We have been writing these offensive summaries on Tuesday mornings since the 2008 season. The study has certainly evolved over the years, but when it started, the sole purpose was to try to figure out a little more about what is going on based on what the screen is telling us. We know the announcers are not treating the game like a teaching clinic because most of the audience is not interested in the Xs and Os and deep layers of football. We know that following the ball is how most people watch the game, and that seems to satisfy the majority of the audience. Great.
But the reason I started attempting to unlock layers of the NFL game was that I wasn't satisfied with the simplistic explanations we often get. I don't appreciate the catch-all phrases like "halftime adjustments" or "throw it deep," or even "call the touchdown play." I wanted to try to understand the game in terms of what each team is trying to do to the other and actually turn it into the mental chess game as it actually appears to the participants and coaches.
I do confess, however, that I assume the readers of this series have been with me for 10 seasons, too. And I am wrong. The point of this exercise should be to bring those along who are joining in along the way. I shouldn't assume that personnel grouping concepts are obvious to all involved, so at the risk of some reading this for the 10th time, allow me to review one of the most important concepts of enjoying football at a deeper level:
Offenses are attempting to gain advantages by showing defenses something, and then doing something different. Just like in baseball, in the showdown between a pitcher and a batter, deception is a massive way to overcome your opponent.
In football, we do that with formations and personnel groupings. I highly recommend you learn personnel groupings so they become second nature as you watch a team line up. Formations are important, too, but in my opinion, lesser so. Formations affect the 11 men on the field. Personnel groupings generally affect the entire opposing sideline.
Between every play, as you look at your phone or say something to your buddy, the teams are running guys on or off the field. The offense goes first and the defense studies its moves to counter with its own. That is why we track personnel groupings so carefully each week. We want to see what the offensive coordinator is trying, and in what situations he is trying it. The defense wants to know, too, so it puts the proper personnel out there to counter. To review, six players never change on the offense. The five offensive linemen and the quarterback. The other five players rotate quite a bit. Most every team passes with "11" personnel -- one running back, one tight end and three wide receivers -- so that would be their two-minute and third-down offense. Across the league, this is pretty uniform. Defenses see this and will bring on 5-6 defensive backs to defend it. Short yardage on the goal line is often "23" personnel -- two running backs and three tight ends. This screams run, so a defense will go get its big group to defend. Those are the two ends of the spectrum and there are a number of options in-between that try to tell the world either: we are definitely running, we are likely to run, we might run here, we are probably passing, or we are definitely passing.
And that is where deception gets involved. You tell the opponent one thing, and then you do something completely different.
The Cowboys have been finding success with this by using "13" personnel -- one running back, three tight ends and one wide receiver -- which is something they have historically run out of about 75-80 percent of the time, in addition to "22" personnel -- two running backs, two tight ends and one wide receiver -- and throwing passes when they think the defense has sucked too far up. When you want to see adjustments that have come to the front in the past few games during this win streak, I would say this one quickly comes to mind. First and 10, pound the rock, use play-action and see openings in the secondary with only one wide receiver in the game.
This is an example in the first quarter of showing personnel. This is 22 personnel. The Cowboys show run, then they right into the teeth of the Raiders and gash them. Alfred Morris does a great job of waiting on his cutback and completely fools Marquel Lee (No. 55) in the hole, then ends up with a 16-yard gain. This is what power football feels like when it is coming right at you.
So, here is the next play.
You are the linebacker. You tell me if this is a run or pass at first. You are looking at all of the same keys as the last snap. You see the personnel grouping -- 12 personnel this time. You are thinking, "This is now first and 10 and they just had success on the ground. We better get ready because they have seven run blockers up front." And that is when Dak Prescott can hit you with the play-action pass to a tight end who did not stay to block, but rather got behind your linebackers into a space where he is wide open.
Watch Lee (No. 55) on that video and see how he is sure it is a run again. And that is how you use deception to cross them up. You can't use it on third down because they aren't stupid. They know you have to pass it there or your drive is over. That is why deception on first down is how this game is generally won or lost.
Now let's see why the pass is so much easier from the other angle. If you pass in "run" situations, you accomplish the major goal of getting all the defenders shallow. This allows you to pass into lightly populated secondaries, where you are not outnumbered. You have three guys running vertically and they have three defenders back in a Cover 3. On third down, you often have three against seven. But on first down and in play-action, it can be three against three. When that happens, there are all sorts of route combinations that will easily free a man up. This time, you have Jason Witten running behind a vertical from Terrance Williams that clears out the corner on that side. Now, unless the shallow linebackers get a deep drop, the tight end is going to have the corner to himself. Witten does. Eighteen yards. As easy as you like.
