Why Can’t Cowboys and Packers Get It Right?

Football is a cat-and-mouse game, and the pony crew (two running backs on the field together) always gets airtime during the offseason. Offenses innovate and defenses react to that innovation. The rules began to change in the second phase, so offenses became smaller and more based on speed. The passing attack has decimated the run game, and defenses have matched it by getting smaller and less than 20-pound linebackers.

Sean McVay is a special breed of innovator. The Los Angeles Rams head coach popularized the pre-snap move in the running game to create doubt in the minds of the running backs. He started using receivers like Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp as screen blockers and using them in short action to break outside linebackers, essentially forcing the tight ends to move.

McVay also adapted quickly. Seeing a running game non-existent until the start of the 2022 season, he moved wide receiver Ben Skowronek into the backfield to play quarterback. He doesn’t just play quarterback. He’s still used more often as a traditional receiver, but the package exists with him in the backfield. It wasn’t an offseason plan.

So if McVay can adjust quickly, why can’t the Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys install a comprehensive package that utilizes pony personnel given each team’s seemingly weak receiving corps?

What is the Pony Personal Package?

Pony personnel isn’t the normal two-back lineup we’re used to seeing in San Francisco with Kyle Jusczyk (although Kyle Shanahan uses it in a unique way compared to most quarterbacks).

The pony staff is a set of two backs with two running backs. Both of them don’t have to be in the back because it’s not a formation, the players are on the field.

How Packers and Cowboys Use the Pony Staff

Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon are a dynamic duo in the backfield for the Packers. Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard are the same for the Cowboys. Each franchise has a “thunder and lightning” factor, although the main roles have been reversed. Jones is the lightning and key back for Green Bay, and Zeke is the lightning and key back for Dallas.

There were a lot of pony crews that had a thing for Green Bay this season. Justis Mosqueda wrote about the Packers’ problems through three games using this package. Green Bay didn’t lack frequency. Mosqueda noted that they used it 28 times in three games.

This 28 snaps, 22 split-back gun was some fashion. By my count, Green Bay rode both of its ponies 12 times and averaged 10 plays per game in the pony lineup.

All 12 snaps were from the split-back weapon. Most of those snaps were read options with a swing screen on the opposite side. Only two of the 12 snaps were straight backs, and both were in the first quarter of the game.

The most confusing of the game came in overtime. The Packers went for a split-back weapon, but they ran it from 12 personnel instead of 21.

Can’t a running back the size of my midsection with a 240-pound quarterback run into this formation and block the edge rusher?

And that’s the thing about the two back sets. Especially for the Packers, they are painfully predictable. While most passing attacks no longer feature two back sets, what’s stopping the Packers from putting Jones in the slot or out wide?

I’m a writer and could even run a barrier out of numbers or get out of the den quickly. Jones could do it in his sleep.

And then there’s Kellen Moore’s Cowboys…

Talk about misuse of company funds! During minicamps and training camp, we heard from sources far and wide that Tony Pollard was working the receivers, running routes and catching passes. Pollard has lined up either in the slot or wide 26 times in the first four weeks. He caught seven passes for 71 yards in 2022. Its aDOT is 0.

It does not capture digs, inclines, exits, entries, returns, or fades.

Cowboys use their version of the pony crew less often. It’s more of a situational view for them than part of a standard bottom-up game plan. They will line up in a strong I formation with Elliott at linebacker and run jumps with him to the linebacker in short-yardage situations.

Another key use is to get the ball into Pollard’s hands outside off using jet and orbital moves. He doesn’t line up in the slot or run wide running routes.

The Cowboys have combined Pollard and Elliott 19 times through four weeks.

Are you inspired by the Jets?

You read that right, sports fan! To find some variety in the pony lineup, we need to visit the Meadowlands, and more specifically, the brother of the Packers’ head coach. Mike LaFleur is the Jets offensive coordinator. Robert Saleh is the defensive head coach, so LaFleur is the architect of the offense.

