Tony Romo #9 of the Dallas Cowboys hands the ball off to DeMarco Murray #29 of the Dallas Cowboys against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Cowboys Stadium on December 16, 2012 in Arlington, Texas.
Yesterday, I discussed why it would be beneficial to get Terrance Williams on the field as much as possible in 2013, especially when the Cowboys want to run.
Rookie tight end Gavin Escobar is a poor blocker and the ‘Boys have historically been a whole lot more efficient on the ground when rushing from three-receiver sets. Defenses substitute in nickel personnel and spread the field, opening up running lanes inside.
On their 86 designed runs with “11” personnel—one running back, one tight end, and three receivers—the Cowboys averaged 4.35 YPC in 2012. Compare that to just 3.31 YPC on all other runs. In addition to using the proper personnel, though, it’s also important to run the ball at the right times. And those “right times” might not be what you think.
The primary reason that rushing from three-receiver sets works is that it is unusual. When defenses see three receivers on the field, they generally expect a pass. Using the same thinking, offenses can often find rushing success in passing situations simply because the down-and-distance implies a pass is coming. Did you know that rushing the ball is more effective than passing on every down-and-distance from third-and-one to third-and-four? And it’s actually just a tad less successful all the way up until third-and-10. It’s not that running the ball on third down is inherently beneficial, but rather defenses gear up so much to defend the pass that they become susceptible to the run. The fact that most NFL teams pass the ball on third down—even third-and-short—benefits those offenses who decide to run it.
So if we look solely at the Cowboys’ runs from three-receiver sets that also came in “passing situations,” we should see more efficiency. And we do. Looking solely at runs that came on first-and-11 or greater, second-and-six or greater, or on third down, Dallas averaged 4.61 YPC on 28 plays. That means that the offense generated 4.22 YPC on all other runs from three-receiver sets.
The Cowboys don’t need to line up in a three-receiver set to run the ball on third down and trick defenses, but it helps. In a situation such as third-and-three in which NFL teams passed the ball 84.1 percent of the time last year, lining up with “11” personnel can further perpetuate the idea that a pass is on the way. That’s probably why we see such great third-down rushing efficiency when offenses use pass-oriented packages and formations.
Jonathan Bales is the founder of The DC Times. He writes for DallasCowboys.com and the New York Times. He's also the author of Fantasy Football for Smart People: How to Dominate Your Draft.