescott involved on the ground. He’s also very effective on QB draws, which are also great near the goal line. Here’s an example:

Here, Prescott does a great job of first selling the pass before committing to the run. Cam Newton made this play popular in Carolina, and Prescott can be similarly effective in this concept with Dallas.

Better Zeke

Ezekiel Elliott had as tumultuous of an offseason as an NFL player can have. Because of that, it is not surprising that he was not his normal self early in the season. While he still showed the power and ability to get “dirty yards,” he was inconsistent with his reads, and lacked the burst and elusiveness that helped produce an amazing rookie campaign.

Slowly but surely, Elliott has rounded into form. Against San Francisco, Elliott finally looked like the rookie sensation who took over the NFL last year.

This play is a great illustration:

On this play, the Cowboys are running a split-zone concept with Jason Witten coming across the formation to block against the flow of the play. After receiving the handoff, Elliott does a great job to press the play-side A-gap, causing Packer linebacker Jake Ryan to hesitate and defensive lineman Mike Daniels to peek inside. From there, Elliott displays a fantastic jump cut to get into the secondary for a sizable gain.

Here’s another example of Elliott’s vision and elusiveness:

On this outside zone run, Elliott has to quickly react to interior pressure from Buckner. The Ohio State product doesn’t panic and executes a small jump cut to avoid the 49ers’ defender. From there, Elliott shows great second-level vision and an ability to layer moves together to make defenders miss.

As long as Elliott is operating a high level, the Cowboys’ offense runs smoothly.

Despite possessing the most talented offensive line in football, the Cowboys can’t just stick any RB in the backfield and expect great results. When in shape and focused, Elliott is among the best RBs in football.

New wrinkle

Trap plays aren’t new to the NFL scene — they’ve been staples in many NFL offenses for decades, dating back to Pop Warner in the early 1900s.

Yet, while trap plays are commonplace among many teams, the Cowboys sparsely run them. That changed against the 49ers, when Dallas was able to break off a couple chunk plays on trap runs.

Here’s one example:

On this play, Martin and La’el Collins intentionally leave the 49ers’ defensive tackle unblocked, which allows them to work to the second level and block the linebackers. Because the defensive tackle isn’t anticipating being left unblocked, he loses balance as he braces for a Martin block, giving Cooper an easy trap block, which springs Elliott for a touchdown.

Dallas was also able to run it to the opposite side with Alfred Morris:

This time, Dallas runs the same trap play but to the left, with Tyron Smith and Cooper leaving the defensive tackle unblocked as Martin sets the “trap,” which results in a good gain from Morris.

Don’t be surprised if trap plays become a weekly staple.

Better continuity

More than any other unit in football, the offensive line has to play in unison. It must communicate well and work together to defend against the various stunts, blitzes and slants a defense will throw at it in any given moment.

It takes only a single offensive lineman to act independently of his teammates to cause a play to fail. Each offensive lineman must be confident that the man next to him will do his job in the context of the scheme, which isn’t as simple as blocking the man in front of him.

Typically, when an offensive line is lacking continuity, they struggle to work in cohesion on combination blocks in the run game and when passing off stunt in the run game. Both plagued Dallas early on.

With the way the NFL’s current collective bargaining agreement is set up, it is almost impossible to get an offensive line the requisite amount of reps during the offseason and training camp for the unit to operate at a high level. Throw in the fact that Dallas rotated the left guard position throughout the offseason, and it’s no wonder why Dallas’s O-line had a leaky start to the season.

The offensive line has finally begun to work together seamlessly. This play is a good illustration:

Notice how the entire offensive line explodes out of stance in unison toward the wide side of the field. From there, Cooper and Frederick do a fantastic job of vertically displacing the nose tackle with a thunderous double-team. After creating some movement, Cooper seamlessly overtakes the nose tackle as Frederick works to the second level to block Mark Barron, which results in a good gain for Elliott.

Final thoughts

Overall, there is not a single reason why the Cowboys struggled before or are successful now; instead, a confluence of factors is responsible.

As currently constructed, the Cowboys go as their running game does. A potent running game makes life easier on their young quarterback and helps keep their average defense off the field.

After struggling to produce through the first three weeks of the season, the Cowboys’ running game has returned to its dominant ways — much to the chagrin of the NFL.

— Follow John on Twitter for more NFL insight and analysis

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