Dallas’ overall offensive philosophy remains consistent in 2021 when compared to early 2020, the last time quarterback Dak Prescott was healthy. We should continue to expect an elevated pace of play and elevated pass rates as the norm under offensive coordinator Kellen Moore moving forward. The biggest thing we need to understand about this offense, however, is the fact that Moore is entirely willing and able to turn “elevated pass rates” into “extreme pass rates” in negative game scripts, as evidenced by Week 4 of 2020 and Week 1 of 2021. The overall pass rates for Dallas in the first four games of 2020 were 67.7%, which jumped to 76.62% and 76.32% in Week 1 of 2021 and Week 4 of 2020, respectively – both games that Dallas fell behind early. The Cowboys also increased their 12-personnel rates significantly to start the season, running two tight end sets a massive 35% of the time in Week 1 (in 11-personnel only 49% of the time – likely due to OL/DL mismatch against Tampa Bay, but things don’t get easier this week). When evaluating how the Cowboys are likeliest to try and win here, we must take the multitude of injuries (and suspensions) this team has experienced yet again early in the season. Standout offensive lineman La’el Collins was suspended for six games for failure to appear for a league drug test, wide receiver Michael Gallup was placed on IR after Week 1, defensive end Demarcus Lawrence injured his foot in practice and it is reportedly of the “long-term” variety, and cornerback Kelvin Joseph and defensive tackle Neville Gallimore are both out with long-term injuries.
Running back Ezekiel Elliott is still a top-five running back, at least as far as snap rate and running back opportunity are concerned. We saw him flounder last season after Prescott was lost for the year, while the team also dealt with numerous injuries along the offensive line. This season, La’el Collins will miss the next third of the season and the Cowboys’ defense seemingly got worse, indicating a situation where they should be forced into more aerial aggression over the coming six weeks than they would otherwise like. That said, All-Pro guard Zack Martin returns for Week 2 after missing the season opener on the COVID list. The matchup on the ground for this one is also less than ideal. Opposing defensive tackle Linval Joseph is one of PFF’s top-rated run-stoppers over the previous three seasons and the Chargers are fresh off a stifling performance against fellow borderline-elite-usage running back Antonio Gibson, giving up only 4.17 yards per running back opportunity (23 carries and seven targets). In all, this is definitely not a “get-right” spot for Mr. Elliott.
We should see the inflated 12-personnel rates continue into Week 2 after perimeter wide receiver Michael Gallup suffered a calf injury in Week 1, who was subsequently placed on IR. This should spell additional snaps for Cedrick Wilson, Noah Brown, and Simi Fehoko, likely in that order. The overall setup for the Cowboys’ pass game expectation points to primarily short-intermediate routes through Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb, and the tight ends (Dalton Schultz and Blake Jarwin) as the Chargers look to allow their vaunted pass rush to create organic pressure without the need for elevated blitz rates, allowing their second level to settle into complex zone assignments. Consider both Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb favorites to end the week amongst the top five wide receivers in targets.
Offensive Coordinator Joe Lombardi’s offense appeared similar to how it did from his time in New Orleans as the quarterbacks coach, with heavy utilization of the “X” receiver (Mike Williams) and power run scheme, but he carried over the high pace of play from the 2020 Chargers team. The most surprising aspect of the Week 1 usage was the zero targets for running back Austin Ekeler, who is not best utilized as a power back. That usage contradicts Lombardi’s public statements this offseason which indicated his desire to maximize the talent available (which would be getting the ball to Ekeler out of the backfield in space). Finally, a whopping 33 of Herbert’s 47 pass attempts in Week 1 flowed through three primary players: Keenan Allen (13), Mike Williams (12), and Jared Cook (8). If that usage continues, all three should be considered weekly in what would be a highly concentrated passing attack.
The power run game filtered primarily through Austin Ekeler, but he only out-touched backup Larry Rountree III 15 to 8. Furthermore, all Chargers running backs saw a grand total of ONE target in the passing game in Week 1 (which went to third stringer Justin Jackson), which absolutely nobody would have predicted. The matchup is a good one on the ground (contrary to last week against the Football Team), so there is a chance Lombardi dials up more usage for these backs, but a bet on this backfield is exactly that – a bet on usage and scheme changing from Week 1. The running back snap rate for Week 1 broke down to 58% for Ekeler, 27% for Roundtree III, and 14% for Jackson. Without the typical usage through the air for Ekeler, he is relegated to “yardage and touchdown back” status and would require the bonus and multiple trips to the end zone for utility.
Things get interesting when dissecting this passing attack. Both starting defensive ends will be out for Dallas after Demarcus Lawrence suffered a broken foot in Wednesday’s practice. Coupled with a now top of the league pass blocking offensive line for the Chargers, and Herbert should have all the time in the world to pick the secondary apart. It will be interesting to see how Dallas chooses to deploy cornerback Trevon Diggs in coverage, who is really the only member of their secondary considered above average in coverage (and is fresh off a game in which he shut down Mike Evans, primarily due to sticky coverage). Either way, the heavy slot snap rate for Keenan Allen and likely coverage by Anthony Brown when on the perimeter lead to plus matchups. The tight end snap rates played out as predicted leading into the season in Week 1, with aging Jared Cook seeing the field for 58% of the team’s offensive snaps and physical specimen Donald Parham seeing the field for 51% of the team’s offensive snaps. That led to eight targets for Cook and only one for Parham, but the usage is suspect at best. Jaylen Guyton actually ran the third most routes for the Chargers in Week 1 at 35 (only 30 for Jared Cook), who appears entrenched in the WR3 role (rookie Josh Palmer saw only 14 offensive snaps and ran only eight total routes). Finally, if ever there were a matchup for Ekeler’s targets to increase, this would be it. If they fail to bump in this spot, we might have to accept a low pass game role moving forward.
We have an interesting case where we’re likely to see the Chargers dictate the actual game flow while the Cowboys dictate the overall pace. What I mean by that is this: Dallas is likeliest to force an uptempo game through elevated pass rates to the short and intermediate areas of the field while Los Angeles is likeliest to force varying game flows based on their success on both sides of the ball to start the game. Either way, the avenues each team is likeliest to attack here remain constant whether the game scripts plays to a slugfest (highly unlikely), a shootout, or the Chargers taking and holding an early lead. The only game flow that alters how each team is likeliest to attack would be one in which the Cowboys jump out to a multi-score lead, which is highly unlikely here. This gives us a high confidence scenario for the top plays from the game.