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Cowboys’ Run Plays in Tight vs. Spread Formations

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Jonathan Bales

Earlier in the week, I promised readers I would analyze the Cowboys’ rushing numbers from specific formations this season.  Specifically, I was interested in learning if Dallas was more efficient in running the ball out of spread formations as compared to tight ones.

First, I must define what I mean by “spread” and “tight.”  A spread formation, at least for the purpose of this article, is any formation that implements 3+ receivers (either in the personnel package or alignment).  Thus, if the Cowboys use base personnel (TE, 2 WR, RB, FB) but line up in “3 Wide I” (left), it is considered a spread formation.

A tight formation is any that invokes two or less players “out wide.”  Thus, regular “I formation” is a tight one.

Much to my surprise, the Cowboys’ 2010 rushing statistics do not vary greatly from spread formations to tight formations.  I had originally postulated that, due to a combination of game situations, personnel packages, and simple alignment, the Cowboys would have more success running from spread formations than from tight ones.  Take a look the the numbers below.

As you can see, the overall yards-per-rush out of spread formations (4.17) is comparable to that of tight formations (3.93).  However, running out of tight formations has been more successful for Dallas in short-yardage situations.  The offense has averaged over 1.7 yards more per rush with 1-3 yards-to-go, and nearly two full yards more per carry with 4-7 yards-to-go.  In the latter category, the Cowboys have converted nearly twice as many first downs when running from tight formations.

With 8+ yards-to-go, it appears as though running from spread formations has been superior to running out of tight ones.  The Cowboys have averaged over 1.7 extra yards-per-carry in long-yardage situations when running from spread.  They’ve also converted first downs at nearly three times the rate.  Note that the rate of non-positive rushes is very comparable in all situations.

It’s also worth noting that the big play rate, as you might expect, is far greater from spread formations.  More than twice as many spread runs have gone for 10+ yards as those runs from tight formations (13.6 percent versus 6.5 percent, respectively).

It’s quite surprising to me, however, that the Cowboys have been so poor when running out of spread in short-yardage situations.  Implementing extra receivers for a running play isn’t intrinsically optimal–receivers are generally worse blockers than tight ends or fullbacks–but it does (many times) force the defense to bring in nickel personnel.  In that sense, running from a three or four-receiver set, even in short-yardage situations, can be more efficient than bringing in the “big guys.”  The goal isn’t necessarily to put your best lineup on the field at all times, but rather the lineup that will create the largest disparity between yourself and the opponent.

It’s likely the Cowboys have struggled when running out of spread in short-yardage situations because defenses aren’t matching personnel.  If Dallas brings in three receivers on a 3rd and 1, for example, the defense may choose to keep their base personnel on the field due to the down-and-distance, disregarding the Cowboys’ substitutions.

It’s also possible that we are the victim of a small sample size.  To date, the Cowboys have run only 66 plays from spread formations, as opposed to 200 from tight formations.  36 of those spread runs (54.5 percent) have come with 8+ yards-to-go, but only 14 have come with 1-3 yards to go.  That’s hardly ideal for drawing broad conclusions.

Note that the percentage of runs in specific yardage situations is very similar for both spread and tight formations (right).  Thus, it’s very easy to compare overall statistics for the two formations.

To combat the problem of a small sample size, I decided to look at the Cowboys’ 2009 rushing statistics from spread formations.  I have combined the results with those of 2010, and the overall numbers are shown below.

While the 2009 and 2010 spread runs with eight or more yards-to-go are comparable, the Cowboys were far more efficient running the ball out of spread in short and medium distance-to-go situations last season.  Of course, the offensive line and game situations were a bit different in ’09, but I’m more concerned about the relationship between various situational statistics within the same year rather than a black-and-white year-to-year comparison.

Having said all that, I still feel that spread runs can be more effective than rushes from tight formations.  The yards-per-carry rate from spread formations over the past two seasons is a combined 4.50–much better than the 3.93 yards-per-rush number of 2010 tight formations.

Further, take a look at the chart to the left.  Last season, the efficiency of draws from spread formations was far and away better than that of tight formation draws.

Thus, while the statistics of spread vs. tight runs in 2010 are similar, I think Garrett could do the offense a tremendous favor by calling the right sort of plays from particular formations.  When the offense comes out in “Tight End Spread,” for example, defenders are thinking a pass is more likely, even if subconsciously.  When they see the initial offensive movements of a draw, then, their hunches seem to be confirmed.  “I thought it would be a pass, and it looks like a pass.”

This idea is mirrored in our situational statistics.  Spread runs are more effective than tight runs in long-yardage situations because the combination of the formation and distance-to-go makes the defense believe a pass is on the way.

In my opinion, this seemingly minor characteristic of spread formations–that they make defenders think a pass is coming–makes draw plays from spread formations extremely successful.  The 2010 draw statistics back me up, as, despite a lack of overall success in the running game, the Cowboys have gained 230 yards on 47 spread draws (4.89 yards-per-carry)–not as substantial as last season, but still impressive.

Ultimately, I’d love to see the Cowboys run more from spread formations, particularly in situations like 2nd and 10+, for example.  The numbers show that spread runs are more efficient than tight runs in long distance-to-go scenarios, as the defense is preparing for a pass.  Add in some spread draws, and that Cowboys’ yards-per-carry on all runs should increase.

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3 Responses to Cowboys’ Run Plays in Tight vs. Spread Formations

  1. percyhoward says:

    I’d like to see an analysis comparing how much of our rushing yardage in these last four games resulted from handoffs to running backs (in formations other than the shotgun), and how much resulted from tosses, end arounds, QB rushes, and shotgun runs.

    Also, I know you keep track of our audibles. Is Kitna checking out of pass plays more often than Romo did?

  2. Percy–Give me a day or two to collect that data and get it to you. I will include tomorrow night’s game as well.

  3. Pingback: NFL News Team :: Dallas Cowboys DeMarcus Ware Featured Football Game Recap Jason Garrett Jason Witten Jon Kitna Michael Vick NFC East NFL :: Breaking Down the Dallas Cowboys’ Loss to the Philadelphia Eagles

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