Monday, December 15, 2014

The Morning After: Cowboys 38, Eagles 27 (10-4)

Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant (88) catches a pass for a touchdown in the end zone in front of Philadelphia Eagles cornerback Bradley Fletcher (24) during the first half of play at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, on Sunday, December 14, 2014. (Vernon Bryant/The Dallas Morning News)
Responding to adversity tells us what a competitor is all about.  Either they collapse from within and never recover or they become more determined than ever to not let that defeat beat them more than once and eagerly await a chance to make amends.  As that particular train of thought pertains to the 2014 Dallas Cowboys, the response was clear: they were not going down to the Eagles in the feeble fashion of Thanksgiving a 2nd time.
No chance.
This time, the Cowboys were able to even the score with the Eagles in a most impressive fashion on Sunday Night in Philadelphia.  This franchise has now played 19 games under Jason Garrett in the month of December (now, 9-10), and for a number of reasons (not the least of which was that this might have been for all of the marbles in the NFC East), this one has to be the best result of them all.
Dallas was the beneficiary of some good fortune last night, but, they also made an exceptional number of plays at big moments that punched their ticket for their 10th win of the season in a game where not only did they win the time of possession (41:55 to 18:05), yardage (364-294), and turnovers (4-1) - but they took the game over with huge moments at several different time during the proceedings.  And, not only did they win time of possession by more than double, but they also won time of possession in each of the 4 quarters.  In other words, the up-tempo Philadelphia offense that apparently necessitated the fawning of NBC for most of the night, spent a majority of the game watching the Cowboys offense put together 6 different scoring drives - although, it should be noted that because of the generosity of another Eagles turnover-fest (adding to their league lead in giving the ball to the opponent) the Cowboys did not have to drive the length of the field for many of their scores.
There is no doubt that these two teams are a great matchup up and down the rosters.  The Eagles actually are one of the rare teams that can absolutely stand up to the Cowboys offensive line, and at worst, play them to a draw more often than not.  DeMarco Murray had to work hard for all of his production last night because, unlike the Chicago Bears, the Eagles were competing at a very high level.  Additionally, Tony Romo had to duck and weave quite a bit to be able to make throws under pressure for much of the evening.  The Eagles' offensive line is quite formidable itself and the battle in the trenches would have to be called a draw for most of the evening and they would have the scorecard advantage if you totaled the two battles together.
But, where this game needed to be won was at the Quarterback position.  There is a reason this team is able to compete this year and while the national press is properly discussing the might and power of the Cowboys offensive line and rushing attack, it should be noted clearly that the Cowboys are seeing the best season of Tony Romo's career.  When he is fit and able to do what he does, the Cowboys go from good to bordering on great offensively and he absolutely must be in any conversation where the MVP is discussed.  Again, last night, when you look at the most critical position on the field, the Cowboys had a decided advantage at QB and after a moment early where he flirted with a very dangerous throw on the 2nd drive, he settled in for yet another insanely efficient night at the office.
If the Cowboys would have lost 2 straight to Mark Sanchez in this season series, it would have been one of those footnotes that would be brought up for years.  The Cowboys had to see their advantage at the QB position play out in these two match-ups, and last night, when we expected to see more pressure brought from the Eagles than ever before, Romo and Dez Bryant spanked the Eagles blitz when they dared try to single-team the dynamic play-maker on the edge.  Sure, Romo was hit a few times and left with grass stains, but in the process, Dez Bryant put on maybe the show of his career.  It was a 3-touchdown masterpiece where Romo and Bryant were in full control, waiting for the Eagles to sell out their safe coverage and try to make a play with the aggressiveness.  The Cowboys have not always been capable of passing a test like this, but on this occasion, the composure, precision, and execution was all aligned properly for a clinical dismantling of the Eagles in front of their home faithful.
It all started with the generosity of the Eagles kickoff return unit on the opening kickoff, allowing a rather routine situation to turn into a firedrill and a major break for the Cowboys as CJ Spillman recovered a muffed return at the Eagles 18 yard line.  From there, the Cowboys had to convert mistakes into touchdowns and after converting a 3rd Down to Terrance Williams (he lives), Murray pounded the ball into the end zone to draw first blood off the opening mistake.
Then, as the Eagles confidence was still shaken following the Seattle destruction of last week, you could sense early on that it wouldn't take too much for the crowd to alert the home side of their lack of performance offensively, which is seemingly all being attributed to Mark Sanchez' mere presence.  They now eagerly await the return of Nick Foles - a guy who was leading the NFL in turnovers when he was hurt - to save them, and that could not have helped Sanchez' performance.  It took the Eagles almost about 19 minutes to get their first moving of the chains on a flare pass to Darren Sproles early in the 2nd Quarter, and the inaccuracy of Sanchez allowed the Cowboys to deploy more men to stop the run - something that gave them fits 17 days prior.
But, back to Romo, on the 2nd drive of the game, he nearly threw a disastrous out to Dwayne Harris that missed inside and invited a potential interception on a jumped route by Cary Williams.  Instead, the series contained Romo hooking up with Jason Witten on three separate 3rd Down occasions as the Cowboys marched the ball right down the field in demoralizing and time-consuming fashion for a fantastic 16-play, 88-yard drive that ended with Dez Bryant's easy catch over the out-classed Bradley Fletcher.  Fletcher was continuously asked to man-cover Bryant by his coaching staff in a example of a very poor tactical idea.
