Let’s face it; the Dallas Cowboys run game has not been successful in some time. They have lacked the consistent ability to sustain drives with their running game. Sunday was just another example of that. The Cowboys ran the ball 26 times for a pedestrian 74 yards. When the team can’t run the ball conventionally as the Cowboys have shown that they can’t, they have a choice to make. They can either abandon the run game altogether ,which Dallas has done often in the past few years, or they can find a new way to move the ball on the ground. The Cowboys finally decided to chose the latter on Sunday.
The Packers in past seasons have struggled to run the ball, similarly to Dallas. Aaron Rodgers was taking too many hits because he was throwing the ball far too often and didn’t have any sort of run game to rely on. But then the Packers decided to do something that would help solve their running game woes; they decided to use wide receiver Randall Cobb out of the backfield and run with him. Here is an example of one of those plays:
When the Packers huddled with three wide receivers and two tight ends, the Bears countered with their nickel package; four down lineman, two linebackers, three corners and two safeties. Normally, this is the correct formation to counter the five pass catchers, but when Green Bay lines up Randall Cobb in the backfield, it created a big problem for the Bears defense.
Chicago only has six men in the box, while Green Bay has two tight ends lined up close to the line of scrimmage. The Bears are out numbered and have the incorrect personal in the game to stop any sort of run.
The surprising thing is that Chicago actually plays this well, but the play design makes this formation and this particular play almost impossible to stop. The end result was a long gain for Cobb and the Packers and a first down conversion which led to a score. A low risk play that turned into a game breaker.
However, the Packers aren’t the only team to do this. The Vikings with Percy Harvin (before he was traded to Seattle) and now the Rams with Tavon Austin have all experimented with one of their explosive wide receivers in the backfield. While Dez Bryant is the Cowboys most explosive wide receiver, they actually have a player on their roster who has thrived before in the backfield; Dwayne Harris.
Dwayne Harris was a former option quarterback at East Carolina and now is one of the best returners in all of football. If the Cowboys were to copy the Packers and Vikings, he would be their best choice out of the backfield. Here is how Harris compares to other “joker” running wide receivers:
As you can see, Dwayne Harris is physically similar to the other joker wide receivers in the league. Harris just lacks the elite top end speed, but makes up for it with quickness and strength. Harris is a very crafty open field runner and seems to have the vision to succeed as a part time NFL running back. He has shown that ability over time with his tremendous return skills. And just maybe that’s why some of these players can prosper out of the backfield. Harvin and Cobb were both fantastic return men before they became star wide receivers in the NFL. Great vision and the ability to make defenders miss in the open field is what makes the transition to joker running back possible.
The “Joker” formation has always intrigued me. The Packers ran this play often with Randall Cobb and always gained positive yardage as did the Vikings with Percy Harvin. The Cowboys finally ran one of these plays with Dwayne Harris motioning in the backfield. Here is how it happened on Sunday.
The Cowboys deploy an empty backfield set with four wide receivers and one tight end. The Eagles counter with their nickel package (4 defensive lineman, 2 linebacker, 5 defensive backs) thinking it’s an obvious pass play. The Cowboys then motion Dwayne Harris into the backfield and snap the ball. With only six players in the box, Dallas has the advantage with six blockers as well and the runner. The Cowboys pitch the ball to the strong side of the field, and actually leave the backside end unblocked, leaving six blockers against five defenders.
At this point, Dallas has this play blocked fairly well. Both linebackers are being sealed off and the only possible player to stop Dwayne Harris from ripping off a long run is the highlighted safety. But the mistake comes when Miles Austin doesn’t block the safety. Instead, he is looking to possibly block the other safety on the opposite side of the field.
Harris has only the safety to beat outside if he wants to score. Give credit to the safety here as he forces Harris back inside to the unblocked Brandon Graham as the two corral Harris into “only” a six yard gain. The play was successful for the Cowboys as they gained more than a few yards on a first down run, something they haven’t been able to do well this season. But the play did have home run potential if Miles Austin could have picked up his block. This run by Dwayne Harris is a low-risk, high reward play that started off a huge second half scoring drive for the Cowboys.
Am I saying that the Cowboys should use Dwayne Harris has their primary running back or that they should use this play 10+ times a game? No, of course not. But they should consider using this play a few times every game as it puts a lot of stress on the defensive backs to make tough tackles to prevent a huge play. Dwayne Harris is too special of a playmaker not to use him more and that includes using him in the backfield.