Despite the injury crisis on their offensive line, the Redskins devised a clear game plan to attack the Cowboys on Sunday. It involved using multiple formations from two- and three-tight-end sets to manipulate the defense into favorable matchups. The Redskins had used this plan at times over the past few weeks with great effect.
Here against the 49ers, the Redskins use their tiger or 12 personnel group (one running back, two tight ends). Tiger personnel is traditionally a run-heavy personnel, with extra blockers on the line of scrimmage to help the offensive line. That forces the 49ers’ defense to use their base personnel group, with an extra linebacker on the field instead of a fifth defensive back. That means that one of Vernon Davis or Jordan Reed should match up against a linebacker.
On this occasion, the strong safety lines up over Reed, leaving a linebacker on Davis. The Redskins run four verticals and Davis sprints past the linebacker up the seam for a 51-yard gain.
The Redskins did a similar thing last week against the Eagles, too.
But instead of using a more traditional look, the Redskins spread the Eagles’ defense out with an empty backfield formation. As before, the Eagles match up their strong safety on Reed, leaving Davis on a linebacker.
While the formation is different, the concept remains the same and Davis runs past the linebacker in coverage again for another big gain.
This strategy creates matchup issues for the defense based purely on personnel, but it also restricts the number of pass rushers for the offensive line to deal with. Defenses will rarely rush more than four, as they want to keep as many defenders in coverage as possible to help counter the match up advantage the offense has. That made this strategy a good plan for the Redskins to use regularly against the Cowboys, given the injuries along the offensive line.
In the first quarter, the plan worked as anticipated.
Here, the Redskins work out of their trey or 13 personnel, meaning all three tight ends are on the field. Niles Paul splits outside with a cornerback aligned over him while Jamison Crowder lines up in the slot against a linebacker. On the far side, Reed is also matched up against a linebacker. With all of this information available to quarterback Kirk Cousins before the ball is snapped, he’s able to ascertain that the defense is likely in some form of zone coverage.
The Cowboys are indeed in zone coverage and the Redskins run a simple zone-beating route combination to hit Davis on the stick route for an easy gain.
The Redskins continued to use their multiple tight end sets to their advantage as the first quarter progressed.
On this play, the Redskins line up in a more traditional two-tight end formation, with both tight to the formation. However, they call a “switch” four verticals concept with the receivers running up the seam while the tight ends work out and down the sidelines. Reed gets matched up against linebacker Sean Lee to the left, which is a winning match up for the Redskins.
Reed wins his route, getting separation down the sideline from Lee. However, Crowder also wins his route down the seam and Cousins throws to him for a 41-yard gain.
The plan was working well for the Redskins. Out of 10 first quarter plays, the Redskins used either two- or three-tight-end sets on seven plays. They ended that quarter with 10 points and the lead. However, Paul and Reed left the game with injuries, leaving the Redskins with just Davis at tight end. That blew up their game plan, forcing them to revert to their zebra or 11 personnel group (one running back, one tight end, three wide receivers).
With less versatile and deceptive personnel available, the Redskins’ offense was much less of a threat. The Cowboys were able to play the rest of the game in nickel and dime personnel packages, enabling them to keep extra defensive backs on the field without having to be as concerned about the run game. They were then able to match up better against the Redskins receivers and play more pure man-coverage and blitz more regularly. This forced the Redskins to simplify their playbook and revert to a short, quick passing game.
The Redskins tried to give the Cowboys some different formations and looks, but ultimately had to run some base west coast offense concepts, like this simple spacing concept, which are designed to get the ball out of Cousins’s hands quickly.
Cousins works to his right, where he looks to Davis on a hook route. However, the Cowboys have a safety rotating down to take away the route, forcing Cousins to dump the ball off to Chris Thompson on his swing route out of the backfield for a short gain.
While the focus of attention going into the game was the injuries to the offensive line, it might have been the injuries to the tight ends that hurt the Redskins more. It took away the core of their game plan and forced them to simplify their offense, which the Cowboys were able to nullify for large parts of the game. It’s not clear just how long Reed and Paul will be out — although Reed is unlikely to play Sunday — so the multiple tight end sets may have to be left out of the game plan going forward.