The Cowboys are set to travel out to Los Angeles and take on the Chargers on Monday Night Football. A week after getting pummeled by the 49ers on Sunday Night Football, the Dallas defense is looking to get back to their usual way of things, but they run into a red-hot offense led by a very familiar face - former Cowboys offensive coordinator Kellen Moore.
Moore spent the last four years coordinating the offense in Dallas, and he had four more years with the organization prior to that. Three of those years came as a quarterback, while the other saw Moore as the quarterbacks coach. Now, Moore is outside of Dallas for the first time in a while.
Moore was brought to the City of Angels specifically to elevate an offense that had produced solid results but ultimately failed to get the most out of Justin Herbert. The strong-armed Herbert had consistently flashed elite traits, but previous offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi was often criticized for not building his offense more around Herbert’s strengths. This was a similar criticism aimed at Moore near the end of his time in Dallas.
Sometimes, though, a change of scenery is what’s necessary, and that’s seemed to be the case for Moore. Just four games into his tenure with the Chargers, the offense is humming. They currently rank eighth in yards per play, fifth in yards per pass attempt, seventh in points per game, fifth in offensive DVOA, and fifth in EPA/play.
Herbert is doing great, too. The quarterback is sixth in EPA/play and seventh in QBR while completing 71% of his passes for 1,106 yards and throwing seven touchdowns to just one interception. Two major things stand out for Herbert in this offense. For starters, he’s been given a clean pocket a lot more often this year. After being one of the more frequently pressured quarterbacks a year ago, Herbert’s 17.5% pressure rate this year is the sixth-lowest in the league, just behind Dallas.
Another major change, and one that Moore spoke often about upon taking the job, is unleashing Herbert’s deep ball. In each of the last two years under Lombardi, Herbert had the fourth lowest rate of attempts beyond 20 yards downfield. That’s despite him averaging a 103.7 passer rating on such throws for his career. Already, Moore has Herbert throwing 20+ yards downfield on 15.9% of his attempts, currently ranked fourth most among quarterbacks.
That’s helped open things up for this offense, which operates in much the same way that Moore’s offenses in Dallas worked. That means a multiple mindset that allows for a wide variety of formations and concepts, heavy doses of play-action and 12 personnel, and running the offense extremely fast. In fact, the Chargers rank second in the league in seconds between each play so far this year.
Perhaps the biggest departure for Moore is a significant increase in the use of motion. Moore’s first year calling the offense in Dallas saw a stark uptick in motion, but it faded away and instead just used shifts (defined as players moving before the snap but getting set before the ball is snapped). Last year’s Cowboys team finished 17th in motion, but the Chargers so far are sixth in pre-snap motion. This would seemingly lend credence to the common suggestion that Dak Prescott prefers shifts over motion, given the way these statistics trended under Moore and the fact that Dallas currently ranks in the bottom five of teams in motion.
It helps make Moore’s job easier with all the talent he has to work with. Keenan Allen has turned back the clock, ranking in the top 10 in both receptions and yards even after the bye week. Tight end Gerald Everett has filled the role of a safety blanket for Herbert, while Donald Parham has seen high value targets when coming in for 12 and 13 personnel packages.
Injuries have crept up, though. Austin Ekeler had a great season opener until he got hurt, totaling 164 scrimmage yards between 16 carries and four receptions. Ekeler is expected to make his return this week against Dallas, but the Chargers also recently lost the giant of a receiver that is 6’4” Mike Williams. Los Angeles played in Week 4 without Williams, and they largely leaned on Joshua Palmer and rookie Quentin Johnston to fill the void.
Interestingly, the Chargers have been one of the more pass-happy offenses thus far this year. They rank 11th in early down pass rate, and nearly 45% of Herbert’s passes this year have come on first down alone. That’s notable because Moore had Dallas 26th in early down pass rate a year ago. Just for clarity, the Cowboys currently rank just behind Los Angeles, 12th in early down pass rate.
Ekeler’s return, in conjunction with the loss of Williams, could change that somewhat. But Moore has pretty much replicated his generally successful offense from Dallas to Los Angeles, with a few tweaks here and there. That will make for an interesting chess match between Moore and Dan Quinn, who have gotten to know each other pretty well the last two years.
A week ago, Quinn squared off with another bright offensive mind he knew well in Kyle Shanahan, and clearly came out the loser. Will he be able to do better against Moore? Dallas enters this game pretty banged up, with the loss of Leighton Vander Esch already a crushing blow. Can this defense get by without him, or will they be the next defense to get lit up by Herbert and Moore this year?