ASHBURN — As Jon Bostic watched film of the Cowboys’ Week 1 smackdown of the New York Giants, the Washington Redskins linebacker noticed Dak Prescott and the Dallas offense running the same plays they have under coach Jason Garrett for years.
But Bostic said he saw immediately the influence of new offensive coordinator Kellen Moore, who at 30 is the NFL’s youngest play-caller.
More motion, more shifts, more pre-snap subterfuge.
“It’s a headache for defenses,” Bostic said.
After exploding for 494 yards in Week 1, the Cowboys offense under Moore looks revitalized. It’s just one game, but the increased emphasis on play action — pretending to run only to pass instead — paid off against the Giants.
According to Pro Football Focus, the Cowboys used play-action on 46.6% of their dropbacks, second-highest rate in the league. Three of Prescott’s four touchdowns came from those plays.
Play action as part of an offensive arsenal is practically as old as football itself. But offensive gurus like Moore are perfecting the misdirection-based approach, and modern teams are embracing the philosophy, running more play action last season than all of this decade.
According to Football Outsiders, 24% of all offensive plays last year were play action — up 22% from the year before, and the third straight year the average saw an increase.
Why the change? In a league that is so difficult to get players wide open, play-action serves as a way to create space, ESPN analyst and former quarterback Dan Orlovsky said.
“Unless they’re freaks, unless they’re the Julio Joneses, the next best way to do it is from a play-action,” Orlovsky told The Washington Times earlier this month. “From a very early age, defensive players hear ‘Stop the run, Stop the run, Stop the run’ and they hear that year after year after year.
“So you get fully committed to stopping the run, (or) anything that looks like it.”
That mindset, he said, conditions defenders to bite on the fake, freeing up playmakers in space.
Quarterbacks are also benefiting from play action as reads get simplified to, in some cases, a single progression instead of having to read the entire defense. “There’s some freedom in that as a quarterback,” Orlovsky said.
Some of the best offenses in the league thrive on fooling the defense. The Los Angeles Rams, who scored the second-most points per game in 2018, ran play-action a league-leading 36% on passing attempts last season. Rams coach Sean McVay has made that a staple of his offense and others are trying to follow suit.
If Dallas‘ heavy play-action usage under Moore continues, that will be a drastic shift from recent history. In 2018, the Cowboys ranked 13th with a 25% usage. Before that, they ranked 19th (22%) in 2017.
Interestingly enough, the Cowboys ranked third in 2016 at 24% — the year when Prescott filled in for an injured Tony Romo and Dallas finished 13-3. Since then, their rate has more or less stayed the same, but there have been other teams who have passed them by.
“Kellen’s off to a really good start,” Garrett said. “He’s a really smart guy. We had him here as a player for a few years and he’s one of those guys that you identify early on and say ‘This guy could be a really good coach.’ We were lucky to have him last year as our quarterback coach, and he’s done a really nice job as a coordinator so far.”
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