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Cowboys' "Smoke-Screens" Leave the Eagles in a Fog

Dallas offensive coordinator Jason Garrett has made the flanker-screen a staple of the Dallas offense.  Since he unveiled it in the first Eagles game in early November, his Cowboys offense has run the play several times in every subsequent game.

Despite its increased use, the play remains effective.  It now seems to fit into that category reserved for plays like the Packers' sweep of the '60s, the Dolphins' fullback trap in the early '70s, the Cowboys' lead draw of the '90s and the sprint option pass near the goal line for West Coast offense teams: opponents know its coming, but seem powerless to stop it.  If you've glanced at the comment thread summaries OneCoolCustomer assembled (check the rec posts in the right hand column) you'll see a gaggle of frustrated Cowboys haters wondering, "they keep running that play!  Why can't the Eagles stop it?"

The play succeeds because Garrett is careful to vary it in creative ways, and because he has created a set of complementary plays, which will rip a defense if they decide to overplay the screen.  Here are three examples from the Cowboys opening drive Saturday night which demonstrate Garrett's stealth.

The Phantom Smoke Screen

The Cowboys, like many other teams, play alphabet soup with their personnel groupings.  Watch the first dozen or so offensive plays of each game and you'll never see the same formation twice.  Part of this is subterfuge; if a coordinator has special plays prepared, he will often unveil them here, when he has the advantage of surprise.  The revolving formations also have a diagnositic purpose.  The offense will present as many different looks as possible to get the quickest possible read on the defensive sets the DC is calling. 

In this game, the early answer Garrett sought involved blitzes.  The Eagles had pressured Romo relentlessly in the first matchup, but played mostly zone last week.  Would Sean McDermott go back to blitzing on every play, or mix-and-match?

Garrett had his answer within three plays.  He put his 13 set on the field first, with TEs Jason Witten and Martellus Bennett left and TE John Phillips in the backfield as a lead blocker.  Phillips played in an off-set I right, opposite his fellow TEs.  Miles Austin was the single receiver.  The Eagles countered aggressively, putting all eleven men within six yards of the line of scrimmage.  They put Sheldon Brown over Witten, Macho Harris over Bennett and overshifted their linebackers towards Phillips side, expecting Dallas to run that way.  They read correctly, as Dallas ran the power right  for Marion Barber behind Phillips and the pulling Kyle Kosier for three yards.

Dallas spread the field on the next play, with two WRs and a flexed (set wide, in the slot) Witten on the left.  Roy Williams was the lone receiver on the right.  Dallas again ran a safe play to guage coverage, throwing a hook to Williams, who boxed out Asante Samuel for a seven yard gain. 

The Eagles rushed six on this play and on 3rd-and-5, Dallas burned a six-man Eagles blitz with a simple flare to Choice.  On the previous play, Dallas had kept Marion Barber in to block, giving the Cowboys six blockers to counter the six rushers.  Philly had played man-to-man with a safety deep.  This time, the Eagles again sent six, and again played man, and dropped  Macho Harris from their left slot into the deep middle, to provide cover for any deep throws.  Instead of blocking, Choice ran a quick route, towards the side Harris was vacating with his drop. Dallas sent out five, and the Eagles had five in coverage.   Harris' drop gave Tashard the space he needed to reach the first down marker on the right sideline.

On the next play, Garrett unveiled his first screen-related wrinkle.  Dallas went to an empty set, meaning it had no running back in the backfield with Tony Romo.  Jason Witten lined up on the right, next to Marc Colombo and three receivers, Miles Austin, Roy Williams and Kevin Ogletree, lined up wide of Witten, with Williams between the two speedsters.  Patrick Crayton was alone on the left side of the formation.

An empty set is an invitation to blitz.  The offense has only five blockers and a six-man rush from any direction simply overloads it.  Philly seemed to take the bait.  It deployed in its stock four man line, and put two linebackers in the A-gaps to each side of C Andre Gurode.  It appeared pre-snap that the Eagles would run one of their familiar double-A blitzes, where they sent both LBs at Gurode, hoping one would shoot clean inside, or that a sliding protection would let one of the edge rushers loose.

But the coverage behind the six potential rushers didn't look right.  If the Eagles were playing straight man, they would have matched up with every one of the five Cowboys receiving targets.  However, they had FS Harris hanging out in the left flat, over Sheldon Brown, who was tightly guarding Crayton.  They had only three secondary players on the left side of their defense, to cover Witten and the receivers trio.  Dallas had an apparent overload on that side.  The coverage looked too good to be true, and it was.

That's because the Eagles were only rushing five men, and were going to play man behind them.  Harris, as he had on the other plays, dropped into his deep half.  Because they were overmatched numberically, the three DBs on the left also began backpedaling just prior to the snap, giving seven-yard cushions. 

