This past offseason saw the Dallas Cowboys make several moves to radically change their offense and transition to more of a run-heavy team. They traded away Amari Cooper, cut La’el Collins, franchise tagged Dalton Schultz, drafted Tyler Smith, and added two other tight ends from the rookie pool. There were other moves too, but it all amounted to what the Cowboys were largely admitting straight to the public: the goal was to run the ball more, and run it better.
So as the Cowboys now enter their bye week, they’re eighth in both rushing attempts and rushing yards. More than that, though, they’re second in the league in rushing DVOA. Throughout this season, the Cowboys have fielded one of the most diverse and efficient run games at a time when the NFL is seeing an explosion on the ground across the board.
So where did this come from? Kellen Moore has generally been more of a pass-happy offensive coordinator; in fact, since taking over the offense, Moore’s Cowboys have finished a season in the top ten in either carries or rushing DVOA just once. Both instances came in 2019, Moore’s first year as the coordinator, when Jason Garrett was still the head coach.
Not only has the run game ratcheted up in use this year, but Moore has been employing rushing concepts and styles that he’s never used before. But there is a coach on this staff whose background matches up well with what we’ve been seeing: coaching consultant Brian Schottenheimer.
Schottenheimer was hired in the offseason to fill the role that was vacated when Ben McAdoo left to become the Panthers offensive coordinator. His duties were described as helping both Moore and Dan Quinn with advance scouting and keeping up on league-wide trends. That’s intentionally vague, but a closer examination of Schottenheimer’s résumé offers some hints.
Schottenheimer has been coaching since 1997, and he’s spent 12 seasons as an NFL offensive coordinator, along with one season as an offensive coordinator at the college level and one as the pass game coordinator for the Jaguars. However, Schottenheimer has always been known for his affinity to the run game. More often than not, his offenses have fared well in their rushing attacks.
Brian Schottenheimer’s Run Game Over the Years
So what made his run games tick? Samuel Gold over at Field Gulls provided a thorough dissection of Schottenheimer’s run schemes back when he was first hired in Seattle, which you can read in full here, but here are the basics:
- Most of the run game was built on outside zone runs, with pitches and jet sweeps thrown in; the goal was to get the ball carrier to the edge
- Schottenheimer used this extensively, especially early in games, to set up inside power running concepts that often broke for bigger gains
- He used a lot (relative to the rest of the league at the time) of pony formations, which involve two running backs lined up in the backfield
- Most of his runs came from under center, with shotgun runs mostly used as a change-up in obvious passing downs
- All of this resulted in Schottenheimer’s offenses utilizing a fairly even mix of zone- and gap-blocking schemes, as well as the directional rushing, which helped keep defenses off balance
Does this sound familiar? It should, because it practically describes this Cowboys rushing attack to a tee. But just in case you aren’t convinced yet, here are some numbers from the Cowboys and how they’ve been running the ball this year.
- The Cowboys have run to the left 54 times this year, up the middle 91 times, and to the right 54 times; all of those rank in the top ten of attempts in their respective directions. No other team is in the top ten in all three categories.
- They’re running the ball from under center over 2.5 times as often as they are from shotgun; Tony Pollard, in particular, is running under center over three times as often.
- The Cowboys have run a zone-blocking scheme on 52% of their run plays and a gap scheme on 48% of them; only three other teams have a lower discrepancy between zone and gap run blocking plays.
On that last bullet point, the Cowboys were actually at a perfect 50/50 split between zone and gap blocking ahead of the Bears game. They ended up running more zone plays than they normally have this year, and it may have been due to Pollard being the lead back in that game. His style of play has generally been more conducive to an outside zone scheme, so that would make sense. Even still, the Cowboys have been mixing it up very evenly in that regard all season.
And while the Cowboys haven’t been using the pony formation ad nauseam, they’ve certainly featured an expanded use of it. Through the first seven games of the season (we’re excluding the Bears game since Ezekiel Elliott didn’t play) the Cowboys ran the pony formation with Elliott and Pollard on 7.6% of their offensive plays. That’s one of the higher such rates across the league, and certainly a high for the Cowboys in recent years.
All of these changes have come together to produce an extremely diverse and efficient ground game for the Cowboys. While nobody has come out and said that Schottenheimer huddled up with Moore in the offseason to give him pointers on how to craft a more effective running game, it’s not that much of a stretch to imagine such a melding of the minds taking place. And when you consider just how similar this running game has looked when compared to Schottenheimer’s body of work, it’s hard to ignore the similarities.
At the end of the day, Moore is still the one calling the plays and therefore deserves the lion’s share of credit (or blame) for the offensive game plans. But he also deserves credit for being willing to listen to others when necessary. Regardless of whether Schottenheimer actually does bear some responsibility for this much-improved running game, the end result is the Cowboys fielding one of the best ground attacks they’ve had in quite a while.