Here is a moment a little later that fed off that same "run tendency" and a similar route combination to open up a similar opening in the Oakland secondary on yet another first-and-10.
This time it is 13 personnel and it is James Hanna leaking out -- just like he did against the Giants.
Again, watch that run fake. Watch the Oakland linebackers. See the window open because of the vertical wide receiver clearing out the corner on that side. And see Prescott hit that window. Passing is so much easier when they think you are going to run. Football 101.
WEEKLY DATA BOX
Here we see the numbers from Sunday night. The offense needed to put up some numbers to win this thriller and it did just enough. The Cowboys really needed a touchdown on that final drive and should have done better at the goal line. They also had a really rough night on third down, but I would remind folks that this is a very good third-down team this season, ranking fifth in the entire league. They don't go 20 percent very often. In a league where the average is 38.9 percent, the Cowboys -- through all the adversity -- still sit at 43.4 percent, which trails only the Falcons, Eagles, Vikings and Steelers. Everyone else looks up at the Cowboys on the money down.
DAK PRESCOTT THROW CHART
Seldom do we see a day when there are 12 passes beyond 10 yards and six beyond 20 yards. The Cowboys saw some downfield opportunities and wanted to force the Raiders to defend them vertically. It caught me a bit off guard, given their reputation lately. It wasn't easy, but Prescott and the targets hooked up for some big moments. There were a few others left out there, too.
As you can see, when you are in "run" groupings, you still are running most of the time. That is the concept of deception again. You must convince the opponent you are doing one thing in order for the ambushes to work. But right now, you can see the Cowboys are most successful with multiple-tight end packages. This is when they give their passing game the best chance to work. The trouble is, that means Cole Beasley isn't even on the field, since he is almost exclusively an 11 personnel weapon. This explains his statistical falloff this year a bit, although in the interest of time, I won't elaborate too much on that right now.
Let's look at some more tape:
If first down is easy pickings for a quarterback, then third and long is just the opposite. The defense is ready for your passing concepts and wants to disguise its coverages to fool a quarterback/wide receiver. This time, it sure looks like there is confusion as Prescott wants Dez Bryant on the slant. The pass is too high and it looks like Bryant sees a zone (he is right) and that there is no chance on that ball. His effort looks bad here and he could have helped his quarterback save an interception, but he likely knows that the slant is against man coverage and this is a zone, so it should be more of a hook into the soft spot. Either way, it is not a great decision by the quarterback and the drive ends.
Bryant does look guilty of self-preservation, which never plays well, but if I were to guess on this one, I think he is correct in not expecting that throw. You can see how quarterback and wide receiver need to be on the same page.
This is Tyron Smith being defeated on a first-down pass-protection bid against Khalil Mack. Mack is very strong, but I think you will agree that this was our first indication that Smith is playing hurt. Remember that play, because it impacts several others later.
Because of the sack, the Cowboys face a third-and-12 that they actually hit on. Tight window to hit Witten at the sticks, but Prescott makes a nice throw. Look at how many Raiders are sitting on these routes, though. It is impossible to make a living on third and long in this league.
Third quarter, third and 9 -- this is when the game got really interesting. I don't think this play was going to get 9 yards, but it really went wrong when Prescott's arm gets hit and Sean Smith ends up with an interception. Beasley gets a touch on him, or it could have been a pick-six. But this is the type of play that loses games and ends seasons. Let's check the protection:
Watch Bruce Irvin fake a stunt on Tyron Smith, who can't even move. He tries, but Irvin is too fast and gets to Prescott's arm, turning the ball into a free interception. Pass protection is a huge part of third-down success and the left tackle spot was not right.
Here is the very next drive. I believe this is Tyron Smith's last play. Prescott wants Beasley deep but is again hit as he throws because Smith has no chance against Irvin. Smith is one of the best in the business, but the Cowboys properly saw that he can't do it right now and had to take him out after this moment.
The very next play was the fake punt. Then, a few moments later, down near the goal line, Prescott figures out a way into the end zone against a zone. What a great, elusive run from the quarterback to see his best chance was with his legs.
And, finally, a chance to win the game on this throw. If you don't like the Cowboys in "Empty," you won't like this play. But if you do like crucial 40-yard gains to set up the winning score, maybe you will make an exception. Good throw, and, of course, a chance for Bryant to show you what he is great at -- winning battles for the ball in the air down the sideline or in the end zone when the corner has no help.
Sunday night was a very fine road win with plenty of talking points.