The Eagles coaching staff had done this continually throughout the season, asking their secondary to not only stop the opponent, but to stop in while in base coverage against 11-personnel.  On the Cowboys very next drive - again before the Eagles even had a 1st Down, the Cowboys faced a 2nd and 10 and ran out Cole Beasley in the slot with Bryant and Williams out wide.  The Eagles, despite being barbecued with this very tactic at Lambeau Field a month ago and then by Seattle last week, where they put a safety on the slot man and decide to roll with a single-high safety to cover the entire center field, walked right into the furnace yet again by offering Dez Bryant the same silly treatment that they tried with Jordy Nelson.
The results were the same.  The Quarterback cannot believe his eyes, tries to not be too obvious in pre-snap, looks the safety away to create the gap, and then lofts a pass into the path of his man with Fletcher trailing by a healthy margin.  It seriously looks no more laborious than a warm-up drill and given that this has happened repeatedly to the Eagles, you wonder about the stubbornness of their coaching staff to continue to employ a tactic they are incapable of carrying out.  It really makes you wonder what they must think of their 3rd corner, Brandon Boykin to have him on the sideline and ask their safety, Malcolm Jenkins, to run with a slot rather than just play nickel like most teams would if they continuously demonstrated that they can't stop with 4.
Why would the Eagles stay in base coverage?  Because they want to make DeMarco Murray's day difficult by keeping 7 "bigs" in the box and sometimes walking in Jenkins to make it 8.  They figure if they go to nickel, then Murray will have success and they want to make Romo have to beat them.  Well, they did make Romo beat them, and he did without looking too terribly taxed to do so.  Once again, 3rd and 10 with 12:55 in the 4th was the kill shot, and it was a near instant replay of the play in the 2nd Quarter.  Leave Bryant on an island with Fletcher, and Romo calls the "warm-up drill" play again.  Instant Replay touchdown.
The Cowboys defense was asked to slow down the Eagles and make their night difficult.  They generated 3 takeaways of their own, including the finest challenge of Jason Garrett's career when Brent Celek caught a 2nd and 13 pass for a first down, but the ball was stripped by JJ Wilcox and Kyle Wilber and came out before Celek ever hit the ground.  In past years, that challenge might have never been possible, but with the tinkering of the challenge system, the Cowboys in 2014 were rightly awarded the ball at a very crucial point of the 4th Quarter (up 35-27 with 7:28 to go) and then tacked on a clinching Field Goal.
It wasn't a spotless night by any measure.  They were up 21-0, only to surrender 24 consecutive points and to send their fan base into a fit of anxiety.  Brandon Carr inexplicably gambled on a simple pass to Jeremy Maclin (again) and it turned into a real mess as Maclin ran for 72 yards and set up the touchdown that cut the score to 21-17 with 8:48 to go in the 3rd Quarter.  The ensuing drive featured a 3rd and 19 against a 3-man rush where Romo held the ball for an absurd 8.6 seconds before he was blindsided by Vinny Curry and the ball was fumbled and recovered as Ron Leary stood over it before Fletcher Cox seized it.  A few moments later, the unraveling was underway as Darren Sproles ran in to give the Eagles a 24-21 lead with 5:42 to go in the 3rd.
They had come all the way back.  Same ol' Cowboys.  Same ol' December.  If only Romo and the Cowboys could handle situations like this...
What followed was a "big boy" drive like you seldom have seen from this group.  Equal parts: Romo, Bryant, Witten, Murray, offensive line, Linehan, and friends, the Cowboys fell behind and then marched 78 yards in 8 plays with 5 first downs and they never needed a 3rd Down the entire trip.  Murray punched it in, the Cowboys took the lead, and put wind back in the sails of the entire mission.  From there, they followed the defensive recipe of getting the Eagles into 3rd and long where Sanchez would have to make a throw and he did - missing Zach Ertz in the middle who tipped the ball to JJ Wilcox and the young safety came up with a huge takeaway interception on the final snap of the 3rd.
That led to Dez's 3rd Touchdown which led to the Cowboys winning a massive divisional game on the road in December and notching their 10th win of the season.  The effects of this win are numerous, but most importantly, they are now in the driver's seat with 2 to play.  Everything has led to this, where if the Cowboys match the Eagles on the way in, they are division champs.  Better yet, they can even achieve a bye week if they just win their final 2 games and get a small amount of cooperation.  The oddity of being a much better team on the road this season has led them to a spot where they may have earned playoff action at home.
They needed this win badly.  Before fretting about the Colts, enjoy what went into this win. They needed to stand up and show force in front of a hostile crowd and they did it with an exclamation point.  Very impressive and very well done.
March on.  All the goals (and even dreams) are still possible right in front of them.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Bob Sturm scouts the Eagles

The NFL schedule makers must have a sense of theater when they piece together the slate each year in an effort to create fantastic television.
The Cowboys, just 17 days since their first meeting with the Philadelphia, now have a chance to make amends for their worst showing of the year.
The Eagles have long been the worthiest of adversaries, and now the teams meet with the possibility of the winner gaining a top seed and a bye week in the playoffs, while the loser could miss the playoffs altogether despite a double-digit win total.
Chip Kelly’s side had an advantage in nearly every possible category on Thanksgiving, and now they try to complete the sweep against their most hated rivals. Here are some of the Eagles who jump off the screen when you watch them closely:
LB Mychal Kendricks
Before the 2013 season, as the Cowboys were changing schemes from the 3-4 defense to the 4-3, the Eagles were switching in just the opposite direction. The transition of players such as Kendricks has made it work, as his high activity rate, ability to be effective against the run and the inside blitz, and general aggressive play all demonstrate his quality.
