Film room: How Tony Pollard's flashes vs. Miami offered glance at Cowboys backfield's frightening potential - John Owning, Dallas Morning News
If Tony Pollard is able to play up to his potential, he can turn the Dallas backfield into the best group in the league.
Once Pollard receives the ball, he does a good job of quickly reading his blocks. With Dalton Schultz's inside leverage against the edge defender, Pollard understands he can't bounce the ball outside, so he has to execute a bang read behind his fullback's block or bend his path backside. With Connor Williams successfully reaching the play-side defensive tackle, Tyron Smith engulfing a play-side linebacker at the second level and Jamize Olawale picking up the final linebacker, Pollard makes the correct decision to bang the run into the C-gap. Olawale, however, fails to secure his block as Miami's Sam Eguavoen (No. 49) blows the Cowboys fullback up, putting himself in Pollard's immediate path.
Pay attention to Pollard's footwork as he meets the linebacker in the hole. A subtle jab step inside before dropping his pads and accelerating outside causes Eguavoen to shift his weight inside ever so slightly, preventing him from tackling Pollard squarely. This, combined with Pollard's low center of gravity, enables the Cowboys rookie to power through an arm tackle before outrunning two defensive backs to the end zone.
Pollard is an effective complement to Elliott because he is a big-play threat every time he touches the ball. Given that Elliott is viewed as a top-three running back in the NFL, defenses naturally shift their focus from the run to the pass. This is evidenced by the fact that Pollard has seen eight-plus defenders in the box on just one of his 30 carries (3.33%), according to NFL's Next Gen Stats. He took advantage of light boxes Sunday and turned them into a couple of big plays -- the longest of which was a sublime, 28-yard run in the fourth quarter:
DeMarcus Lawrence hasn't dominated, but he's still proving he's an elite player for the Cowboys - David Moore, Calvin Watkins, Michael Gehlken, Dallas Morning News
Check out this mailbag of Cowboys questions, headlined by DeMarcus Lawrence still producing without being dominant.
DeMarcus Lawrence has 1.5 sacks but it seems like he hasn't delivered the same consistent pressure as the past couple of seasons. Is this a product of missing training camp? Are opposing offenses focused on neutralizing him?
David Moore: I'd be reluctant to argue a low sack total equals a lack of consistent pressure when it comes to Lawrence. Has he been as dominant as he's been over prolonged stretches the last two seasons? No. But it's early. His number of snaps was unusually low in the opener as he worked his way back into football shape after missing all of the offseason program and training camp as he recovered from shoulder surgery. Watch his movement and pursuit on the sack he had in the win over Miami a few days ago. It takes an elite player to make that play. Opposing offenses have focused on neutralizing him since the 2017 season. That should open up opportunities across the line. Robert Quinn gave a glimpse in his first game with Dallas that he could be the true, pass-rushing complement Lawrence has lacked. If Quinn is able to dial up the pressure, the dam will break for Lawrence. He'll be fine.
Calvin Watkins: I think it's more a byproduct of missing training camp and still recovering from surgery on his labrum. What concerns me is the lack of quarterback hits. He's got five through three weeks, last year he had six and the year before that 10. Sometimes it's not the sack that gives quarterbacks problems, it's the pressure that causes more issues. Lawrence is getting off the ball quick, he's just not finishing. That will come as the season progresses. To me, he remains an elite pass rusher and the sacks will come along with more quarterback hits.
Michael Gehlken: There is no doubt offenses take DeMarcus Lawrence into account, assigning a tight end or running back -- or multiple of the two -- to assist in protection. Lawrence may not record a sack or quarterback hit on a particular snap. But when he's occupying two or three blockers and Robert Quinn beats a left tackle 1-on-1 on the other side to affect the quarterback, to me, this is an example of Lawrence being disruptive. And this shows up regularly on film. So does Lawrence setting the edge against the run and demonstrating a high motor in back-end pursuit. I'd only be guessing to say offenses are sliding their protection to Lawrence more this year, given this was done plenty in 2018. It is also possible that not having a proper offseason could be holding Lawrence back. But according to Pro Football Focus, he is currently on pace for 75 quarterback pressures, up from 63 last regular season. If this is Lawrence held back, then the Cowboys are really going to enjoy the other four seasons of his $105 million contract.
Despite an outstanding 3-0 start, don’t forget what happened in 2008 when the Cowboys began the season with that same 3-0 mark.
The Cowboys were 4-1 heading to Arizona. When we say that weird things happen against the Cardinals, this is the game we’re referring to. It still stands as the only game in NFL history that started and ended with a special teams touchdown. It’s also the only time I can recall when tying the game with a 52-yard field goal to force overtime was a bad thing. Yes, the Cowboys would’ve been better to just miss the kick and lose the game 24-21. Instead, Nick Folk’s field goal sent the game to overtime, where both Tony Romo (broken finger) and Mat McBriar (broken foot) got hurt in about two minutes. The latter injury was on a blocked punt that was recovered for a game-winning touchdown.
