Monday, October 27, 2014

Email Bag: The DeMarco Murray Contract Conundrum

http://cowboysblog.dallasnews.com/2014/10/email-bag-the-demarco-murray-conundrum.html/

Bob Sturm's Scouting Report: Hatcher's Return Can Cause Issues Inside

http://cowboysblog.dallasnews.com/2014/10/bob-sturm-why-ex-cowboys-de-jason-hatcher-could-be-matchup-nightmare-for-former-club.html/

First-year coach Jay Gruden brings his Redskins to Arlington in pursuit of Washington’s first road win in its fourth attempt. The Redskins have been hit hard by injuries, placing four different players on injured reserve since Week 1, and they’ve played without Robert Griffin since early in Week 2. Let’s take a look at some of the key defensive areas that will affect Monday’s showdown with the Cowboys:

DE - Jason Hatcher

After eight seasons in Dallas, 32-year-old Jason Hatcher set up his new home in Washington with a new contract, and he’s back in a 3-4 defense. He has picked up right where he left off in 2013, with numerous penetrating plays of substance in the opponent’s backfield. Hatcher sets up well in this scheme with his combination of length and quickness and is ideal when Washington switches to a four-man front in nickel situations. He is a matchup nightmare if he gets isolated against a guard, especially in the pass rush. His motor runs high and appears to be a fine addition for the Redskins.

CB Bashaud Breeland

Drafted with the 102nd pick in the 2014 draft, Bashaud Breeland was on the periphery of the defensive plans until everything changed with the season-ending injury to DeAngelo Hall in Week 3 in Philadelphia. Many believed Breeland turned pro too early after his junior season at Clemson, but the big corner has moved up the ladder and is now the regular on the left side, opposite second-year man David Amerson. Breeland has been attacked quite a bit in the last few weeks — Carson Palmer threw at him repeatedly in the loss at Arizona. He is certainly physical for a corner going forward, but he can be attacked with comebacks and double moves as his directional change looks vulnerable. The rookie also tends to attract flags.

OLBs Ryan Kerrigan and Trent Murphy

Ryan Kerrigan hasn’t missed a game for Washington since being its first-round pick in 2011 (16th overall) out of Purdue. During that span, he has never had fewer than 7.5 sacks or more than 8.5 in a season. Through Week 7, he is already at 6.5 sacks (Von Miller leads the NFL with 8). He is relentless and impressive in all regards but especially tenacious with the pass rush.
Meanwhile, Brian Orakpo was lost for the season last week with yet another pectoral injury. In steps another rookie, second-round pick Trent Murphy from Stanford. He is a classic case of phenomenal on-field accomplishments in the major college game, coupled with questions of strength (19 reps on the 225-pound bench press) and speed (4.86 40-yard dash) from his NFL combine performance. His 25 sacks in 2012-13 led all FBS schools, but the issues of dealing with elite NFL speed will be addressed as he makes his starting debut. It was vital that he was drafted by a 3-4 team. Even though it would have preferred more seasoning, Washington is confident in its Orakpo contingency plan. Now the Redskins will be able to test that theory.

Bob Sturm co-hosts Bad Radio on Sportsradio 1310 The Ticket from noon-3 p.m. on weekdays and blogs for SportsDayDFW.com.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

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


http://cowboysblog.dallasnews.com/2014/10/xs-and-os-3-things-from-cowboys-giants-to-examine.html/
Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant (88) points to the crowd after a big pass reception in the fourth quarter during the New York Giants vs. the Dallas Cowboys NFL football game at AT&T Stadium in Arlington on Sunday, October 19, 2014. (Louis DeLuca/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.
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Play #1 - 1Q/10:29 - 2/9/D25 - Murray right for 17 yards
Ho hum, another week, another big running day.  They had their share of success on the ground, but this is probably my favorite run of the day to show a few things.  Just your typical "zone right" that they run over and over.
Notice how this is a team exercise.  Everyone on the field has a job to do, and they are all doing it well and with great purpose.  Above, please pay particular attention to the Guard-Center-Guard group of the Dallas Cowboys.  As recently as 2011 this team had the worst group in the league.  In 2012, they upgraded to just poor.  And now, they are willing to measure up to any team, anywhere.  First, 65-Ron Leary is the LG, and he gets a perfect cut block on his man which is one of the objectives of any zone stretch.  Get your guy off his feet.  Once that happens, the Giants can no longer keep their wall.  From there, 72-Frederick and 70-Martin, the Center and Right Guard,  take over.  And for that, look below:

