Thursday, October 23, 2014

Xs and Os: 3 Things To Examine From Cowboys-Giants

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 3 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.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Bob Sturm's scouting report: Giants inconsistent, but defensive end Pierre-Paul is formidable

The Giants visit the area with a mixed bag of results so far in 2014.
They hold a 3-3 record but have yet to play a game with less than a double-digit margin. In other words, they have either been very good or very bad and are struggling to play with the consistency needed to contend. 
Let's take a look at two areas to watch Sunday:
Offensive line
It is stunning to see how little the offense has in common with the squad the Cowboys played in New Jersey on Nov. 24. 
Only four starters — QB Eli Manning, WR Rueben Randle and tackles Will Beatty and Justin Pugh — are the same from that unit the Cowboys played in Week 12.
That means the guard-center-guard combo for the Giants is new. For the most part, the transition is going well. 
Weston Richburg is a second-round rookie left guard who brings an abrasive style. Richburg is joined by veteran interior linemen John Jerry (from Miami) and J.D. Walton (Denver), who have done a solid job. 
The trouble has been at right tackle. Pugh has started every game since being one of the nine offensive linemen taken in the first round of the 2013 draft, along with Dallas center Travis Frederick. The debate about Pugh in the buildup to the draft was whether the Syracuse tackle could overcome the issues with size (he weighs barely 300 pounds) and arm length (32 inches compared with Tyron Smith, who is just short of 37 inches). 
This season — particularly the last two games against Atlanta and Philadelphia — you can really see those shortcomings on the tape. 
Pugh conceded 4-5 sacks in a 27-0 loss to the Eagles on Sunday night in what would be described as a complete nightmare performance as Connor Barwin and Trent Cole beat him several times. He is starting to anticipate the snap and guess what his man is going to do, which sometimes works well but is never the technique for consistency. He is off-balance and missing badly too often. 
Look for the Cowboys to try to isolate and attack him after seeing his form that certainly is affecting his confidence.
DE Jason Pierre-Paul
Almost no name in recent history causes stomach pains among the Cowboys’ offensive line quite like Jason Pierre-Paul. 
In the four games against Dallas in 2011 and 2012, Pierre-Paul dominated LT Doug Free to a point where the Cowboys switched Tyron Smith over there, only for JPP to teach the young Smith a thing or two. 
The totals in four games: 16 tackles, four sacks, a forced fumble, an interception for a touchdown and a blocked field goal to save the game, the division title and ultimately a Super Bowl title in 2011.
Pierre-Paul had a horrid 2013, which included back surgery and a shoulder injury that clearly cost him his explosiveness. 
In 2014, a contract year, he is approaching his old self. He is getting a strong pass rush again from right defensive end, although at this point he has just 11/2 sacks. 
But, his pressures and hurries are among the league’s best. His run-stuffing is fantastic, and he has more tackles than any 4-3 defensive end in the league by a healthy margin.
Will he ever be a 16-sacks guy again? Maybe, but at age 25, we should not assume he has already fallen from the ranks of the elite.
Bob Sturm co-hosts BaD Radio on Sportsradio 1310 The Ticket from noon-3 p.m. on weekdays and blogs for

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Xs and Os - 3 Things to Examine from Week 6 - Seattle

Here is today's Xs and Os post at 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 3 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.
1Q - 7:19 - 4/3/D38 - Punt Blocked by Baldwin, Returned for TD by Morgan
This week, we look at the dreaded blocked punt. The Cowboys special teams almost cost them a win in an overall fantastic team performance.  You certainly don't want to get in a habit of having your best efforts undone from a few special teams mistakes.  That is as demoralizing as it gets.
Let's focus on the punt block here.  Seattle saw something during the week that they wanted to spring on Dallas' punt team at the very last second to see if they could ruin a game early.  Rich Bisaccia and his crew have done a pretty nice job of being prepared, but this is one that they will need to learn from.  The good news is, they can learn after a win.
Above, I have filled in the names for all the players on the Dallas side, and the two primary names on Seattle.  Baldwin is off the screen by design.  At the snap of the ball, he is racing to the scene and his timing is everything.  If he arrives too early, they are ready for him by changing the blocking assignments to account for the extra man at the edge.  If he arrives too late, he can't get to Jones in time.  But, give Baldwin his due.  He gets there at the perfect moment and the Cowboys are not prepared.

