The Cowboys didn’t know what to expect from their tight ends entering the 2023 season. When they let their three-year starter, Dalton Schultz, leave in free agency, they opened themselves up to a variety of unproven options and unknown outcomes.
Jake Ferguson, a 2022 rookie standout, and Peyton Hendershot, a surprise UDFA contributor, would be expected to pick up the slack. But as second-year players, how much and in what capacity wasn’t clear.
Joining the fray was their second-round pick, Luke Schoonmaker, who entered training camp injured and began Week 1 as TE3 in the pecking order.
As Week 1 unfolded, the three young TEs combined for 86 snaps and three recorded drops. The latter number is likely what stands out in the minds of many since the drops occurred at critical times that, in a closer game, could have been tide-turning.
Yet, lost in the fallout of the drops is the effectiveness of their blocking and general efficiency of their 12 personnel package.
All hail, 2TE packages
12 personnel, which features two TEs, one RB and two WRs, is not a package a team rolls out when they have suspect players at the TE position. That’s especially true when their WR runs as deep as the room in Dallas does.
Yet, per data available through nflverse, the Cowboys played 12 personnel 10 times on Sunday and ran successful plays on eight of those plays (one was a penalty in their favor).
Despite far too many drops from the TE position group, the Cowboys were highly efficient in 12 personnel. Their EPA led all personnel groups (w/>1snap) and they rocked an 80% SR. pic.twitter.com/r70jeLSnTB
— Reid D Hanson (@ReidDHanson) September 13, 2023
That 80% success rate was far better than their average on the day (46.6 percent) and with an average EPA of 0.48, it arguably served as their most successful personnel package in this young season.
What didn’t work
Unsuccessful plays are plays in which a negative EPA is earned. In other words, the play hurt the offense’s scoring chances on the drive, rather than helped their scoring chances.
The first play that failed, occurred with 14:50 left in the second quarter and was an attempted pass to Ferguson on 1st-and-10. The potential big play was an incomplete pass out of bounds and resulted in a -0.494 EPA.
The only other unsuccessful play from 12 personnel happened in the fourth quarter on a 1st-and-goal run from the nine. The play resulted in just a two-yard gain for Tony Pollard and cost the Cowboys -0.222 EPA
Most of the Cowboys rushing success in 12 personnel happened when the Giants were showing a 2-4-5 defense. Against two down linemen, the Cowboys were successful all three times, regardless of how many players New York moved into the box.
To compare, the Cowboys one failed run went up against a New York 3-4-4 in the red zone.
There were some noteworthy takeaways from the Cowboys passing attempts out of 12 personnel, as well. The Cowboys completed two passes out of their 2TE sets and on both occasions, it was against eight-man boxes.
The Giants either showed a 4-3-4 or a 3-3-5 defense on these pass attempts, indicting when more down linemen showed up, Dallas went aerial, and when less down linemen showed up, Dallas stayed on the ground.
12 personnel takeaways
With a sample size so small, it’s dangerous to read into this too much. Historically, the Cowboys have been very run-heavy out of 12 personnel and have appeared to give little mind to the number of defenders in the box. On Sunday night in New Jersey, that didn’t seem to be the case anymore.
The Cowboys’ only two unsuccessful plays occurred when they deviated from this plan and played into the strength of what the defense was showing.
By most accounts, 12 personnel was Dallas’ top personnel package in Week 1. Despite the young and unproven room of TEs, the Cowboys were extremely productive operating out of their 2TE packages and it didn’t seem to matter whether it was on the ground or through the air.
What mattered is which method of attack they called against the specific defensive package they were facing.
The Cowboys deployment of their 12 personnel will surely be an item to monitor throughout the season. Brian Schottenheimer admitted to holding back in Week 1 because the game got out of hand in a hurry.
Did Dallas stumble into good things with their TE usage, was this all a mirage, or is it a sign of more good things to come?