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Writer's Blocks: The Joy Of Play Action Passing


FRISCO, Texas – This got out of hand quickly, which is usually the case.

My goal for this week's column was to talk about some of the differences in this year's offense. Because man, there were a lot of them in the Week 1 win against the Giants. To do that, I sat down with NFL Gamepass and a spiral bound notebook and got to watching.

I have no idea what happened, but all of a sudden I've written 1,400 words about what I like about the Cowboys' offense. I was honestly planning on hitting a few other topics this week, but I think we've sufficiently covered DeMarcus Lawrence's autograph signing habits.

Let's do this tape dive, and y'all tell me what you think.

1. Alright, let's get into it, y'all – because it did so much whacky stuff against the Giants that I couldn't keep track of it all.

I couldn't keep track in real time, that is. Obviously, I was so intrigued by what I saw from Kellen Moore on Sunday that I wanted to go back and chart what it looked like.

I watched 52 offensive snaps from Week 1, all of them from before the Cowboys pulled their starters, and I charted personnel groupings and pre-snap motions.

This isn't exactly what I'd call "hard data," but it gives an idea of what Moore was going with during the Cowboys' stretch of five touchdowns in five possessions – and it was super fun.

Of the 52 snaps, the Cowboys ran 11 personnel 73 percent of the time, an impressive 38 snaps. That makes sense, given that 11 personnel – that is, three wide receivers, one tight end, one running back – is the league's grouping of choice. Not to mention, when you employ the trio of Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup and Randall Cobb, getting them all onto the field is a good idea.

Next-best was 12 personnel – or two tight ends. The Cowboys trotted that out on nine occasions. Most of the time that meant Jason Witten and Blake Jarwin, but Jarwin and Dalton Schultz took the field without Witten at least once.

That accounts for the bulk of the offense, but we did see three snaps of 21 personnel, with Ezekiel Elliott and Jamize Olawale taking the field together. We got one snap of empty, with five receivers and no back.

Perhaps most fun, we saw one snap of 22 personnel – two tight ends, two running backs.

2. Ok, but let's talk about the really fun stuff – pre-snap motion. We've been talking about it forever, and the Cowboys did not disappoint with the way they presented their playbook in Week 1.

According to Dak Prescott, Sunday saw the Cowboys run most of the same plays they've been running for years. The difference is that they had players moving everywhere to both confuse the Giants and to force them to reveal their coverages.

In charting these 52 snaps, I counted 36 instances where the offense moved somebody before the snap. That leaves just 16 remaining snaps of the plays I charted where everyone stayed put prior to the snap.

Sometimes the movement was as simple as motioning a receiver across the formation, sometimes it was utter insanity. On one snap in the first quarter, Elliott and Olawale motioned out of the backfield and out to wide receiver; Jarwin moved from tight end to the slot, while Witten motioned from the left side of the line to the right. To cap it off, Cooper moved from the boundary to the left slot, opposite of Jarwin.

If you're counting at home, that's five pre-snap movements on one play.

Four plays later, Cobb motioned from the slot to a stack formation behind Gallup, while Witten moved inside from the slot to the tight end spot. Cooper then moved from the boundary to the opposite slot. Finally, before the actual snap, Cobb left the stack and motioned through the backfield on a jet sweep play fake.

If that sounds confusing to read, imagine watching it unfold before the snap of the ball.

To Prescott's point, the Cowboys didn't even run any impressive plays after all this madness. On the first play I just described, Prescott threw incomplete to Cobb on a short out route. The second play was the 10-yard screen to Elliott in the first quarter.

These are staples of the offense, but they're a hell of a lot harder to defend when the defense isn't sure what's about to happen. And that's the whole point.

3. If you managed to get through my jumbled descriptions of the above plays, then this should go without saying – but it presents another fascinating element of this year's offense.

Everyone can play everywhere, and I mean that pretty literally.

Just in re-watching the game, I saw almost every skill player line up at two or three different positions, if not more. Just in Week 1, we saw Elliott and Olawale motion outside to wide receiver. We saw Witten play both sides of the line and both slots. We saw Jarwin line up at H-back. We saw Cobb move in and out of both slots.

Then, there's Amari Cooper – who just might be the coolest aspect of the whole thing. The guy literally went everywhere against the Giants. He was out on both boundaries, he moved inside to both slots. He motioned from one side of the field to the other effortlessly, and he rarely stayed in one spot.

If the best receiver on the team can play any position in the offense, it's going to spell trouble for defenses – and it did on Sunday. Cooper's 21-yard touchdown came outside on the numbers, where he was all alone against Deandre Baker. Just 20 minutes later, he raced down the slot, right past Antoine Bethea and picked up 45 yards.

Versatility and unpredictability. It's a fun combination.

4. You know what else is fun? When you utilize your strength in the running game to bolster your passing game.

It feels like we've talked for years about how much Dak Prescott and this offense could benefit from bonafide commitment to play action, and that was another exciting development we saw in Week 1.

Dak did DAMAGE, in all caps, off play action on Sunday. I went back and charted, and I counted 14 throws off play action.

How'd he do? How about 13-of-14 passing for 176 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions.

He doled it out beautifully, too. Of those 13 completions, he spread the ball out to Cooper, Elliott, Jarwin, Gallup, Witten, Cobb and Tavon Austin. As you know from watching the game, all three of his play action touchdown passes were wide open because the Giants' linebackers were so terrified of the run.

For a team that's going to lean on Elliott for the foreseeable future, that is music to my ears.

Prescott continues to grow and develop, and he certainly looked like a top-tier quarterback in the opener. Still, that doesn't mean every throw he makes has to be amazing. Use your personnel to your advantage and make life easier on your quarterback. Work smarter, not harder.

It's only one week, but that looks like the plan.

5. I don't want to discredit Dak, though. Kellen Moore drew up some easy throws for him, but he also dropped some dimes against the New York secondary.

His deep ball to Gallup down the left sideline for 32 yards was one of the prettiest throws of his entire career, and the 21-yard touchdown to Cooper could not have been better placed.

And neither of those throws was off play action, by the way.

6. Fun anniversary coming up for your Dallas Cowboys.

It's eerie how similar the start of this season is to the start of the 2016 season. In Dak and Zeke's rookie year, the Cowboys also opened at home against the Giants before traveling to play Washington. They famously lost that opener, 20-19, after the Terrance Williams' clock management snafu.

The next week, they went to FedEx Field and kicked off an 11-game win streak. Dak was clutch, Alfred Morris scored against his old team, Kirk Cousins bombed away for 366 yards – but threw a costly end zone interception to Barry Church. Zeke struggled to find running room and ultimately fumbled in the fourth quarter, prompting plenty of Internet outrage.

A lot has changed, is what I'm trying to say.

Obviously, the Cowboys have already improved on this year's Giants game. But could this Washington trip be the start of something special?

A 1-1 start wouldn't be the end of the world, but this feels like a game that a really good team should be able to win.