2011 Roster: Implications and Predictions for the Cowboys Offense

It has been a busy weekend in the NFL, as teams have cut their rosters down to 53, yet continue to tinker with their depth charts and place waiver claims on players released around the league. The Cowboys had some tough decisions to make before reaching the opening day 53-man roster and may not be done just yet, but the strength of positional groups could reveal some tweaks to Jason Garrett's offensive strategies.

There was a lot of competition at Valley Ranch this offseason and the organization had plenty of young talent competing for roster spots at the bottom of the depth charts, not to mention some changes at the top. Undrafted rookie Phillip Tanner virtually forced Jason Garrett to keep four running backs, and preseason performances by Tyron Smith and Jeremy Parnell earned enough trust to warrant keeping only three offensive tackles on the active roster. There are also currently four tight ends along with one recently added fullback.

Coach Garrett will likely continue to rely on competition to clear up the picture across the team's depth charts, and perhaps injuries to Tashard Choice and Martellus Bennett have also placed on hold some personnel moves to come in the near future. But Coach Garrett also seems more of an action versus reaction sort, so I assume there is some insight into the gameday plans that Garrett intends to implement during the 2011 season. If we take a closer look at the new roster...

DeMarco Murray and Choice's injuries during the preseason may be a legitimate factor in keeping four running backs on the roster, but it may also be Jason Garrett taking advantage of the depth at the position versus that at wide receiver. With some questions and unproven players behind the top two receivers, Garrett may be intending to rely on the ample talent at running back to compensate...not to mention that at the tight end position.

I continue to believe Martellus Bennett's injury may not be the only reason for keeping Martin Rucker on the roster, and had mentioned the Cowboys keeping four tight ends and still retaining a fullback. This is due to the depth at the position that I foresee Garrett tapping into when creating his offensive strategies. If you plan on running two tight end sets often, you need at least three active during your Week 1 game. But if you also plan on using one as an H-Back with fullback duties, then keeping four on the roster also seems a prudent choice.

Jason Witten can do everything as a tight end and even as H-back out of the backfield, and John Phillips seems a suitable understudy. He proved in 2009 he could lead block and he continues to improve and impress coming off his severe 2010 injury. Even when Matrellus Bennett returns to the starting lineup, John Phillips could see plenty of reps as the primary H-Back as newly signed fullback Tony Fiammetta learns the playbook and is tested at practice.

The roster moves across the offensive line were also predictable. Since the beginning of the 2011 season, the most immobile offensive linemen on the Cowboys 2010 roster have been released. Marc Colombo reached an age where his health plagued by knee injuries simply slowed him down too much, no matter the relentless fight left in the veteran. Leonard Davis made a few Pro Bowls as the mobile mountain when the Cowboys picked him up as a free agent and moved him to guard, but his age and motivation made him a liability as he became inconsistent with his blocks on the move and then he became slow off the line. Andre Gurode could still move better than the others, but his price-tag became too expensive when young replacements began to prove their worth. And finally, while seemingly making it past Saturday's cuts, the poor conditioning and thus lessened mobility made Montrae Holland expendable, and then the most lumbering of the tackles, Sam Young, was also released.

There are many variables that went into the above mentioned roster decisions, but there are also some implications that seem quite clear to me. While the offense will continue to be explosive and try to get Miles Austin, Dez Bryant, and Felix Jones the ball in space to utilize their big play ability, it may rely less on shotgun formations this season to do so.

Below are the two primary reasons for my prediction, and the two major implications for the offense considering the 2011 roster.

21 - Blackjack Formation:

With the talented tight ends on the Cowboys roster providing both a passing threat and blocking strength, I predict the "21" Formation (2-tight ends, 1-running back) will be a staple in the 2011 game-plan, even more than in previous years, and Garrett will force opponents into difficult situations by making this a multi-dimensional formation.

Due to the 2011 Cowboys roster and limited wide receiver depth, there could be greater advantage in using the versatile talents of the tight ends and running backs to make the "21" a diverse scheme by putting people in motion pre-snap. With a running back that can line up in the slot as a receiver (i.e. Felix Jones and DeMarco Murray), suddenly a balanced look turns into a passing formation with five capable receivers near the line. From the base "21" a tight end like Witten or Bennett can also motion to the slot, stretching out the defense, but still provide more than adequate blocking on a surprise delay run or draw play.

Either John Phillips or Jason Witten could also be put in motion into the backfield, and suddenly the balanced look turns into a strong side run with a lead blocker. It could also be a good way to hide a passing threat or force a mismatch by motioning Witten into the backfield and allowing him passing routes to either side of the field, using this to make man coverage assignments more difficult for the defense or to overload zone coverages. I also expect playaction to be more common as the Cowboys will have to commit to the run to help out the young offensive line and maximize all the possibilities out of this formation. Suddenly, tight ends and receivers will find larger windows and room to run after the catch as linebackers and safeties try and keep up with the shifts, motions, delays, and playaction passes.