When you watch the play live, I walked away sure 38-Jeff Heath busted. But, in general, he is just back there as the protector, to clean up any messes that get to him. The problem here is that 2 problems arrive at nearly the same moment, and chances are regardless of which he chooses, the other gets to the punt.
Let's go over the issues here. 1) It is always going to be the job of Dwayne Harris to yell an alert to the line when he sees Baldwin charging to the line. He must let them know what is happening, and in general, your punt play is not going to be facing maximum crowd noise. It appears that perhaps this was not done properly.
2) 56-Korey Toomer, brought in partially because of his special teams ability, was beaten pretty badly by 57-Michael Morgan. Ironic, since Morgan might have been the guy to force Toomer out of a job as one of the final LB options in Seattle, but nevertheless, if Toomer can hold off Morgan better than he did (which is not at all), then Heath slides to Toomer and the alert is handled. But, Heath did what he is supposed to do - handle the closest threat. Like it blitz pickup, you have to deal with up-the-middle threats with your top priority if the arrival times are similar.
From there, the chaos is on. You can see Heath looking to his left and then getting back in the center as he knows he is in a bind. You simply cannot have 2 guys get to Heath without being impeded even a little bit. Toomer looks like he slid left, expecting 53-Cam Lawrence to go with him, but you can see Lawrence is dealing with a stunt with 91-Ladoucer in the middle.

So, a real mess.  Toomer has to do better and you can make the case that perhaps Heath picked the wrong guy - although the more you watch it, the more you wonder if Morgan blocks it himself if Heath vacates the middle.  All in all, you simply celebrate that you overcame this disaster.
Which led many of you to ask me this week:  How often do the Cowboys lose games in which they get a punt blocked?
In the last 17 years, they have lost in Seattle (2012), at the Jets (2011), at Arizona (2008), at Philadelphia (2001), at New York Giants (2001), and at Kansas City (1998). However, they have had punts blocked Sunday in Seattle, at Indianapolis (2010), home versus Washington (2002), and home versus San Francisco (2001) and won.
So, of the last 10 punts that the Cowboys have had blocked, they are actually 4-6. And wow, Filip Filipovic, the punter in 2001, had 3 punts blocked in one season. That is amazing, given that Mat McBriar had 3 punts blocked in his entire career.
2Q - 14:22 - 2/7/D8 - Murray right for 10 yards
This run is quite enjoyable if you love Xs and Os. The Cowboys running game has certainly experienced an exciting evolution in the last 12 months which has been well documented in this space. But, here is one that was requested by one of my emailers because he just wanted to make sure that Ron Leary was credited with his huge performance. If you haven't looked at his awesome cut block on the final Murray TD, you should go back and read Decoding Linehan where we highlight that play.
So, here is the 2nd play of the 2nd Quarter and Leary is on the move again. When you talk about the young OL, everyone talks about 3 1st Round picks, but football is really fun when you find undrafted free agents who can play with the 1st Rounders and not look exposed. That might be the path Leary is on in 2014.
One other note, the Cowboys have built their new identity around zone blocking schemes with inside and outside zones being the majority (and sometimes entirety) of their running renaissance. But, now, we see the counter punch - some man-blocking power plays with pulling guards (and tackles and tight ends) that are being sprinkled in to mess up an opponent's efforts to slow down the zones. You have to love it.
Anyway, on this particular play, notice a few things - 1) the play starts with DeMarco Murray stepping to his left to allow the guards a chance to get in front of him. Timing is everything with pulling guards, but they aren't the fastest guys in the world. So, Murray must elongate his path to give the big boys a chance to get in front of him.
2) I didn't notice this until last night when they showed the play from Bobby Wagner's perspective on NFL Turning Point, but Murray's false step takes 54-Wagner in that same direction and out of this play.
3) Notice the path of the two guards.  First, Martin gets 31-Chancellor and pushes him out of the path with great effectiveness.  Then, here comes 65-Leary around the bend and drives 53-Malcolm Smith into 29-Earl Thomas and ultimately 25-Richard Sherman.  Anytime your left guard can pull right and have 3 Seahawks on the ground 10 yards down the field, you would have to give him a gold star.
4Q - 4:55 - 3/20/D31 - Romo to Williams, +23, FD
Behold, for the 3rd time in 2 weeks, we have a "Play of the Year" candidate.
If they don't get this play converted, they have to punt, down 23-20 with less than 5 minutes to go.  To convert this is vital and quite possibly the ball game.  The Cowboys are in max-protection, with Witten and Murray in protection until they can slide out and get in a late route.
Bryant is out left, Williams wide right, with Gavin Escobar in the right slot and Witten tight to Free to help if necessary.
This is one of those cases where the All-22 is actually worse than TV, but you can definitely see below what Romo was looking at.  I think the key point of strategy to look at is DeMarco's poor chip on 51-Bruce Irvin.  If he is going to "assist" Tyron, then he has to make sure he actually knocks Irvin back to where Tyron can take over.  In this case, his chip doesn't really move Irvin off his path at all, and also he gets in Tyron's way.  Bad combination.  They would have been better without any chip at all.
But, now Irvin, a rusher with incredible speed, has Romo in his sights - once again from the blindside. How Romo feels that, spins out, and then stays alive is a story.  The fact that he then converts a 3rd and 20 (something that the league does less than 10% of the time even when conditions are ideal) is nothing short of miraculous.  Then, Williams awareness and technique to complete the catch in bounds... Wow.
There is some question about who Romo was throwing this ball to, but I feel this angle proves that it was Williams and that he might not have even seen Witten since he knows Witten is not on a route long enough to move the sticks.  You cannot imagine how fast this is happening in real-time as the Seahawks rushers and your linemen are all swirling around as you try to make this play.
I have watched this play dozens of times and it doesn't get any less impressive with each viewing.  Romo is a special talent who appears to have the ability to still make plays that most QBs wouldn't even attempt.
In other words, Bob, his back is doing fine.

