In 2016, the Dallas Cowboys finished the season with a record of 13-3 but lost in the Divisional Round to the Green Bay Packers. It was a surprising season for the Dallas Cowboys for many reasons. After the loss of quarterback Tony Romo in the preseason due to injury, the Cowboys had no choice but to start the season with their rookie fourth round pick, Dak Prescott.
The offense was a big reason for the 13-3 season record, averaging 26.3 points per game, which was good for 5th best in the league. A lot of us know some of the reasons why they were successful, such as their sensational rookie duo of Prescott and running back Ezekiel Elliott. Prescott had one of the best rookie quarterback seasons in NFL history and Elliott totalled 1631 rushing yards, which led the NFL. Both rookies broke many records during the 2016 campaign.
The offensive line also had a big part to play. The talented group helped pave the way to Elliot’s 1631 yards and keep the pocket clean for Dak Prescott. The offense was unstoppable at times with the dominance of the rushing attack. Defenses they faced with the “#1 rushing defense” title were simply swept away.
With Prescott and Elliott set to take the field together all year in 2018, barring any injuries, it’s a good time to look deeper into the reasons why the 2016 season was a successful one for the Cowboys’ offense. Cowboys fans should hope to see some of these concepts again in the upcoming season.
The Passing Game
The Cowboys did a very good job of getting players open for Dak Prescott. Tight end Jason Witten and wide receiver Cole Beasley were his favorite targets, they were open often and reliable. They were also responsible for being excellent 3rd down or short yardage targets to move the chains.
Below, is an example of how they were used with the Drive Concept.
With this concept, Prescott gets a high-low option from the dig route and drive route. His choice will be dependent on which route the underneath defenders choose to cover. Here is an example of a 3rd & 3 situation against the Cleveland Browns where Witten is able to convert a first down.
Another way of getting Beasley and Witten open was the use of the Sail Concept. This is a three-level read but in the play below, Prescott is still presented a high-low option with the out and pivot routes.
Another common concept that pops up on film is the use of Y Stick Concept:
Given that Jason Witten was their tight end, Y Stick gives them a very reliable concept because they could consistently trust the veteran to make the right read and get open. His routes were run well and he always used his body to shield away from defenders. A major storyline of the 2018 season will be how the Cowboys can replace at least some of what Witten brought to the tight end position, in both the run and pass game.
Not exactly a first down in this play against the Eagles but in general this concept was quite successful in short yardage situations. In this concept, the tight end could run a stick or continue to run an out route, all based on the defender’s leverage and positioning:
Short Yardage Situations
The Cowboys 2016 offense were difficult to stop from scoring due to their efficiency of getting a first down and being able to score at the goal line. The offensive line dominated the line of scrimmage. Running back Ezekiel Elliott also had the power to drive through the middle and the speed to bounce to the outside.
It wasn’t always simply running the ball though; they also managed to find other ways to convert on short yardage situations, which often involved their tight ends. Below is a 4th & 1 situation against Washington. The Cowboys show a zone run to the left but Prescott is going to pass the ball.
Tight end Gavin Escobar (#89) is going to chip block and then run a wheel route. The other tight end, Geoff Swaim (#87), is lined up as the split zone blocker. Rather than block, though, he is going to make himself available to catch the pass.
Below is another similar play against the Browns where it looks like they are going to run the ball on the goal line but use their tight ends to complete a passing play.
Tight end Jason Witten (#82) is going to run behind the defense, but the left guard pulling to the play side also catches the attention of the defense. This is giving a strong indication that the ball is going to be handed off to Ezekiel Elliott. What they don’t expect is tight end Gavin Escobar #89 to peel away from his block and become wide open. Here is the play:
Athleticism of the Offensive Line
The Cowboys’ offensive line are well known for their talent and dominance in the NFL, but one thing that really does stand out is their athleticism. This gives the team the option to run a variety of plays with success. When it comes to running the ball, they don’t have to stick to the one scheme, they often run zone but also can run via a gap or man blocking scheme.
Below is an example of them blocking in a gap scheme. The wide receivers are going to block and pin their man inside while both center Travis Frederick and left tackle Tyron Smith are going to pull and block on the edge.
Second level help is also provided from tight end Jason Witten and right tackle Doug Free. Here it is in action:
One of my favourite designed plays is a screen pass by the Cowboys, which is probably very well known to fans across the league. It may be just a screen but I love the movement from the interior offensive line. This is how it looks against the Pittsburgh Steelers:
The end around from the wide receiver keeps the defense guessing with the offensive line blocking for a zone run. The newly acquired Tavon Austin running that end around in 2018 should provide defenses plenty to think about. Once the interior of the offensive line make their initial down blocks, they move into the second level and become a wall for Ezekiel Elliott. The play was more than successful:
Dak Prescott’s Legs
Dak Prescott showed in 2016 that he was more than just a passer, as he was able to get yardage and scores by running with the ball. This could have been from designed plays or his ability to improvise.
Below is a play the Cowboys ran in the redzone on the 7-yard line against the Philadelphia Eagles:
Prescott fakes the hand off to Ezekiel Elliott to the right with the offensive line zone blocking to that side. But, Prescott then runs to his left with tight end Jason Witten as his lead blocker. Here it is:
Another way Dak Prescott used his legs was in this play against the Detroit Lions:
The defense have to prepare for a possible screen pass or a hand off to the running back. What they don’t expect is Prescott to keep the ball and run. Again, tight end Jason Witten is the lead blocker:
The Gadget Guy
A weapon that helped make the Cowboys offense so dangerous was their wide receiver Lucky Whitehead. His ability to attack east-west helped make the designed plays below possible. Here is a play where they look to give him the ball against the Green Bay Packers:
Again, the movement from the offensive line all blocking to the right side keeps the defense respecting the run game. This leaves a lot of space for Whitehead to attack with lead blocks from the tight ends. As before, this play aided a successful conversion on third down:
With the step back they took last year, the Cowboys should engage in some self scouting to see what made their offense click in 2016. Taking the concepts above, while adapting them to some new personnel, should help return the 2018 Cowboys offense to form.