Kevin Stefanski Created a Blueprint for Beating the Cowboys

Photo Credit: Ken Blaze (USA TODAY Sports)

When Kevin Stefanski was hired by the Cleveland Browns this offseason, he took Gary Kubiak‘s wide zone scheme with him. It has had mixed results for Stefanski, but in Week 4 against the Dallas Cowboys, the Cleveland offense dazzled. The run game racked up over 300 yards with six different rushers, Baker Mayfield threw two touchdowns, and the Browns put up 49 points. This gives us a perfect test case to examine how the Minnesota Vikings can replicate what Stefanski did that Sunday.

Dallas, along with several teams in 2020, bases their defense out of Cover 3. Against a wide zone team like the Browns, they did not opt to vary that too much. The next most common coverage in that game was Cover 1, which is a similar look to Cover 3, but with man coverage instead of zone (usually). Something every quarterback looks for on every coverage is whether or not the middle of the field is open (MOFO) or closed (MOFC). That determines a lot about the quarterback’s read on a given play.

Dallas didn’t try to challenge Mayfield much by varying their coverages, instead opting for simplicity:

The Cowboys ran almost exclusively MOFC coverages, primarily Cover 3.

The wide zone has several core concepts that are designed to counter Cover 3. Its recent rise to popularity came in a league dominated by Pete Carroll’s Cover 3 and its copycats. One of Kubiak’s favorite concepts is a read progression called a “triangle read.” It can encompass many different play designs, but they all ask the quarterback to follow a similar framework.

Here’s an example against the Detroit Lions:

Here’s another example against the Seattle Seahawks, with a different coverage shell that asked Cousins to go deeper into the read progression:

Another common way to beat Cover 3 is called a “flood” concept. This was the go-to for Stefanski in Week 4, and worked to great effect. In Cover 3, there are typically two defenders on the sideline; one high and one low. If you send three receivers to that sideline, you can outnumber those defenders. Here’s a visual explanation:

The Browns used this to great effect against Dallas, making things easier for both their offensive line and Baker Mayfield:

Both the Browns and Vikings like to use play-action rollouts as a way to keep the quarterback clean. A common counter to this is to send the backside defensive end upfield. Since that player usually has minimal run game responsibilities, it carries little risk and can disrupt these play calls. But if the Cowboys commit too hard, like they did on this Kareem Hunt run, they can open themselves up to huge gains.

The Cowboys have had a nightmarish season filled with mistakes and injuries. But even at their best, the schemes they’ve chosen are susceptible to exactly the kind of thing the Vikings like to do.

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