This is why I have come to call the Cowboys 2011 "21" formation, Blackjack. Whenever Jason Garrett calls this base formation, the defense will have to gamble with their personnel prior to all the motions and new formations that follow. Not to say that the base "21" formation won't provide the Cowboys offense plenty of solid plays, but with the current versatility on the roster this formation could become Garrett's offensive version of Rob Ryan's "organized chaos." With the variety of shifts and final formations Garrett can motion into, the Blackjack could become "confusing precision." Coach Garrett can use one multi-variant formation to attack a defense in a multitude of ways and take advantage of whatever weaknesses that he finds, while creating mismatches and confusion for the defense.

Young Offensive Line on the Move:

This is not your father's Cowboys offensive line (or even the one I grew up with). We have already discussed the shift in the Cowboys culture where releasing overpriced veterans and testing young talent seems to be on the docket. But I think this offensive line overhaul goes beyond the new team culture and reveals the reconfiguring of the image of the Cowboys o-line. For decades the Cowboys have relied on maulers to open up running lanes and beat up defensive lines. But a few years ago, the need for a capable free agent brought Kyle Kosier to the team and the rise of unheralded Doug Free also earned the mobile monster the roster spot over the man-giant known as the Hotel. Suddenly, the Cowboys were left with a Jekyll & Hyde o-line that made the team very unbalanced in respect to the rushing attack. But this is the dawn of a new offensive line.

The Youglies (a.k.a. Red's Rugrats), or simply described as the young and feisty o-linemen, have suddenly taken over the majority of spots along the offensive line. I once hoped we could revive the days of having nasty maulers up front again, but I find myself really excited at the prospect of having a relentless and mobile group that finishes plays (even if it's 40 yards downfield). This new look to the 2011 roster is certain to affect Garrett's offense.

Yes, one effect will be the growing pains that three first time NFL starters will face during the 2011 season. And yes, Garrett may again be adjusting his offense to fit his o-line. However, this time he won't be compensating for ineffectiveness, he will be taking advantage of a newly found asset (while also protecting the young group). The recently released linemen included two "Pro Bowlers" though it was also the collection of the three linemen slowest off the line. Their performance in 2010 (and parts of 2009) often led to Garrett restricting his playbook, keeping tight ends in to block while having an inconsistent rushing attack and limiting deep routes in the passing game.

I expect that to change in 2011. The best way to get young offensive linemen comfortable with NFL competition is to let them attack their opponents instead of getting beat up while trying to keep up with the pass rush...and that means running early and often. This will not only help the linemen, but as described above, it will allow Garrett to take advantage of the talented running back core while keeping defenses hesitant when playaction becomes a factor. It is also a great way to tire out NFL pass rushers, especially when they get blocked by a lineman that is pulling and has gained some momentum. I expect to see this often from this mobile line.

If they are talented at it, pulling linemen can be used as massive lead blockers to seal running lanes or take out defenders off the edge during sweeps and toss plays. Their mobility will also help them get off the line to reach second level blocks on linebackers before they have a chance to react to the play. And finally, again to keep the defense on its heels and slow the pass rush, not to mention take advantage of a mobile o-line and get the ball to playmakers in space, I expect to see screens heavily involved in the offense.

And what formation is great for the running game, playaction passes, and screen plays? That's right, the Blackjack formation.

Predictions:

As I mentioned earlier, I expect the Blackjack formation and the young line on the move to heavily influence the 2011 offensive game-plan. I predict the Cowboys will rely less on Shotgun formation (though certainly also use it to protect inexperienced linemen in the passing game) and rely even more on multiple TE sets than in the past. The chart below is a compilation of stats (from all players' splits section) for the Dallas Cowboys offense in various formations.

Year Pass Attempts Shotgun Pass 2+ TE Pass Rush Attempts Shotgun Run 2+ TE Run
2009        550      68.2%    21.3%        436     12.8%   45.0%
2010        576      63.0%    13.5%        428     13.8%   40.2%

 

It is a little odd that in a year when the Cowboys were losing games and usually behind on the scoreboard, not to mention losing Tony Romo to injury, that Garrett would rely less on the Shotgun formation than in 2009 when the team went to the playoffs. It makes you wonder if Garrett not only cut deep routes to compensate for poor pass protection, but also called less Shotgun plays which are normally a good indicator of a pass play in attempts to slow down the pass rush. I also find it odd that while the 2 or more TE sets worked very well for the Cowboys in 2009, that Garrett would drastically reduce the use of the formations in 2010. This could be a Dez Bryant effect, as Garrett suddenly had a third receiver (counting Roy Williams in the equation) that he wanted to get on the field. Or perhaps he thought he had to change his tendencies.

In any case, I still stand by my prediction though it seems that history may be against me.  I predict the Cowboys will be close to (perhaps surpass) their 2009 percentages for passes and runs out of multiple TE sets, but have fewer plays out of Shotgun than even the low percentages in 2010. 

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