Ever since Kellen Moore was elevated to the offensive coordinator role, there’s been a lot of hype about his prowess as a play-caller. After a good, albeit uneven, performance last year, Moore entered the 2020 season working with a more pass-happy head coach in Mike McCarthy. As a result, the Cowboys got off to a red-hot start throwing the ball this year prior to Dak Prescott’s injury.
As should be expected, Moore and the rest of the offense took some time to adjust to the loss of their franchise quarterback; they went three straight games scoring ten points or less, and Garrett Gilbert’s impressive performance against the Steelers still only netted them 19 points. But on Sunday against the Vikings, with Andy Dalton back under center, Moore called the best game of his young career. These three plays, in particular, highlight both the genius play design and sequencing of plays that helped Moore’s offense put up 31 points en route to a victory.
Play #1: Andy Dalton hits Ezekiel Elliott for a touchdown pass
After Donovan Wilson’s ridiculous strip sack on Kirk Cousins set the offense up just 30 yards away from the endzone, points were almost a given; it was up to Moore and the offense to make sure those points totaled six instead of three. A big play to CeeDee Lamb picked up 21 yards and put the Cowboys at first and goal from the Minnesota six-yard line. Then Moore dialed up this play:
Complementary football? Defense with the strip sack to set up short field. Three plays later, including 21-yard catch by CeeDee Lamb, TEs clear way for Zeke TD.— Jori Epstein (@JoriEpstein) November 22, 2020
Cowboys 6, Vikings 0pic.twitter.com/I2Jr4VpQ8m
Dalton is in the shotgun with an empty backfield. Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup are lined up out to the left, with Cooper in the slot. On the right, it’s Ezekiel Elliott, Dalton Schultz, and Blake Bell out wide in a bunch formation.
Dalton snaps the ball and immediately tosses it to Elliott, who’s the designated receiver on a screen pass. This is a fairly run of the mill play, but the personnel is what makes it so good. Usually this kind of screen pass goes to a receiver, who then has to rely on his fellow receivers to block up the field. But here, Zeke gets the ball and immediately has his two tight ends to block the much smaller cornerbacks. And with just six yards between the Cowboys and a touchdown, this one is pretty easy.
But there’s an added nuance to this play with both Cooper and Gallup. Since this is a screen play to the right, those two are effectively just decoys prior to the snap. However, they both run slant routes inside, giving Dalton a really good second and third read in the event the Zeke screen got sniffed out. In that scenario, where the defense cheats up on Zeke’s side, it’ll create a chasm in the middle of the defense and an easy touchdown strike to either receiver.
This play was so well-designed with regard to the personnel Moore used for the concept, and the timing was perfect given the down and distance. It was a near foolproof touchdown play, and everyone loves those kinds of plays.
Play #2: Zeke pitches to CeeDee Lamb for the two point conversion
Fast forward to the fourth quarter when Tony Pollard shoots himself out of a cannon for a 42-yard touchdown run. The six points from that touchdown put the Cowboys up 22-21, and because of the blocked extra point after their first touchdown of the game, Dallas had to go for two in order to prevent the possibility of a game-winning field goal. McCarthy, being the smart and aggressive coach he is, recognized this and went for it. Moore rewarded his boss by dialing up this gem.
We discussing how awesome Kellen is? pic.twitter.com/yD0ItdxWOs— Dallas Dondarrion (@Dondarrionn) November 23, 2020
This is something straight out of the Big 12, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Lincoln Riley has run this play several times at Oklahoma. Prior to the snap, Dalton is in the shotgun with Elliott next to him. Gallup is out wide to the left with CeeDee Lamb in the slot; on the right side it’s Schultz in the slot and Noah Brown out wide.
Dalton then motions Lamb into the backfield, positioning himself directly behind Dalton. The Red Rifle gets the snap and hands it off to Zeke, who runs up the middle to his right. The offensive line immediately crashes right as well, with both Schultz and Brown (the best blocker among the receivers) blocking their defenders on the edge.
This has the intended effect of sucking the second level of the defense towards Zeke, at which point he pitches the ball to Lamb on the outside. By the time the ball gets into Lamb’s hands, the only defenders who would’ve been in any position to make a tackle have been blocked into the back of the endzone by both Schultz and Brown. It’s then a footrace between Lamb and defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson, which is not even a competition. Lamb easily walks in for the two points, and Moore once again combines brilliant play design with perfect personnel groupings to get into the endzone.
Another overlooked aspect of this play, and Moore’s play-calling this year in general, is the presence of Brown. Known as a great blocker, Brown’s substitution onto the field in previous years pretty much told the defense it was about to be a run play. This year, Moore has gotten Brown involved in this receiver rotation early on, giving him 15-20 snaps a game and 13 targets in the passing game, of which he’s caught ten. Because of that, Moore can now insert Brown into the game to use him as a run blocker without giving away what the play is about to be. That kind of sequencing of plays - putting up film of Brown doing more than just blocking - is the sort of detail that sets up plays like this, and it’s the sort of thing that separates good coordinators from great coordinators.
Play #3: Dalton Schultz gets wide open for the game-winning touchdown
When the Cowboys got the ball back with four minutes left in the game and down 28-24, Moore knew it was touchdown or bust. McCarthy did too, which is why he successfully went for it on fourth and six right before the two-minute warning. But when the Cowboys stalled inside the five, Moore knew exactly what play to call:
“We’ve been carrying that play for probably four or five weeks,” Schultz said of the game-winner. “Kellen was dialing them all up. He was pulling out all the stops on those last few plays. As soon as he called it, I was like, ‘Alright, this should be good.’”
Moore sent the call in to Dalton, and it ended up with Schultz being wide open in the endzone for a touchdown that completed the Cowboys’ upset win and gave them their first victory since Dak Prescott went down. Here’s the play, in all its glory:
Andy Dalton to Dalton Schultz.— Jori Epstein (@JoriEpstein) November 23, 2020
Cowboys 31, Vikings 28. Vikings ball, now with 1:30 to play
On third and goal, Moore has Dalton line up in a pistol formation with a very condensed look. Gallup is just a few steps outside of the left tackle, with Cooper in the slot on the right side and Lamb to his right. Schultz, the intended target on this play, has his hands in the dirt on the line of scrimmage.
Prior to the snap, Dalton brings Lamb in motion across the play, first settling in between Gallup and the left tackle before heading back to the right side of the field. Dalton snaps the ball with Lamb still in motion, fakes the handoff to Elliott, and immediately looks Lamb’s way. This immediately pulls the defense to that side, both focusing on Lamb running into the flat and Cooper running a shallow post route.
That allows Schultz, whom the defense expected to be a blocker, to get a clean release laterally across the field. Just for good measure, though, Moore has Gallup running a slant towards Schultz that likely is intended to function as a rub route for the tight end. However, the linebackers both bite on the fake to Elliott, and there’s not even a defender for Gallup to rub on this route, resulting in Schultz being wide open.
This play, at its core, is a pretty straightforward mesh concept with added bells and whistles courtesy of Moore. The pre-snap motion of Lamb forced the defense to key in on him, particularly given Lamb’s success on both his touchdown reception and the two-point play. Additionally, the fake handoff to Zeke, who also had been running very well in this game and had caught a touchdown, forced the defense to not only bite on the handoff, but also to drift to the right in anticipation of Elliott running into the flat to catch a pass.
Moore played off the fact that both Lamb and Elliott had been having great games to distract the defense, and it ended up springing Schultz free for one of the easiest touchdown passes a quarterback can make. It’s a great play to have in your back pocket, and Moore saved it for the perfect moment.