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Maybe “Smashmouth Spread” should be the new word for a Dak-friendly offense

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How the Cowboys can spice up their offensive scheme but still adhere to power running.

Seattle Seahawks v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Smashmouth Spread. Has a great ring to it, don’t you think? It’s an offensive concept that has taken off in the college game with teams employing different concepts and versions of the Smashmouth Spread. So why are we talking about it here on a Cowboys site?

Well, it started with our own DannyPhantom wondering about all the calls for four-wide formations, coming after the recent additions of free agent WRs to the Cowboys roster, when Dallas is built on the power running of Ezekiel Elliot. Tom Ryle jumped in to note that handing off to Zeke in a spread is a possibility.

Then our old friend Birddog, a scout and coach who is a great source of information, dropped this nugget.

Say what? Yes, the Smashmouth Spread, as noted above, is an offensive concept taking off in college. Now, before we get to ahead of ourselves, this isn’t exactly a new concept. Pieces of it have been around for a while, with the Oregon Ducks killing people with inside zone reads for a long time. They were often called a finesse team because of their variety of bubble screens, options etc., from spread formations, but those were accessories to their power running game and the inside zone read (IZR). (One caveat to all of this, Chip Kelly tried to bring his offense to the NFL and it didn’t work. But that doesn’t mean some of the concepts aren’t applicable with the right talent).

Now, I’m no Birddog, or even a coach, but I will try to get into this a little bit to see if the Cowboys may be moving in this direction on offense for the 2018 season. First, what is the Smashmouth Spread?

Although the approach of using 3-5 WR formations to run West Coast concepts found success, and is now common to many of the bigger programs, the knock on these teams was always that they were “soft” and couldn’t run the ball or impose their will in an inherently violent game. It was often a fair charge.

The smashmouth spread offenses looked to reverse that problem and run the ball into the space afforded by using 3-5 WR formations.

Here are some elements that have been added to the offense by various coaches or teams.

In past iterations of smashmouth spread offenses, some of the great contributions to the play have been the H-back who serves as a fullback, the development of ways to run counter from the spread, and the addition of RPOs to allow QBs to distribute the ball on the perimeter or down the field to punish teams for bringing help to stop the run.

The addition of the blocking H-back was a huge win for teams that wanted to run gap schemes downhill on opponents but didn’t know how to handle the DE from a spread alignment with all of the big guys normally charged with tasks like that (FBs and TEs, namely) removed from the equation to make way for faster athletes. Florida used to wreck teams in the SEC back in the day running QB counter and counter with an H-back for Tim Tebow and Percy Harvin.

Before we move on, let’s add an aside here about using an H-back (as mentioned above). The Cowboys previously had Keith Smith, who most would consider a straight-ahead lead fullback. But they replaced him with Jamize Olawale. He’s actually a more athletic player who can be a weapon in the pass and run game on occasion. He could be placed all over the field in different formations. It’s an interesting thing to keep in mind.

Let’s discover a little more.

But the “Smashmouth Spread” is reclaiming power football.

It features many of the same principles of some of the best downhill attacks of old, albeit out of the shotgun or pistol. Like any “smashmouth” team, running the ball inside installs confidence in the offensive line. They know their assignment, can fire off the ball, and they get to play physical football while on the front foot.

The bedrock of the Smashmouth Spread is the inside-zone.

Now we’re back to the Inside Zone and its cousin, the Inside Zone Read (IZR). This play involves lining up the running back beside and slightly behind the QB in pistol formation. It’s basically a dive play between the opposite side guard and tackle of the RB, and it leaves a player (usually a DE) on the backside unblocked so you get an advantage of numbers on the playside. Running backs are expected to press the hole, but also look for other gaps along the line, and are free to cut the ball into any gap that is open. On the Inside Zone Read, the QB reads the play and either hands the ball off if the playside blocking looks good, or he can pull the ball and take off running after reading the unblocked player on the opposing team.

Here is a pre-snap look of the IZ(R) with an H-back in the formation.

One key to running this successfully is you must be able to run outside plays from the IZ(R) formation to keep the defense honest. Bubble screens, or quick options opposite the playside, are some standard techniques. You can also run play-action passing over the middle or deep from the same formation. Lots of play-action with quick reads to one side of the field is something the Los Angeles Rams used quite effectively this year. Additionally, you can use run-pass options here, that incorporate bubble screens or other quick throws.

To run this scheme well, you need talented linemen and an athletic quarterback who can be a threat to run the ball. Hmm, that sounds like a team from North Texas.

Linemen must be athletic, mobile

Although the inside zone is a physical play, the “smashmouth” element of the Smashmouth Spread comes from the gap principles sprinkled throughout the offense.

Gap principles get offensive lineman pulling and moving, out on the boundary and playing with movement. They look to shift the point of attack to the boundary or create mismatches at the line of scrimmage.

This is where you can add counters to the scheme and pull backside tackles and guards to get out in front of the plays. You can find some great examples of this, plus passing options from these formations, at this breakdown of Oklahoma’s offense.

This isn’t rocket science, or even particularly new to the Cowboys. Ever since Dak Prescott took over as quarterback, the Cowboys have added RPOs to their offense. There is a nice breakdown of this at Inside the Pylon. This look is like an IZR but is an RPO with Jason Witten acting as an H-back and eventually crossing back across the flow for a block.

The idea here is that they should now expand on these concepts, and incorporate some of the options or bubble screens you see teams like Kansas City employ. We wrote about this idea last month. In that article Dak himself spoke of emulating the Chiefs or the Panthers. In fact, Panthers QB Cam Newton ran a lot of these same concepts back at Auburn. Kansas City last year was almost a college offense and they were killing defenses for much of the season (strangely it didn’t work against Dallas in 2017). Here are a few looks at concepts the Chiefs used last year.

If you want to see some of the more exotic plays the Chiefs ran last year, check out this article.

Besides the Smashmouth Spread, there are some other concepts the Cowboys could borrow. The aforementioned Rams also ran a lot of tight receiver formations that allow for option routes to the inside our outside, taking the sideline out of play as a defender. They also used rub (pick) routes from this formation. (This is one of my biggest pet peeves, rub routes from stacked or bunch formations are so effective in the NFL, but the Cowboys hardly ever use them). The Rams used a ton of play-action and they used Todd Gurley as a pass receiving weapon. Elliott could do the same.

The Cowboys offense has evolved some during the Jason Garrett/Scott Linehan era. They didn’t hesitate to add RPOs to their arsenal with Dak Prescott at the helm. But they still rely a lot on three-wide sets with Witten that feature isolation routes by the receivers. Unfortunately the Cowboys receivers are not creating their own separation, they don’t have a true home-run hitter to stretch the defense, and Dez Bryant isn’t commanding the same attention from safeties that he was in the past.

Plus, Dak Prescott is not being utilized to his full potential by getting him on the move and allowing him to use his legs more often. You don’t want Prescott running the ball all the time, but all it takes is a serious threat that he might run to make some of these concepts work. He needs to do it occasionally, probably a little more than he has been, to keep the defense honest. Frankly, sometimes these are free yards where he can just slide after making a gain and avoid taking a hit. The counter plays where you pull a guard and tackle would also seem to be a natural fit for the Cowboys personnel. Doing these plays from a spread formation is an interesting wrinkle.

Let’s not fool ourselves, it’s doubtful the Cowboys will totally transform their offense. They could benefit, though, from adding some new formations and concepts to make it less predictable. Spreading the field on occasion and allowing Dak and Dez to do their thing, then sprinkling in some RPOs, bubble screens, play-action passes and other elements off that formation to keep a defense off-balance just may be the key.