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Cowboys Vs. Chargers: A Short Study Of Linehan's Offense Against San Diego

A play-by-play breakdown of the first two Cowboys drives against the Chargers on Thursday, with special attention paid to personnel groupings and formations.

Linehan gave the Chargers a heavy dose of Joseph Randle
Linehan gave the Chargers a heavy dose of Joseph Randle
Stephen Dunn

As might be expected, a team with two new coordinators, a new backup quarterback, a refurbished defensive line and 31 new rookies and free agents had a lot to unveil in the first preseason game. Several of these new facets have been discussed; check out Tom's recent article on Dallas' new backup quarterback, for example. Others, like the defensive line, will be dissected in the near future, I'd expect. Today, I'd like to take a short, preliminary look at the team's new offensive coordinator, Scott Linehan, focusing specifically on his use of personnel groupings and formation.

I don't have any ulterior motive in this exercise; rather, my inquiry is driven by curiosity: will the offense be different than the Jason Garrett offense we have seen since 2007? If so, in what ways? What I have done is to review the team's first two drives, both 11-play affairs that, together, represent about one third of the total plays (61) run on Thursday night. More important, perhaps, is that these were the only two drives that included any players that we might label "starters" (I put the term in quotes because there are probably about 14-15 offensive guys who could receive this label, depending on personnel grouping).

Without further ado, let's take a look at the first two drives to see what, if anything, can be gleaned.

Drive I:

1st & 10: Linehan opens the game in 12 personnel, with both Hanna and Escobar aligned right, sending Terrance Williams in motion across the formation to the right flank and then back in tight, creating a "heavy" right set. The give is to Joseph Randle, who runs to the strong side for a negligible gain.

2nd & 10: Dallas is again in 12 personnel, with both tight ends left this time (both times saw Hanna as the in-line "Y" TE and Escobar flanked just outside him). Again, Williams motions just outside the two-tights, creating a "heavy" run side. This time, Williams gives enough of a block for Randle to get the edge, and he makes a nice run for a gain of 12 and a first down. Two plays, two Randle runs and a first down.

1st & 10: Linehan replaces Hanna with Cole Beasley, and the Cowboys line up in a three-wide set, with Beasley flexed just outside of Escobar, who is in the "Y" position outside of Doug Free, and Williams flanked outside of Beasley. On the snap, Williams takes a few side steps to his left and executes what looks like a trap block for Randle, who jump-cuts sharply right, and scoots between Williams and Beasley who makes a solid block, for a gain of six.

2nd & 4: We see 21 personnel for the first time, with Tyler Clutts in front of Randle in a straight "I" formation. After opening with three running plays, Linehan shows a running formation (or, at least one with a fullback), and uses play action. Weeden fakes to Randle on what at first appears to be a weakside fold play, then throws to a very open Dwayne Harris, who can't hold on to a slightly overthrown ball. The successful running sets up what should have been a nice gain in the passing game: the Chargers linebackers were nowhere to be seen when the ball got to Harris.

3rd & 4: Back to 11 personnel, with Weeden in the shotgun. Beasley joins Randle in the backfield outside Weeden. Hanna is in the "Y" on the left side, with Williams flexed just outside of him. At the snap, Hanna runs an intermediate route, and Williams a seven-yard hook, which clear out the underneath zone for Beasley, who takes an option route out to the flat, outrunning a San Diego linebacker for a first down. Nice play design, clearing out room for Beasley to make a play.

1st & 10: 21 personnel, as Clutts replaces Beasley and Escobar subs in for Hanna. It's a "strong left" set; an in-line "I" formation with Escobar in the "Y" outside Tyron Smith. Randle takes the handoff for a simple middle run, cutting in behind Travis Frederick and Mackenzy Bernadeau for a nice four yard gain.

2nd & 6: Linehan calls for 11 personnel again, with Beasley back for Clutts. A strong right formation, with Escobar flexed off of right tackle, and both Beasley (in the slot) and Williams (as the "X" out wide, on the line) outside of him. Again, the call is to Randle, who takes the ball left and then cuts right as the line caves, gaining five yards and bringing up another third down.

3rd & 1: The heaviest set in the first two drives: 22 personnel in a balanced "I" formation, with Hanna in-line on the left and Escobar in-line on the right. At the snap, Randle followed Clutts over left guard, then cut back, exploiting a soft spot behind Frederick and Zack Martin for a nice gainer. In the game's first show of strength on strength, the Cowboys won handily, and behind their new rookie OL. Five yards and a first down.

1st & 10: After a show of strength, Linehan switches gears, deploying in 11 personnel, with Weeden in shotgun. It's a balanced formation, with Hanna (at the "Y") and Williams on the right and Harris and LaRon Byrd on the left. Weeden hits Williams, who makes a nice catch with a defender draped on him for a gain of about eight. The catch is taken off the board as the Cowboys accept a defensive holding call, giving them another first down.

