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Film Files: Dallas Cowboys Finding Success With Creative Shifts And Motions

Film Files: Dallas Cowboys finding success with creative shifts and motions

By: Brad Kelly (@BradKelly17)

Editor’s note: Brad Kelly is PFM’s newest contributor and our resident NFL Xs and Os and NFL draft expert. 

Dallas Cowboys offensive coordinator Kellen Moore may be in his first season as a play-caller, but the 31 year-old former quarterback is having an excellent debut season. Through 10 games, the Cowboys have posted 286 points, good for fourth most in the NFL. Quarterback Dak Prescott is having a career year, leading the NFL in passing yards. Moore’s offensive structure has been a revelation in Dallas, and a notable contrast to that of former offensive coordinator Scott Linehan. The main tendencies of Moore’s offense have been pre-snap movements and play-action passes.

Moore was once the quarterback at Boise State, where he accumulated a career record of 50-3. Those old Boise offenses under head coach Chris Petersen were known for a bunch of pre-snap shifts and motions, even dedicating practice periods to just pre-snap movements. 

Moore has added that into the Dallas Cowboys offense this season as a way to create a numbers advantage and easily diagnose the defensive coverages. This has created some easy throws for quarterback Dak Prescott, as he’s become a master at the line of scrimmage. 

Looking at the Dallas Cowboys game film, I’ve outlined five instances throughout the season where their pre-snap shifts and motions have caused problems for opposing defenses, resulting in easy chunk yardage for the offense. 

On this rep,  Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Randall Cobb motions across the formation into a “trips closed” formation (three receivers to one side with a tight end to the opposite side), and isn’t followed by any Lions defender. This indicates to quarterback Dak Prescott that the Lions will be playing zone coverage against the pass, and Cobb re-sets his stance just outside of the outside linebacker. Prescott checks the play to a play-action rollout pass, one where Cobb helps seal the linebacker inside and the center, Travis Frederick, pulls out in front of Prescott. 

With the inside linebackers flowing towards the play-action, Prescott is left with two defensive backs covering the Cowboys “smash” route combination, designed to stretch the cornerback with options both behind and in front of him. With Prescott in rhythm and shortening the throw because of the rollout, he’s able to fire the ball to receiver Michael Gallup before the flat defender can expand to him. The pre-snap motion by Cobb was used to diagnose the defensive coverage, and the subsequent play attacked the cornerback with two receivers and no pass rush to disrupt Prescott’s throw.

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Once again, in the Cowboys most recent game against the Lions, offensive coordinator Kellen Moore used Randall Cobb’s pre-snap motion as a coverage indicator. This time, a Lions defensive back followed Cobb across the center and back to his original alignment, indicating to quarterback Dak Prescott that the defense was playing man coverage. With this knowledge, Prescott checks to a “mesh” concept, with underneath crossers designed to disrupt man coverage. Tight end Jason Witten, aligned as a solo receiver to the right side, crosses underneath Randall Cobb, slowing down the defensive back enough to give Prescott an easy throwing window to hit Witten in stride. With receivers Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup both running deep in-cuts, there is plenty of space for Witten to run after the catch.

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In the Cowboys recent game against the Minnesota Vikings, they used a two tight-end shift to gain a numbers advantage to their right side. Before the snap, both Jason Witten and Blake Jarwin set up on the left side of the offense, only to shift to the right. This put the Vikings defense in a bind, as they weren’t gap sound to that side (there was one extra potential blocker than defender). With two safeties on the field, while facing a 12 personnel set (1 running back, 2 tight ends), Vikings free safety Harrison Smith rotated down to “sure up” their gap integrity.

With the safety rotation, Dallas now had man coverage with both of their wide receivers, which spells danger for the defense. The Cowboys ran another play-action pass, further holding the linebackers and Smith in the middle of the field. With a max protection (8-man) called, Dak Prescott was afforded time in the pocket, enough for Amari Cooper to complete a double move along the boundary that made the defensive back stumble. This play was a great example of how shifting players can disrupt a defensive structure, and force second and third level defenders out of position in order to stay sound or balanced.

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Throughout the season, one of Dallas’ best route concepts that they marry to play-action has been “flood.” The idea of the flood concept is to create three levels going towards the sideline, a vertical, an intermediate, and a short. With the amount of shifts and motions in the Dallas Cowboys offense, as well as variance in their formations, they’ve shown a bunch of different ways to run the flood concept.

Against the New York Giants, one of those ways came with Jason Witten trading sides to line up as tight end on the left side. When Witten traded sides, the safety that is tasked with covering him in man coverage changed sides along with him, due to having a run responsibility. 

On the snap, the offensive line and Witten appear to be blocking outside zone, forcing the safety that is covering Witten in man coverage to scrape towards the run because of the vacant “B” gap inside of Witten. This gives the veteran tight end a wide-open flat route to run towards, with no coverage even close to him.

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On this final play, Dallas uses an intricate shift that confuses the Giants defense and causes a lot of pre-snap movement. Eventually, Dallas aligns in a stacked wide receiver alignment with fly motion towards the quarterback. That motion causes the safety and linebacker to that side to shift out, in case the Cowboys were running a “jet” sweep. Right tackle La’El Collins was never threatened by a rusher on the play, due to right guard Zack Martin’s reach block. This gave the Cowboys an extra blocker to the right side in front of an Ezekiel Elliott screen pass, with Collins eventually working all the way up to the safety. The pre-snap shifts and motions on this play allowed for an extra blocker to that side due to how the second and third-level players reacted to the threat of a jet sweep.

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Offensive coordinator Kellen Moore and quarterback Dak Prescott will have their hands full this Sunday when they travel to Foxboro to take on the number one defense in the NFL in the New England Patriots. However, with the way that the offense has been firing on all cylinders lately, it’s hard to imagine them ever getting completely shut down. If Dallas is to have success on Sunday, they’ll need to manufacture some chunk gains using their pre-snap looks, which have become difficult to defend for each and every opponent they’ve faced to this point.

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