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How the Bills and Cowboys offenses are running over the rest of the NFL

The Cowboys and Bills have two of the best offenses in the league thanks to blocking schemes that leave opponents bruised and confused.

San Francisco 49ers v Buffalo Bills Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

Running the ball isn’t easy. With all the physicality involved, the run game at its core is a ballet. A violent ballet. We have an assignment, a technique to be executed and we must make adjustments on the fly. So when everything goes as planned, it’s a beauty.

The running game is also a complimentary piece of the passing game. Big passes are often a result of a play action fake, which works best when the run game is viable. My goal here is to enlighten y’all to the ins and outs of the run game and how they can give the offense easy chuck pass plays.

Before I get to how the Cowboys stormed into Lambeau and dominated the previously No. 1 ranked Green Bay run defense, I want to start with the Buffalo Bills. They are riding a four-game streak largely due to the rebound in their run game. On Sunday, against the 49ers, they rushed for 313 yards on 44 carries, for an average of 7.1 yards per rush.

Here are two run plays that are perfectly schemed up by the coaches and beautifully executed by the Bills offense.

Speed Option

The Bills moved an offensive tackle to the opposite side of the line and filled his spot with a tight end, an unbalanced slot formation. The advantage of this is to set up mismatches. Often a defense has trouble aligning to this formation and are left without good numbers to one side.

However, there are limited runs out of this formation. You can run a power scheme and zone to the unbalanced side or run counter back to the tight end. The defense knows that passing the ball will be limited by this formation so they can load the box. Now, it becomes a chess match. Here’s how the Bills took advantage.

Bills unbalanced formation

The Niners have set their strength to the unbalanced side. This is often the adjustment that defenses make. They treat the guard on the unbalanced side of the line as the center. With the Bills setting the slot into the boundary, it clears out the defenders on the wide side of the field. The Niners believe there aren’t many play options to the wide side of the field and they would be correct.

Here’s how it looks from the front.

Bills' unbalanced formation, front view

As you can see, the Niners defense is very balanced in their alignment. Not many clean holes for Buffalo to run to. So the Bills create a hole by using Tyrod Taylor as a decoy to pull a defender to him. It’s a brilliant run design.

Bills formation annotated

As you can see above, by using the QB to option the circled defender, the Bills now have a “hat on a hat” and have good leverage against the defenders. The toughest block is the tight end having to chase number No. 50 to the play side, but again, good scheme design by the Bills.

A normal option would have the right tackle, a slower player, trying to beat a linebacker to the edge. Tough sledding. Here, they put the tight end on the linebacker, a more favorable matchup in this scheme.

As the play takes shape, you can see where the offensive line has clear leverage on the defenders. The center and backside left guard work a textbook scoop block, with the left guard cutting the nose tackle and the center working cleanly to the middle linebacker. The other backside blocks are mostly worthless on the play; those defenders can’t make the play because it’s hitting so fast.

Let’s take a look at the front side, where the money is made on this touchdown run. The guard reaches the defensive tackle playing a two-gap technique. Easy enough. The tight end is chasing the linebacker. Notice the fullback releasing wide to make the hole. He knows that No. 35 has the force and must stay wider than him. If the fullback runs towards the line of scrimmage, he constricts the hole. The center makes the middle linebacker run underneath, which is fine, and the fullback is continuing to widen the defender.

Counter from unbalanced slot formation

Next, same formation, but different run. Here is how you scheme up a defense.

The next drive, the Bills come out in the same formation. However, you notice that the linebackers, playing the exact same call, are leaning slightly towards the tight end side. The same side where the Bills burned them with that speed option. Nos. 57, 50 and 41 are all moved slightly to that side.

counter play from unbalanced slot

So, what do the Bills run here? A more traditional counter play out of the unbalanced formation, a play the Niners would be expecting from this formation. But watch how this plays out.