Kendricks was selected in the second round of the 2012 draft with the 46th overall pick. The Cowboys had sent the 14th and 45th picks to St. Louis so they could pick Morris Claiborne at No. 6.
The No. 45 pick turned out to be wide receiver Alshon Jeffery. Kendricks was chosen next, then Seattle took linebacker Bobby Wagner. That demonstrated the folly of trading away multiple top 50 picks.
Kendricks has had to take on more responsibility after the devastating Achilles injury to DeMeco Ryans six weeks ago.
DE Fletcher Cox
Speaking of the 2012 draft, there is no question that the Cowboys were targeting Cox to solidify their defensive front before they became taken with Claiborne and traded all the way up to get the corner from LSU.
The Eagles planned on trading past Dallas to get Cox, determined to land the versatile lineman from Mississippi State. Cox is young — he turned 24 Saturday — and is already a difficult force to handle.
Cox generally destroys zone stretch plays by staying square to the line and pushing his man back, before dispensing with his strength and quickness in either direction and often making the play on the ball carrier himself. His motor is incredible, and he is only getting better.
Cox was a major reason that the Eagles handled the Cowboys’ rushing attack in Week 13 without stacking the box. Ron Leary’s performance against Cox will determine plenty this evening.
WR Jeremy Maclin
It was once assumed with relative certainty that Maclin was the beneficiary of the exit of DeSean Jackson from Philadelphia, and that Maclin would then be locked down contractually for several years to come.
However, efforts from the club to sign him to a five-year deal have been refused, and Maclin appears ready to test free agency this spring. Maclin has responded after missing 2013 with a knee injury with a campaign that is statistically superior in nearly every category to Dez Bryant.
He runs the full route tree, but his quarterback situation has made horizontal screen passes much more frequent than verticals.
Maclin’s quickness causes more missed tackles than anyone else in the Eagles’ receiving group, and his huge catch for 58 yards paved the way for the rout in Arlington.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Xs and Os - Week 13 - Chicago

Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten (82) and Chicago Bears inside linebackers Christian Jones (59) and Jon Bostic (57) after making a second quarter catch at Soldier Field in Chicago, Thursday, December 4, 2014. (Tom Fox/The Dallas Morning News)
Late in the week, we finally get a chance to "look at the tape" as Jason Garrett likes to say and examine some plays that we cannot fully digest on TV. I can't promise that every week we will be able to do this, but honestly, this is my favorite exercise of the week because only here can you fully appreciate how advanced and complex the NFL game can be sometimes.
Here, we are not looking to call anyone out, and we surely want to leave open the possibility of our eyes deceiving us and more than anything, I want to admit that I don't have the benefit of the coaches telling me what coverage they were in. So, sometimes, this diagnosis will be "pretty sure" rather than "100% sure" even though I am trying to get it right. I will make calls and try to hunt down the right answer, but I will just admit right here that we will try our best to be accurate but invariably, I will see something wrong.
But, let's pick plays that are interesting but not played out by this point of the week and have some fun talking Xs and Os. Feel free to tweet me @SportsSturm when a game shows you a play that you would like broken down and I will attempt to include it in this post.
Here are some talking points from the Bears game:
Play #1 - 2Q/1:14 - 3/15/D47 - Romo deep middle to Witten for 19 yards and first down.
Personally, I think this is the play of the game. Not because of what happened, necessarily, but because of what might have happened had this play not occurred. The Cowboys at this point were in a real dog fight and were tied at 7-7 with 1:14 left in the half.
To this point, Tony Romo hardly threw a pass that was longer than 5 yards. For those of us who fretted for the entire week after Thanksgiving that Tony doesn't look right, this play was vital. But, don't worry about the fans. NFL defenders know all of these things. They know what they see and they are starting to wonder if Romo can hurt them down the field like he usually could.
So, on this play, not only does he keep a drive alive that will combo a touchdown with running out the entire clock, but it does demonstrate that when needed, he can reach back and throw a reasonable strike on 3rd and long.
This is that empty shotgun that gives a lot of people great pause.  There was a time, not so long ago, when an empty backfield meant a blitz was coming and then possibly a sack.  But, under Linehan, the Cowboys love doing this and love using 2 TEs to one side with a WR, then Beasley and Bryant to the opposite side so they can combo their routes together to put major conflicts on the 2 DBs and safety that generally follow them.  Here, I identified the players and the 3rd and Long route concepts that basically have everyone looking like they are running a vertical for the first 10 yards.  Now, a zone all has to back off  and concede the underneath routes, which, of course, might allow a 1st down if the protection holds up.
Escobar peels off at 10, Beasley and Witten are at the sticks, and Bryant and Williams are both raising their arm in this picture telling Romo the think they are open.  Williams seems to really be open, and Dez seems a bit optimistic that the safety isn't watching him closely.
From the sideline All-22 angle (which is generally no different than the TV copy in Chicago except it is wider) we can see that Chicago is in a zone, but with 5 targets all running verticals, it turns into a 5 on 5 coverage with the safeties just trying to take the most dangerous threats (which they are diagnosing on the fly, of course).
But, here is the angle to watch.  It just shows the 4 rushers versus 5 protectors and how confident and calm Romo can stand in the pocket and survey the field.  Nobody is close to him, he has 3.2 seconds and might have had more if he needed it to bounce on his feet about 5 times and wait for Witten to get outside leverage on 57-Bostic and complete a very easy 19-yarder, which we know is anything but easy.
Huge play.