At the snap, LB Will WItherspoon peeled back from one A-gap and sprinted towards Witten.  The CB wide on that side dropped with Ogletree, who ran a go route.  The nickel CB inside ran with Austin, who was cutting diagonally across the field.  Roy Williams, meanwhile, stayed put.  He was running a smoke route, where the receiver simply turns and waits for an immediate toss from the QB.  This is a phantom screen, or to pun off his pattern, a smoke screen.  His fellow receivers had split the coverage to his side, and  Williams merely had to beat his man in space.  Roy cut inside Quintin Mikel and sprinted upfield for 16 yards.

Faking One Screen for Another

While Williams play was a phanton screen, it put the flanker screen on the Eagles' collective forebrain.  Three plays later, after two runs had moved Dallas to a first down near midfield, Garrett toyed with their screen-paranoia.  He lined up a a 12 set, with two TEs (Witten and Phillips) and two receivers.  Crayton was again split left and Austin right.  Phillips was in the backfield, in an off-set I left with Felix Jones. 

Witten was flexed to the right side and he attacked the corner over Austin at the snap.  Austin ran two steps upfield and then cut backs toward the line of scrimmage, with his hands out.  The play looked like a screen, and the Eagles treated it as such.  They had lined up in their base 4-3 but at the snap both DEs dropped into the flats, while the strongside LB and the MLB rushed.  The dropping DE Trent Cole found Phillips releasing into the left flat and covered him for a few yards. Sheldon Brown chased Crayton upfield, while Macho Harris dropped into the deep left half behind Brown.

Tony Romo turned right and faked a toss to Austin.  The action pulled  all the Eagles defenders on that side of the field towards Austin.  Romo then pivoted left and threw a screen to Felix Jones, who had stayed in to chip the DT and was now releasing laterally.

The fake had cleared out the left side; only three Eagles where there -- Brown, Harris and the dropping DE Cole.  When LG Kyle Kosier pulled to lead Jones, Felix had three escourts.  Kosier cut Cole.  Crayton stalemated Brown and Phillips raced upfield to engage Harris.  Had the TE gotten one stride farther upfield he could have sealed Harris inside and given Jones a clear shot up the left sideline for a score.  As it was, Phillips got enough of Harris to knock him off balance.  Harris dove for Jones and while Felix leapt over him, the lunge threw the back off balance.  Jones stepped out of bounds, but not until had  had gained 30 yards.

This Time, the Screen is Real

Two plays later, Garrett finally called the real flanker screen, but camouflaged it so well the Eagles were unprepared.  On a 2nd-and-12, Dallas went to a 12 package, two tight ends, one back and two receivers.  Or so it appeared.  The Cowboys threw a set of skill position players on the field the Eagles had never seen before.  Sam Hurd lined up wide on the left.  TE Phillips lined up in a flex position left.  Austin lined up in the backfield on Romo's left in a shotgun set.  He was deployed as a running back on this play.  Witten was in a traditional TE spot on the right and Kevin Ogletree was split right.  The Cowboys were in a two TE, three WR package, with no backs in the game.

Before the snap, Hurd motioned towards the line and stopped on the left wing, in the gap between LT Flozell Adams and the flexed Phillips.  When Romo got the ball, he faked a pitchout left to Austin, behind Phillips and Hurd.  The Eagles were in their nickel package, with nickel corner Joselio Hansen joining the regular secondary and lining up as the SOLB, over Witten.  This looked like a 4-3, but in personnel terms it was a 4-2-5.

Phillips had been the lead blocker on all but one of the four Cowboys running plays on this drive and the Philly linebackers were using him as their run key.  When Romo faked to Austin, both Eagles linebackers, both safeties and Brown, the corner to that side, chased the fake.  The only Eagles on their left flank were Hansen, who was chasing Witten, and Asante Samuel, who was playing six yards off Ogletree. 

The Cowboys had the Eagles badly outflanked, and when Ogletree ran his hitch and came back for Romo's toss, he had five lead blockers.  Witten turned, locked on Hansen and rode him wide of the play.  Marc Colombo and Leonard Davis pulled right and double-teamed Samuel.  Andre Gurode blocked a safety.  Ogletree appeared ready to score but was run down by Akeem Jordan at the two.  Still, Dallas had a first-and-goal, or so it seemed.  Witten was penalized for releasing too soon and illegally blocking downfield, wiping out the gain.

The penalty and a sack on the following play stopped this drive.  Still, these plays demonstrate why Dallas' flanker screen game remains so effective.  Dallas ran three variations of it, from three different formations with three different personnel groupings.  The targets were different every time.  Even through they have met three times this year and were meeting for the second time in a week, the Eagles defenders were confused.  They knew the Cowboys were going to screen them, but never could figure out when and how the plays were coming.

The Vikings do not blitz as much, so these plays may not be as effective against them.  Nevertheless, the Cowboys will use them any time they suspect a heavy blitz.  If they catch a defense in a blitz, they'll burn it.

Older Cowboys fans grew up watching Tom Landry burn blitzes with all forms of running backs and tight end screens.  You sometimes see the complaint that Jason Garrett does not run screens enough.  Garrett has laid just as many smokescreens the last half of the season as Tom used to, only his screen packages build off his receivers.  What's more, his results have replicated Landry's, leaving defenses coughing and lost.

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