Sunday, September 27, 2015

Cowboys Inactives - Week 3

Cowboys Inactives:

Week 1234567
Wk 1 NYG30 Michael60 Coleman67 Mills71 Collins87  Swaim 93 Bishop99 Russell
Wk 2 PHI30 Michael65 Leary84 Hanna88 Bryant93 Bishop94 Gregory99 Russell
Wk 3 ATLCassel30 Michael65 Leary87 Swaim88 Bryant92 Mincey94 Gregory

BOLD Means Players who missed with injury.

In-Season Transactions:

9/15  Darrion Weems Waived - Charles Brown Free Agent Signing

9/16  Brice Butler Traded (traded).  Jordan Mills Waived.

9/22  Terrell McClain Reserve/Injured (reserve/injured), Tony Romo IR- DFR.

9/23  Kellen Moore Free Agent Signing (free agent signing).
         Matt Cassel Traded (traded).

DMN - Scouting the Falcons

In 2010, Tony Romo broke his collarbone and missed 10 games. The Cowboys turned the team over to Jon Kitna and the final game to Stephen McGee. During that stretch, after being blown out the first two games, they were 5-3 and had a chance to win each of the final eight without their most important player.
If they can approach .500 football during this 2015 stretch without Romo, they will be right in the playoff race and probably still near the top of the NFC East when Thanksgiving arrives. But that will start with a key two-week stretch against the NFC South, at home against Atlanta on Sunday and in New Orleans next Sunday night. After that, the additions of Greg Hardy and Rolando McClain should strengthen the defense.
The Falcons, 2-0 against the NFC East, feature some elite young talent on both sides of the ball who will play a major role in this important conference matchup.

Julio Jones

Any debate about the best wide receiver in the NFL must include Julio Jones. In many ways, when it comes to the measurables, he is a slightly more-gifted version of Dez Bryant. Both could stake claims as the best in the business entering 2015 (Calvin Johnson and Antonio Brown would also like mentions), and now both are linked with similar foot injuries. Bryant is going through what Jones did in 2011 and 2013. As a talent, Jones appears to be worth the five draft picks the Falcons gave Cleveland (the Browns have no players left to show for the trade) as he is a production machine who dominates games. He is just as likely to beat you deep as he is to punish with quick WR screens. His combination of strength and speed as well as his ability to win battles for the ball easily make him the focal point of the Cowboys' defensive game plan.

Jake Matthews

The sixth pick in the 2014 draft from Texas A&M, the next pro from the famous Matthews family, Jake was immediately inserted at left tackle and struggled mightily. Pass protection was a learning process throughout his rookie year, and he played through a high ankle sprain when he might have been better off sitting. The Falcons offensive line remains a work in progress, but Matthews appears much better equipped to live up to his reputation out of college. Besides quarterback, there may not be a more difficult position to figure out as a young prospect than left tackle in the NFL. There is every reason to believe he will be in that spot for years to come. His strength, footwork, and technique all seem to be developing as he matures.

Vic Beasley

Beasley was the eighth pick in this past draft out of Clemson. One of the most impressive pass rushers to come out of college in years, Beasely dominated opponents with quickness and relentless effort that will test the Cowboys' tackles today. He reminds observers of Von Miller with his blinding speed off the snap and flexibility to turn the corner on almost anyone. His work last week against the Giants' rookie left tackle, Ereck Flowers, was very impressive. Beating Tyron Smith like that will be a far more difficult challenge, but Beasley seldom runs into someone who can slow him down.
Twitter: @sportssturm