BaD Radio Sports Movie of the Month

Sports Movie Of The Month


Jan - Big Fan - Audio Here
Feb - Cool Runnings - Audio Here 
Mar - Glory Road - Audio Here 
Apr - Bad News Bears - Audio Here
May - Mommie Dearest - Audio Here
June - Victory - Audio Here
July - A League of Their Own
Aug - Mrs Doubtfire
Sept - The Replacements - Audio Here
Oct - Heaven Can Wait
Nov -
Dec -


Jan - The Waterboy - Audio Here
Feb - Die Hard - Audio Here
Mar - Teen Wolf - Audio Here
Apr - Eddie - Audio Here
May - The Sandlot - Audio Here
June - Bye month - no movie reviewed
July - The Natural - Audio Here
Aug - Remember the Titans - Audio Here
Sept - The Program - Audio Here
Oct - Varsity Blues - Audio Here
Nov - JFK - Audio Here
Dec - Christmas Vacation - Audio Here


Jan - Blue Chips - Audio Here
Feb - Any Given Sunday - Audio Here
Mar - Goon - Audio Here
April - Days of Thunder - Audio Here
May - Major League - Audio Here
June - Rocky - Audio Here
July -  Bye month - no movie reviewed
August - North Dallas 40 - Audio Here
September - Brian's Song - Audio Here
October -  Point Break - Audio Here
November - Necessary Roughness - Audio Here
December - Rudy - Audio Here


March - Hoosiers - Audio Here

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Marinelli Report - Week 6 - Seattle