Drafting Breece Hall in the second round of the NFL draft was a peculiar decision by a team that was not ready to compete. He had a talented back in Michael Carter, now entering his second season.

How LaFleur positioned the two backs when both were on the field piqued my interest in writing this piece. The Jets played just six games with a pony lineup against the Steelers. But what was interesting was the diversity of placement.

Interestingly, there was no 20-person crew. With Garrett Wilson, Elijah Moore and Corey Davis, they have a dangerous front five to get the ball. Instead, they lined up twice out of 22 and four out of 21.

Three of the six hits were two-back weapon combinations. Twice they ran power with a guard ad Carter lead, with the tight end filtered under as a shovel option.

Somewhere Andy Reid was eating delicious Kansas City BBQ with tears of admiration rolling down his cheeks. They finished first on both runs, rushing for nine yards and 16 yards, respectively. LaFleur called it to the contrary.

The choice of long mesh and tight end shovels gets the job done. The move froze defenders enough both times to allow Hall to run wide. Those two running plays were the only two similar looks the Jets gave in this grouping.

Elliott is a fantastic blocker and Dalton Schultz is a weapon after the catch. Using Elliott as a lead blocker and Shultz as a screener seems like the design Moore, who picks up concepts often, should implement.

Unfortunately, the play-fake was too good for the sideline operator approaching Carter. If Wilson settles in here, he likely hits Hall moving down the sideline after running a straight route that he bends vertically. The running back was a step in the corner.

The Jets even came up short on the field with both. In fact, they lined up in a 4×1 with Carter on the wing and Hall on the outside. They employed the concept of the gap, and Wilson was captured in a more comprehensive reading of Adam Levine’s extramarital activities.

The other two appearances were the depletion of zones of various personnel groups and formations. In those six plays, the Jets had more variety than the Packers did on twelve snaps in Week 4.

Simple things can break trends

It wouldn’t take much to keep the defense honest against the Packers and Cowboys pony personnel packages. The Indianapolis Colts have found ways to integrate Nyheim Hines into their passing offense for years now.

While his overall aDOT pales in comparison to a traditional receiver as backfield targets remain his primary function, the Colts are changing things up to keep the secondary honest while on the field at the same time as Jonathan Taylor.

This is not rocket science. Any running back is asked to run the “Texas” route at one point or another. Why couldn’t they have the occasional one or three step slant, vertical route, jam/curve, square in or square out?

Indeed, Jones and Pollard didn’t even have to be outstanding in their efforts in the slot or out wide. They just need to be enough of a threat to keep defensive backs honest in coverage. However, with Pollard’s collegiate background at the position, that shouldn’t be a problem.

Packers will benefit the most. Right now, defenses are entering the RPO swinging the read option. Green Bay also needs to start running more straight backs, as well as play-action looks from their split-back formation.

Additionally, the Cowboys should take a page from Shanahan’s playbook because Zeke is such a dominant blocker. He can fit in as a traditional linebacker and be used as a vertical threat in play-action like Shanahan uses Jusczyk.

But it takes chutzpah to buck the trends and go in a different direction than the rest of the league. Bill Belichick did it with the most success of any coach in NFL history during his entire tenure with the Patriots. Meanwhile, McVay is doing the same, and he’s been to two Super Bowls since 2018 and has a ring to show for it.

There are numbers for the teams. The Pony crew collected a negative EPA a season ago. But if a team with two talented backs commits to it and the defense has more than a few questions to answer, it could find market inefficiencies.

After all, fortune favors the brave.

Dalton Miller is Pro Football Network’s Lead NFL Analyst and takes an in-depth look at the X’s and O’s of football. He worked on the NFL draft for them before joining PFN on the NFL side.

A graduate of the University of Texas at Arlington with a degree in journalism, Miller ran his own website and worked at 105.3 The Fan in Dallas before PFN. You can read more of his work here and follow him at @daltonbmiller Twitter and Twitch.

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