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Xs and Os - Week 2 - Eagles

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.
The last "look back" piece of the week is here, so let's grab three items from the win against the Eagles before we turn full attention to the Falcons at noon on Sunday...
1) Sean Lee Destroyed Things on Sunday
Sean Lee has always been a fine player and the biggest issue of course has been to keep him on the field.  He has played at multiple positions and it multiple schemes, but perhaps the "Will LB" in the Marinelli 4-3 is his best fit ever.
We better slow our roll on jumping to conclusions about where this will end.  Can he play a full season and should we expect 5 highlight reel plays every week?  That seems optimistic, but on Sunday in Philly, the results were quite exceptional.
Above, witness the most enjoyable moment of the day.  I put both angles on this because I think it is great to see what the Eagles were complaining about this week - that the Cowboys were sitting on their plays.  
Basically on this sweep, Lee sees Sproles move in motion to Bradford's right.  He knows the tendencies of what that means.  From there, know that 62, Jason Kelce, the center is supposed to get to Sean Lee to cut him off so this doesn't happen.  This, means that Sean Lee is going to pretty much beat Sproles to the corner like a heat-seeking missile and destroy the play (after Mincey penetrates and gets the ball rolling).  Kelce really never gets close to Lee, and the play is a clinic video on how to cut a path through traffic and to find the ball and end the play.  It is beautiful to behold.  I have watched it 100 times.  
The next play is a zone right out from under center.  There are no presnap tips here on direction, but Lee is watching the cutback.  He knows the Eagles and he knows the RB and DeMarco Murray loves to cutback against the grain on these zone stretches.  Give DeMarcus Lawrence credit for setting a nice edge to chase the play back inside.  Crawford and Mincey build a fine wall and Mincey seems eager to sit on the cutback, too.  But, there is Lee - as they said, if he plays the Will, he will be clean most of the time (unblocked) and here he meets the runner at the line and ends another play.  
The Eagles Right Guard, 66-Gardner, is not very good.  Here, it is pretty likely he is supposed to help chip Terrell McClain to his center and then go get a piece of Sean Lee for this play.  Kelce and Gardner are so overwhelmed by McClain who blows up this play that Lee is again untouched.  Give a huge assist to #97 on this and then Lee cleans it up.  It is worth noting that if they get a piece of Lee, this could be a big run.  It never got out of the garage.
This interception is a very interesting scene that I don't have figured out.   It appears 86-Zack Ertz is Lee's guy all along, but Hitchens flashes in the passing lane at the goal-line and Lee appears to be a ways off his man.  Either way, Lee recovers and is face-guarding Ertz for a bit, before he senses the ball is getting close.  At that moment, he turns and Sam Bradford kindly hits him in the chest with a huge interception moment of the game.  Massive stop for the Cowboys.
I hope you didn't marginalize the injury to 97-Terrell McClain this week.  That guy shows some wonderful stuff in short yardage and here is another example.  Look at him blow up the frontside here, and then 58-Jack Crawford leaves a clean lane for Sean Lee on the back to meet DeMarco again behind the line of scrimmage.  Lee makes no mistake, but this again demonstrates the importance of many contributions to make his job easier.  Heck of a job by all involved on so many of these stuff runs.
2) The Play That took Down Tony Romo
Instead of writing this up again, I am actually taking what I wrote on Monday all in italics below and merely putting some visual aids so you can see all of this clearly.
Things were going fine on this afternoon in Philadelphia for the Cowboys who looked in great control of the game, up 13-0 and driving again inside Eagles' territory after a beautiful long pass to Lance Dunbar against rookie linebacker Jordan Hicks from Texas. That 39-yard play converted a 3rd and 13 as Romo scanned the matchups and saw Dunbar out wide against Hicks and lobbed the deep ball right into the bucket for a fine big gain. 

The formation for that conversion, though, was the same formation that the Cowboys have used so much since 2013 and would use again 2 plays later. It is "Shotgun 11 empty", with 3 WRs, Jason Witten, and with Dunbar lined up wide as a wide receiver. The good news is that this means Dunbar will often be in man coverage against a Linebacker who cannot run with him. But, this also means that Tony Romo and the offensive line are on their own. "Scat protection" means just the 5 on the line and no blitz support should the defense bring pressure. The defense is not inclined to bring pressure often, of course, because the Cowboys have them spread way out and have 5 men in routes. This requires all of the coverage guys you can handle so the Cowboys are used to getting 4-man pressures against this look. 

But, 2 plays later, the Eagles had enough. They were not getting anywhere with 4, so they brought a 5th man. That means it is 5 vs 5. The Cowboys offensive line pitted against the Eagles pass rush. If anyone breaks through the line, he instantly becomes "Tony's guy". That means Romo has to get the ball out and save himself, especially on a 2nd down. 

