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Cowboys use of play-action a killer in 35-17 win over division rival Giants [video breakdown]

It’s 100% Kellen Moore season.

New York Giants v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Dating back to 2017, Cowboys fans begged for a new-and-improved offense under Scott Linehan. While Linehan’s offense was always good enough to get by, many saw the plays, yards, and even touchdowns left on the field due to the predictable play-calling and personnel packages.

In 2019, things seem to be headed in a different direction under Kellen Moore. All the things the Cowboys fans begged for in the last few years came to light in a masterful performance from Kellen Moore. After just one showing, things are different in Big D. Dak Prescott looks to have taken the next step, the offensive line is back to being dominant, and we’re no longer seeing Ezekiel Elliott running into a brick wall. One of the most obvious improvements from 2017-2018 to 2019 is the use of play-action.

The Kellen Moore offense used play-action on 46.9% of Dak Prescott’s dropbacks against the Giants in the season opener, which was the second-highest rate in week one. On these play-action plays, Prescott completed 14 of his 15 passes, for 207 yards, and three touchdowns. That is tremendous. In 2017, the Cowboys used play-action on just 25% of the snaps, which ranked right below league average.

The threat of play-action was impactful with Ezekiel Elliott, Jamize Olawale, or Tony Pollard in the backfield. Below are some of the most obvious impacts of play-action that showed up on the All-22.

This is a RPO look from the Cowboys offense. A few things to note on this play; Dak Prescott is reading Antoine Bethea (#41), the safety at the top left corner of the screen on the RPO, and the ball has to come out fast, to avoid an illegal man downfield penalty. This is one play that really stood out to me on Dak Prescott’s confidence. As soon as Prescott sees Bethea take just a few steps towards the line of scrimmage on the play-fake, Prescott then sees a window to get the ball into to Michael Gallup. This isn’t a wide-open window, and he has too put the ball far enough in front of Gallup so the corner cannot make a play on the football, but also out of the reach of Bethea, who has now reacted to the pass. This is a confident, gutsy throw from Prescott that resulted in a nice gain for the offense.

This is the first play of the game for the Cowboys offense. While it’s not a huge play, the deception of play-action completely fools the Giants defense. Both of the linebackers bite rather hard on the play-fake, and Jabrill Peppers (top of screen safety) sells completely out for the run. This is a play I can see the Cowboys using a ton on first downs. But eventually running Cooper on a deep post, which would be a huge play, if the safety bites as hard as Peppers did on this play.

Another RPO look from Kellen Moore to pick up easy yardage after a holding call on Zack Martin. Tony Pollard is the running back on this play, and Dak Prescott is reading the linebacker’s triggers off the give. Once Prescott sees both of the linebackers commit to the running back, he has an easy pitch-and-catch to Blake Jarwin to pick up a nice chunk of yardage that they lost on the previous play.

Another great use of play-action by Kellen Moore in a goal-to-go scenario. The Cowboys tendencies of being a run-heavy team can completely fool defenses, especially in the red zone. In this area of the field, the field shrinks, and the ability to get open is much tougher than in between the 20’s. Moore dials up a great play-call here to get Jason Witten wide open after selling run-block throughout the play-fake. The offensive line all carries out their blocks to the left, which takes all the defenders away from the primary target (Witten). Once the DB commits to working down the line of scrimmage to stop the run, Witten can release for the easy touchdown.

It doesn’t take much for an NFL wide receiver to get wide open. Any deception you can give a defense to help that out is very smart. This play for instance isn’t a play-fake that completely fools the defense, but it does just enough to allow Randall Cobb all the space he needs for his first touchdown with the Dallas Cowboys. I love this design, because not only does the linebacker (#47) have to hold through the play-fake, but he also has Jason Witten pulling right at him, then running a shallow cross. The slight hesitation to gain depth in his drop, then the slight step to cover Witten’s route, leaves the middle of the field wide open for Dak Prescott and Randall Cobb to connect.

Last but not least, here’s another scenario where the personnel grouping, and threat of running the football leads to an easy pitch-and-catch for Dak and Michael Gallup. Antoine Bethea is actually coming on what looks to be a safety blitz (which also helps), but then again, take a look at where those linebackers are when Dak decides to pull the football and deliver a strike to Gallup. This is a bit of an assumption, but it sure looks like Prescott knew the safety blitz was coming pre-snap, and knew he’d have to pull the ball sooner than he normally would to get the football out safely to Gallup running a slant over the safeties head. The reason I point this out, is the play-fake wasn’t even played through all the way, and it still put both of the linebackers completely out of position.

Kellen Moore, Dak Prescott, and the rest of the passing game was absolutely phenomenal in week one. They will need to carry that great performance over to week two if they want to start the season of 2-0 with two divisional wins. In Kellen we trust.

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