Play #2 - 3Q/12:41 - 3/3/C24 - Romo Pass deep right to Beasley, 24 yards, Touchdown
So, going back to play #1, the Cowboys now have an alternate option on 3rd and 3.  But, so do the Bears, because they thought that pass to Witten was unpleasant.  The Bears decide to bring two linebacker (Bostic and 59 Jones) on a blitz (with Jared Allen dropping with Witten in coverage) and then walk up the safety to match up with Beasley.  That, of course, is Chris Conte who is not really good in space to say the least.
This is the same "Shotgun 02" formation on 3rd Down, which is a way to really spread out the coverage, get DeMarco Murray off the field, and find a way to get matchup issues Beasley and Escobar on the field at the same time.
But, more than anything, this shows that Tony Romo is usually the best QB on the field when the Cowboys play.  He has Willie Young - a really impressive pass rusher come free on this blitz.  We can speculate the protection, but when 2 LBs jump in and a DE drops at the snap, that can really cross up what you want to do with your 5-man protection.  As you can see, Frederick has to take 57-Bostic, Zach Martin is on 93-Will Sutton, so Free has to take the inside threat 59-Jones.  Handle the inside threats and sometimes, the QB has to account for a guy on his own (especially with an empty backfield).  That is his man to make miss, and he does it with ease.  Check it out below:
For Romo to escape Young is one thing (which we take for granted because Romo does it all the time, but that is not a normal QB routine) but then to loft a perfect touch pass (albeit a bit of a duck) to a spot for Beasley.  Maybe the story of this season is how many plays Romo has made without the use of all of his repertoire.  He has been really, really good for a QB who is beat up.  By the way, Jared Allen was not sticking with Witten underneath, either.  I know that is quite a shock.
Cole Beasley has really grown into a nice role player here who the Cowboys are beginning to really depend on.  Heck of a play by all involved.
Play #3 -2Q/6:18 - 2/7/D12 - Cutler to Bennett, 12 yards.
Here is a touchdown that looked all too easy.  You know, because it was.  Why?  Well, the Cowboys busted another coverage.  This is the biggest concern right now about the defense - despite the many other issues - is that the secondary is starting to have one guy who is not on the same page as everyone else.
This is a spot where the Bears in 11 personnel can really cause issues because somebody who is really good is usually going to have a tasty option.  The Cowboys are in a coverage that we believe is supposed to be Quarters, but Church is running something else (what appears to be perhaps a Cover 3 where he jumps down and takes the flat and Wilcox is supposed to slide over to Center Field).  When Church walks up to get in front of Bennett, Cutler sees Cover 3 and holds Wilcox very well with his eyes to the far side of the field.  Now, Bennett runs right by Hitchens and sits over the goal-line with incredible ease.

So, you watch this and you look at 4 different players on the Cowboys to have possibly been the guy who busted - Was Hitchens supposed to take the seam?  Was Carr supposed to leave his guy in the flat for Church and switch back to Bennett (next to impossible)?  Was Wilcox supposed to get over and blow that play up?  Or was Church running a different coverage from everyone else?
This is exactly why we can't really point at someone without knowing the call.  Luckily, in this case, we know that this one was on Barry Church (as a source in the know indicated as much).  But, just trying to decipher what happened there without the call is next to impossible.
Bonus play: We normally do 3, but this one is too good.
4Q - 14:50 - 1/10/C48 - Murray left for 40 yards, First Down.
This is where the game is 35-13 early in the 4th, but if you want to know what the league thinks of the Cowboys running game, here it is.  Pulling guards to the left and watch the Bears freak out.
It is the proverbial hole you can drive a truck through as the pulling guards cause everyone to go meet them at the corner, and there is Murray just cutting back inside to find....nobody.
This is exceptional and rare at the NFL level.  Just look at Smith clear everyone left and the Bears do the rest.  Please also not that 65-Leary pulls and destroys 21-Ryan Mundy at the corner in a pancake that surely made the film room react with joy this week.  You would not want to try to take on Leary if you are that much smaller.  If you scroll up and see this collision from the sideline view, you will wince in pain for Mundy.
On to Philadelphia.  Feel free to comment below on anything we discussed above.

Marinelli Report - Week 13 - Chicago

There are dozens of problems with using the sack statistic to measure the pressure a defense is putting on a Quarterback.  It simply is not enough information about 60 plays to report that a team had 1 or 2 sacks.  We have no idea what happened on the other 58 plays, but 2 sacks is the story that gets told.
Then, we have QB pressures, a stat that has certainly not been standardized because it is a wonderfully subjective number that might be a pressure in Chicago, but the same play not a pressure in Detroit.  We also have QB hits (a bit more cut and dried), QB hurries (a very slight variation of pressures), and tracking of the blitzes to see how many rushers are needed to apply pressure.  And, of course, "applying pressure" may not lead to much, either, if the pass is still delivered.
So, as we analyze the Cowboys in the last two weeks, we see 76 opposing pass attempts and the 1 sack from Tyrone Crawford against Mark Sanchez.  According to Pro Football Focus, the Cowboys logged 3 hits on Sanchez and 8 hurries.  Then, against Jay Cutler in 46 pass attempts, PFF tells us that Cutler was sacked 0 times, hit 3 times, and hurried 6 other occasions.  I recorded only 2 as notable - Mincey's hurry that caused Cutler to just abort the play with a throw away and Crawford being flagged for a Roughing the Passer that might have been a bit touchy.