Today's Marinelli Report is available at the Dallas Morning News - Link here

Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli. (Tom Fox/The Dallas Morning News)
On Wednesday, the defense goes under the microscope in our "Marinelli Report".  We want to try to figure out what they were trying to accomplish, how well that went, and who in particular played well.  The report includes "splash plays", our highly subjective, individual award program.
Of all of the unlikely scenarios to present themselves on Sunday, surely the way the defense dealt with Russell Wilson, Percy Harvin, Marshawn Lynch, and the rest of the Seahawks' weapons has to go quickly to the top of the list.  It appears that most of the NFL has adopted the "You can't stop them, you can only hope to contain them" philosophy when dealing with the Super Bowl Champions and their sideline-to-sideline concoction of speed and misdirection, but the Cowboys played like they were in the Seattle huddle hearing the play calls.
Harvin, in particular - Seattle's highest paid player in 2014 and most devastating weapon many weeks - was absolutely smothered every time he had the ball in his hands.  Harvin had 7 plays called for him (3 runs, 4 passes) that combined for -1 yard.  I would be hard pressed to find a similar defensive effort in recent years to allowing negative yardage to a player of his status.
And Wilson, who has a reputation already in his 3rd season as being unflappable and consistently deadly, has started 42 games in his career as of this moment.  Only 4 times has he passed for fewer yards than his 126 on Sunday, only twice has he had a lower passer rating than his 47.6 on Sunday, and only 6 times has he rushed for fewer than 12 yards as he did on Sunday.  And almost none of those previous bad days happened in front of his home crowd.  Let's just say the 12th man didn't see this day coming.
So, how do we explain all of this again?  How do we account for the Cowboys defense being able to do something that the rest of the league will now study as the blueprint for how to deal with Seattle?
The answer is not going to be particularly exotic, I don't believe.  For Rod Marinelli, you can see they absolutely employed what you would expect a defense to try to do against Seattle - which is trying to keep the undersized Wilson in the pocket.  The pass rush appeared to be in more of a "contain" technique than you would normally see, with even the occasional spying LB to make sure he doesn't take his escape path to move the chains with his feet.  They continue to mix coverages and contest every pass at its arrival with cornerbacks who are comfortable with WRs more their size (Seattle has a group of smallish WRs relative to what the league can show you in places like Chicago).
But, overall, it was a test to the front 7 (particularly the edge players in the front 7 - DEs and LBs) who would have to stay disciplined to not fall for the ball fakes and misdirection, yet be quick enough that when Harvin tries to turn the corner, he is met by a convoy of Dallas defenders.  Dallas continues to fly to the ball.  And this is where we wonder about the chicken and the egg discussion through 6 weeks:
Is the Dallas defense playing better because they are playing fewer downs? Yes, it seems. And is that because the offense is killing off the clock or because the defense is getting off the field on 3rd Down and winning on their own?  My eyes tell me this team is making more defensive stands and getting off the field, but the evidence is not agreeing with my eyes:  Through 6 games last season, the Cowboys 3rd Down offense was surrendered a 1st down 33 out of 78 times for an opponent conversion rate of 42.3%.  In 2014, that number is 30 out of 71 for a conversion rate of 42.3%.  They are better by the slightest fraction, but effectively, they are exactly the same.
So let's go back to the number of downs they are facing.  Through 6 games in 2013, the Dallas defense had already played 409 snaps - an average of 68.2 snaps a game.  This year, the total snaps faced is 338 - an average of 56.3 per game.  In 2013, the Cowboys faced fewer than 60 snaps from an opponent only twice - (H) vs Giants and vs Oakland.  In 2014, they have faced fewer than 60 snaps 5 times!  Every game but the Rams, the opponent has had to deal with their offense playing much less than usual.
It appears the cliche might have been backwards.  In fact, the best defense may simply be a great power-running offense.  What is the best way to improve upon a historically bad defense in 2013?  Keep them off the field.  Then, when they do play, they can be fresher and attack with more ferocity because they don't have to worry as much about pacing themselves to survive 3 hours.
It all seems so simple when it is properly executed.
Let's look at a couple moments from Sunday's performance.  These first two Gifs are to show you why Russell Wilson was dealing with from the pass rush.  Look how they are fighting with 4 rushers to keep him in the pocket.  Look how they are trying to keep contain to force him to stay in between the hash marks if possible.
Most impressively, above, please note 93-Anthony Spencer. I have long been a real admirer of what he brings to the table (although I recognize he has frustrated many Cowboys fans who wanted him to be DeMarcus Ware), but like anyone, I feared micro fracture was going to be the end of his relentless pursuit.  We may never know what he would be like as a DE in the 4-3.  Well, Sunday showed me that 93 is back.  His quickness on these plays we are highlighting seems to demonstrate that he can really be a factor on the way to January.  Very impressive recovery for the veteran who has been a dominating player at times in his career.

