Every team in the NFL does some things better than others. Some teams are particularly good at one thing, maybe even the best in the league. Think the New England Patriots and their play-action seam pass to the tight end. Or the Pittsburgh Steelers with the counter run. Or the Carolina Panthers' goal-line QB keeper.
None of these signature strengths are a secret. Opponents prepare for them in the film room and on the practice field, and yet these teams continue to succeed with the same concepts. That is, of course, often due to the presence of some especially skilled players, like Rob Gronkowski in New England, Le'Veon Bell in Pittsburgh and Cam Newton in Carolina. Still, these well-known plays generally require precise execution by many of the 11 players on the field. And when they work, they are often a thing of beauty, at least to football fans.
Each game week during Tampa Bay's 2018 regular season, we are going to look at a "Signature Play" that the Buccaneers upcoming opponent utilizes often and particularly well. With the help of images of a sample play at various points during its execution, we're going to try to understand why this play commonly works so well. This week, the opponent is the Dallas Cowboys, who employ the league's leading rusher in Ezekiel Elliott and know how to make use of his power and instinctive cuts.
DALLAS COWBOYS' SIGNATURE PLAY: EZEKIEL ELLIOTT INSIDE RUN GAME
The Dallas offense is weighted heavily to the run, which is not surprising given that it features a powerful young running back who has averaged 101.6 rushing yards per game in his three-year NFL career. Ezekiel Elliott led the NFL in rushing as a rookie with 1,631 yards and he's once again at the top of the list in 2018 with 1,349 yards per outing. This year, Elliott has also become a central part of the Cowboys' passing attack, leading the team with 72 receptions, which is 14 more than he had in his first two seasons combined. He rarely comes off the field, taking part in 89% of the Cowboys' offensive snaps this season.
The 6-0, 230-pound Elliott is perhaps the most complete back in the NFL and certainly the best at running between the tackles. He ranks fourth in the NFL with 539 yards after contact. Elliott is very instinctive and decisive at the line of scrimmage, spotting the best lane quickly and hitting it without hesitation. That natural ability factors into the play described below, which was designed to go between the tackles but turns into an explosive play when Elliott spots a lane outside the right tackle and makes his decision instantly.
Dallas alternated losses and wins for the first seven games of the season, then fell to 3-5 with a Week Nine loss at Tennessee right after the Cowboys' bye week. That's when the team turned a potentially disappointing season around, reeling off five straight wins to take over first place in the NFC East. The Cowboys can clinch the division with a win either this Sunday against the Buccaneers or in Week 17 against the New York Giants.
The middle opponent in that five-game run for Dallas was the division-rival Washington Redskins in Week 12. It was a defensive struggle in the first half and the Cowboys took a 10-7 lead into the intermission, only to see a Colt McCoy touchdown pass to Trey Quinn give the visitors a three-point lead (the extra point was no good). The Cowboys needed an answer and they got it quickly on a drive that reached Washington territory on a breakout, 16-yard run by Elliott.
The Cowboys line up to execute a specific running play that they might run up to five or six times in any given game. They are in "11" personnel with Elliott (#21) alone in the backfield about eight yards deep. The Cowboys start in a 3x1 set with three receivers split out to the right and the tight end, Dalton Schultz (#86) in line next to the left tackle. As seen in the shot above, however, wide receiver Noah Brown (#85) has gone in motion and is now split out to the numbers on the left. Brown is one of the NFL's better blocking receivers and on this play his assignment will be to keep the man covering him from getting to Elliott if the back does happen to break into the second level of the defense.
Because the Cowboys came out with a single back and one tight end, the Washington defense sent out their nickel package. There are only six defenders "in the box" near the line of scrimmage, the four down linemen and the two linebackers. Because the Cowboys have a tight end on the line, they have six blockers for six defenders; had they brought in a fullback and "21" personnel, the Redskins likely would have had seven or eight defenders in the box.
Washington has Ha Ha Clinton-Dix lined up very deep because he is going to be a single-high safety when cornerback Fabian Moreau (#31) blitzes out of the right slot and safety D.J. Swearinger (#36) comes up to cover Moreau's man.
The Cowboys blocking scheme is designed to double-team both of the Redskins interior linemen and create at least one opening for Elliott up the middle. Right tackle La'el Collins is responsible for a one-on-one block on Pro Bowl edge rusher Ryan Kerrigan (#91), and when Kerrigan jumps to his right to begin his rush Collins locks him up but lets him slide in that direction.
Right guard Zack Martin (#70) and center Joe Looney double-team Da'Ron Payne (#95), who is the nose tackle in this alignment. Left guard Xavier Su'a-Filo (#76) and right tackle Cameron Fleming (#75) are supposed to double-team Tim Settle (#97), who is the three-technique tackle in this set, but Settle slides right like the rest of the Washington line and Fleming ends up one-on-one with him, riding him out wide. This actually frees up Su'a-Filo to go after linebacker Zach Brown (#53) on the next level. That could have proved a critical block had Elliott cut into the A gap to the left of the center.
Linebacker Mason Foster (#54) reads the handoff and would be responsible for the B gap between the right tackle and right guard, but Kerrigan has slid into that gap, leaving the edge open. If Foster could have read this on time, he could have "rocked back" away from his original B gap assignment and rushed to seal off the edge. The play design likely called for Martin, one of the NFL's most athletic guards, to come off his initial double-team on the nose tackle and put a second block on Foster. However, the double team by Martin and Looney is so good that it has pushed Payne all the way back into Foster, effectively providing the block that way.
The blitzing cornerback, Moreau, is just visible coming into the shot above from the quarterback's right. As a blitzer, his first assignment is to go after Dak Prescott (#4), the quarterback. When and if Moreau reads that Prescott is handing the ball off, he needs to flatten out his angle so that's closer to the line of scrimmage so that he can potentially stop Elliott from getting around the end. However, Prescott is a good ball-handler and that's important here because Moreau doesn't know for sure that the play is a handoff and not play-action until it is too late to change his path.
In the above shot, the results of all those blocks and Prescott's ball-handling are evident. Since Kerrigan slid inside into the B gap, Foster got caught up in that double-team block in the middle and Moreau never flattened his blitz path, there was a clear lane around the outside of Collins, the right tackle. Before the snap, Elliott likely intended to look for a lane up the middle between those double-team blocks or through a B gap inside one of the offensive tackles. However, he instantly recognized the opening around the edge and cut that way to break into the open field.
By this point, Foster has seen where Elliott is headed but doesn't have enough of a head start to keep him from getting upfield. The two safeties are also reacting but Swearinger was pulled wide when the slot receiver slid out to toward the sideline to give the play a bubble-screen look. Swearinger is too far away get into Elliott's path and Clinton-Dix had lined up so deep that he won't arrive until Elliott has picked up a good chunk of yardage. He also has to make sure he comes up in a controlled manner so that the running back doesn't make a cut and get by him for an even bigger gain. At the bottom of the screen, Brown is blocking his man downfield, as well.
In the end, it's Clinton Dix and Foster who combine to make the tackle. The three make contact at the Dallas 47 but Elliott lowers his shoulders, puts two hands on the ball and drives forward through the tackle for five more yards of contact, to the Washington 48.
After an incompletion on the next play, Elliott will go around right end again for another eight yards, and on third-and-two Prescott will go deep to wide receiver Amari Cooper for a 40-yard touchdown. That puts the Cowboys back in the lead and when Prescott and Cooper hook up again minutes late for a 90-yard touchdown, the game is essentially over. Dallas goes on to win, 31-23.