I say "over the years" as more of a look at the Jason Garrett playbook (2007-2011) rather than looking at last season in particular. Last season was a huge transitional year for the interior of the offensive line, as they changed the players in each spot from Left Guard all the way to Right Tackle. That type of change does not promote a whole lot of continuity, and now they are going to try to change both guards and perhaps even the center for 2012 - but they have the benefit of 2 things that 2011 did not allow: 1) a full offseason for installation and 2) new lineman who are NFL veterans and capable of doing the job.
In 2011, many of the things that the Cowboys held dear was scrapped as they tried to figure out how to utilize a lineup that was counter-intuitive to what Hudson Houck and Jason Garrett have always seemed to believe in. For instance, Houck had been known throughout his career as the left to Alex Gibbs' right. Where Gibbs loved smaller lineman and zone blocking concepts, Houck loved gigantic earth moving lineman and the man blocking schemes that went with it.
That is why as we explain this concept, we are also admitting that this play was not the bread-and-butter play in 2011 that it has been in the past. Not to make this all about Phil Costa and Bill Nagy again, but it does seem that once the Cowboys decided to gut their old guard on the Offensive Line in late July and attempt to move forward with a new left guard and center that were both inexperienced and undersized, they tried to install way more zone runs than ever before and almost come over to Gibbs' side of thinking about how best to open holes for your running back. The truth is that the NFL has evolved to where there are no man-blocking or zone-blocking teams anymore, it seems. Just about everyone runs both to some extent if you break down their calls over several weeks. Some weeks they will run a ton of zone plays, other weeks they will not run hardly any. That was true for the Cowboys in 2011.
But, in 2009 (the best days of the Cowboys running scheme in the Garrett era) the "G Power" was dominant at times, rolling downhill for over 150 yards in a game on 6 different occasions. The other 4 years combined of Garrett, the running game had just 13 other 150 yard games (3 in 2007, 3 in 2008, 3 in 2010, and 4 in 2011).
But, 2011 had 4 games of over 150 rushing yards. Did the transition to the zone runs work? Well, yes and no. They did start ground domination in October when the Rams allowed the highest rushing day (294 yards) for Dallas since 1982. They also ran over Buffalo, Seattle, and Tampa Bay for 150+ yard days. The caliber of those 4 defenses should be called into question - as they may have been the 4 weakest defenses on the schedule - but, ground success did emerge. But, it was with the emergence of 3 players who were not in the mix when camp broke in San Antonio: DeMarco Murray was now the lead back, Tony Fiammetta was now fullback (the Cowboys did not even have a fullback dressed for much of their first 5 games), and Montrae Holland was called off his couch to replace Bill Nagy who broke his leg in New England. We will never know the answer, but I often wonder how long they would have stuck with Nagy-Costa in the middle if the injury didn't happen, because it was incredibly difficult to run the ball when those two were starting next to each other.
Anyway, let's get to the email from Shawn:
I'm a huge fan of our Dallas Cowboys offensive playcalling analysis. I got into a discussion with some friends about the Cowboys running game and was trying to explain how they use their pulling guards (especially how it relates to Nate Livings). Because football is easier seen than spoken about I wanted to show them some video of the Cowboys' standard run plays. Unfortunately, when I went back to the archives it seems like the videos of the 2009 season have been taken down:
Do you know if there's any of the footage still up that shows how the Cowboys use pulling guards, especially the power play where the fullback and back-side guard lead the RB to the tackle/guard hole?
Shawn caused me to dip into the archives to one of my favorite Cowboys' performances of the last several years, their OT win in Kansas City that is best known for Miles Austin breaking out for 250 yards and becoming a very rich man shortly thereafter.
In that game, we saw a great example twice of what the Cowboys love to call - "G Power". It is a power play that utilizes a pulling guard and a lead blocker (usually a fullback) to attempt to dominate physically and to win blocks with raw power and strength in numbers.
Take a look at the video and then we will describe what we are seeing:
Here is the play, run to the left, on the chalkboard. In the first play above, you can see Leonard Davis pulling from his spot at right guard and opening a nice hole for Tashard Choice. In the second play, it was then left guard Kyle Kosier running the exact same play to the other side for Marion Barber. Both require strong timing and a good handle on assignments for all involved. Check out the diagram.
The Cowboys run the play to the strong side with the tight end, but in both of these plays they are in 22 personnel, which has 2 tight ends and 2 running backs (a full back in front of the tail back). On both plays, two tight ends were lined up off tackle and the idea is to cave in the line diagonally back towards center. On the play to the left, Jason Witten and Martellus Bennett slant the blocks inside to the middle of the field, and it is their job to try to get all the way to the inside linebackers. So, left guard and left tackle slant right, center slants right, and this is the concept of the down block.
Sometimes you hear football coaches discuss the concept of "down, down, and around" when talking about G Power. This means the lineman on the play side are blocking down, and then the pulling guard handles the around part which works with the full back as lead blockers who must fill in the gaps that the down blocking left behind. Often, the defensive end that starts over left tackle would be unblocked, but the Cowboys account for him with the double tight ends. They out-flank him and then try to down block him into the middle of the field. Meanwhile, the full back gets the player closest to the outside - usually a linebacker or occasionally a corner in zone. And now, the G part of the G-Power, the big pulling guard who is looking for something to run over.
The tailback is now attempting to time his run to come right off the rear end of the guard. If the guard needs the block to the outside, the back cuts back inside and heads for daylight. If the defender cheats to the inside, then Davis or Kosier allow him to do that, and the back must now bounce the play to the outside. It is crucial that the guard stays on his feet and finds his man. We have seen this play fail plenty because the guard will come around the corner and miss his guy. This leads to an unblocked linebacker or safety in the backfield blowing up your ball carrier and everyone's shoulders slump. But, when it works, there is usually a big gainer that makes everyone want to run it again in the next huddle.
The play is run mostly to the right, but the Cowboys are quite comfortable flipping this play and running it back and forth based on whatever they feel is needed and which hashmark the ball is on. They also have plenty of counters that they will call if they see you cheating too many men to the strong side. Again, it takes strong and confident offensive linemen, but when it works it is perfect for ground and pounding to both kill the clock in a 4-minute drill and killing the morale of the defense.
But, you need competent guard play to make this work. So, when the Cowboys went and signed Nate Livings and Mackenzy Bernadeau, they hope they found two physical players who could pull in space and get them back to what they enjoyed doing. Bill Callahan will now work with their abilities and see if he can mold them to play their best football. A few days ago, I offered reviews of both players and was certainly pessimistic about Livings in particular being able to handle this. In the interest of fairness, I watched more of his action since then, in particular his game from Christmas Eve against the Arizona Cardinals, and feel a bit better about his performance. He blocked Calais Campbell all day without a whole lot of trouble and certainly was a film the Cowboys studied before they made their purchase. It was the best of the 5 games that I have looked at, and hope that he can be an improvement over what was at guard last season. Can he pull in space like Leonard Davis, circa 2009? That remains to be seen.
Anyway, that is a look at "G Power" - a staple of the Cowboys' playbook.