Instead, disaster strikes. Fletcher Cox (notated with 3 in pic above) moves Tyron Smith out wide. Beau Allen (2) takes Travis Frederick the other way. This leaves the man the Eagles wanted to attack - whoever happened to be playing left guard, Mackenzy Bernadeau or La'el Collins, in this case Bernadeau - isolated on an island. Bernadeau picked up the blitzing linebacker DeMeco Ryans (4) quite well, but there was a trail blitzer right off Ryans back shoulder. It was Hicks (5) again. (Hicks delays his blitz until Ryans is engaged and then runs in behind him)  That same rookie Longhorn who was covering Dunbar on the long pass was not the surprise pressure man and when the Eagles in front of him all occupied their men, he had a free run at Romo. From there, Romo must get rid of the football. 

Why he didn't is interesting as well. The Cowboys are definitely looking to their left to run something involving Cole Beasley who is between Terrance Williams and Witten. Williams is going on a deep route, but Witten appears to be intersecting his route with Beasley on what is commonly a "rub route" to free Beasley in the middle of the field. Unfortunately, it doesn't really appear that Beasley is planning on doing what Witten thinks he will do. Made worse, Malcolm Jenkins, the Eagles safety who is up on Beasley, is sniffing the same thing Witten is seeing and cuts inside to jump the WR screen to Beasley (even though Beasley doesn't look like he is planning on that at all). 

NEW: Ok, since Monday, I have talked to enough people involved in the play (including Witten himself) to see what happened here.  Below, look at this picture that shows the Eagles are playing Cover 1 which means that they have a high safety (in the circle) and the other safety is supposed to be on Witten.  He is not (notated with the question mark).  The Eagles have blown their coverage and the Cowboys have an easy gainer here if they can get Witten out in the flat.  Unfortunately, Beasley's man saw this issue and made alterations.

All of this makes Romo change plans. He is definitely planning on the quick pass to Beasley. But, Jenkins jumps it meaning that if Romo throws it, this can easily become a Pick-6 for the Eagles. So, he doesn't throw it. He pumps, double pumps, and then loses the ball as Cox and Hicks converge. If he throws it away, this might not happen, but Romo was planning on some of the improvising that has made him very successful. This time, though, after Hicks lands on top of him as his body lands on its side, a maneuver we have seen over and over demonstrate that the human body was not created with pro football in mind, the clavicle was broken by the impact.
Ok, back to our Xs and Os visit here.  I have been asked quite a bit this week if I think this means Romo is to blame for his injury.  Basically, when someone gets hurt, we want to put the blame on somebody.  
Honestly, it is football.  You cannot praise him for his improvisational skills when it works and then get mad the one time he falls awkwardly and gets hurt.  He is who he is and he generally makes all of the correct gambles at this point of his career.  But, this one was incorrect.  He would kill the play if he could do it again.  This is a quick reminder of how impossible it is to do what he does for a living.  Hundreds of split second decisions, and if you get the wrong one wrong, you miss 2 months.  
That is why there is nothing close to "QB1".  
3.  Brandon Weeden Burns the Cover 0.
The key to the Cowboys season might be the ability for Brandon Weeden to take this offense and make it move.  Not to Romo's level, but at least to the level of a replacement-level QB in the NFL. Can he do it?  He certainly has the arm.  But, at the moment of truth can he pull the trigger, find the right guy, and then make the defense pay for risking the house on a blitz?
This play gives everyone hope.  
Here we see the Cowboys in Empty, S11.  They evidently trust Weeden enough to put him in this spot on 3rd and long in Philadelphia in the 4th Quarter (albeit with a reasonable lead).  The Eagles don't even attempt to disguise their plan here as there is simply no safety back there for Weeden to see.  He has to know they are about to bring the house to hit him, but also that there is a massive opportunity here.  Beasley in the right slot runs a short route to the inside, so now the only receiver on the right is Terrance Williams against Byron Maxwell.  
Now, something I feel pretty strongly about is the idea that has been preached by defensive coaches forever - our coverages must match our fronts.  This means that if we are blitzing, let's understand the right coverages behind it for the quick throws.  This is why you will always see press coverage when someone brings the house - a QB wants to get the ball out quickly, so let's make that impossible with corners right in everyone's face, right?
So what is Maxwell doing here?  It is 3rd and long, but he is dropping 10 yards off to the sticks.  There is no safety.  What is he anticipating that Williams is about to do?  He has run the skinny post/slant in-breaking routes  5-10 times already.  What is the hesitation from the corner?  Does he not know it is Cover 0?  He has no help.
Here you can see the hit Weeden knows is coming.  He understands he is about to be hit.  He has indicated in the press that he is concerned about his health and has already taken a concussion in preseason, so there are some of us watching to see how willing he is to take one to make a play.  This is the best evidence that he still is ready to do what it takes to play QB in the NFL.  Defenses will test that week to week, but this is now on film to show that he is not to be insulted with a simple test like this.  
He was taking candy from a baby here.  And it gives the organization a little hope for the next few weeks.  