But, we do know that the one stat we can believe in and that can be compared from game to game and year to year without subjectivity (at least in the last 30 years) is sacks.  And in that particular statistic - as you know - the 2014 Dallas Cowboys are not often needing a calculator to add up their totals.
They have 19 this season through 13 games - a total that projects to 23 - and as you can see below, that is the type of sack totals that would be a sharp decline since the height of the Cowboys' pass rush powers with Wade Phillips' crew in 2008.  That group had DeMarcus Ware (20 sacks) and Jay Ratliff (7.5) in their primes, Greg Ellis (8) at the end of his Dallas run, and even Bradie James (8) chipping in a huge total from inside linebacker.
59 was an insane total and one of the 5 best sack seasons by any franchise in any season in the last 15 years.  The idea that total would be the new normal was not realistic.  But, the substantial regression down to being 31st in sack rates in 2013 is disconcerting.  And 2014 is, as you can see, continuing in the wrong direction:
Now, as I said above, the 2014 total of 23 is merely a projection.  They are actually at 19 sacks.  Oddly, that total is 29th in the league, not last.  Believe it or not, the Falcons, Bengals, and Raiders actually have fewer than 19 sacks.  It should be noted, league-wide sack rates are down this year, but not abnormally down relative to the last 5 seasons.  If you are interested in the trends in the league, this report from Football Perspective is quite illuminating.  Rule changes have certainly made it easier for QBs to avoid sacks and the smart ones are really good at doing just that.
I always have believed that raw sack totals do not tell us much.  What we should look at it is how many "pass rushes" does it take to get a sack.  If a team is playing 2 opponents, one that passes 20 times and the other that passes 40, we cannot weight a 2 sack day equally.
So, the chart below tells us how many pass attempts the defense has faced each year per sack.  It is similar to the chart above, but perhaps more clearly demonstrates how hard it is for this year's crew to get a sack.
The league, in general, gets to the QB once every 16 pass attempts (give or take a fraction each season).  The league leaders - Buffalo - get home once every 10.3 attempts. This season, the Cowboys defense needs over 24 pass attempts to record a sack.  Not good at all.
We can see that much of what they hoped for from a pass rush standpoint has not worked out.  2nd Round rookie DeMarcus Lawrence has not really be available due to health, but even when he was it was not noteworthy.  George Selvie appears to have returned to the rotational piece he has always been after his flashes of something more in 2013.  Anthony Spencer has not generated much as a rusher, either.  The three players who have provided as much as the Cowboys have has been Tyrone Crawford and Henry Melton from inside and Jeremy Mincey on the edge.  But, those moments have been far too rare.
In reality, you can see that the Cowboys have decided to shift their chess pieces on the board into a more densely populated secondary as much as possible.  With 11 defenders, they want to rush 4, drop 7.  Rush 4 and even then, rush them with some level of contain so that the QB cannot leave the pocket, and then have 7 in coverage to keep the unmolested receivers from running free.
It can be frustrating to watch and some weeks a QB can pick it apart with ease if he shows patience - see Cutler last week late when the 8-15 yard dump offs in the middle of the field were always there - but, it might be the Cowboys best chance to compete.  Blitzing is not the answer, and only once all year have the Cowboys sent more than 9 blitzes in a game (vs Houston).
The only true answer if the Cowboys wish to continue to build a defense that resembles Seattle (another team not racking up huge sacks, by the way, but a considerably better sack-per-attempt rate of 1 every 18.6 attempts) is to find some defensive ends who can beat their men on edge pass rushes.  You can count on one hand the number of times a Cowboys DE has beaten a tackle to the QB, something DeMarcus Ware treated us to a dozen times a season. That can come from young Lawrence, we hope, in 2015, but it might also need to come from this team beginning to draft stockpile defensive linemen to compliment their fine stash of young, talented offensive linemen.
DEFENSIVE PARTICIPATION:  The stories in this regard are the continuing rise of Anthony Hitchens as a dependable partner to Rolando McClain in all situations at linebacker, and the continued phasing out of Bruce Carter.  Carter registered 24 snaps, while Hitchens had 55 and McClain 61.  Meanwhile, up front, the Cowboys are dressing 3 1-techniques as they added Josh Brent to the mix with Nick Hayden and Terrell McClain.  I am hard pressed to think of any worse use of the game day roster than having 3 run-stopping 1-techniques active, given that none of them are candidates to help on passing downs, but I know the Cowboys have been eager to see Brent back on the field.  And, in fairness to him, he might be an upgrade over what they have, but that wouldn't take too much.  Brent looked (quite) large on Thursday, sat in his gap, pushed a few linemen back, and appeared quite winded.  He has quickness in tight spaces at times (at least he did in 2012), but the current version looked like more of a speed bump in his first action.  That said, as bad as Philadelphia cleared out the DTs on Thanksgiving to get right on top of the Linebackers repeatedly, I am anxious to see Brent stand in against Kelce and Mathis to give McClain a chance to stay on LeSean McCoy.  We shall see.   All snap counts from
Win on 3rd downs, including a few nice stops short of the sticks and a very timely takeaway when Spencer stripped Forte, aided the evening quite well.
A reminder of what a splash play is by clicking on the link:
Another really strong effort from Orlando Scandrick that should be again pointed out.  He has really developed into a key member of this team.
During the Marinelli Report, we attempt to chart how the opposing quarterback fared against the DAL pass rush (unlike Decoding Linehan, when we chart drive progression). The key in the bottom end zone defines how many rushers came during a given throw. Each line entails where the ball was thrown from, trailing to the (general) point where it was caught. Dotted lines are incomplete passes.