That was a bad loss. Next week was worse because not only did the Cowboys get spanked by a bad Rams team, 34-14, but it was the game that Romo was never going to play, however he was never ruled out. He was in uniform and warmed up before the game. But it just seemed like the entire team was waiting for him to take the ballcap off and jump in to save the game that Brad Johnson wasn’t winning. It never happened and the Rams just kept scoring points. To me, that was one of the most embarrassing losses that I can recall.
But there are more. The Cowboys got it rolling with Romo back, and in early December they went to Pittsburgh with an 8-4 record after winning three straight. The Cowboys had chances to win this game, but in the fourth quarter the bottom dropped out and Romo’s pick-six in the final minutes was the difference in the Steelers’ 20-13 win. That’s when the finger-pointing within the team went to another level. Players like Terrell Owens and Patrick Crayton publicly stated that Romo and Jason Witten were drawing up plays for each other, alluding to a division within the offense.
Stopping Alvin Kamara will be the key to a Dallas victory on Sunday, and it will take a great effort by the entire Cowboys’ defense.
“He’s definitely one of the backs that can do it all. He’s basically a receiver that can carry the ball,” said Jourdan Lewis.Lewis has been a big name in the days leading this up to this matchup, thanks in large part to his work in the Cowboys’ win against the Saints last year. In that game, the Dallas defense essentially treated Kamara like a receiver – even going as far as to use Lewis as a sixth defensive back who could cover him in certain situations.
The result was impressive. Kamara ran the ball 11 times for 36 yards and caught eight passes for another 36 yards – an average of just 3.8 yards per touch. When Lewis wasn’t shadowing him in dime situations, he was famously stuffed on the goal line by DeMarcus Lawrence and stopped short of a crucial first down by Jaylon Smith.
“You have to understand where your help is, for sure,” Smith said. “And then from there it’s giving it all you’ve got. It’s going to take every effort, every foot, every grab, every tussle, whenever you’re playing against a great running back.”
Running from shotgun becoming Cowboys Kellen Moore’s signature wrinkle - C. Joseph Wright, Cowboys Wire
Last season, Dallas hardly ran from the shotgun. This year, Kellen Moore has completely flipped the script.
Former offensive coordinator Scott Linehan was frequently criticized for being predictable because the Cowboys ran so often when Prescott took the snap from under center. Last week against Washington, Moore called runs on just 69% of the snaps from under center; this week against the Dolphins, the number of rushes increased to 75% (23 rushes and one run off an option out of 32 snaps from under center).
It may be tempting to interpret this increase in running plays from under center as a slide back into the habits established by Linehan. However, 11 of the rushes came in the fourth quarter as the Cowboys were putting the game away. If you look at the first three quarters, Dallas only ran on 12 of 19 snaps from under center. That is just 63%, which is significantly lower than when Linehan was calling the plays.
The other thing that stands out is the fact Prescott is so rarely asked to drop straight back from under center and deliver a pass (twice this week). Given all of the stories this offseason about the improvement in his footwork, it may surprise some that Moore has not asked him to do this more often. He did it three times against the New York and just twice against Washington.
We saw the Cowboys get Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard on the field at the same time in 20 personnel on Sunday. If they can run plays out of this set more often, the possibilities are endless.
The play the Cowboys used from this grouping was a simple swing pass to Tony Pollard. They came out with Dak Prescott split by each back, with Pollard coming in motion around Prescott and out into the flats at the top of the screen. Prescott quickly faked the ball to Elliott on an inside zone look up front, and swung the ball out to Pollard for the completion.
By using the motion pre-snap, the Cowboys set up a 3 on 2 situation at the point of attack. Pollard was led by two blockers ahead of him, and was able to be elusive enough to make a man miss off Cobb’s missed block. Football is often simply a numbers game, if you have more guys than they do at the POA, you will win more often than not. The Cowboys used motion to get the numbers advantage here, and picked up an easy first down.
While this seems like an inconsequential play, it got me really excited for the possibilities the Cowboys can use off of this.Of course, Prescott could simply hand the ball off to Elliott here and the Cowboys can run inside or outside zone. By using Pollard in motion to the backside, however, the defense will be forced to pay attention to too much in the backfield, and account for the swing pass as well. This could give Elliott extra space between the tackles as the defense is moving around pre-snap and getting confused.
The Cowboys can also use this exact look, with the same motion, to run the option. Later in the game we saw the Cowboys use speed option with Pollard as the pitch man, but they can add Elliott as the zone action here as well. This would make Elliott, Prescott, and Pollard all threats to run the ball. That’s a lot of information for a defense to process and defend.
It’s time to talk about the trenches.
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