1st & 10: After moving the ball well to start the drive, the wheels now begin to come off. The Cowboys come out in 21 personnel, with Clutts offset left and Hanna flexed right (this is a "queen right" formation, with offset FB and TE on opposite sides of the formation). Randle runs behind Clutts off the left side, but the play is negated by a holding call on Bernadeau, bringing up the game's first unmanageable down-and-distance situation.

1st & 20: Thanks to this and another penalty, Linehan turns to "s11," a three wide receiver set with Weeden in the 'gun for the rest of the drive. This time, he has three receiving options on the right side - Escobar in-line; Beasley in the slot and Williams out wide - with Harris alone on the other side of the formation. Curiously, the call is a play-action fakey draw, and a short pass to Williams, for a gain of two.

2nd & 18: This time, Escobar is lined up outside of Smith, with Beasley (slot) and Harris (flanker) outside of him. At the snap, Randle looks like he's picking up an interior blitz, but he's really setting himself up for a middle screen. The Charges close quickly and limit him to a negligible gain - which is moot, as Williams is called for an illegal block downfield. A previously nasty down-and-distance now becomes next to impossible.

2nd & 28: Again Escobar and Beasley are on the left side, in the "Y" and slot, respectively. This time, Williams is outside of them, with Harris as the lone gunman on the other side of the formation. Weeden gets good protection but, finding nobody open and a huge hole in the middle of the field, runs forward for a ten yard gain.

3rd & 18: The same formation, except that Escobar is flexed left rather than on the line, which puts Williams on the line as the "X" receiver. The route combinations look a lot like the play that gave Beasley a first down on 3rd and 4 above: Escobar delays and then releases underneath after Williams and Beasley have cleared out the underneath zone. But Weeden is pressured and has to throw the ball away, in the general direction of Harris. An initially  promising 11-play (14 total; 3 penalties) drive gains a paltry 32 total yards, and results in a punt.

Drive II:

This drive began with the second-team O-line (Parnell, Leary, Bernadeau, Nwaneri, Wetzel) but the "first team" skill guys (Randle, Beasley, Escobar, Hanna, Williams, Harris).

1st & 10: Linehan opens the second drive as he did the first: in 12 personnel, with both Hanna and Escobar aligned right (with Hanna on the line and Escobar flanked just outside him). As with the previous opening play, Terrence Williams went in motion just outside of them, creating a "heavy" right set. This time, however, Weeden used play action, faking to Randle and then finding Williams on an intermediate crossing route for a nifty 17-yard gain. Linehan showed the Chargers the same look he had on the game's first play, but then passed out of it. Nice progression on his play chart, to my mind

1st & 10: The Cowboys offer 21 personnel, in a "jack right" formation (the offset fullback on the same side as the tight end). Randle got the carry, and took it to the strong side, popping it outside for a nice gain of eight. Good power play, and a nice move by the second-year back.

2nd & 2: In an interesting choice, Linehan next deployed in a passing set: 11 personnel, with three eligibles left - Escobar (flexed out) Beasley (slot) and Williams (as the "X") - and only Harris on the right. From this spread set, Weeden handed off to Randle, who took it to the right side for a solid gain of five and another first down. One way to avoid difficult-to-manage third downs? Convert on first or second down!

1st & 10: With another first down, Linehan returned to 12 personnel, with both Hanna (left) and Escobar (right) on the line in a balanced formation. After two successful runs, Wedeen again used play-action, faking a handoff to Randle and rolling right, where he had deep, intermediate and shallow options. He opted for the shallow, hitting Hanna for a seven-yard gainer (although Escobar was open at the intermediate level, a fact that brought great consternation to the guys I was watching the game with). Another good, solid gain on first down.

2nd & 3: On the final play of the first quarter, Clutts replaced Hanna, and the offense lined up in a strong-right "I" formation set, with both receivers to the left. Williams ran a fake end-around to help slow down backside pursuit, but the play was blown up and Randle lost three yards, leaving Dallas with a third and six. Not the hoped-for outcome when you gain seven yards on first down.

3rd & 6: As the second quarter began, Williams and Harris gave way to LaRon Byrd and Devin Street, both of whom set up shop on the right side of the formation (with Escobar, who was in the "Y" next to Free) as Linehan's troops deployed in s11. On the snap, Beasley ran a crossing route out of the slot, which cleared out the underneath zone. Escobar ran a corner route, which was wide open thanks to the threat Beasley provides on third down. Escobar made a nice move and scampered for a 26-yard gain and a first down. After isolating Beasley on a third and 4, Linehan now used him as a decoy to help clear traffic for a pass to the tight end. Once again, nice playsheet progression.

1st & 10: With another first down, the Cowboys again turn to 12 personnel, with Hanna in the "Y" outside Parnell, and Escobar flexed outside of him, and Byrd just outside of Escobar. Again, they ran to this "heavy" side, with Randle starting off left tackle and then bouncing it outside for a nine yard gain. Excellent work, and another very manageable second down.

2nd & 1: On second and short, Linehan once again goes against down-and-distance expectations by deploying in a three-wide set, with Escobar (flexed), Beasley (slot) and Byrd (at the "X") all on the right side. Randle, with the carry, starts left than cuts it back right, juking for a first down on a short gain.