Week 14 Summary
 Cutler put up some very nice numbers late, but I felt that they were mostly garbage time against soft coverages.  Nobody likes to surrender huge chunks in the 4th Quarter, but up 4 touchdowns, you likely should drop into more conservative coverages to keep the clock moving as much as possible.
This segment of the defensive study is simply to find out how well the Cowboys are doing at getting pressure on the opposing QB.
The Cowboys barely blitzed all day.  They were clearly too freaked out to risk any other big plays at their own hands.
Each week we calculate how opposing quarterbacks fare against the Dallas blitz. Consider this the raw data behind the passing chart.
Wk 1 - Colin Kaepernick: 4/8, 74 Yds, 1 TD, 1 SACK
Wk 2 - Jake Locker: 3/6, 22 Yds
Wk 3 - Austin Davis: 4/7, 42 Yds, 1 INT
Wk 4 - Drew Brees: 6/8, 68 Yds, 1 TD
Wk 5 - Ryan Fitzpatrick: 6/11, 41 Yds, 2 FD
Wk 6 - Russell Wilson: 2/6, 25 Yds, 1 FD
Wk 7 - Eli Manning: 7/8, 75 Yds, 4 FD
Wk 8 - Colt McCoy: 5/7, 66 Yds, 2 FD
Wk 9 - Carson Palmer: 5/7, 42 Yds, 2 FD
Wk 10 - Blake Bortles: 4/6, 47 Yds, 2 FD, 3 Sack
Wk 12 - Eli Manning: 6/6, 75 Yds, 5 FD
Wk 13 - Mark Sanchez: 2/2, 16 Yds
Wk 14 - Jay Cutler: 6/9, 98 Yds, 3 FD, 1 TD
2014 Total: 60/91, 65 Cmp%, 691 Yds, 3 TD, 1 INT, 21 FD, 3 Sack - 90 QB Rating
Each week we monitor how often the Cowboys send pressure on passing plays.
Wk 1 - SF: 9/21 - Blitzed 33%
Wk 2 - at TEN: 6/38 - Blitzed 15%
Wk 3 - STL: 7/42 - Blitzed 16%
Wk 4 - NO: 8/46 - Blitzed 17%
Wk 5 - HOU: 11/26 - Blitzed 42%
Wk 6 - at SEA: 7/31 - Blitzed 22%
Wk 7 - NYG: 8/35 - Blitzed 22%
Wk 8 - WAS: 8/35 - Blitzed 22%
Wk 9 - AZ: 7/36 - Blitzed 19%
Wk 10 - JAX: 9/45 - Blitzed 20%
Wk 12 - NYG: 7/42 - Blitzed 16%
Wk 13 - PHI: 3/31 - Blitzed 9%
Wk 14 - CHI: 9/51 - Blitzed 17%
2014 Total: 91/444 - Blitzed 20% 
2013 Totals:  140/673 - 20.8%
2012 Totals:  134/551 - 24.3%
And, here are the full season numbers to date:

Well, here we are again. Cowboys against the Eagles in Philadelphia on Sunday evening. Surely, most indigestion about this rematch revolves around Rod Marinelli's group and the way they looked largely out of place and confused in the first meeting.
Tactically, we really don't know how well their ideas and game plan were working because Chip Kelly accomplished his main objective - get the defense to bust their coverages because they are confused. No game plan would ever tell JJ Wilcox to lose contain or Brandon Carr to release Jeremy Maclin to nobody in particular, but that is what happened. Kelly is a master at this which is particularly frustrating, if his guys never are forced to "line up and beat you." You will have some players take the wrong guy during the course of a game, but you cannot let it happen repeatedly or at the wrong moment.
So, now, when the first meeting offered us the theme of "short week, short preparation time", this one should remove all excuses. The Cowboys defense has 10 days to prepare, to examine, to look in the mirror. Meanwhile, the Eagles have to pick themselves up after a very emotional grind against Seattle and will certainly like to put that humiliation behind them.
Both teams meeting with everything on the line and both properly tuned up with motivation to respond to adversity. But, from a Cowboys standpoint, so much depends on keeping the Eagles offense from getting a swagger back. They will not fear Dallas at all, but there is a vibe around the Eagles offense after their demoralizing losses to Green Bay and Seattle, that suggest that if they don't have success early the crowd might get extremely restless. From there, the implosion might not need much assistance. They are waiting with great anticipation for the return of Nick Foles (imagine!), and from that standpoint, the Cowboys defense just needs to be in their spots. Simply, do your job and trust the game plan.
The question will be, is that too much to ask?

Decoding Linehan - Week 13 - Chicago

Dallas Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett congratulates wide receiver Dez Bryant (88) on his third quarter touchdown during the Dallas Cowboys vs. the New York Giants NFL football game at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey on Sunday, November 23, 2014. (Louis DeLuca/The Dallas Morning News)
For those that want the Cowboys 2014 season to matter in the history books, so much depends on the results of this final month of the regular season.  To this juncture, the Cowboys have put together a record of 9-4 and every one of their goals are still available for accomplishment.  That said, as the playoff picture continues to come into focus, it is becoming somewhat clear that even a record of 11-5 may not guarantee a playoff berth - as hard as that is to believe.
That is why it is particularly encouraging to examine the game plan and execution of said plan against the Chicago Bears on Thursday night.  Sure, the Bears are not the quality of opponent that you might see in January and certainly are not what you would call a traditional Chicago defense, but that said, the ground and pound was back with a vengeance.
