Flank, Flex, Trap, Cut: How Cowboys’ Kellen Moore uses magic to keeps defenses guessing

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In Week 1’s second look at the tape, an examination revealed how Dallas Cowboys offensive coordinator Kellen Moore used a very balanced 12 personnel set, a one RB, two TE, two WR formation to stretch Tampa Bay’s stacked defensive fronts and isolate Amari Cooper on linebackers and safeties.

In Week 2, Dallas faced a very different style of defense and Moore adjusted his approach, boding well for Dallas’ ability to attack each opponent throughout the course of the 2021 season.

Brandon Staley’s Chargers unit is based on the defense he learned from Broncos HC Vic Fangio when the two worked together in Chicago. It’s become the scheme of the moment, a two-deep heavy protection. Staley’s and Fangio’s teams have used the most two-deep secondary looks of NFL defenses by far the past few years.

The run-defense component of each is a “light box” a six-man front that dares opposing offenses to check into runs on 1st and second downs. Staley figures his front can win battles, hold these runs to modest gains and set up 2nd and 3rd-and-long situations that play into his pass defensive calls.

Heading into the game, many people figured that Dallas would either take Staley’s bait, hammer Ezekiel Elliott on 1st-and-10 and either win big or get stuck in L.A.’s trap.

Another option for Moore would be to try and bait the Chargers himself, using move pieces to make a six-man box even lighter. The Packers had used this strategy in their playoff win over Staley’s Rams defense last January.

Green Bay had opened in a two-RB set, and used one to motion into space. This pulled the Rams middle linebacker in their 5-1 front to the perimeter of the scrimmage box, leaving five Rams defenders on five Green Bay offensive linemen. The Packers then hammered at this super light front with great success.

The Rams were forced to bring one of their two safeties up to restore a six man box and the Packers at this point threw deep over a now-depleted defensive secondary shell.

Here’s how Moore and the Cowboys attacked it in Week 2.

Flanking and Flexing Into Big Runs

One constant in Week 2's attack was a reliance on balanced 2x2 looks from a 12 personnel package. Moore had used the threat of a run in week one using two variants of the two TE, two WR look, formations that put both TEs on one side of the field and both WRs opposite in a slot combination.

On Dallas' opening drive Moore used Flex, a formation that began as a "flank" look, with both TEs literally flanking an offensive tackle, then moved both TEs wider to shift Tampa's defense away from his receivers. Against the Chargers, Moore again worked from these sets early, though he sometimes overshifted a TE to the slot receiver's side and worked away from the formation's strength. On the Cowboys second series, they kept Los Angeles' safeties high, hoping to get 6 v. 6 or sometimes 5 v. 5 looks in the box. The Chargers base their success on winning these even-vs.-even matchups on early-down runs. The Cowboys pinned their hopes on a similar strategy, go hat-on-hat and win. We'll look at that two plays from the second series to see how Kellen Moore took Brandon Staley's dare, and won.

Trapping and Cutting

On the first play of Dallas' third offensive series, Moore deployed the 12 personnel set, with Jeremy Sprinkle playing the Y and Dalton Schultz the move tight end, or F-back.

The call is an F-back Trap, where Schultz will come underneath the line and kick out Flex end Joey Bosa (97) who is lined up just wide of Sprinkle (87). The Chargers are in their standard, odd, 5-man line with three down linemen and two Flex ends in 2-point stances. Here, however, the Chargers have dropped a safety into the box to present a 7-man front, a concession to the success Dallas had running the football on its first two series. The Chargers had stayed in their standard 5-1 front but when Dallas marched for an opening-drive touchdown, Staley began to adapt to Dallas. Los Angeles actually recognized this play, as Dallas had run it earlier. On the Cowboys' third play from scrimmage, a 3rd-and-3, Schultz had trapped Bosa, when the Chargers were in a 4-2 front, and Ezekiel Elliott had run behind LG Connor Williams for eight yards.

Here, the offensive line zone blocks to its right, Pollard takes the hand-off to Dak Prescott's right and then begins to bend his run back to the left behind the trapping Schultz. Pollard has a seam to his left, if Schultz can cut Bosa and if Sprinkle can seal LB Kyzir White (44). Pollard has the option of running where he sees space and the RB sees a bigger option to his right, where RG Zach Martin and RT Terrence Steele have created a seam backside. What's more, the Chargers CB on that edge has dropped deep off the line, bracketing CeeDee Lamb. Two steps on from this still, Pollard plants his left foot into the ground and cuts hard back to his right. He bursts between his linemen, jumps the late-charging CB and rips down the sideline for 16 yards. Dallas had baited the Chargers into a heavier front, enticed them to their right, then outflanked them. Moore would stay with is trusty Flank looks. On the next play he ran Pollard left behind both his TEs and gained eight yards. On the next play Schultz flexed wide to the formation's left, lining up outside of the two WRs Lamb and Cooper. The Chargers rotated their coverage to the 3-man side and Prescott put the ball in Pollard's hands for a third consecutive time, on a flare to the right that gained another easy first down.

Going Ultra Light

After running three series mainly from a 12 package, Pollard subbed out and Moore threw yet another change-up at Staley. On 1st-and-10 from the Chargers' 41, Moore subbed in his most exotic personnel package to that point - a 0 RB, 1 TE, 4 WR package, with Schultz flexed off LT Tyron Smith and the WR Lamb lined up in the backfield to Prescott's left. The personnel screamed a pass, and the Chargers matched up accordingly. They put in a 4-1 front - two down DL, two Flex DEs and the MLB Kenneth Murray (9). They lined up man-on-man against Dallas' five targets and kept two safeties deep. The Cowboys have gained a numerical advantage in the box pre-snap. They have five blockers on their line and the Chargers have five defenders in the box. If the five in blue can at least stalemate their opponents, Lamb will have clear sailing into the deep secondary.

And that's what occurs. Dallas gets big wins on their right side from Steele and Martin, who quickly turn their men wide. The center Tyler Biadasz was supposed to assist Martin with a double team, but the RG's block is so clean Biadasz pushed off his linemate and sets his sights on the MLB Murray. On the backside, LG Williams and LT Smith double-team the backside DE Chris Rumph is left unblocked. When Biadasz locks on to Kenneth Murray, Lamb cuts off the center's right hip and motors for 12 yards, until the free safety makes a touchdown-saving ankle tackle.

In the matchup duels, Moore played a winning hand. He lured the Chargers into heavier boxes at the beginning of the game, and quickly went to the air when those stacked boxes hemmed in Elliott. When Dallas showed the ability to beat the Chargers from flex and flank formations through the air, as they had the Bucs, Los Angeles backed off and kept its safeties deeper. At this point, Moore used his same balanced personnel to push the Chargers into lighter and lighter looks, six man and then five man boxes, and then rolled them on the ground.

(AP Photo/Ashley Landis )

Dallas ended the series in fitting fashion. One 1st and goal it overloaded its right side with two TEs and hammered Elliott behind them for the Cowboys' second touchdown. At this point, Moore is keeping it simple for his players, and difficult for his opposing OCs to counter. He can keep the same set of players in the game, and throw when the box is heavy and run when the box is light. What's next against the Philadelphia Eagles? Only Kellen Moore knows.

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