1st & 9: On first and goal, Linehan stays in the same personnel grouping, flip-flopping his outside guys around, so that Escobar is at the "Y" on the left side, with Beasley and Street outside of him. This time, they do not run, however; Weeden's throw is intercepted, but largely because Beasley is mugged on the play. The defensive holding call takes the ball halfway to the goal line, still first down.

1st & 4: Staying in 11 personnel (Escobar, Beasley, and Byrd on the left side, in that order), Linehan goes back to the run, and Randle gets a hard-earned yard and a half in heavy traffic off right guard.

2nd & 3: Close to the goal line, Linehan opts for a beefier set, bringing in Clutts for Beasley and Hanna (the better blocker) for Escobar. The offense deploys in an "I" formation, with Hanna left. Randle takes the ball right, then tries to pick his way left, where the line is getting movement, but it closes too quickly; the Chargers stack him up and Randle loses a yard. Back to goal-to-go at the four.

3rd & 4: Sticking with the same personnel group, Linehan has them set up in a "jack right" set to run a play designed to stress the defense's left side, with the goal to hit Clutts in the right flat, where he's isolated on a linebacker who has bit on weak play action. The Chargers read it well, however, and Weeden has to tuck the ball and roll out, where he makes a terrific play, finding Hanna, improvising in the back of the end zone. Hanna makes a great hands catch for the touchdown. Interesting play, which is set up by the previous one. The defense reads it very well, but the Cowboys make a play.


Some general thoughts:

Personnel distribution: With the exception of the end of drive #1 (which I'll get to below), Linehan deployed his guys fairly evenly, in terms of personnel group and down and distance combinations.

Personnel Grouping First Drive Second Drive
11 2 4
s11 6 1
12 2 3
21 3 4
22 1 0

Linehan wanted to run on first down: When you think about it, the down where a team truly announces its intention to run is on first down; what happens then dictates run/ pass calls on the other downs. Last season, the Cowboys passed ten times more than they ran in first and ten situations (204-194). On Thursday night's first two drives, they ran on six of seven first and tens. And Linehan continued to do so throughout both drives, so long as the down and distance allowed. When the Cowboys suffered multiple penalties at the end of the first drive, the run calls in Linehan's playbook went right out the window.

Distribution of personnel groupings by down: Aside from that sequence, Linehan maintained a remarkably even distribution of personnel grouping across downs; look at the first drive's personnel groupings by down up to the first Dallas penalty:

Personnel First Down Second Down Third Down
11 1 1 -
S11 1 - 1
12 1 1 -
21 2 1 -
22 - - 1

After the penalty, of course, they were in s11 for four consecutive plays. And, lest we think this even distribution of personnel groupings across downs to be an aberration, here's the second drive:

Personnel First Down Second Down Third Down
11 2 2 -
S11 - - 1
12 3 - -
21 1 2 1
22 - - -

Fairly evenly distributed, all things considered. It's thrown off a bit by the fact that Linehan started every set of downs on the second drive in 12 personnel and twice turned to 21 personnel near the goal line.

Wide receivers will have to block: On several plays, particularly on the first drive, Linehan deployed his receivers in tight, at the point of attack, where the success of the play depended on them executing successful blocks. Even the diminutive Beasley responded well to this challenge.

Effective on third down: After being one of the NFL's worst third down offenses in 2013, in total attempts as well as conversion percentage, the Cowboys were 4 out of 5 on third downs (with one being the touchdown to Hanna). The only failed conversion came on 3rd and 18. If a key to converting third downs is to get into manageable third down situations, Linehan and company did well, with the exception of the above mentioned 3rd and long, which was the result of consecutive penalties. Still, not all were of the simplest; in addition to a 3rd and one, Dallas converted two 3rd and 4s and a 3rd and 6. It appeared that Linehan had a nice collection of plays designed to create navigable mismatches on the money down.

Scotty likes the 3x1: On many of the plays from 11 or 12 personnel, Linehan had three receivers to one side and a single receiver to the other. Sometimes, all three would be fairly tightly gathered, which has the effect of creating both a bunch formation and a "heavy" run side. And he used his three-receiver sides to both ends, and to great effect.

His playsheet progressions are smart: Even in this small sample, it was possible to see how Linehan set up certain plays, based upon developing specific expectations and then crossing or subverting them. He did this a couple of ways: by creating expectations earlier in the drive (running successfully, then using play-action) and by showing the Chargers one look to create expectations and then doing something different from the same look.

This notion of going against established expectations is one of the hallmarks of Garrett's offense; he always loved to pass our of three-tight end sets, for example. But one of the aspects of playcalling that Garrett was criticized for was the progression; he didn't always optimize the order of playcalls on his sheet. In this limited exercise, Linehan looks to be taking a concept with which we are familiar from watching Garrett's offense - crossing down-and-distance expectations, for example - and applying it more forcefully.

Lots to consider here as we go forward...

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