Without further ado, let’s go:
1. Dallas, Dak and the deep ball
Teams will consistently stack the box against Ezekiel Elliott until the Cowboys find a way to make teams pay. One way to do that is with run-pass options, which takes advantage of quarterback Dak Prescott’s above-average athleticism and familiarity with RPOs, a scheme he ran in college at Mississippi State.
But another way to make teams pay is by connecting regularly on the deep ball. When teams have to fear the deep pass, safeties have to play deeper coverage, which often keeps them from rolling an additional defender into the box. When the offense has the same number of blockers as the defense in the box, it’s called an “even-count box,” and most offenses will be capable of effectively running the ball against that.
The Cowboys, who boast an elite running back in Elliott, would LOVE to see even-count boxes. But they rarely do so, since Prescott is among the most vertically-disinclined quarterbacks in the NFL, and teams are unafraid of getting beat deep by Dallas’ outside receivers (Allen Hurns, Terrance Williams, Michael Gallup, etc.).
But one play in the Cowboys’ 20-13 win against the New York Giants on Sunday provides hope. It occurred on the Cowboys’ third play from scrimmage, when the Giants rolled an eighth man into the box to counter the Cowboys’ “21” — or two back, one tight end — personnel and discourage the run.
Dallas, perhaps anticipating this since the Giants rolled an additional man into the box the play before and held Elliott to only 2 yards, called a play-action with two vertical routes on the outside. It was the perfect play to defeat this Cover 1/Cover 3 look. If a QB can’t make a vertical throw against this defense in the NFL, his offense is dead in the water.
But the Cowboys do here, and it’s deeper than the gorgeous throw Prescott makes, or even the stellar protection. Let’s focus on the route by receiver Tavon Austin, a man many have already deemed a bust. The truth is, the technique he uses to beat cornerback Janoris Jenkins on this route is special.
Jenkins is aligned in an outside leverage position, and he’s giving Austin the freedom to make an inside release because he’s not worried about inside routes. He’s trying to take away the deep ball and funnel Austin to the middle.
But Austin’s 4.34 speed is electric, and his route running is superb on this play. He bursts off the snap, no false steps, sticks his left foot in the ground and EXPLODES inside and upfield, right past the 29-year-old Jenkins, who stumbles. From there, it’s easy money, as Austin tracks Prescott’s pass and takes it to pay dirt.
This is a really important play for the Cowboys because this is borderline impossible to defend in this coverage, and teams will have to account for it with more safety help if it becomes a regular thing between Prescott and Austin. And the truth is, it needs to be. Because of Prescott’s four 60-yard pass plays in his career, this was somehow the first that initially traveled more than seven yards from the line of scrimmage.
If Dallas hopes to stop seeing eight-man fronts and start creating more room for Zeke to hurt the defense, Prescott needs to continue threatening teams with Austin, often the fastest man on the field. Even incomplete deep balls can be enough to create more space underneath.
2. Patrick Mahomes, slayer of zone blitzes
Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes aced the biggest test of his young career on Sunday, but it wasn’t exactly what Mahomes did — which was throw six touchdown passes in a 42-37 win over Pittsburgh — it’s how he did it, by destroying the zone blitzes that vex so many quarterbacks in the NFL.
This is an example of the throw Mahomes will soon become famous for. The Steelers rushed five and dropped an end into coverage, the type of fire zone blitz that has been synonymous with the Steelers’ famed “Blitzburgh” style of defense.
While tentative quarterbacks are often confused by this throughout the game — the drop guy can be any of the down rushers, and they often drop right into a hot-route lane if they’ve guessed right — Mahomes essentially shrugged every time and delivered the type of soul-snatching bullet that can make it a long day for the defense.
His throw to Sammy Watkins was ridiculous, and it’s harder than it looks. It’s the type of strike defensive coordinators will shake their heads at. And Mahomes makes it look easy. He did this all game Sunday, so much so that Pittsburgh essentially stopped blitzing him by the end of the game.
Mahomes was my favorite quarterback in the 2017 NFL draft, and I couldn’t be more here for this.
3. Saquon’s make-you-miss
On the surface, this is just a 6-yard gain. But for dorky football nerds (like me!), it’s the perfect example of what makes New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley so special.
Watch Barkley haul in the pass and immediately make Cowboys linebacker Damien Wilson whiff in space. This ability to make the first guy miss is the No. 1 trait teams look for in a running back. Some guys do it with power, some guys do it with quickness, but Barkley — who is tied for second in the NFL in avoided tackles with 45, according to Pro Football Focus — is the rare 6-foot, 233-pounder who could do it with both.
What’s more, Barkley can do it in the passing game. While he has rushed only 29 times for 134 yards this year, he caught 14 passes on Sunday against Dallas — a franchise record — for 80 yards and has the look of a do-it-all stud.
The Giants will be criticized for passing on Sam Darnold, who represents the best asset in the NFL: a star quarterback on a rookie deal. But when Barkley finishes with 1,700 dual-purpose yards and 10-plus touchdowns, that talk will quiet a bit, especially if the Giants get their young quarterback in the 2019 draft.
4. Holy fullback
Listen, if you don’t understand the beauty of a nasty, crushing fullback block on a simple HB Iso, then you’re reading the wrong guy.
My appreciation for the iso runs have long been cultivated by my love of the play on “Madden” and “NCAA Football,” as I’ve used them as the foundation of my offenses for 15 years. So yeah, watching Raiders fullback Keith Smith (No. 41) block the ever-loving hell out of Broncos linebacker Todd Davis warmed my coach-mode playing heart. That is all.
5. Ryan Grant, run-blocking badass
We all have our blindspots. For me, one of those is wide receivers who actually block. That’s how I ended up naming Laquon Treadwell as one of my All-Juice receivers before the 2016 NFL draft (whoops!).
I’ll own that, but that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate a physical receiver, especially in a world where football is no longer as nasty as it used to be. So kudos here to Colts receiver Ryan Grant (No. 11), who sought out Washington cornerback Quinton Dunbar — a former receiver — grabbed him by his breastplate and pancaked him into the dirt, with a little English, to boot. Somebody get that man some syrup!
More from Yahoo Sports:
• Meyer’s grim warning to NFL team about Aaron Hernandez
• School official sorry for racist remark about Texans QB
• New book claims Brady feels ‘trapped’ with Belichick
• Red Sox fans make problematic discovery