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Marinelli Report - Week 2 - Eagles

Five times in the history of the Dallas Cowboys, they have held their opponent under 1 yard per carry.  That is 5 times in 56 seasons.  3 of those occasions were in the 1960s - Oct 30, 1966, the Cowboys held the Pittsburgh Steelers to 7 yards on 12 carries (0.58 ypc), Sept 17, 1967 against Cleveland for 17 carries and 11 yards (0.65 ypc), and Oct 8, 1967 at Washington 19 runs for 16 yards (0.84 ypc).  The other 2 have happened in the last 4 Cowboys regular season games.  Week 16 last year (Game 15) against the Colts - 10 carries for 1 yard (0.1 ypc) and of course, this past Sunday against a team that boasts the 2nd best rushing team in the last 2 season, the Philadelphia Eagles. 
On Sunday, the Eagles called 17 run plays and racked up a grand total of 7 yards.  This yards per carry of 0.41 was fantastic and only got into positive numbers in the final 3 minutes of the game.  Otherwise, the Eagles were at 14 run plays for -4 yards. 
Either way, they were simply demoralized.  It was the worst rushing day for the Eagles since 1961 and for a team that has run for over 200 yards in a game 9 times in 2+ seasons under Chip Kelly, it was easily the worst his team had ever run the ball. 
And for Rod Marinelli and his defense, it was a glorious day.
The Cowboys did it with swarming defense, fantastic advance scouting (as they did seem to know what was coming over and over again), and big players making dominating plays.  It is one thing to stop a defense in their own stadium, it is quite another to make them show dread that they have to walk back on the field again.  Most of the NFL will blame that on the ineptness of the Eagles' offense, but the Cowboys deserve top credit for taking the opportunity to not allow the home side even a moment of optimism.  
Below is one of the most amazing drive charts you will ever see.  It is the details of the Eagles drives from Sunday where the Eagles finally snapped a play over midfield at the 9:03 left in the 3rd Quarter.  The first half totaled 5 drives, 16 plays, 1 first down, and 22 yards of total offense.  Simply put, total and utter domination:
The key to shutting down the Eagles is making sure you are "assignment sound" and making them mount long drives as opposed to having big plays.  The Cowboys have not always been good at guarding against the "big play", but under Rod Marinelli, this has been a massive focus.  
Why don't the Cowboys blitz more?  Why don't they play more risky coverages?  Why don't they force the issue on defense?  Because, they want to be tactically sound.  They want to give nothing for cheap.  And what this means is defined in the following way - how many Explosives are they conceding?  
In the NFL, an explosive is defined as a play of 20+ yards (run or pass).  Generally, the average NFL team concedes about 4 a game and about 62 a season.  The very best teams (usually Seattle) give up less than 40 and the very worst teams give up about 80.  
I grant you that 2 games in is a ridiculous time to build a projection, but nevertheless, after 2 games against the Giants and the Eagles, the Cowboys have conceded just 4 explosive plays.  The team is also amongst the league leaders in forcing 3-and-outs.  And, of course, they are about to add premium personnel to their group.  
You are allowed to get a little bit excited about this Cowboys defense now. 
Let's look at some of the weekly numbers:
Here we see the details of a great day for the defense.  They took the ball away multiple times, they did not allow 3rd down success, they stopped them through the air and on the ground.  
Again, it is ok to use the term "dominating" after the league wanted to crown the Eagles the greatest offense we had ever seen in Mid-August because they lit up a few vanilla defenses in the preseason.  Silly rabbits.
Now, let's look at what I think is the best feature on this entire page.  My graphics and stats guy, John Daigle put together a throwing chart to show you where Sam Bradford's throws were going on Sunday.  It was evident in both Week 1 and Week 2 that there is almost no vertical stretch from the Eagles.  In fairness to the scheme, they did seem vertical back in 2013 (with DeSean Jackson, of course) and to a lesser extent in 2014.  But, for reasons that are somewhat unclear, Bradford has shown almost no interest in throwing the ball down the field.  Here is his chart from Sunday and as you can see, there is almost nothing more than 5 yards down the field:
Just look at the blue dots (completions).  You really don't need a big arm to make any of these throws and of his 23 completions, 16 of them were 4 yards or less downfield.  16!  I can't believe how putrid that really is.  
Here is our weekly run-down of Splash Plays.  To answer the question, "What Is  A Splash Play", I invite you to read all about it by clicking here
Now, note all of the plays behind the line of scrimmage.  Look at how Sean Lee racked up 5 different big plays and set the pace, but let's not overlook the play of the DL and Jeremy Mincey in particular.  On several occasions, his penetration allowed Lee and Barry Church to run free and past DeMarco Murray in the backfield.  It was a really impressive job.  Of course, for DBs, there is an issue with splash plays because if they never throw at you, you can't make a play.  If they do pick on you, you have more opportunities, but it doesn't mean you are a better player.  Sterling Moore had many splashes last year and Tyler Patmon is now taking that target.  So far, Patmon is standing up.  
Here are the season totals and you can see that #50 is taking off to the team lead.  I awarded an additional splash last week to Tyrone Crawford after a few readers thought he deserved on that I didn't initially award.  Feel free to look for discrepancies.  I will take them all under extra review if need be.
I also think this is a good spot to say how impressive JJ Wilcox has looked this season. The Cowboys are playing a lot of Cover 1 and Cover 3 (as usual) and that requires your Centerfielder to have some range, confidence, and closing speed.  He never jumped off the screen early in his career, but is starting to do so more and more.  
The blitz rate was not high, but it does seem with Sean Lee, Marinelli might mix in some more opportunities for LBs to spring traps on the QB.  I think we should keep an eye on the presence of Lee making the Cowboys' pass rush less predictable.  
I think Xs and Os Thursday is going to look at Sean Lee (Which I am sure is what everyone with a Cowboys' blog wants to do this week), so today, your little video nuggets will be what I considered the most wonderful point of Sunday's performance.  It was the Eagles 1st drive of the 3rd Quarter.  They had been demoralized in the 1st half.  They were mad.  They had adjustments and planned on coming out in the 3rd, get the kick, and then fix all of the issues immediately.
That didn't quite happen.  
1st Down:
2nd Down:
And before people can even get in their seats, the hole gets deeper.  
We are tracking these to also see if the Cowboys get caught in a blitz.  Is there a relation to bringing more men and conceding a big play?
Same thing here.  Do the Cowboys make a game-changing play when blitzing?  Not this week.
On every level, Sunday was an unmitigated success for the defense.  They did everything they wanted to do and even led the Eagles to say that the Cowboys knew the plays:
I am not sure what Huff is getting at, but there is no doubt the Cowboys were sitting on tendencies.  This is a well-coach team and the Eagles sometimes boast about how they don't have a real big playbook.  They just put you in binds and make you answer questions.  
It appears the Cowboys had plenty of answers.  These teams will meet again, but on the surface, you are starting to get the idea the league is beginning to understand how to deal with the "Chip Kelly offense".  This is an amazing league and contrary to media reports, Kelly isn't the smartest man in room of dummies.  NFL Coaches love to scheme a new idea and then the opponents love to move their chess pieces to stop it and stamp it out.  Has that happened here?  Doubt it, but the Cowboys may have helped lay out a blue-print that makes you wonder if you should have loaded up on Eagles on draft day in your fantasy league.
Regardless, enjoy that performance.  Lost in the Romo injury sadness was one of the best defensive performances the Cowboys have put up in years.  They humiliated their rivals for all the NFL world to see.