On Sunday, the Kellevation continued. After a bit of a slow start to the game, Dak Prescott and the rest of the offense picked things up in the first ever road game with Kellen Moore as offensive coordinator. They went on to score 31 points and had a much more balanced attack, as Dak connected with eight different pass catchers and Ezekiel Elliott hit 100 rush yards (as well as the team compiling over 200 rushing yards total).
But the scoring outbreak began with one huge play: Dak hitting preseason star Devin Smith for a 51-yard touchdown bomb with six minutes left in the first half. At that point, the Cowboys were down 7-0 and the offense had seen three straight drives result in zero points. Then this happened:
There’s a lot to like about this play: getting their first points on the board, coming on a really long bomb, the fact that Josh Norman got burned by a backup wide receiver, and the list goes on. But a closer look at the way the play is drawn up shows the beauty of Moore’s mind and the great execution of the offense.
First, let’s look at the personnel. Dak is under center and Zeke is lined up about eight yards back, which is usual for a running play. Amari Cooper is out wide at the bottom of the screen, where he draws a matchup with cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, who is ten yards off the line of scrimmage in soft coverage. Randall Cobb is bunched inside where a second tight end might go and the sole tight end in on this play, Blake Jarwin, is offset behind Cobb. Smith is isolated on the opposite side of the field, where Josh Norman is lined up right across from him.
Two things have already happened here before anything else. First, the Cowboys’ setup looks like a running play. Given that it’s second and seven, the chances of a run being called here are very high, so the pre-snap look only reinforces that. The second thing is that the Redskins have already showed a hint that they might be in zone coverage by having DRC line up ten yards off of Cooper while Norman is showing tight man. As we soon see, the Cowboys’ actual play call is designed to kill zone coverage, so all it takes now is for some motion to confirm what Washington is showing.
Cooper begins to motion inside and the way that DRC barely moves in response is all Dak needs. The defense has shown their hand, and Dak snaps the ball with Cooper still in motion. Right away, there’s some tricky misdirection going on. Jarwin, lined up on the right side of the play, takes off to his left, running laterally across the offensive line and squeaking between Tyron Smith and Connor Williams to go out and run a shallow route. He’s immediately picked up by a linebacker, who seems to think at first that Jarwin is a pulling blocker on the run. He first engages with Jarwin before realizing that the tight end is actually running a route. This, along with the play-action fake to Zeke, tricks the front seven into playing the run.
Speaking of Elliott, he plays an integral role, too. Obviously the fake handoff is a big part of the play-action component, but then he darts out into the flat. At first, he pulls nose tackle Tim Settle with him into the flat as he is still playing the run. As Zeke runs his route, he also forces slot cornerback Jimmy Moreland to wade over to the flat in zone coverage. At this point, the Cowboys have stretched the zone defense horizontally with just their tight end and running back, opening up a hole in the middle of the field with only linebacker Jon Bostic left to cover it.
That plays right into what Dallas is doing, Cooper and Cobb, who are right next to each other at the point of the snap thanks to the motion, run a fairly simple high-low crossing pattern from the right to the left. The high-low is designed to attack one defender’s zone with two receivers, forcing the defender to pick one and allowing the quarterback to hit the other receiver fairly easily. Here, Cooper and Cobb run the high-low against Landon Collins, and the safety picks up Cooper.
That leaves Cobb wide open for what would be a huge gain and possibly a touchdown. Now comes the critical moment. Free safety Montae Nicholson is playing a center field role and watching all of this unfold. While Cooper and Cobb run the high-low, Smith runs a basic deep post route. The defense is designed to take away a deep shot like that, and Norman effectively guides Smith into the middle of the field and towards Nicholson. That part goes according to plan. But the high-low throws a wrinkle in things, as it helps Cobb break free. Nicholson then breaks toward Cobb to pick him up, which leaves Norman on an island with Smith.
Now, Smith already has the inside positioning on Norman and there’s no safety over top to help Norman out. Smith, who has great breakaway speed, just turns on the jets as he hits the crest of his post route, and now there’s nothing Norman can do but hope for a poorly thrown ball.
Dak does the trash-talking corner no favors, though. It takes just four seconds for him to throw the ball, but it’s what he does beforehand that’s huge. After faking the handoff, Dak essentially stares down the high-low activity, which is why both Collins and Nicholson bit on it so hard. Then he looks down field and fires the deep shot, hitting Smith perfectly in stride. The receiver catches the ball at the five-yard line and then gravity and inertia simply pulls him the rest of the way for the touchdown.
None of what’s being done on this play are particularly complex, but it’s the combination of the play action, high-low crosser, and deep post that put the Redskins’ zone defense in a no-win situation. That’s the kind of brilliance from Moore that sets the team up, and then the players execute their roles perfectly for a big play.