The Dallas Cowboys’ identity as a team is their running game. You know it, I know it and every team in the NFL knows it. The Cowboys have built their entire team with this identity in mind.
It’s why the Cowboys have allocated a ton of their resources to the offensive line. It’s why they took a running back fourth overall when most teams devalued the position altogether. It’s also why the offense tends to sputter when the running game struggles to keep the Dallas offense afloat, forcing a floundering passing attack to pick up the slack.
The Cowboys desperately need to get their rushing attack back on track against the New York Giants after rushing for just 94 yards on 22 carries against the Carolina Panthers.
This is a critical task considering that the Giants have the best run-defending defensive lineman in football — nose tackle Damon “Snacks” Harrison. Harrison was a problem for the Cowboys offense even when Dallas had Travis Frederick. Harrison could single-handedly wreck the Cowboys rushing attack without Frederick.
Harrison, who is the nose tackle in the Giants’ 3-4 defense, primarily makes most of his impact between the B-gaps, meaning the Cowboys would be smart to attack the edges against New York. The Giants will likely have the not-so-dynamic duo of Kareem Martin and Lorenzo Carter primarily responsible for protecting the edge.
Last week, the Cowboys were predictably woeful attacking the middle of the Panthers defense on the ground, averaging just 2.86 yards per carry. Carolina possesses the best defensive tackle duo in the NFL — Kawann Short and Dontari Poe — to go with the best inside linebacker in the league — Luke Kuechly.
Nevertheless, there was a glimmer of hope in the Cowboys’ struggles last week. They had some success attacking the edge of the Carolina defense with some pin-and-pull-sweep concepts. Here’s an example:
The pin-and-pull sweep is a scheme that utilizes a blend of down and reach blocks to “pin” defenders inside along with multiple pull blocks toward the edge. It is a variant of outside zone — Dallas’ favorite running play — but instead of the typical rip/reach/overtake rules, the “pin” gives the offensive line better angles to make their blocks.
In the above play, La’el Collins “pins” the playside defensive tackle while Joe Looney and Zack Martin “pull” around the edge to lead block for Elliott.
Interestingly, the Cowboys tagged this pin-and-pull sweep with a second-level read on the weak-side linebacker. If the linebacker doesn’t bite on the run action at the mesh point, Dak Prescott hands the ball to Elliott as he normally would. However, if the linebacker bites on the run action and crashes toward the line of scrimmage, Prescott will look to throw the backside slant — Michael Gallup on this play.
The Cowboys were consistent in their application of the pin-and-pull sweep against Carolina, running it a couple other times with great success, averaging 12.66 yards per carry on pin-and-pull sweeps and 3.29 yards per carry on every other run concept. However, they used a different wrinkle each time.
Here, the Cowboys are running a pin-and-pull sweep that is essentially the same as the one above. Collins “pins” the playside defensive tackle while Looney and Martin “pull” around the edge.
Yet, instead of reading the weak-side linebacker to potentially hit the backside slant by the X receiver, Dallas sent the backside tight end, Blake Jarwin, on a seam route. Because the weak-side linebacker kept his depth, Prescott once again was forced to hand the ball to the running back — Rod Smith — who gained five yards on the play.
On the other pin-and-pull sweep against Carolina, the Cowboys decided to tag the pin-and-pull sweep with a zone read instead of a pass concept. Take a look:
Here, the Cowboys were able to get a nice chunk gain with the pin-and-pull sweep, but pay close attention to Prescott. Instead of reading the weak-side linebacker to throw the ball, Prescott is reading the weak-side linebacker (No. 54 in the above clip), who has walked up to the edge, to see if he should keep the ball and run it himself or give it to the running back.
The read is simple. If the weak-side linebacker (No. 54) stays home, Prescott hands the ball to Elliott. If the linebacker crashes on the run action, Prescott keeps the ball and runs around the vacated weak-side edge.
Against the Giants, the Cowboys will have to make some slight adjustments to their blocking assignments on account of the fact that New York runs a 3-4 defense while Carolina runs a 4-3. The Cowboys would likely have Looney “pin” the nose tackle while Martin and left guard Connor Williams “pull” around the edge.
Even though they will still need to run into the teeth of the defense to keep the Giants honest, the Cowboys should make a more concerted effort to attack the edges with pin-and-pull concepts Sunday night.
It just might get the once-feared Cowboys rushing attack back on track.
John Owning writes about NFL player evaluation for SportsDayDFW.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JohnOwning.
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