Dak Prescott, the Dallas Cowboys and Third Level RPO/Packaged Play Reads

Dallas Cowboys rookie Dak Prescott had about as good of a preseason debut as any rookie could ask for: Prescott finished the game 10 of 12 for 139 yards and two touchdowns, including a perfect strike to receiver Terrance Williams down the sideline. But as impressive as that throw was, Prescott’s most impressive trait was his calm and poise: In an opening weekend when higher profile rookie QBs like Jared Goff and Carson Wentz looked at times shaky and off-kilter, Prescott looked like a vet. So while there’s no need to get the hype train rolling too fast — it was one preseason game, and Prescott was facing almost entirely backups and guys who likely won’t make the roster — it was a great start.

But, even if Prescott plays great, all he can do is solidify his spot as the backup QB behind Tony Romo, which is why the most interesting play to me was one that told me something about what the Cowboys will do even when Prescott’s not in there. Specifically, on Prescott’s first touchdown pass, a ten-yarder to Dez Bryant, Dallas head coach Jason Garrett and offensive coordinator Scott Linehan called a “third level” packaged play, also known as a run-pass option or RPO. Third level packaged plays are the newest (although not that new) step in the evolution of shotgun spread “read” concepts: When the shotgun spread first became popular in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the defining plays were the zone read and read-option plays, in which the QB read a “first level” defender, i.e., a defensive lineman. The big innovation by the end of the 2000s and early 2010s were, first, built in screens, and later the earliest packaged plays/RPOs in which receivers ran slants, hitches and sticks and the QB would read a “second level” defender (i.e., a linebacker or nickel defensive back playing like a linebacker) to determine whether to hand off or throw.

In recent years a few teams — most notably Baylor, although there are others — began using packaged plays where the quarterback read a safety to determine whether to hand off or throw. This had two primary effects: (1) it is an excellent response to Quarters coverage, in which the safeties read the offense to determine whether to play the pass or the run, often outnumbering offenses in the run game as they are so difficult to account for; and (2) it transforms a read concept that was originally designed to move the chains by having the QB either hand off or throw a screen into a handoff or a touchdown.

Corey Coleman

Which brings me back to Dak Prescott’s play against the Rams. There was nothing that sophisticated about the concept: The Cowboys called an inside zone run play, in which they blocked all of the Rams’ frontal defenders, including the backside defensive end (i.e., no read option element), and tasked Prescott with reading the safety to the side of the single receiver, who just happened to be Dez Bryant. Now, I’m not sure if Bryant was only allowed to run a fade or had some sort of choice in what route he’d run (either choosing on the fly or via a pre-snap signal between receiver and QB), but teams often adjust the route by the single receiver to find the way to best attack the safety.

In any case, given that it was Dez Bryant singled up, all Prescott really needed to confirm was that the safety wouldn’t be able to help, something he was able to do quite quickly and likely even pre-snap. (A savvier safety might have aligned inside and then hurried back outside; Prescott did stare down Bryant a bit.) And with an extra safety stepping up for the run and a freak of nature 1-on-1 near the goal line, Prescott’s choice was simple:


So while Prescott’s performance should give Cowboys’ fans hope for what they might see in the future, this play should give them some insight into what they might see this season: A cutting edge concept that, in the end, reduces to a winning formula: Run the ball behind that great offensive line with extra numbers, or throw it to #88. That makes sense to me.

  • What about the interior lineman 4 yards downfield when Prescott lets go of the ball? Do you think that will become an issue, the more the types of plays are used in the NFL? I believe we will see some more penalties even in college in the sowing years.

  • csmaster

    Hey Chris,

    I was wondering what happens to these concepts when the WR is not as dominant (could happen in college) or the CB defending him is one of the best in the country (could happen in the NFL). Do these plays still work when you don’t have Corey Coleman or Dez Bryant to throw to? Having the WR run an option route theoretically makes the defender always wrong but that also assumes a reciever who already mastered a pretty complicated concept.

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  • Scott

    Welcome back, Chris! Always love your work, and am hoping to see more of it this season!

