Much has been made of the Cowboys’ changes to their offensive philosophy this offseason. Cutting Dez Bryant, losing Jason Witten to ESPN, the drama surrounding Terrance Williams of all people, and overhauling the offensive staff has many unsure of the unit that wowed everybody a mere two seasons ago. The main philosophy is still to feed Ezekiel Elliott and let him eat behind the Great Wall of Dallas. But the passing game has been changed to a Dak-friendly offense. Bringing in Kellen Moore as the quarterbacks coach was part of that, but the hiring of Sanjay Lal has also greatly contributed to this change, where the ability to get open is now valued more than big, physical specimens who can overpower defenses.
While many have pointed out that Lal is merely the receivers coach and Scott Linehan is still calling the plays, it’s reasonable to think that Lal will be a part of the game-planning process. He wasn’t solely brought in to run these receivers through drills, and Linehan has spoken about how much value Lal’s experience brings to the team. Furthermore, Lal’s expertise is tailor-made for the Dak-friendly offense, so it would make sense to give him a significant voice in the coaches room. And he may be instrumental in this Dak-friendly offense, as Dallas looks to emulate some of the passing concepts of a team Lal has coached against for five consecutive years: the Patriots.
New England seems to be the ideal model for the Dak-friendly offense: a high IQ quarterback who goes through progressions quickly and doesn’t really have any big name receivers, but the passing attack is always one of the best. Granted, Prescott is not on the same level of Tom Brady, but the passing concepts behind Josh McDaniels’ offense are why even the Pats’ backups, like Matt Cassel, have had success. Let’s take a look at some of the Patriots’ passing plays and concepts, see how New England does it, and how it would apply to the Cowboys.
In this play, the first read is Brandin Cooks, who’s moved inside to where the tight end would usually be. This switch usually results in a linebacker or a box safety covering him, which is a matchup problem for the defense. The two receivers on the edge, Mitchell and Hogan, are driving vertically on their routes, which takes their cornerbacks upfield with them while also drawing the attention of the center field safety. Mitchell and Hogan’s routes also cross each other, a common aspect of the Pats’ passing game, and this is intended to make the defenders cross each other’s paths and get tripped up in coverage. Sometimes, more often than not, the Patriots end up setting basketball picks on the defender, which should be offensive pass interference, but they get away with it. With proper route running, though, receivers should be able to draw the defenders into each other without ever touching them.
Anyway, with those two going upfield and taking the defensive backs with them, the whole right side of the field is cleared up for Cooks. He drives upfield toward the secondary and then cuts out. If a linebacker is following him, the cut should give him plenty of extra space. And by the time he makes his cut and turns around, Brady has delivered the ball to Cooks with room to cut upfield and gain some YAC. However, let’s say the defense tries to adjust to stop Cooks. One possibility is that either Mitchell or Hogan end up getting free from their defender due to the crossing of routes and the center field safety isn’t there to pick them up, in which case Brady gets a big deep pass down the field, likely for a touchdown. Another possibility is that Brady turns to his left and sees Gronkowski running a dig route over the middle, and he puts it between the passing lanes to his sure-handed tight end who’s matched up favorably against a cornerback. If all of these options fail, though, Brady can always check down to his running back in the flat. Either way you slice it, this play kills defenses for New England.
For Dallas, imagine Beasley running Cooks’ route with how good at out routes he is. Hurns would run the post route of Hogan while Thompson wheels out and up like Mitchell, using his speed to bend the defense’s back end. Whichever tight end Dallas wants to use would take Gronk’s role. And either Elliott or Austin would go to the flat for the check down. Prescott would have loads of options on this play.
This next one is a play-action, which Brady and Prescott both have traditionally done well. It’s fairly simple, with Gronk and another receiver running seams up the field, the second tight end staying in to block, and Amendola running an out route. The important part, as with any play-action, is the fake to the running back. What differentiates this play from other play-action plays, though, is that the left guard actually pulls to the right as if it’s a real run play. This sells the defense and gets the linebackers to come up a little bit. If that happens, Brady hits Gronk for a first down. If not, Brady can always look back to Amendola as he’s cutting to the sideline.
For Dallas, they could put Blake Jarwin in Gronk’s role, Austin or Thompson on the right side streaking upfield, and Beasley in Amendola’s role. The mere threat of a Zeke run play is enough to bait the defense, but having Connor Williams pull would make the ruse even more deceitful, and give Prescott a quick throwing option for big gains.