Coaching clinics teach these concepts to coaches at all levels of football and they are always looking for textbook plays.  This may be a candidate on how to zone block.  Watch 72-Frederick snap the ball and get right on 52-Beason and drive him right out of the play.  That is nice, but that is a LB that Frederick badly outweighs.  So now, witness 70-Martin sending 99-Cullen Jenkins over to the sideline with such ease that we can now see the wisdom in taking a guard in the 1st round (something most of us draft nerds really don't care for).  If he can do this in his rookie season - most of the time - then you take him and profit.
From there, you have the proverbial hole that you could drive a truck through, and Murray is off to the races.  Now, he tries to run over as many defensive backs as possible and introduces them to what they can look forward to all afternoon.  Dominating stuff - especially given that this is something the Giants have prepared for and this is one of the first zone runs of the day.
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Play #2 - 1Q/8:59 - 3/8/D44 - Romo to Witten for 12 yards, FD
Now, I want to spend the rest of this post on a few plays that summarize the Cowboys success that is vital to keep the running game as powerful as it is.  The ability to convert 3rd Downs into a fresh set of downs and to punish the blitz.  They do both of those things on these next two plays.
There are blitzes (More than 4 rushers) and then there are "big blitzes".  "Big Blitzes" are defined as 6 rushers or more.  They, of course, are some of the most devastating blitzes, but also some of the riskiest for the defense - and perfect for punishing those defensive coordinators who dare call them.  But, the only way to get them to stop calling them is to make them pay.
The Giants dared to send 2 big blitzes on Sunday and Tony Romo and the offense was able to win both of those showdowns.  Let's look at them as Jim Haslett, the Washington Defensive Coordinator, is definitely looking at them today, as he decides how aggressive he is going to be on Monday Night.  You may or may not know this, but Haslett has sent as many big blitzes at Tony Romo over the years as anyone in the business.  Romo has won several, but Haslett won the 2012 finale in Washington by blitzing and blitzing the Cowboys all night long.
Washington believes in sending 7 on occasion (the cover 0 blitz) when the time is right, but New York did not try that.  They maxed out at 6 in these 2 examples.  By the way, from a QB standpoint, once you get the protection right, if you ever see a big blitz, there is generally a 95% chance your opponent is in straight man-to-man with a single high safety. Occasionally, that safety turns into a robber and tries to ambush your first read, but that is very risky because if the safety guesses wrong it could be a Touchdown.  So, most do it like the Giants - blitz 6 - then, play man with a high safety.  This is why a good team can chase you out of blitzing.  Get the protection right and now, Romo knows the coverage and where he wants to attack - either his best offensive matchup or your weakest cover guy.

So, as you look above, the Giants are trying not to be obvious about their plan as the LBs are at normal depth.  Cowboys have 3x1 to the right.  Remember, the sticks are at the Giants 48.  So, Romo does the math in pre snap.  He has 5 OL and 1 RB to handle the Giants who are lined up as if they are in man in front of a Cover 1.  It could be a disguise, but he knows what to expect.


As Romo gets the snap, it is not a disguise at all.  It is clearly Cover 1 and now if the protection is right, Romo knows exactly where to go to move the chains.  But, the protection is always the issue on 3rd Down inefficiency it seems at this level.  Let's check the protection:


It isn't always this easy to sort through a blitz, but this one is really basic.  6 on 6.  The only question is whether 35-Demps and 52-Beason are coming.  It is just as likely that Demps is waiting for Murray to release, so that will change the protection, of course, and why designating the "Mike" is so important in pre snap.


Now, you can see above that Frederick and Leary have to do some switching on the fly, because the Giants are sending 91-Ayers inside to the A-Gap between Frederick and Leary, so 52-Beason can cut behind him to the same B-Gap (between Leary and Smith) that 35-Demps is attacking.  Then, 98-Moore is trying to take Smith wide to make that hole even bigger.


But, look, Everyone switched with ease.  6 man blitz and all 6 Cowboys are centered on their proper target perfectly.  Again, textbook stuff.  Now, Romo confidently stands tall and sees Witten against a LB (57-Williams) in space.  Even at this age, this is the easy read as Witten gets to the sticks and keeps crossing the field.  If Williams is ahead of him, he might just sit down, but he doesn't have to.


