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More on Cowboys’ Three/Four-Receiver Packages

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At NBC, I’ve been taking a look at how the Cowboys might implement different personnel packages in 2013. Yesterday, I published an article detailing why they should run it more with three receivers on the field.

On their 86 designed runs with “11” personnel—one running back, one tight end, and three receivers—the Cowboys averaged 4.35 YPC in 2012. Compare that to just 3.31 YPC on all other runs. In addition to using the proper personnel, though, it’s also important to run the ball at the right times. And those “right times” might not be what you think.

The primary reason that rushing from three-receiver sets works is that it is unusual. When defenses see three receivers on the field, they generally expect a pass. Using the same thinking, offenses can often find rushing success in passing situations simply because the down-and-distance implies a pass is coming. Did you know that rushing the ball is more effective than passing on every down-and-distance from third-and-one to third-and-four? And it’s actually just a tad less successful all the way up until third-and-10. It’s not that running the ball on third down is inherently beneficial, but rather defenses gear up so much to defend the pass that they become susceptible to the run. The fact that most NFL teams pass the ball on third down—even third-and-short—benefits those offenses who decide to run it.

And today, I examined why I don’t like four-receiver sets.

The ‘Boys now have three quality pass-catching tight ends, but the selection of Williams gives the team flexibility with their personnel packages. While Williams might have been drafted primarily as the eventual replacement for Miles Austin, the Cowboys would still be wise to utilize his skills in 2013. But don’t forget that slot man Dwayne Harris showed a lot of promise last season. Unless there’s an injury ahead of him, however, he likely won’t see the field often this year.

That’s because the Cowboys don’t typically run many four-receiver sets. I counted only 29 in all of 2012—fewer than two per game. Tony Romo passed on all 29 dropbacks, completing 17 of them for 172 yards (5.93 YPA), two touchdowns, and two interceptions. That’s a paltry quarterback rating of 69.9. It’s really no surprise; Romo and the ‘Boys have struggled mightily with four receivers in the past. That’s likely because the offense is forced into an empty-set with no one in the backfield, i.e. no threat to run the ball.

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