Look above at this one.  Zone read, and Wilson wants to bootleg around Spencer and get to his targets on the right.  But 93 shuts it down and sends him back inside.  Cowboys playing outside contain against Wilson all day on his zone read, and made him uncomfortable.  But, Spencer's discipline on this type of key-and-diagnose has always been good, and now, with his knee allowing him to stay with a quick QB like Russell, he nearly forced a sack/turnover here.
Finally, below, it is the kill-shot.  The interception by Rolando McClain in the final minute to close the deal on the victory.  
From the wide shot, it looks like the Cowboys are in Good ol' Tampa 2.  Where, your MLB 55-McClain carries the middle of the field back to the safeties and this time, it means that he is able to pick off a pass that is meant to bisect the back 2.  The 2 outside corners are carrying their men to the sideline and maybe even playing man on the edges (as the Cowboys are running a ton of hybrid coverages - most of them with their corners in man) and Scandrick and Durant playing the shallow hook/curl spots of OLBs in nickel.
This was the question about Rolando McClain in Oakland - whether he was a liability in pass coverage.  Not saying this is the biggest challenge he will face in a season trying to cover a TE down the middle, but he looks pretty comfortable here getting his hips turned in his drop and then squared back up in his back pedal to pick off the pass.  Also, see Tyrone Crawford fork-lifting James Carpenter back into Wilson.  Crawford is very impressive, but we all await his many pressures to start converting into sacks.  He is close.
DEFENSIVE PARTICIPATION:  No Bruce Carter again means Kyle Wilber gets a chance to play 13 snaps and had a few big moments in pass coverage.  He was attacked and was able to defend his spot pretty well (and avoided a flag then dropped a potential Pick-6).  The secondary is consistent now with Church and Wilcox settling in, Scandrick, Carr, and Moore challenging every pass.  Jeff Heath showed up for 12 snaps as the 3rd Safety. On the DL, Mincey (43) and Crawford (39) are playing the most, with Spencer now 3rd (31 snaps), Hayden and Melton both played 27 snaps and Selvie 24.    Thanks, Pro Football Focus for the exact math on the snap counts.
On Sunday, they were able to get off the field with 8 3rd Down wins in 13 attempts.  Also, the Seattle passing game hardly had a big play all day long.  4.5 YPA is something you will take against anyone, let alone in Seattle.  Then, in the red zone, force Field Goals to keep that defensive magic trick going.
What is a splash play? Well, for purposes of this blog I believe a splash play will include the following: A sack, a pressure that forces a bad throw, and big hit on the QB, and a batted ball that may lead to an interception opportunity. Again, you can see how this leads to subjectivity, but a subjective breakdown is better than no breakdown at all, I have decided. In addition, a splash play will include tackles for loss, a big hit for a short gain, or a stop which is an open field tackle where a player is pulled down on 3rd down short of the marker because of an exceptional effort from a defender. An interception is clearly a splash play, but so is a defended pass that required a great effort. A major hit in the secondary could be a splash play, but I believe that the outcome of the play will determine that. Sorry, defensive backs, but standing over a guy who just caught a 15 yard pass because you think you hit him hard will not generally pass the test on this blog. So, stop doing it.

I am trying to be careful about handing out too many splash plays per game. I am trying to be picky, but too extreme in either direction. When I log a splash play, I will put time of the game on the chart so that if you want to review the same game and challenge my ruling, you are welcome to do so. Also, if multiple players deserve recognition on a single play, we will try to see that as well.

Basically, we are trying to assign a value to making plays on the defense. We don't want to just see sacks and interceptions. We want to see broader definitions of splash plays to assign credit to those who help the Cowboys get off the field in important situations. These rankings will not deduct for negative plays at this point. There are simply too many occasions where we are guessing, and for now, I want to avoid that for this particular idea. 