By this frame, Romo is clean (Parnell is starting to lose his edge against Pierre-Paul) and Witten is a yard in front of Williams now.  It will take a bad throw to save the Giants now.


It is amazing how easy 3rd and long can be if you have protection that is capable.
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Play #3 - 4Q/9:40 - 3/8/O25 - Romo to Bryant for 24 yards, FD
This conversion is certainly a lot more difficult.  The Cowboys are up 7 and a field goal puts you up 10 with plenty of time to play.  Safe here isn't a bad option, but Tony Romo is not going to settle for 3 if there is a Touchdown to be had.  You have to love this team discovering its ruthless side now that they have a little self-confidence.


This time, the Giants are not disguising anything.  Both LBs are sugaring (giving every indication that they are blitzing) the "Double A-Gap" blitz.  And you can bet on 3rd and 8 with the game on the line, odds are very good that the Giants aren't bluffing here.  They want a sack in the worst way.


Now, in the frame above, you might be asking what is different?  Well, look at the last 2 pictures and see that Romo did not move Murray over to deal with the right side which is undermanned.  Instead, he waved Witten over to assist.  This certainly baffles the Giants a bit because they were expecting Witten to be the target, I suspect.  In fact, the single-high safety is leaning over to Bryant's side which makes me bet he was planning on showing that pre snap and then coming downhill as the robber on Witten if they tried to do the same thing they did last time they saw a big blitz (82 on a cross).


Above, Romo gets his protection right - including Murray doing a great job on the A-gap - and Witten's man and the safety are both waiting for Witten and frozen in the middle of the field on each hash mark.  I would certainly pay a penny for both of their thoughts at this moment in time.


Now, check what Romo's view is and see that Murray is there to take whichever LB that 72 can't get to.  Those LBs are going to criss-cross, making it more confusing.  That's ok, because Murray and Frederick are almost 100% on this for 2014.

Here is the video.  I edited it to show Romo's wave for Witten and the edge man for the Giants, 98-Moore looking agitated or trying to warn his mates what is happening.  Watch Murray and Frederick pick up their guys.  Then, once Romo sees that safety is not going to Dez, he is going to give 88 every chance to make a play.
You know what happened from there.
If you want the biggest reason why this team is for real, I submit these last 2 plays are far more significant than the run game.  You still have to make throws in the face of pressure at big moments in a game - especially to win a division and win in the playoffs.  The Cowboys protection is sound right now and they are chasing teams out of blitzing by putting this type of thing on tape as a warning to anyone who wants to try to rattle them.
Now, Haslett must decide if he wants to roll the dice again.  This is not the same Cowboys offense he used to terrify so much.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Marinelli Report - Week 7 - Giants


http://cowboysblog.dallasnews.com/2014/10/marinelli-report-the-only-statistic-that-truly-matters.html/

