Dirty Work: Selfless Cowboys receivers, tight ends key to two-phase explosiveness

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The 2021 Cowboys’ offense, expected by many to ride Dak Prescott and his trio of talented receivers’ passing attack, has taken a decided turn back to the Triplet’s ’90s. All of a sudden Dallas leads the league in rushing percentage notching their third consecutive 200-yard rushing game this past Sunday.

Part of this turn was necessity. Wideout Michael Gallup injured a calf muscle in the season opener against Tampa Bay and has not returned to fitness. Another is simply that Dallas exudes a flexibility not seen in any prior Cowboys offensive attack. The remaining wideouts — CeeDee Lamb and Amari Cooper — and the tight end duo of Dalton Schultz and Blake Jarwin all show the ability to make plays down the field.

Offensive coordinator Kellen Moore has therefore stayed with a 12-personnel package that keeps two receivers and both tight ends on the field most of the time.

It’s no surprise, given this balance and explosiveness, that the Cowboys lead the NFL in explosive plays(20-yard or more passes, 10-yard or more runs). What is a bit surprising is that the Cowboys have far more explosives on the ground than they do through the air. They lead the league with 27 explosive runs, tied with the Cleveland Browns. That number is eight more than the sum of explosive passes.

The hidden reason why Dallas can hurt an opponent on land or through the air? Those four receiving targets are selfless blockers, ready to do the dirty work to help Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard reach the third level after the offensive line has broken them into the second. It’s this dedication to the blocking part of their jobs that gives them an edge when they go out on patterns.

Today, we’ll look at three variants of the old Packers sweep, which Moore dusted off to outflank the Giants. Each of these calls produced an explosive run, and each was spurred by outstanding edge blocking by Amari Cooper and the two tight ends.

Beating a Light Box

The situation: It’s 3rd-and-2 on Dallas’ opening possession of the game. The Cowboys are running a no-huddle attack to open the game, to keep the Giants in a lighter front. Moore puts an 11-personnel package on the field, with Lamb and Cedrick Wilson in a slot left and Schultz and Cooper on the right.

Personnel wise it’s a three wideout set, and hints that Dallas will pass. Formation wise, this looks very similar to flank, the two WR, two TE set Moore loves to run this season:

Notice that Cooper is set as a wing to Schultz on the right side. That’s because he’s going to block down on the Giants safety at the snap.

New York has seven men in the box, having walked the strong safety (20) down in the event of a hand off to Elliott. They have eight defenders to Dallas’ seven blockers. But watch Dallas erase that advantage on the perimeter.

Cooper and Elliott work in tandem to erase three defenders with two. Schultz takes the defensive end on the line, stalemating a man much larger than himself. Cooper then squeezes the strong safety. Dallas has pinned both edge defenders on the line. Left guard Connor Williams is pulling and will take out the cornerback (24). It’s setting up to be Elliott versus the middle linebacker (55) for the needed yards.

Elliott helps his blockers by angling for a step when he reaches the hash mark, pulling the MLB forward into the line scrum. This lets Cooper add him to his blocking assignment. No. 19 pushes the safety inside then turns and gives a hip bump to the linebacker. When Williams pushes his man wide, Elliott has a wide lane to the sideline:

Schultz and Cooper have erased three Giants, two much larger than themselves, with selfless blocks. Williams wins his mismatch and Elliott rolls for 15 yards, giving Dallas its first explosive of the day.

Double the Guards, Double the Fun

On Dallas’ next series it’s in a first-and-15 situation near midfield. Moore again goes to the 11 package that worked so well and again puts Cooper tight on a wing to the right. The Giants, having been burned by this look already, rush the strong safety up into the box.

The call is similar. It’s a counter right for Pollard to the Cowboys’ right. The RB will take a jab step to his left to induce both Giants linebackers into false steps to their right, mirroring him. This will give the blockers time to pull and get better angles for their blocks.

You can see that Dallas is here pulling both guards, instead of the backside guard and tackle you often see on counters. The blocking at the point of attack is the same. Schultz is again stalemating a much larger end and Cooper is again sizing up the strong safety.

On the play side, Pollard has an extra blocker that Elliott did not on the first call. Zack Martin will take the cornerback to to the sideline and Williams here will fold back inside and take out the inside linebacker:

When Williams locks on, Pollard has a clean lane up the field. Only the free safety, starting the play 18 yards off the line, stands between Pollard and a touchdown. That defender angles Pollard to the sideline, but not before the RB nets 17 yards:

More dirty work by the smaller people turns what could be a solid gain into Dallas’ second explosive run of the day.

Flanking Into Another Explosive

One series later, Dallas faces a 2nd-and-5. Moore here goes back to flank right, his 12 personnel look where Schultz and Jarwin both line up outside right tackle Terence Steele, with Cooper and Lamb in a slot formation look on the left.

The Giants have undershifted away from the formation strength and are again walking the strong safety up to the line to put seven men in the box. Moore is again going to call the sweep right for Elliott, who is lined up to Prescott’s left, and this time he’ll have a numerical advantage on the call side:

Both tight ends start the run by double team blocking the call side defensive end. Jarwin will then scrape off and reach for the charging inside linebacker.

The linebacker gets Jarwin to overrun his block and slips inside of number 89. Williams is leading Elliott up the field and he sees this development and pins the linebacker inside. When Martin pushes the corner wide, Elliott has another free lane upfield.

Elliott motors untouched into the secondary and is finally spilled at the Giants five yard line.

One call, three variants, three explosive runs. One constant is there in all of these explosives. The Cowboys’ tight ends and receivers are not afraid to stick their noses into the scrums, and they win far, far more often than they lose.

Their dedication to blocking is making the rushing attack hum. And it’s making their downfield patterns less stressed when they turn upfield on passing calls. Focus your eyes on their blocking work the next time Dallas is playing.

Their dirty work is beautiful to behold.

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