A splash play is a play that makes a major difference in the game. And by keeping it all season long, we will see which defenders are play makers and which are simply warm bodies. We already have our thoughts on both categories, but let's see if we can dig a bit deeper and actually have numbers to back up our claims.
19 splash plays were given on Sunday.  Tyler Patmon stopped his man short of the sticks to get on the board for the first time, and as we mentioned above, Anthony Spencer, who led this category in 2012 is on the board in 2014.
Team leaders through 6 games?  Rolando McClain and Tyrone Crawford.  Just like we all thought in August, right?
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 6 Summary
Even with very few sacks to date, something as simple as consistent pressure can easily produce a chart layered with dotted lines.
Look at that, below.  Almost no lines down the field.  Wilson had nothing going on Sunday.

This segment of the defensive study is simply to find out how well the Cowboys are doing at getting pressure on the opposing QB.
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
2014 Total: 25/46, 272 Yds, 2 TD, 1 INT, 3 FD -  77.4 QB Rating

Each week we monitor how often the Cowboys send pressure on passing plays.
Against Seattle, it was a very conservative - drop 7 into coverage - approach.  Surely, we cannot argue with the philosophy of keeping Wilson in the pocket and then attempting to collapse the pocket into his face.
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%
2014 Total: 48/204 - Blitzed 23.5% 
2013 Totals:  140/673 - 20.8%
2012 Totals:  134/551 - 24.3% 
And, here are the full season numbers to date:
SUMMARY:  What more can you say?  At some point, we are going to have to credit the Cowboys brain-trust for assembling players who can carry out the plan of the day.  Please forgive those of us who wonder if disaster is around the next corner, but it still seems unlikely that they could lose Sean Lee, DeMarcus Ware, Jason Hatcher, Morris Claiborne, and now even Bruce Carter from last year's very poor defense and then go into Seattle and spank the champs.
Is it sustainable?  Let's take this week to week.  Next, here come the Giants who are licking their wounds from a tough night in Philadelphia where they lost Victor Cruz for the year, a guy who generally makes a living off the Cowboys. Since the Giants and Eli Manning are 4-1 in Arlington, and since the only loss was when they turned the ball over 6 times last September, I think the best advice is for all involved to put Seattle in the rearview mirror now and get ready for the first NFC East Divisional opponent.
But, as we turn the page after 6 weeks, we must tip our cap to all of the bright spots about this defense.  Tyrone Crawford, Rolando McClain, and Orlando Scandrick are very high on that list.  But, the best and most promising aspect of this sustaining for a while is that there doesn't appear to be a major achilles heel that the Cowboys are trying to scheme around right now.  In other words, when you attack the Cowboys defense, who do you want to go after?
And maybe that is what the philosophy really has been.  As we focus on star power and and name recognition, maybe the biggest difference with the defense this year versus 2012 and 2013 is the idea that they while they don't have any elite defenders, they also don't have any weaklings being exposed.
If each player is ranked on a scale of 1-10, maybe they lost some of the top end, but have been able to make sure they the least of their defenders are at least solid.  The numbers all say that the Cowboys are merely about league average on defense.  But, as we have felt for many years, if only the Cowboys defense could play at league average, maybe the offense can be good enough to take them somewhere.
So far, so good.  And with Spencer flashing, DeMarcus Lawrence returning to practice, and Bruce Carter back for Washington, you can understand the optimism and confidence from Marinelli's troops after Seattle.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Decoding Linehan - Week 6 - Seattle

