Kellen Moore’s Simplified Confusion: Formations, Motion, and Numbers

“He’s got a beautiful mind.” That’s what former NFL QB and first-year QB coach Jon Kitna said about new Dallas Cowboys offensive coordinator Kellen Moore.

The decision to promote Moore from QB coach to offensive coordinator had people outside of the organization scratching their heads at first. Moore has just one year of coaching experience and is only two years removed from backing up Dak Prescott. But the Cowboys’ new offensive coordinator has garnered a lot of support inside the team’s building since being promoted.

Prescott had this to say about Moore on 105.3 FM The Fan, “He’s honestly one of these young genius phenoms in the game. He’s special. He knows a lot about the game, just the way he sees the game, the way he’s ahead of the game. He can bring a lot to us, a lot of creativity.”

There been many similar comments from Cowboys players and staff about not only Moore’s football acumen, but also his ability to lead, organize, and communicate. These skills will lead to making a successful game plan actionable.

To be successful, Moore will have to focus on cleaning up play sequencing, creativity, and red zone effectiveness in 2019.

Back to Boise

I studied Moore’s interviews this off-season, his pre-draft meeting at Jon Gruden’s QB Camp in 2012, and the system he played in at Boise State to piece together an idea of how the Cowboys offense may look this season.

Our whole goal from an outside perspective is to make it look as confusing as possible. And at the end of the day it’s pretty simple for us. It’s a lot of the same concepts, it’s a lot of ways of doing the same things.

Moore describing the Boise State offense

Moore possessed a high command of Chris Petersen’s offense that featured an array of formations, shifts, and motions.

Presenting multiple looks to the defense is going to be apart of Moore’s philosophy next season according to what he’s expressed during rookie minicamp.

We have guys that can kind of line up in a lot of different places. Hopefully we can be multiple and present things in different ways, and at the end of the day still have our foundation and our philosophy. You can run similar plays, just out of a lot of different looks.

Moore during rookie minicamp

Moore plans on using the full range of versatility that his personnel possesses to the best of their abilities. Having scheme-transcendent players like Amari Cooper and Ezekiel Elliott should make play calling easier for Moore, as they shined in spite of Scott Linehan’s stale system. And Moore can get creative with versatile players like Randall Cobb, Tavon Austin, and rookie Tony Pollard, manipulating their alignments and role within the offense.

Motion for Success

One way Moore can be creative is through the use of pre-snap motion. Dallas used pre-snap motion on 31% of their offensive plays in 2018 per Sports Info Solutions. That figure ranked 24th in the NFL and below the NFL average of 36.6%. But despite not using pre-snap motion all that much relative to the league, the Cowboys had a lot of success when using it.

A play the Cowboys routinely called the last few seasons was their Jet Sweep Screen. Prescott would signal to motion either the slot or outside receiver from the play side across the formation prior to the snap. In this example it’s Cole Beasley motioning from the outside. The cornerback follows Beasley across the field, signaling Detroit is playing man coverage.

Prescott calls for the snap and fakes the hand off to the receiver in motion. This causes the linebackers to react and move with the flow of the fake. But as the middle and strong-side linebackers recognize Prescott keeps the ball, their attention is focused on Beasley on the left side of the field—three defenders accounting for one receiver. By this point the Cowboys’ offensive line is out in space and has created a positive three-on-one advantage against the weakside linebacker.

With a blockers in front, Elliott has plenty of real estate to accelerate and score.

Much like the Cowboys on this particular play, part of the Boise State philosophy was to outnumber the defense and create pre-snap leverage. Motion was one of their most-used tactics to outnumber and confuse a defense without giving them much time to adjust, especially paired with an uptempo offense. Motion also allowed the QB to make easier reads based on the defense’s pre-snap reactions to the movement.

The shifts and motions are very specific to each play. There’s a purpose to why we’re doing it. We’re not just shifting and motioning and running people all across the field just for the heck of it. There’s a reason. We’re trying to get an advantage. We’re trying to outnumber them. We’re trying to see a coverage or something.

Moore explaining Boise State’s use of motion to Gruden

Quad Attack

Boise State would often use overloaded formations—lining up with three receivers to one side of the field and motioning their back to the strong side to create a Quads formation. The idea behind playing in a 4×1 set is to force the defense to overcompensate for the four receivers or end up leaving an area of the field vacant.