There are many, many statistics that we track during the course of a football season.  Every week, I get a report sent to me that has roughly 300 different team stats which certainly make one eligible for "paralysis by analysis".
But, when tracking a defense, all of these different stats point to the only stat that truly matters for a defense - limiting points that are being scored against you.  The name of the game is to win, but, of course, that is a team accomplishment where you are awfully dependent on the offense (and they are dependent on you).  If one of you is substandard, then the other side has to compensate...or lose.
So, on Sunday against the New York Giants - a team the Cowboys have averaged allowing 29.1 points per game in the "Cowboys Stadium" era - they allowed only 21 points for the second meeting in a row.  21 points against, as you can see below, is the season average against Dallas which ranks them 9th in the NFL and 3rd in the NFC in this vital category.
The difference in points per game from 2013 to 2014 might not sound like a lot to you (it is only 6 points!), but just know that in this generation of the NFL, 27 points per game allowed ranks around 30th in the league and 21 points per game allowed usually squeaks you into the Top 10.  6 points is an enormous upgrade.
In the bye week, we will have a detailed breakdown on why everything is working out (and we will have 3 more weeks of data to insure us that we are not seeing a sample size uptick that will continue to normalize), but today, I would rather focus more on what this gif video shows us below.  The fire in the belly of Rod Marinelli:
Marinelli started coaching in 1973 at Rosemead High School and then in the college game in 1976 at Utah State.  That was a long time before he met up with Monte Kiffin in Tampa Bay in 1996, so to assume that he doesn't have his own philosophies and ideas that predate Kiffin is ridiculous.  He is not a disciple who merely repeats what he heard from Kiffin.  But, there is one thing that when you hear either of them speak that is clear and consistent.  They both believe you can make up for a lot of things with a high RPM motor.  There is nothing difficult about spending every ounce of energy you have for 3 hours on a Sunday afternoon.  Leave it all on the field. Here is one of my favorite paragraphs from a Monte Kiffin clinic speech that best encapsulates their belief system on how to play defense:
"The first thing we teach from day one in camp is that the name of the game is pursuit.  You have to teach the defense to fly to the ball.  That fact has not changed.  On defense you must fly to the ball and gang tackle.  You can talk about it all you want, but if you don't practice it on the field, you won't do this in the games.  You have to coach this in practice every day.  We do it at the pro level. Even though the pros are paid well, you have to work on this to get them to do it." - Monte Kiffin, 1991
Kiffin hit on something there. Paychecks. The financial situation of many pro athletes is such that being yelled at to hustle harder is not always well-received.  That is why it is vital for the Cowboys to find and develop the right types of players to play this system.  If you are looking for possible reasons for the Cowboys looking like a better defense in year 2 of the scheme change that dig a little deeper than the absurd idea that Kiffin no longer understood defense, it would be that Dallas now has far more players who are willing to play that style than they did at this time in 2013.  Rick Gosselin tackled this very topic in this very blog back in January of 2013:  “Monte Kiffin is a great coach,” said Dungy, who had Kiffin as his defensive coordinator for six seasons (1996-2001) at Tampa Bay. “But if they want to go to this system, it will take a couple of years to get the right pieces to this puzzle. To get the 4-3 front personnel and the defensive backs tailored to play this system is going to take a few drafts.” 
At the time I read that, I took it to mean the pieces of the 4-3 system from a size/weight/ability standpoint.  The more I think about it, I wonder if Dungy was thinking about the mentality of players who fly to the ball and play through the whistle.  The types of players who are gang tackling and then trying to pry the ball loose on every play.  The types who are whipped into a frenzy and play "confrontational defense", not this bend-but-don't-break garbage that has been rolled out too often.
Also, it helps to have so many players who are trying to prove they are NFL players.  As the great Bob Gainey, the respected GM for so many years of the Dallas Stars, "it is hard to be hungry when you are full."  Simply put, players who have been paid well, generally play differently.  Again, these are generalities, but that is how teams have to think.
Know your assignment, carry out your assignment, and play with everything you have or we will get someone in there who can when you need a break.
Again, many people are waiting for the other shoe to drop as the sustainability of the defense seems much less of a safe bet than the sustainability of the offense.  But, there is no question this defense looks far more assignment-sound and 11-to-the-ball than we have seen in years.
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So, what was Marinelli screaming about in the video above?  Easy.  He was not pleased with Jeremy Mincey for the play below.  Mincey, who I think is exactly the type of high motor player they were targeting this spring (cheap and ready to go 100% every snap), busted on a 3rd down early in the 3rd Quarter.
In defensive line play, there are basic "contain" concepts when pass rushing.  Eli Manning is certainly not a runner, but last week in Seattle, you could see the Cowboys were dialing back their pass rush and concentrating much more on keeping Russell Wilson contained.  This means that each of the 4 rushers know his lane and responsibility.  Therefore, you cannot have anyone free-lancing and choosing a direction that is not part of the contain package.  Below, Mincey has contain and loses it.
Watch 92-Mincey and 65-Beatty who is helped by a chipping TE as they push Mincey into the middle of the line.  When he gets pushed inside further, Eli sees man-coverage and knows he can just run to the sticks.  Mincey loses contain and Marinelli loses it.