Click here to check out today's post at my new home - The Dallas Morning News.

Dallas Cowboys passing game coordinator Scott Linehan (left) talks with wide receiver Dez Bryant during the first half of their game against the Seattle Seahawks Sunday, October 12, 2014 at CenturyLink Field in Seattle, Wash. (G.J. McCarthy/The Dallas Morning News)
On Tuesdays, we give the offense a thorough examination in a series that started in 2008 called "Decoding Linehan".  Of course, it was once called Decoding Garrett and then Decoding Callahan, but you get the idea.  This is an exercise in analyzing the offensive performance from a number of angles as well as a discussion on whatever game theory topics affected the game. 
To continue on yesterday's theme, it should be stated how uncommon it really is for a team or an offense to change its identity with merely an offseason where the only personnel change was the drafting of a right guard.  Zack Martin's upgrade over Bernadeau is clear, but we won't suggest that Martin was the tipping point at all.
We continue to feel, as we wrote back in August, that the identity actually changed during last season's bye week (after the debacle in New Orleans).  In that piece we previously linked, you can see all of the many theories, including the most obvious one - that they simply have to do a better job protecting their defense with common sense play-calling from the offense - but they changed their ways before Week 11 against the Giants.  Since then, the Cowboys have played 12 games which is 75% of a full season and the confirmation that the Cowboys transitioned from the worst rushing team in the NFL to the best - almost overnight - is flat out stunning.
Over those 12 games, they have run for 1,696 yards (1st in the NFL) at 5.03 yards per carry (1st) and 141.3 yards per game (2nd) for 91 1st Downs (1st) and 49 10-yard runs (3rd).
What makes those numbers absurd is the fact that the 26 games previous to that from Week 1 of 2012 through Week 10 2013, Dallas ran for 2,035 yards (31st), at 3.67 yards per carry (29th), 78.3 yards per game (31st), for 115 1st Downs (29th), and 45 10-yard runs (31st).  That is right, if it wasn't for Jacksonville being worse, the Cowboys flipped a switch and went from worst to nearly first in pretty much every category.
And keep in mind that the personnel is largely the same (but we must account for the time invested for maturity and continuity), when we ponder philosophical changes having the most likely affect on the proceedings.  If you think about it from the standpoint of last year's bye week, Scott Linehan is no longer the Albert Einstein of this operation, but rather the specialist who helped further implement the existing idea.  If the final 6 weeks of last season are not that dissimilar in the ground game to the first 6 games of this season, then we are wondering if it was more a conscious (and obvious) decision rather than an accident.
So what happened?  As I wrote in the piece back during training camp, there are several things: 1) a clear controversy in the play-calling department as many speculated that Jason Garrett and Bill Callahan were at odds and that Garrett took the play-calling duty from Callahan.  2) DeMarco Murray returned to full health during the bye of 2013. 3) the Cowboys had a new Right Guard after they lost Brian Waters in Detroit and Mackenzy Bernadeau took over.  4) Tony Romo's health concerns and the Cowboys Run/Pass versus Minnesota (9 runs/51passes) were real issues and 5) on December 3, the Cowboys signed their first fullback of the entire year, Tyler Clutts.
Surely a few of those have nothing to do with the big decision, but to go from league-worst to league-best overnight without any other significant developments is difficult to fully understand.  Is it possible they had the pieces for a running game before this and just never "committed" to it?
Which brings us to the latest test, a mauling of the most difficult opponent to run against in football in their stadium where teams don't run.  37 carries for 162 yards was a thing of beauty.  There were several runs that went nowhere, but as a whole, the Cowboys marched the ball right down the throat of the Seahawks with enough ease to make you think that if this is the supposed toughest test for this offensive line, Dallas is going to win a lot of games.
They ran the ball primarily from power groupings, but did get 8 carries for 58 yards from 11 personnel (under center) which was aided by Joseph Randle's big 38 yard run early.  11 Personnel (1RB, 1TE, 3WR) is something that Dallas has almost never done from under center before 2014, but has already run 43 times this season for 219 yards out of this set. This is a major improvement over their productivity in previous seasons and is now a weapon that teams are taking seriously.  11 Personnel forces a defense into nickel and generally keeps the safeties back, so the run can really put an opponent in a bind.
But, now for the power.  One of my favorite personnel groupings over the years has been "22" personnel.  22 personnel is the essence of the ground and pound and it declares to the entire stadium that with 2 RB and 2 TE on the field, the plan is to run the ball down your throat.  The defense will usually take off a corner and put on another LB to deal with all of the muscle in the offensive huddle and then they will often counter with 9 men in the box.  This is power on power.
In 2013, the Cowboys didn't even employ a FB for 12 weeks, and ran only 5 plays all year out of this set for 26 yards.  All year!  Well, Sunday, against the big, bad Seahawks, they ran it 11 times for 62 yards. All 11 times this personnel was on the field, they ran the ball.  They declared run, then they did run.  And Seattle did not come close to stopping it.  If you love power football, it almost brought a tear to your eye.  The Power Cowboys may exist again.
Behold - the final 3 plays of the game winning drive:
Above, the play is simple "Power Right" with the pulling RG 70-Martin and the FB 44 Clutts clearing the path for DeMarco after the Tight Ends Witten and Escobar block in and hold off the Seattle Linebackers.  Until DeMarco makes Earl Thomas miss 10 yards down the field, you could have had anyone at RB on this play.  The final 14 yards though are from DeMarco being so physical that Thomas tries the arm tackle, which hurts less late in a game.

