More and more, we're seeing formerly conservative offenses open things up a bit. In their 44-13 Monday night win over the Cincinnati Bengals, the Baltimore Ravens were lights-out in ways we haven't ever seen from a Cam Cameron-led offense. Quarterback Joe Flacco reaped the benefits of a new approach that featured heavy doses of speed no-huddle and formation diversity.
Similarly, the San Francisco 49ers played efficiently -- but with more receiver options -- in their 30-22 win over the Green Bay Packers. With Randy Moss and Mario Manningham on board, quarterback Alex Smith had more options, and he wasn't afraid to use them. The 49ers put two receivers on the field 26 times, and three on the field on nine different occasions. You won't see Jim Harbaugh's team going five-wide anytime soon -- it never had a four-receiver set in 2011, per Football Outsiders' metrics, and Harbaugh loves to get tight ends involved in empty sets -- but it's clear that certain offenses are discovering the benefits of mixing expansive schemes with the appropriate personnel.
In their 24-17 season-opening win over the New York Giants, the Dallas Cowboys outdid New York's defense with a dizzying array of formation concepts, and they really used pre-snap motion well. Tony Romo's first of two touchdowns to surprise receiver Kevin Ogletree was a perfect example of this.
"We've always liked to be multiple on offense, and we've done it with different guys through the years," Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett told me on Wednesday. "We've turned the receiver group over two or three times, the offensive line group, and the running group. The constants have been [quarterback Tony] Romo and [tight end Jason] Witten. It's an important thing, we talk about it all of the time, the importance of trying to be able to attack a defense a lot of different ways -- running a ball, throwing a ball, running it inside, running it outside, being able to throw the ball at the different levels, and to be able to throw the ball to different guys. It's always something we've tried to do well; it's a challenge to do well.
"You have to have the right personnel that have to have an understanding of what you're doing, and then you have to take that execution to game time. It's something we work on every week and something we're challenged by every Sunday in the NFL. We're working hard on it, we're still a work in progress, but hopefully we'll get better week in and week out."
They got better on this play. With 1:07 left in the first half, Dallas had the ball at New York's 10-yard line. They started pre-snap with Miles Austin wide right, and receivers Dez Bryant and Ogletree in a twins left formation. When running back DeMarco Murray split wide left, the Giants had to adjust their coverage by splitting cornerback Corey Webster away from Twins to cover Murray.
That put cornerback Jayron Hosley in the uncomfortable position of having to read both inside receivers in what had become a 3 x 1 set too quickly for the Giants to adapt. Safety Antrel Rolle positioned himself over Hosley to contain any routes in the end zone, but most route concepts were going to upset that applecart. Murray's ability to threaten a defense as a legitimate receiver option was a huge part of this.
"He's definitely a versatile player, there's no question about that," Garrett said. "He was that in college when we drafted him, a guy who ran the ball a lot, but also showed that he could be effective in the passing game as a blocker and as a receiver. He's a smart football player so you can use him in different spots, and he really seems to pick things up easily. When you have a few guys like that, you definitely can be more multiple as a result of their knowledge and versatility."
At the snap, several different aspects made this play effective. Outside, Murray and Austin didn't run routes per se -- they each stayed put as if waiting for quick screens, freezing Webster (on Murray) and cornerback Michael Coe (on Austin). Hosley pedaled back into zone, and Bryant took Rolle out of the picture (literally, if you were watching the broadcast feed) on a fade route. That left Ogletree to pick through linebackers Chase Blackburn and Jacquian Williams on a slant.
The X-Factor of the play was Ogletree's understanding that he had to move with Romo after the quarterback was flushed out of the pocket to the right. Giants end Jason Pierre-Paul clowned left tackle Tyron Smith with a bull-rush and some sick hand moves, and Romo had to roll to keep the play alive. In the diagram, the end of the yellow arrow shows where Ogletree first stopped under Blackburn in that little zone-beater, and the red arrow indicates where he continued after Romo started improvising. As is fairly typical of any team led by an effectively mobile quarterback, the part of the play that led to the score happened after the planning broke down.
"That's part of playing receiver here," Romo told me. "You've got to understand that our offensive line gives us the chance to move around and do some things. When that happens, the guys who have a good knack and understanding where to move at those times, obviously get themselves open and give me a good look. Kevin did a good job of that in the game."
More than anything, though, it seemed that the Cowboys' offense has a new threat level because everyone's on the same page regarding the concept of formation diversity. These aren't just gimmick plays -- Dallas now fully understands that if you can stretch a defense to its breaking point with base personnel, you can dictate the action, instead of reacting to it.
"We tried to be that [way] for a long time," Romo concluded. "At the end of the day, it's about execution. Guys need to be in the right spots at the right time, I need to throw an accurate ball, and we need enough time to throw it. If one of those three are not up to par then we're not going to be where we need to be in the passing game. As far as last week, each week we like to look at what our opponent likes to do and we kind of base stuff off of that and change it up week to week. We look at Seattle this week, they send a lot of strong dog, a lot of linebacker stuff to the strong side and different blitzes in that regard when they do come, so we have to be prepared for that."
No doubt they will. The Cowboys don't just have a lot of arrows in the quiver anymore -- this year, they appear to be shooting with deadly accuracy.