Dallas ran 33 run plays (plus 2 knees) for 5.93 yards per carry.  They dominated the clock and their opponent.  This keeps the large offensive line on the field and the vulnerable defense off of it.  This also allows your QB - with his health questions and all - from having to throw 40 passes for 350 yards.  Instead, an efficient 26 or 28 for about 200 efficient yards with a number of play-action throws into barren secondaries.
It is December and the Cowboys took their game to cold weather and the game plan traveled better than any previous year in the Jason Garrett-era.  It traveled like it did so many other times this season as the Cowboys have won their first six road games.  They take their game on the road and no longer ask Tony Romo to run for his life in the pocket and throw, throw, throw.  They now know - and have the personnel to do something about it - that only the strong survive in the NFL.  If you are finishing 2nd in the trench warfare of Sunday afternoons, you are mediocre.  But, if you are winning those battles at the line of scrimmage, you are allowed to continue playing.
Surely, there was no sign of this on Thanksgiving Day, but I am pretty sure the Eagles are scratching their heads wondering about why Thanksgiving didn't seem to matter too much yesterday against the Seahawks.  This league is a proving ground on a week to week basis.  Your reputation is noteworthy, but when toe meets leather each week, you better be ready to demonstrate your might afresh.  And the Cowboys have now rehearsed for their rematch with the Eagles by battering the Chicago Bears badly.
They must run.  They basically have taken the game plan from 1992 and have installed it in 2014.  When they run it well, they win games by over-powering their opponents physically. They dish out punishment, they don't sustain it.  It is the difference between run blocking and pass protecting.  One is firing forward at the snap, the other is backing up to defend space.  It is the difference between throwing a punch and trying to withstand one.  This year, the Cowboys are delivering the blows.
During this stretch, we can talk about the play design and the offensive philosophy, but I think somewhere along this journey, we must look elsewhere for a key ingredient in the mix that is going unmentioned in most places (including this one).
The offensive line is not only excellent at their job, but they are also staying healthy.  Well, that is a tough term to define, because I am sure that a few of them have been dealing with some real issues, but the point is that they have all played virtually all of the season.
To define that, we take the ideal offensive line (Smith-Leary-Frederick-Martin-Free) and multiply the number of games by the number of spots (13x5=65) and then subtract each missed start to arrive at a 95.3% attendance rate.
The four absences that keep this from going to 100% included Doug Free missing the 3-game home stand from New York through Arizona with a small right foot fracture, and Ron Leary also missing the Arizona game with a groin injury.  So much of the Arizona game has been put on Brandon Weeden's plate, but you would like to see how he might have handled the game if he had all 5 up front.
Here is the game by game attendance chart for the season to date:
Now, let's not act like it is only the Woody Allen quote: "Eighty percent of success is showing up" - because we know that perfect attendance from substandard linemen is not going to scare anyone, but full health is a wildcard that controls everyone's destiny in pro football and yet is talked about the least.  The reason we don't discuss it?  Because, deep down we all know that health disasters might be one play away and because of the nature of this sport, it is best not to fixate on something that can occur without warning or prevention.
In 2012 (the year they went to the Super Bowl) San Francisco had a season with 100% attendance from their offensive line - Staley-Iupati-Goodwin-Boone-Davis (all 5 started all 16) which, perhaps not coincidently, also has 3 1st round picks playing major roles.  In 2014, they have not had the same good fortune.
Meanwhile, the Seahawks last year had nobody start 16 games up front for them (68.7% starters attendance), and they won the Super Bowl anyway - making their accomplishment all the more impressive.
In Philadelphia, the Eagles will tell you all about the bad breaks of offensive line health.  In 2013, when their offensive scheme was the toast of the NFL, they also boasted 100% (80 for 80) up front from Peters-Mathis-Kelce-Herremans-Johnson.  In 2014, as people fret about what happened to the Eagles running game, they sit at 69.2% attendance and have already put Todd Herremans on injured reserve for the year.
First, and most importantly, you need quality.  The Cowboys appear to have a quality and over-powering offensive line.  Second, you need to keep them healthy and able - so they can help your QB and RB also stay healthy - and like so much else, the Cowboys have been enjoying success in this department all year.
And that sets them up nicely to deal with the Eagles on Sunday.  The offense must do a far better job of making its opportunities count than they did on Thanksgiving.  I expect this offensive line will take that day personally.  And that gives Dallas a real chance.
Offensive Participation:
We pretty much handled all participation issues above as the offensive line was all present yet again and joined by Romo, Witten, Bryant, and Murray, we can see that there isn't much room for help from others.  I do think it is important to not get too carried away with the seasons that Gavin Escobar, Joseph Randle, Devin Street, and Lance Dunbar have had.  We spend so much time criticizing these "wasted picks" (Dunbar was not a pick), but we don't consider the idea that the Cowboys have built fantastic depth at those spots that only gets tested if you have injury disasters.  You cannot have it both ways - you cannot complain about the team having no depth and then complain that they aren't using their depth because they have no injuries.  This is one of those spots where I think the front office should be celebrated for having real plans on who is ready to play in the event of an injury to the offense.  Even the reserves for the offensive line with Parnell and Bernadeau  seems as deep a group as the Cowboys have had in years.
Look at that - Seven different 3rd Down conversions.  Romo was at his best here with the key throws to Witten and Cole Beasley on 3rd Downs that were huge.  We will look closer at those in our Xs and Os breakdown on Wednesday.