The "Madden" view of the same run.

Above, here is the very next play.  Do you like it?  Because it is the exact same "Power Right" play.  This time, Travis Frederick gets to Bobby Wagner and helps secure the 8 yard gain.  Otherwise, more physical running from a Dallas front that may not pass again.
And now, the kill shot. This time, a simple zone stretch with a Full Back taking on any penetration.  Keep in mind, Doug Free was lost on the previous play, so Jermey Parnell is #78 and Clutts goes to assist him on this play.  Look at Ronald Leary's massive cut block on 50-KJ Wright.  Wow, I bet that got cheering in the film room at Valley Ranch yesterday.
Bottom line, we wondered how they would do against an elite defense on the road with this new running game.  Many of us hoped for a draw - some good moments and some bad - but leave with your pride and optimism intact.  Well, this was no draw.  All the judges scored the fight easily in Dallas' favor.
What an amazing identity change for this offense.
Offensive Participation: Finally, the 7 with perfect attendance on the Cowboys offense (9, 82, 77, 65, 72, 70, and 68) dropped to 6 as it looks like Doug Free will not be in the lineup next Sunday.  It is too early to know for sure, but now all of the years and checks the Cowboys have given Jermey Parnell are likely to be on full display.  He should be ok, out there as he is a physical player, but I am sure that is where the Giants will look for a soft spot.  Beyond that, we saw a huge dose of Lance Dunbar (14 snaps) and major impacts as he moved the chains 3 different times in that 2nd Quarter.  Also, lots of Cole Beasely (31) and more Gavin Escobar (24) than we have seen all year.  All snap numbers courtesy of PFF and they include all snaps including plays that were not official because of penalties.
10 3rd Down conversions?  In Seattle?  Who are these Dallas Cowboys?  This was their achilles heel in 2013 and now, they are the #1 team in the NFL in 3rd Down conversions - and looked like it on Sunday.  Also, and I can't believe this: They are #1 in 3rd Down conversions on 3rd and 10+.  8 for 18 on the season for 3rd and really long, including that 3rd and 20 gem to Terrance Williams.  Pinch yourself.
This season, we're attempting to track both passing and drive progression. John Daigle has designed a fantastic chart.  Each color, for instance, 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 6 Summary
There is no color scheme for the final possession of the game because quite frankly, the passing chart doesn't display 22 personnel. The last attempt of the game, however, came during the Cowboys ninth possession and was specially designed as white for our purposes.
This play, of course, is simply known as the Terrance Williams catch.
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 -
Wk 1 - San Francisco: 5 Run/5 Pass - 50% Run
Wk 2 - At Tennessee: 8 Run/3 Pass - 72% Run
Wk 3 - At St. Louis: 7 Run/2 Pass - 77% Run
Wk 4 - New Orleans: 9 Run/2 Pass - 81% Run
Wk 5 - Houston: 8 Run/3 Pass - 72% Run
Wk 6 - At Seattle: 7 Run/3 Pass - 70% Run
2014 Total: 62 Drives - 44 Run/18 Pass - 70% Run
As you can see the Cowboys are starting 70% of their drives with a run play.  They are not hiding their intentions, which makes play-action all the more dangerous moving forward.
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.
Shotgun snaps are fine on 3rd Down and in the 2 minute drill. But, we track this stat from week to week to make sure the Cowboys aren't getting too lazy in using it. They are not efficient enough to run it as their base, and with a 15%/85% run/pass split across the league, there is no way the defense respects your running game. When shotgun totals are high, the Cowboys are generally behind, scared of their offensive line, or frustrated.
This year, less shotgun is clearly the focus.  And so far, so impressive.
Wk 1 - San Francisco: 41 Shotgun/63 Total Plays - 65% Shotgun
Wk 2 - At Tennessee: 30 Shotgun/76 Total Plays - 39% Shotgun
Wk 3 - At St. Louis26 Shotgun/50 Total Plays - 52% Shotgun
Wk 4 - New Orleans: 26 Shotgun/62 Total Plays - 41% Shotgun
Wk 5 - Houston: 42 Shotgun/75 Total Plays - 56% Shotgun
Wk 6 - At Seattle: 32 Shotgun/69 Total Plays - 46% Shotgun
2014 Total: 197 Shotgun/395 Total Plays - 49% Shotgun
2013 Total: 566/945 - 59.8% Shotgun
2012 Total: 565/1038 - 54% Shotgun
2011 Total: 445/1012 - 43.9% Shotgun
(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.)
* - Knee Plays are not counted in play calls.
Balance.  Every week.  It is almost now assumed that this is the new identity.
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
2014 Total: 17/29, 58 Cmp%, 297 Yds, 2 TD, 3 INT, 12 FD, 3 Sack
They have to be careful with protection on play-action, because some teams tell their LBs that if they take a false step on the fake, just keep coming on the rush.  This means that Romo is starting to feel heat on play-action passes, but they still hit on a long ball to Williams off this, so overall, they have to be pleased about that result.
Pass Rushers Against Dallas - 33 Pass Situations vs Seattle
Seattle and San Francisco just don't blitz much.  Seattle didn't get to blitz hardly at all once the Cowboys started driving at them.  Not a factor this week. But, look at the season numbers - run more, get blitzed less.
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%
2014 Total: Opponents Blitzed Dallas 51/203 - Blitzed 25%
2013 Total: Opponents Blitzed Dallas 210/616 - Blitzed 34%

 Thanks to John Daigle for his work on the charts and graphs.
SUMMARY AND LOOK AHEAD:  There is a lot of information here for sure and it can be a bit much to the new reader (welcome DMN new readers!), but take it slow and we will try to walk you through anything that is confusing.
The bottom line is that the Cowboys have answered every single offensive concern so far.  We wondered if they could run the ball.  They can.  We wondered if they can run the ball against really good defenses (SF and Sea).  They can. We wondered about 3rd Downs and whether they can sort that mess out.  They can.  We wondered if they can have a healthy season from Tony Romo and if he can make the same plays he has always made when they need him (ala, John Elway late in his career when the Broncos found a zone running scheme to take the load off his shoulders).  So far, so good.
Now, they must demonstrate this new-found might against divisional rivals who must prepare for the "Same Ol Cowboys".  I wonder if they are using any of their old reels or if they are discarding anything pre-2014 and starting new.  Surely, they know that this Cowboys offense is not what they have dealt with in the past, but when we talk about these last 12 games and the new identity of the offense, we must remember that those 12 games only have 3 NFC East games.  With New York and Washington next, we wonder about the ability to grind those teams into powder with this physical style and what they can do about it.
The Seattle game can give this offense all manner of confidence, but in the big scheme of things, the season has only just begun.  6 NFC East games are ahead, and the quest for a division title is just starting.  If they must play 3 weeks without Doug Free, this will be their first offensive health challenge of 2014.
Somehow they have created a brand new identity with largely the same pieces.  Now, we challenge them to maintain it with the 11 who can take the field.