Two summers ago, I asked Jason Garrett if he could put a stamp on his offense. Was it mostly the old, true West Coast offense, which Sid Gillman and Don Coryell implemented, and which Joe Gibbs and Norv Turner, among others, practice today? Was it a hybrid of systems?
He brushed the question off. "Teams today borrow a lot from each other," he said, suggesting there are no "pure" NFL systems anymore.
He's right. Look at NFL offenses from week to week and you'll see a lot of carryover. Everybody runs bunch packages. Everybody uses some variation of two tight ends now, with an H-back or F-back, depending on the terminology, floating into the backfield to serve as a lead blocker. Almost every team has a handful of Wildcat plays in its playbook. The cliche, "it's a copycat league" remains as strong as ever.
That copycat tendency will be there for everyone to see Sunday afternoon. Garrett has added a base play from Atlanta's playbook to his run game repertoire. It's been a few weeks since we've seen it, but Dallas' ability to exectute it as well or better than its guests could be a factor in the outcome.
The Falcons have a strong running game, which ranked 2nd in the NFL last season. One of their signature plays is a bend counter, where the fullback and the tailback line up in a traditional I-formation. At the snap, both backs step to the strong side of the formation, and then bend their way towards the weakside once they've cleared the QB.
The play messes with the minds of defensive ends, who are often left unblocked. The Falcons showed how to coordinate this play with the threat tight end Tony Gonzalez poses on their game-winning touchdown drive.
Atlanta had run the counter several times to this point, and Chicago had controlled it. On this drive, the Falcons opened play by putting Gonzalez on a wing left. At the snap, he ran laterally left to right underneath the formation, as QB Matt Ryan faked a hand-off left and then rolled out to his right.
The call was a bootleg to Gonzalez, but it failed because DE Adewale Ogunleye recognized the pattern and knocked Gonzalez backwards. He then chased Ryan and forced an incompletion. Several plays later, with Atlanta in first and goal just outside the five, they again called a rollout pass right towards Ogunleye, who again read pass and forced Ryan to flip the ball out of bounds.
On the next play, Atlanta went back to the bend counter to Ogunleye's side. The right tackle let him go and ran upfield to block a linebacker. The fullback peeled back to the right and was ready to seal Ogunleye had he crashed down the line of scrimmage and forced action. Instead, Ogunleye rushed upfield, anticipating a third rollout pass. Turner had a neat cutback lane and ran untouched for the score.
This play works very well against four man fronts, and Dallas unveiled it in their 33-31 loss to New York in week two. It was called for Felix Jones, who raced untouched up the middle for 57 yards. The threat of a bootleg pass made it work. The left side of the Giants line was concerned about Jason Witten and drifted left with him, giving the Dallas line the space to split the middle of the defensive line in two.
Jones is back this week and I'm guessing we'll see the bend counter return with him. Atlanta plays an aggressive 4-3 front that relies on hustle and quickness rather than bulk, and they're vulnerable to this type of run.
Can Dallas give Atlanta a heavy dose of its own medicine? Can the Cowboys defense resist when Michael Turner comes with bottle and spoon in hand? Will the originator or the copycat be the better executor of this dangerous play?
The answers will likely point you to the winner.