Kellen Moore was a Dallas Cowboy for seven years before he joined the Chargers this offseason. He spent three years as their backup quarterback followed by a transition into their coaching staff starting with being the quarterbacks coach for a year, then a three-year stint as the offensive coordinator. Therefore, if anyone knows how to beat Mike McCarthy’s team, it will be him. With that in mind, we took to the tape to look at the Cowboys’ defensive system under Dan Quinn to see what areas Moore and the Chargers could look to exploit on Monday night.
welcome to LA, coach!— Los Angeles Chargers (@chargers) January 30, 2023
we've agreed to terms with Kellen Moore to become our offensive coordinator. pic.twitter.com/KDeTPnvnFv
To start with, let me surmise how Dan Quinn’s defense works and why they are set up this way. The Cowboys run a hybrid, or match, front that can either be a 3-4 or a 4-3 dependent on the situation. The clever part is that they don’t need to change who is on the field to do this meaning they can dictate how the offense responds instead of the other way around. This is very different to a traditional exchange where the offensive personnel take the field and the defensive personnel are swapped in to match what is being presented.
This advantage has been key over the last two seasons where innovative offensive play-callers like Kyle Shanahan (San Fransicso 49ers), Ben Johnson (Detroit Lions), Mike McDaniel (Miami Dolphins), and the emerging Drew Petzing (Arizona Cardinals) have been using normal personnel packages but in unconventional looks which are designed to mess with the defensive structure. As a defensive play-caller, how do you respond to seeing a 10-personnel package (one running back and no tight ends) but they have lined up in a split backfield with two in-line blockers? This used to be an outlier that you just told your defense to read and respond but now this is becoming utilized as a primary method of attack. Your structure needs to be able to handle it.
The Cowboys do this by using dime and nickel packages in a man-heavy system. This allows them to play the pass in very simple ways and move their defensive backs around to match the motions of the offense. This then allows their linebackers to focus on only what happens around the box and match the numbers the offense presenting to them. Overall, it is all about being able to be flexible as possible with the 11 men they have on the field and keeping things simple. To enable Quinn to run this kind of system, Jerry Jones has had to assemble a lot of hybrid players who can fill multiple positions: their dime and nickel safeties fill the role of linebacker and their off-ball linebackers fill the role of edge defenders. This is where I expect Moore to attack their defense just as the Cardinals and 49ers did in their wins over the Cowboys earlier this season; get their hybrid personnel into positions where they would usually need more specialist skills than they possess to win.
One change I am expecting to see from Mike McCarthy’s team is a lot more 3-4 looks than 4-3 due to their alpha linebacker Leighton Vander Esch being injured. He is doubtful for this game and even their second linebacker Damone Clark was limited in practice. Therefore, McCarthy and Quinn will have to decide whether to stick to the system and use backups or go into a less flexible look with five defensive lineman on the field and I think the latter is more likely.
Part 1: Get the OL moving
A method that has been utilized as a response to the Cowboys’ favored dime personnel (six defensive backs) is to get the offensive line exchanging gaps with tight ends and fullbacks to create mismatches in the run game. There are three main concepts that achieve this; counter, trap, and power. Both the Cardinals and 49ers used these play calls throughout their matchup with Dallas and they had a lot of success.
In the above play, Arizona rolls out a guard-tackle (GT) power concept with the three tight ends crashing down the line in the opposite direction of the pulling lineman. Because the Cowboys’ defensive lineman like to shoot gaps aggressively inside, this essentially exchanges the matchups leaving a corner and a safety up against two big offensive lineman on the move and the result is an easy touchdown.
The best way to expose a lack of experience in the box is to run counter, get the majority of the blockers going in one direction, and run the ball in the other behind the pulling lineman or lead blockers. The way that the Cowboys should have played this is to follow pulling blockers. However, they had two safeties in the box and #55, their primary linebacker, is already playing on the line and therefore can’t affect interior gaps. When you combine this problematic personnel grouping with the fact that #33 Damone Clark, their only linebacker in position to read and react, regularly reads the play slowly, then you start to see how this play, and others like this in this game, ended with a huge gap with nothing but clean grass for the back to run into.
Now the question arises: Can the Chargers emulate this concept? The answer is yes. Against the Dolphins, the last time Ekeler was healthy, the Bolts ran counter against Miami’s 3-4 front and it worked very well.
Instead of using the guard and tackle combination, they send Gerald Everett, the tight end, with the guard to clear out the linebacker who followed the pulling guard that pinned Bradley Chubb on the edge. This shows that Moore would be prepared for how the Cowboys would look to stop the counter even if their linebackers read and react appropriately.
Part 2: Play action
The next step that Moore could look to use off of the base of part one, is play action. Now the first thing to admit is that the Chargers have not been good at this so far this season. Justin Herbert holds a PFF grade of 69.3 (18th among starters) despite running it 28.1% of the time (10th among starters). Despite this, I think that Herbert and Moore can find the same success that both the Cardinals and 49ers found by running play action flood especially as they have ran it in their playbook too.
Both Arizona and San Francisco used the Cowboys aggressive system against them. They knew once they set up the run that they could get success in play action due to how the Cowboys second-level players like to attack downhill. Flood does this very well. It essentially makes you defend one side of the field at all three levels. This beats most pure zone coverages so teams normally like to run man against it, but if your linebackers are stepping up to defend the run, then they won’t be in a position to stop at least one of these routes from opening up.
Moore took this concept to another level by playing on the run game gap exchanges against the Dolphins. Here, he motions the tight end across to mirror the early part of a counter, and boy does it work as he got the all three key linebackers to step down to address the run leaving a wide open underneath route. Herbert then sees Keenan Allen being held by a corner who has been left to deal with him 1-on-1 and throws the ball his way drawing the flag for a big first down.
Part 3: Use their man coverage rules against them
The next schematic trait that Moore could look to attack is the Cowboys' tendency to play true Stick in man coverage even in bunches and stacks. This can be exploited for quick yards as Arizona show here. They use a sequence of releases from the motion bunch to get the first and second routes to screen off the matched up linebacker from getting to the flat route.
The Chargers do the same on this play in the Week Three game against the Vikings. Keenan is running the targeted route and the inside linebacker can't get through the mesh point of the other routes in time after Harrison Smith blitzes leaving Keenan open even if this did end up with his only drop of the day.
Kyle Shanahan found a way to put these three concepts together in a brilliantly designed play where he uses a pulling lineman to trap the free rusher, which then draws in the linebackers. At the same time, the vertical stem of the slot route slows down the linebacker from pursuing the flat route but this is just a distraction as Brock Purdy goes back to the slot in the space that has been vacated by the linebackers biting on the run fake. If Moore can pull of anything this intricate I will be very impressed.
This defense plays tough and they are all very clued-up on how they can be aggressive and scheme-sound at the same time. Their hybrid players are what make this system tick. They will not make any of this easy. Micah Parsons will wreck your gameplan. A lot of these concepts depend on blockers winning against him with no help even if it is for a moment. That is a scary prospect. The Cowboys' pass rush in general is brutal to play against as the Chargers found out in the preseason joint practice.
This is a good defense that becomes great against teams that don't come with a proper plan on how to expose their flaws and use their strengths against them. But as I said earlier, if anyone can find a way to win against this defense it will be the man who spent seven years on the opposite side of the practice field to them.
Kellen Moore, the ball is well and truly in your court.