  • smartfootball

    Yes, it probably should have been called on this play. I am actually in favor of reducing the limit on how far linemen can get downfield to one yard (as in the NFL) versus three yards (as in college). Linemen should have some leeway, including because of plays like this, but I don’t much like the “POP pass” type plays where the QB keeps on a zone read and then eventually lofts the ball to a receiver while a lineman is standing at 9 yards downfield on the other side of the field.

    On this play, La’el Collins should have let the LB come to him more (good advice on inside zone combo blocks up to a LB anyway) and Prescott was a bit methodical getting the ball out. Meanwhile on the Baylor play they ran one-back power, and a pulling guard is unlikely to be downfield by the time the ball is gone. And of course there’s the enforcement problem — very hard to see in real time. The only serious solution I see to that is allowing officials to essentially call the penalty down from upstairs. That’s against the general spirit where everything is supposed to be called on the field, but very hard to see in real time and that would clean it up. Again, I think these plays are here to stay, and I also don’t mind it if the enforcement was a bit tighter.

  • smartfootball

    With most modern defensive structures and these types of plays *someone* is going to be 1-on-1 in some sort of man concept, even if it’s within a pattern match zone scheme. Much of the cat and mouse is isolating who it is, and getting the right matchup. The beauty of a Dez Bryant is he’s a matchup problem against just about anyone (in the Baylor clip it’s Browns first round pick Corey Coleman scorching the TCU defense). If you don’t have Dez Bryant it’s not as effective, but that also doesn’t mean they don’t work, it just means you might try to isolate someone else or find the right matchup, and remember too there’s also the matter of leverage and scheme — your WR might not be the all around threat Dez Bryant is but you still might be able to get solid gains on hitches and slants if you are controlling those safeties and linebackers from being able to help, and again the goal is really to keep those LBs and safeties from being a factor in stopping your run game. If you can’t block their front they don’t work that well in any case, but then you have larger issues.

  • Cody Alexander

    Briles has been doing this since 2011. The splits are what makes BU unique and so explosive. They open up the vertical option routes, even for the inside WRs. It’s not a complicated system that BU runs (fade, post, hitch, slant). The only way to stop it is to man the #1 WRs. Look at the losses BU has taken since 2012 and it is mostly against teams that could eliminate the outside threat.

  • I’m with you. I hate the POP pass, and this is approaching that territory. The reason it works so many times for the offense is hat the defense is reading the interior linemen. If they are going downfield, it by rule can’t be a pass.

    I think another way around having the officials call the penalty from the booth could be adding another official on the field. If these plays are here to stay, then allow the officiating to evolve with the game.

    Finally, make it a steeper penalty and some of this might stop. If it became a 15 yarder and got called 2-3 times a game, coaches will make sure that the OL knows to wait for the LB to come to them.

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  • Seth M. Fisher

    Ohio State was doing this against Michigan and Notre Dame last year, and we’ve been betting it’s going to feature in their offense as they reconfigure it for full-time Barrett.


    They (like Baylor) run it with power to avoid having linemen get too far downfield. They were having JT Barrett read the backside safety’s step-down, and if he came down on the run they threw a quick post over his head (CBs had outside leverage).

  • zkinter36

    They should just eliminate the “linemen downfield” penalty. It seems like it would provide a lot more clarity. It might give an advantage to the offense, but not nearly as much as people would think. A good defense is going to have programmed responses to run reads, whether it is indeed a run or a pass. Whether it is traditional playaction or one of these read plays, the defense better cover it up on the backside. If you are relying on a “box” defender to be responsible for an inside gap while also being responsible for a receiver releasing on a route, you’re gonna get carved up with or without that rule. We did a 7 on 7 playaction / run pursuit drill where the secondary has to deal with playaction, being blocked, Wr Screens, inverted veer sweeps, traditional zone read, and anything else that comes up. Whether an offensive lineman releases to the LB level has absolutely no impact on our reads. It’s kind of a joke that so many of these defense oriented college coaches whine about this.

  • gomer_rs

    The linemen really need to hold a double team for a 2-3 count.

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