The middle linebacker, No. 57, bites on the fake and runs out of the option side. This leaves a huge hole in the middle of the defense and the Bills take advantage. They win their one-on-one blocks, and the left guard pulls and blows up the force defender. The fullback screams into the hole and cleans up.

Off goes Shady!

Just an outstanding job of the offensive staff putting the Bills players in schematic advantages and them taking care of business. It’s why they are rolling now!

MLB misses

Notice the middle linebacker, circled in yellow, is a full two holes away from his gap all because of the option from earlier.

Here is the play in full.

Here’s how the Cowboys do it

Scott Linehan, the Cowboys offensive coordinator, is doing a fabulous job with his offense. He’s riding the best line in football, giving Zeke Elliott tons of carries and finding easy completions for Dak Prescott.

Here is a look at how he set up two huge plays for Lucky Whitehead on Sunday.

The Cowboys rely on single-back zone runs to gain most of their yards. The Packers’ run defense is stout because they get up the field quickly. Penetration is the enemy of zone run schemes and their best defensive tackle, Mike Daniels, excels at it.

Penetration messes up the timing of zone runs, plus it often forces the back to miss the hole because he has to bubble to avoid the defender who got up the field. This week against Green Bay, the Cowboys built in more double teams, running a play called double or duo.

The idea of the play is to get as many double teams as possible across the board. It’s not a home run type play, but it beats up the defense and eventually, you’re able to run some excellent play action passes.

The main formation for double/duo is a wing formation. You can run it from the slot, with the backside tight end attached or not. Here are the two main formations the Cowboys used for their package of plays with a tight end wing.

Cowboys duo formation
Cowboys formation

The first time the Cowboys lined up in this formation was on the goal line and ran Cole Beasley on a sprint out for a touchdown. He can hide behind all the big uglies up front and run to the flat. Nice throw and catch by Dak and Cole.

Now comes the heavy dose of double. Notice the double teams? There are as many as possible.

To eliminate double teams, the Packers are in a bear front. The inside three guys are covered. The right guard and right tackle, the tight end and the wing are able to double team, but this play is won with the single blocks by the center and left guard.

What makes double a great run play is that there isn’t really a designed hole. If the back is patient, like Elliott has been, the run can bust anywhere. Here it’s between the center and left guard. I think it’s important to notice how Elliott sets up the middle linebacker. He knows with the front the Packers are in that it’s possible that player might be unblocked. So he runs at him, gives him a little head nod, and runs backside. This is a back that offensive linemen LOVE!

The next time the Cowboys come out in a wing formation the backside tight end is attached. The Packers are again in a bear front. It’s tough sledding to run into that. So the Cowboys run Whitehead on an end around. The Packers are all set on stopping Elliott and have no idea Whitehead is getting the ball. Great set up. Running a simple end around, once a game, can loosen up a defense.

This time, the Packers stay in a normal sub 4-2-5 front and the Cowboys are able to get three different double teams working. Elliott reads the front side linebacker, who rushes forward to the line, and bounces it out to the edge for a big gain.

And here is where it all pays off.

In the fourth quarter, the Cowboys have been pounding the Packers on the ground. Whitehead is back in the game and he’s motioning into a position where he might block the strong safety in the hole. The Packers are expecting more of the same. Ground and pound.

Not so fast. Here comes the play action fake. Prescott sinks the ball into Elliott’s gut to draw in the linebackers and safeties. Whitehead takes off through the interior of the defense and is wide open. With a better throw from Prescott, Whitehead walks into the end zone.

This play isn’t successful if the offensive line isn’t taking control early on and forcing the issue upfront. The Packers’ strong run defense is getting dominated and sells out to stop the run. It’s an exceptional job of game planning by the Cowboys staff!

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You can see with just these seven plays how intricate the run game can be. Coaches stay up late at night trying to find ways to gain an advantage over their opponent. The scheme could be great, but it comes down to the players executing what's called.

The Bills’ and Cowboys’ offenses are doing this at a high level, and it’s no coincidence that both teams are on a roll.