On this play Moore motions the RB out wide. The defense reacts by shifting towards the four receiver side of the field. This signals to Moore that he can throw the slant to the backside receiver because a lack of safety help.

And that’s exactly what happens on the play. Moore identifies the defense overcompensating pre-snap and makes the quick decision to throw the slant once he receives the ball.

Boise State called the exact play again later in that drive. Moore motions his RB out wide to the strong side of the formation. But this time the safety over the top is in a good position to make the play on the slant should Moore decide to bang it.

Instead of throwing the slant, Moore quickly confirms his backside receiver’s lack of leverage and goes through his progressions to the Quads side of the formation. The defense leaves the tight end unaccounted for in the middle of the field, resulting in a touchdown prior to the half.

Play Action Progress

Another way Moore can improve the efficiency of the Cowboys offense is through play action. Dallas used play action on 24.2% of dropbacks in 2016, the 4th-highest rate in the NFL at the time according to Pro Football Focus. But as the league caught onto the benefits of play action, the Cowboys’ play action usage plateaued.

Linehan initially eased Prescott into the NFL game by calling play action rollouts to allow his rookie QB to make easier throws. During the 2016 preseason Linehan called a play action rollout against the Dolphins’ loaded box and Prescott was able to complete an easy pass to Geoff Swaim for a good gain.

(Play Action Rollout example

Through his three-year career, Prescott has been more effective using play action than when not. Per Pro Football Focus, Prescott has completed 68.2% of his passes with a 111.6 passer rating using play action in comparison to completing 62.6% of his passes with a 87.2 passer rating on regular dropbacks. The good news for Prescott is that Petersen’s Boise State offense had a lot of play action designed in it. Including rollouts, boots, and waggles like he performed during his rookie season.

The Broncos used play action from any yardmarker on the field, but they also used it as a consistent way to score in the red zone.

Keep an eye on the slot receiver on this play. It appears that he’ll be bracketed with two defenders in coverage prior to the snap. But the play action fake causes the inside defensive back to bite, thinking he has to play the run. This allows the slot receiver to gain inside leverage on the slant route against a the safety, resulting in a score.

A heavy dose of play action could solve the Cowboys red zone ineffectiveness in 2019. Dallas ranked 26th in Red Zone Efficiency in 2018, scoring a TD on 51.8% of their red zone trips.

QB Keepers

Moore can also address the Cowboys’ red zone woes through more designed QB runs for Prescott. Prescott is effective at rushing the ball and has displayed an ability to be a difference maker as a runner in the red zone.

Allowing Prescott to be more involved in the running game near the goal line can open up more of the offense. Prescott excels on read options and RPOs—plays that Linehan has called in the red zone, but didn’t call nearly enough.

Meanwhile at Boise State, Moore was sometimes substituted near the red zone for a more mobile player who could run the Wildcat or threaten a defense with the read option. Petersen still makes similar calls now at Washington. Washington used the Wildcat formation multiple times near the goal line against UCLA in 2018. The play led to two Myles Gaskin touchdowns.

With Prescott, the Cowboys won’t need to substitute their QB for a more athletic runner. That added element of unpredictability makes the idea of calling such plays that much more appealing. Putting defenders in conflict horizontally in the red zone to maximize space is an important part of figuring out ways to put the ball in the painted area.

The Cowboys’ offensive system will not be identical to Boise State’s or Washington’s with Moore as the offensive coordinator, but I do expect a lot of their core principles to be incorporated into the game plan. Different formations, motion, play action, reduced WR splits, and fewer mirrored concepts will keep the defense off-balance and guessing. The offense will still go through Ezekiel Elliott and Amari Cooper, but it won’t be as forced as it was in 2018.

As Gruden said to end his QB Camp with Kellen Moore, “Moore’s going to have a great future in football. And if football doesn’t work out behind the center, he’s going to be one heck of a football coach.”

One thought on “Kellen Moore’s Simplified Confusion: Formations, Motion, and Numbers

  1. Well I’m sorry I missed this back when you put it up. Very good analyst of what Kellen would bring and it has aged very well as we enter week 4 Dallas Offense is all butt unstoppable.

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