Last night, the Dallas Cowboys scored on this play:
It’s a well-designed play for Dallas. Typically on these red zone/short yardage plays, you have the H-back come across the formation as the pass-catcher, and you fake the handoff to the RB: it looks like split zone. On this play, Dallas gets the same action effect — pulling the defense with hard run action one way; leaking a backfield player out in the other direction — but with jet motion and a RB release.
Clever design to get to a familiar idea.
As the play runs, however, you see that Jordan Hicks (MLB) does a great job diagnosing the play action and begins bubbling out to gain width on Elliott and Prescott’s action to the field.
Given the action of SAF Malcolm Jenkins and Hicks, it seems to me that they are funneling the release of Ezekiel Elliott — that is to say, if Elliott releases to Jenkins’ side of the field, Jenkins will cover him man-to-man; if Elliott releases to Hicks’ side of the field, then Elliott is Hicks’ responsibility.
Once Elliott comes across the formation, he becomes Jordan Hicks’ responsibility. But Hicks elects to pass Elliott off to Corey Graham, who had TE Geoff Swaim in coverage responsibility. Graham does have a better initial angle on Elliott’s route, because he’s wider outside of Hicks, and someone needs to pressure Prescott to prevent him from scrambling for the first down.
As we well know, however, Graham was late recognizing the play and getting on his horse to cover Elliott, which lead to the easy touchdown.
What’s interesting here is the pass-off attempt by Jordan Hicks, however. While obviously Philadelphia couldn’t have prepared for this exact look, they have been struggling mightily with RB flat and wheel routes in the early season. It was completely unsurprising to see Dallas go for one on such a key 3rd down and short, and despite the fact that Hicks seemed to have an adjustment in mind, Philadelphia failed to execute.
On a 4th and 2 on the ultimate drive for the Titans, Tennessee went for the flat route to Dion Lewis.
Here, they built up a ton of traffic confusion with a tight bunch set between Jordan Hicks and the releasing RB. Hicks is late to the route, which gives QB Marcus Mariota and Lewis plenty of room for an easy pitch and catch, as well as some healthy YAC.
After the Titans ran it — and Philadelphia struggled with it — Carolina was the next team to come back to the well on a key play. This is a 3rd and 2, late in the fourth, with Carolina down by 4.
This is a more traditional pick play, with one receiver responsible for holding off Jordan Hicks instead of the general chaos of the bunch set. You’ll notice that Carolina here uses the late motion of RB Christan McCaffrey to get a better angle for his route against Hicks; same result as the Cowboys’ usage of the split zone motion to generate a good angle on Hicks to the opposite flat.
Instead of just attack with a flat rout, Jacksonville uses reduced splits to the boundary to pull the Eagles’ defense into the center of the field, which leaves space outside the numbers deep for RB T.J. Yeldon to release into on the wheel route. Again, Jordan Hicks is unable to get connected to the route given the pick ran by the playside receiver.
That’s three games in a row now (Panthers, Jaguars, Cowboys) that a key 3rd down was converted with a RB route released into the backfield. Given the success of the Panthers and Jags — as well as the Titans — we have to wonder if Hicks was passing off the Elliott route to Graham in part because the defense and DC Jim Schwartz have had discussions on how to handle those flat releases by running backs, especially when they’re in man coverage.
And that’s another big takeaway here: You don’t want to get predictable as a defensive coordinator, and teams seemed to have keyed on this 3rd/4th and short tendency of Jim Schwartz to play man coverage.
Against the Cowboys, it was a pure Cover 0 look — no deep safety screams man coverage. Same goes for the Titans, while the Panthers look was a more traditional Cover 1 (single deep safety). Against the Jaguars, it was a pattern-match look to the bunch set — something Philadelphia does often. But when they do it, they typically have to go man coverage on the non-bunch side, which still fits the mold.
So we go back to the pass-off attempt from Hicks. Was this scripted; something designed to alleviate the issues with the RB releases? I don’t think so, really — I think it was more Hicks recognizing that, once Corey Graham stayed his momentum, he had no shot at tagging Elliott in space, so he went to pressure Prescott and force the issue.
If it was a scripted idea, we might see Philadelphia attempting to key RB flat releases and pass off the coverage, leaving LBs to handle those tight ends and slot receivers causing traffic to let slot corners and safeties close down on the RBs in space.
Regardless, Philadelphia has a bevy of issues on the defensive side, and this is one of them: they can’t handle RB releases into the flats. It will be interesting to continue tracking these routes and the coverage deployed against them, to see if Philadelphia indeed has a chalkboard solution, or if they’ll keep flying by the seat of their pants.