This next play would be particularly great for Austin. Here, running back James White lines up outside and runs a simple post. Since he’s a running back, it usually means a linebacker has to cover him, which creates a mismatch on speed. Gronk runs across the middle of the field, flashing in and out of each window, while Cooks goes into the flat for the checkdown. On the left side, one receiver streaks upfield while the other tries to run his defender into the streaking receiver’s defender by crossing paths. More often than not, this play goes to the running back, who easily wins their matchup against the linebacker. If the defense adjusts, though, and puts a cornerback on White, it means a linebacker is instead matching up against Cooks or Gronk, both of which are just as problematic.
For the Cowboys, obviously Austin would go out wide in White’s role. Gallup could go into the flat, as his skill after the catch makes him an intriguing checkdown option here. One of the tight ends would take Gronk’s role, but Dallas could also switch it up and put either Beasley or Olawale there for the sake of increased mismatches. On the left side, Thompson would likely be the streaker while Hurns or Brown try to disrupt the defender with their route. This would be one of those rare plays where Elliott isn’t on the field, but it could be a highly effective play.
This play is very intriguing, and would be deadly with the Cowboys’ personnel. In this scenario, New England puts their half back out wide left and their fullback out wide right, and both run curl routes. Then, Hogan and Gronk streak upfield from the slot while Cooks, out of the typical tight end position again, goes across the middle of the field. The outside curl routes here function as decoys, pinning their boundary cornerbacks closer to the line of scrimmage and leaving nickel and dime corners, safeties, and possibly linebackers to deal with the streak routes. This stretches the defense so much that it leaves little left to deal with Cooks.
Elliott could line up outside and either Olawale or Austin could be on the other curl route, with Thompson and the tight end streaking upfield; to switch things up, Dallas could even have Austin taking the tight end’s spot, too. Then, either Beasley or Gallup would go across the field, as any catch from them would likely produce lots of YAC. With that personnel, the Cowboys could create serious mismatches.
This next one is not so much a distinct play, but rather a concept that Linehan, Lal, and the Cowboys could steal from the Patriots to make their offense truly Dak-friendly. It is called the levels concept, pictured above. Much of this was devised by June Jones, who in turn took much of it from Ted Marchibroda and Bill Walsh. But it involves the running back taking a seam route upfield and the wide left receiver running an out route. Jones himself says, though, that these two routes are never options, though the Patriots often ignore that given their personnel. The right side of this concept is the key part, though. There are three receivers: one out wide right, one in the inside slot, and another in the outside slot. They each run forward varying lengths before all cutting inside and running across the field. This essentially guarantees that there is a receiver in every passing window directly in front of the quarterback, and it is very hard to defend, as the defensive backs tailing these receivers can easily run into the linebackers at this level.
New England runs a ton of different variations of this concept (for a more in-depth analysis of this, check out Mark Schofield’s piece here) , but Gronk is almost always one of the players across the field, with the likes of Edelman, Amendola, or any other of the Patriots’ receivers taking turns filling the other windows. The concept is great at getting receivers open, and even though this concept isn’t designed for big gains, it’s a concept that’s sure to get the offense first downs repeatedly. Jones, when breaking this concept down for a clinic a few years ago, said this about the levels concept:
That is an average play with a read progression. The quarterback reads single receiver, inside slot, outside slot, and wide receiver. Last year, we threw this pass about 75 times. We completed it probably 80 percent of the time. After looking at the play with all the combinations off the three-receiver side, I do not know why we ran anything else…When you look at our cutups, the fourth option [the outside WR in cut] is open every time. This does not look hard to defend, but I watched Jim Kelly throw this for five years. He did not have the other variations we put in.
For Dallas, Lal would undoubtedly have a fun time plugging in all of his different receivers into these roles. Putting Austin in as the running back and having him run upfield on the seam route would be an extra stressor placed on opposing defenses, but the most impactful receiver in this concept could be Gallup. The final intrigue of this concept is that, once the receiver catches the ball across the field, he has two other receivers in close proximity to block for him. Say Gallup was lined up as the wide right receiver, and Hurns and Brown - two willing and effective blockers - were in the two slot positions. If Prescott can get the ball to Gallup, his excellent vision after the catch would take advantage of the blocks set up for him by the route running. The same goes for Austin and Thompson, too.
Keep in mind that the Cowboys offense probably won’t look exactly like the Patriots, largely because the Pats are very much a pass-first team and Dallas is very much the opposite. Nevertheless, Prescott has weapons around him that can be used in a variety of different ways, and emulating some of the Patriots’ passing concepts would be a great way to maximize the talents of their young franchise quarterback and make this offense even more potent than in 2016.