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A change in the Cowboys’ running game philosophy

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At DallasCowboys.com, I broke down what I liked about the Cowboys’ running game in the Hall of Fame Game:

While it was great to see Dallas run the ball with some success, it was even better to see the types of runs they used. Specifically, the Cowboys ran the ball to the perimeter more often than usual, finding creative ways to get the ball into space. Bill Callahan called a stretch from a tight formation on the very first play of the game. Two plays later, the Cowboys lined up in a simple “Tight End Spread” formation, as pictured below.

This has been a semi-regular formation for the offense; I tracked them as using it on 49 plays in 2012, about three per game. They ran the ball on just 15 of those plays, 30.6 percent, but they had some success, rushing for 73 yards or 4.87 yards per carry (YPC).

Running from “Tight End Spread” and similar formations can be really valuable for Dallas. First and foremost, it spreads out the defense. For so long, NFL offenses have tried to run from tight formations, but that really just increases the number of blocks you need to make for a play to be successful. Running from tight formations can be useful in certain situations, such as goal line, but it’s not optimal for many other scenarios and certainly not for the acquisition of big plays.

And if you look at how the Cowboys have performed when they run the ball from spread formations, the data backs up the idea that they should consider flexing players out wide when they want to keep it on the ground.

The Cowboys totaled 4.6 YPC when running the ball from spread formations, compared to 3.3 YPC from tight formations. Some of that effect is due to a play bias – the offense uses primarily tight formations in short-yardage situations, for example – but the average distance-to-go on spread runs was less than a yard more than on tight runs, so it’s not as great of a disparity in situations as you might think.

And if you want an idea of how frequently the Cowboys used certain types of runs in 2012, take a look at this.

  • Bootleg: 0.5%
  • Counter: 2.5%
  • Dive: 57.2% (3.27 YPC)
  • Draw: 14.8% (4.36 YPC)
  • End-Around: 1.5%
  • Power: 18.2% (2.95 YPC)
  • Sneak: 0.5%
  • Toss: 4.3%
  • Trap: 0.5%

Well over half of the Cowboys’ runs were dive plays up the middle. Most of those were from tight formations with heavy personnel.

This is one of my favorite posts of the year so far, so definitely check out the whole article right here.

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