PASSING CHART - My buddy John Daigle has designed this passing chart each week.  Each color represents the possession number listed in the key. The numbers are separated by the half. If you were to start from the bottom and work your way up, you would be tracking that possession from beginning to end. The dotted-lines are incompletions. Large gaps between throws are mostly YAC or carries.
Week 14 Summary

DRIVE STARTERS - The 1st play of each drive can often reveal the intent of a coach to establish his game plan. How committed is he to the run or pass when the team comes off the sideline? We track it each week here. 
 Still #1 in the NFL on 1st down runs.  That translates, of course, to drive starters.  Look for more 1st down play action this week.
2013 Total: 176 Drives - 84 Run/92 Pass - 47% Run
2012 Total: 173 Drives - 76 Run/97 Pass - 44% Run
2011 Total: 181 Drives - 79 Run/102 Pass - 44% Run
* This statistic doesn't count the 1-play kneel down drives.
Lots of shotgun snaps can often mean they spent plenty of time behind.  That was certainly the case on Thanksgiving.

2013 Total: 566/945 - 59.8% Shotgun
2012 Total: 565/1038 - 54% Shotgun
2011 Total: 445/1012 - 43.9% Shotgun
TOTALS BY PERSONNEL GROUPS (Before you study the data below, I would recommend that if the numbers for the groupings are unfamiliar, that you spend some time reading a more expanded definition of the Personnel Groupings here.)
 12 personnel up top - 22 snaps, 19 runs.  13 personnel - 5 snaps, all runs.
So, Romo under center with multiple TEs and no fullback - 27 snaps, 24 runs.  Building tendencies, aren't we?
* - Knee Plays are not counted in play calls.
Against the Eagles, they tried play-action, but the Eagles were sitting on it each time and Romo had to check down.
Wk 1: 1/5, 9 Yds, 3 INT, 1 FD
Wk 2: 4/5, 39 Yds, 1 Sack, 2 FD
Wk 3: 3/3, 88 Yds, 1 TD, 2 FD
Wk 4: 6/8, 76 Yds, 1 TD, 4 FD
Wk 5: 2/4, 38 Yds, 1 Sack, 2 FD
Wk 6: 1/4, 47 Yds, 1 Sack, 1 FD
Wk 7: 3/5, 55 Yds, 1 Sack, 2 TD, 1 FD
Wk 8: 5/6, 92 Yds, 1 TD, 2 FD
Wk 9: 1/1, 1 Yd
Wk 10: 2/3, 21 Yds, 1 FD
Wk 12: 4/4, 86 Yds, 4 FD
Wk 13: 2/3, 11 Yds, 1 FD
Wk 14: 5/6, 85 Yds, 4 FD, 1 Sack
2014 Total: 39/57, 68 Cmp%, 648 Yds, 5 TD, 3 INT, 25 FD, 5 Sack - QB Rating: 113.7
BLITZING Romo - Pass Rushers Against Dallas - 27 Passes against Chicago
Wk 1: SF Blitzed Dallas 1/40 - Blitzed 2.5%
Wk 2: TEN Blitzed Dallas 12/33 - Blitzed 36%
Wk 3: STL Blitzed Dallas 11/23 - Blitzed 47%
Wk 4: NO Blitzed Dallas 11/32 - Blitzed 34%
Wk 5: HOU Blitzed Dallas 11/42 - Blitzed 26%
Wk 6: SEA Blitzed Dallas 5/33 - Blitzed 15%
Wk 7: NYG Blitzed Dallas 5/25 - Blitzed 20%
Wk 8: WAS Blitzed Dallas 21/40 – Blitzed 52%
Wk 9: AZ Blitzed Dallas 13/36 - Blitzed 36%
Wk 10: JAX Blitzed Dallas 6/29 - Blitzed 20%
Wk 12: NYG Blitzed Dallas 3/27 - Blitzed 11%
Wk 13: PHI Blitzed Dallas 8/33 - Blitzed 24%
Wk 14: CHI Blitzed Dallas 7/27 - Blitzed 25%
2014 Total: Opponents Blitzed Dallas 114/420 - Blitzed 27%
2013 Total: Opponents Blitzed Dallas 210/616 - Blitzed 34%

The Chicago game reminded us in many ways of so much in that 6-1 start. It was physical and effective, with less leverage put on Romo on 1st and 2nd downs. He is then able to make fewer than 30 passes that are often made in advantageous spots against lighter secondaries because linebackers and safeties are trying to figure out how to deal with yet another DeMarco Murray zone stretch.
I don't believe it can be stressed enough that this is the only way that the Cowboys in 2014 can be successful. This is a team that has already over-achieved most projections because of the realities of this defense. And they have done that because their offense has done an amazing job of protecting its defense. That broke down a few times along the way and it is asking quite a bit, but no more than other teams that have a championship defense and must protect its offense from having to do too much (the 49ers and Seahawks again come to mind). Every team, even those with top QBs, has one dominating unit and the other just tries to help out and not sabotage everything. This is the way of the salary cap, parity-designed league.
And on the 2014 Dallas Cowboys, there is no question that the resources have been heavily allocated to the offense. So, as they pack for Philadelphia and a showdown for a chance to not only make the playoffs but maybe even battle for a bye week, I think it is fair to ask the offense to pitch its finest game against a battered Eagles defense on shorter rest.
The recipe is obvious, the offense is at full strength, and the opponent is not known for much defensively, save for a healthy dose of risk-taking blitzes in front of a fired up crowd. A composed effort from the offense can take this team a long way into January. But, it must start the rest of that journey on Sunday. If not, we might bemoan the year the Cowboys wasted nearly a completely healthy season for their offense.