One of the more interesting aspects of Kellen Moore’s high-flying offense this season has been his usage of Tavon Austin, the lightning quick receiver that Dallas has sought to use in a variety of ways. While he hasn’t been used much, save for the Jets game when injuries forced Austin into a larger role, Moore has gotten a lot out of Austin when he does use him.
For the season, Austin has caught eight of his ten targets for 90 yards and five first downs and not a single drop. He’s also run for 37 yards on three carries, with his biggest being a 20-yard run for a touchdown in the most recent game.
Let’s take a gander at the beauty of it all:
First, let’s set the stage. The Cowboys offense is in its first series of the game after the defense took the ball away. They’re in field goal position but obviously want a touchdown, and are facing third down and needing two yards to convert.
The Cowboys line up in a pretty standard 11 personnel formation. Dak Prescott is in the shotgun with Tony Pollard to his right. Amari Cooper is out wide to the left with Jason Witten next to him in the slot. On the other side, Michael Gallup is out wide with Austin in that slot. Already, that alarms the Eagles defense. Aside from the Jets week when Austin was forced to play more, he’s never taken more than 37% of the snaps on offense in a game this season. So with Austin lining up in the slot, the defense’s suspicion is aroused.
Moore knows this, and baits them by motioning Austin on a loop around the backfield. In the past, Moore has used this to get Austin a screen out in the open field, and the defense knows that. You can see slot cornerback Rasul Douglas start running to the opposite side of the field in anticipation of the screen, and both safety Rodney McLeod and the linebacker on the opposite side move closer to the line of scrimmage, revealing the double blitz.
With Austin still running his motion, Dak snaps the ball and at this point there’s several different forms of genius misdirection going on. Conceptually, the play is a basic triple option with lots of gimmicks thrown in. The pre-snap motion is the first of those gimmicks. On the snap, the entire offensive line blocks to the left, with the intent to block for the first option on the play, a simple handoff to Pollard up the middle.
But Prescott knows McLeod is blitzing off the right side, thanks to the motion, and with the linemen sliding left that leaves McLeod as a free rusher. McLeod comes hot off the line trying to close off the back end of what he suspects to be a screen for Austin, but when he sees Prescott put the ball in Pollard’s stomach he alters his route towards the running back. With the other blitz off the left side blowing up any chances of a run for Pollard, Prescott pulls the ball out and goes to his second option, a quarterback run.
However, McLeod adjusts well and gets right in Dak’s face. While he might have been able to shake the safety, Dak still has a third option: at the moment the ball was snapped Austin reversed direction, essentially running right back to where he initially lined up. Dak quickly pitches the ball to Austin, who now has wide open running room for three reasons.
The first reason is that Douglas, who was assigned to Austin in man coverage, got baited into running to the opposite side of the field, and fake handoff to Pollard pulled him in even more. The second reason is that the Eagles called a Cover 0 man-to-man blitz with the safety, McLeod, coming off the edge, so there’s no deep safety. The third reason is that Gallup immediately takes off like he’s running a fly route to the endzone, carrying Jalen Mills with him all the way.
Only one Eagles defender, former Cowboys cornerback Orlando Scandrick, accurately reacts in time to run across the field and get to Austin, but the diminutive receiver is able to use his speed and change of direction to juke right by the 32-year-old cornerback. You can see Mills come in for one last shot at a tackle right at the goal line, and Gallup is close behind him.
Not only did Gallup help clear the area for Austin by running a real route, but once it was clear that Austin was running with the ball, Gallup engaged Mills as a blocker and held him up long enough to where he couldn't come barreling downfield for a touchdown-saving tackle. Without Gallup executing his non-glamorous role perfectly, this play would only serve as an exciting first-down conversion, not a touchdown.
Instead, it gave Dallas their first points of the game and, notably, their first opening-drive touchdown all year. And it all came on exactly what we were promised by Moore: basic concepts with lots of window dressing. The Cowboys execute a simple triple-option play that’s buttered up with loads of misdirection, and it works to perfection.