That is why you want a defensive coordinator on the field and not in the box, in my opinion.  Instant feedback.  Now, Mincey is likely thinking that his assignment was difficult as he was chipped inside pretty hard from a 2nd guy, but Rod isn't worried about your excuses.  He wants you to carry out your assignment.
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One more thing before we get into the data, and that is a play I watched last night about 15 times in a row.  I must confess I have a thing for Rolando McClain and the level of play he has brought to the Cowboys defense after the loss of Sean Lee.  I know it is blasphemous to say, but I don't think Lee can do better than what 55 does below.
Seek and destroy.  Even with a pitch out, McClain knows what you are thinking and he plans on snuffing it out with great authority.  Beautiful.
DEFENSIVE PARTICIPATION:  Another game without Bruce Carter, but otherwise, the availability of this defense continues to be solid.  So does the consistent quality of 52-Justin Durant and 98-Tyrone Crawford.  Terrell McClain is making his first real impact at the 1-technique and it seems he may take workload from Nick Hayden.  Whether Josh Brent and/or Amobi Okoye can challenge for Hayden's roster spot is a question for the future. Otherwise, no real snap issues jump off the page this week.   Thanks, Pro Football Focus for the exact math on the snap counts.
WEEK 7 VS NEW YORK - DEFENSIVE NUMBERS
Back to back performances against the Seahawks and Giants where they had a total of 16 3rd Down wins out of 26 opportunities.  5-13 in Seattle and 5-13 vs the Giants.  That will win some games and then the strips of 2 Giants fumbles and a 3rd that was disallowed.
Also, 59 snaps again.  The recipe keeps working.
SPLASH PLAYS
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.
SPLASHES VS NEW YORK GIANTS WEEK 7
20 splashes this week.  The average so far was 15 before this game, so it was an active and productive defensive effort, despite 0 sacks again.
2014 SEASON TOTALS 
* Terrell McClain was omitted from the above chart in error. He has 2 on the season.
I do realize that splashes are not equitable for cornerbacks, because Sterling Moore is clearly being attacked more than Brandon Carr.  Moore has more chances (as Eli was throwing at him specifically) and therefore has more splashes.  I admire Moore, but I don't suggest for a second that he is a better corner right now than Carr.
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PASSING CHART
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 7 Summary
The chart shows us what we knew going in - the Giants passing game is quite shallow and horizontal right now.  Eli throws the ball short continuously and the Giants don't have much punch over-the-top.  But, Odell Beckham looks like a real keeper. 
PRESSURE REPORT
This segment of the defensive study is simply to find out how well the Cowboys are doing at getting pressure on the opposing QB.
EXPLOSIVE PLAYS ALLOWED (+20 Yards)
SACKS AND INTERCEPTIONS
 NONE!
PERFORMANCE AGAINST THE BLITZ
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
2014 Total: 32/54, 59 Cmp%, 347 Yds, 2 TD, 1 INT, 7 FD
BLITZ REPORT
Each week we monitor how often the Cowboys send pressure on passing plays.
As you saw above, Eli was not troubled much by the Cowboys blitz.  They still can't figure out how to get to the QB.  Close doesn't count for too much.
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%
2014 Total: 56/239 - Blitzed 23% 
2013 Totals:  140/673 - 20.8%
2012 Totals:  134/551 - 24.3%
 




And, here are the full season numbers to date:






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SUMMARY:  If I were to imagine a team that has cut down scoring this much, I would have to assume that they are causing a ton of turnovers and getting a ton of sacks.
They have caused 12 takeaways (7 interceptions, 5 fumble recoveries) which trails only the Giants and Packers in the NFC and puts them on pace for a respectable 27.  That isn't fantastic, but it will work and it has allowed them to survive the offenses' generosity.
As for sacks, they are on pace for easily the worst season in Cowboys history.  In fact, the worst season ever in sacking the opposing was 1991 when they got there just 23 times.  Of course, 7 sacks in 7 games is an easy pace to figure out.  16 is an amazingly low season total.  But, 6-1 fixes a lot of things.
They continue to move pieces around and try new ideas hoping they can hit on better solutions and get more pressure on the QB.  Anthony Spencer should continue to improve, DeMarcus Lawrence is almost ready, Bruce Carter is a go for Washington, and so on.
Again, it isn't spectacular and easy to explain like the offense, but so far so good.  Now, you prepare for the Redskins who continue to have poor QB play and a vulnerable offensive line. But, they will challenge you with DeSean Jackson, a man who has had his share of memorable days in Dallas, and is absolutely hitting home runs in his new uniform.
But, for now, 7 weeks in and the defense is defending to the ceiling of even the most optimistic expectations.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Decoding Linehan - Week 7 - Giants

http://cowboysblog.dallasnews.com/2014/10/decoding-linehan-giants-cannot-contain-this-offense.html/


We have been doing this weekly study of the Cowboys offense since 2008.  During that time, there have likely been just as many posts with a negative tone as there have been with a positive one.  Of course, that reflects the play on the field as the Cowboys offense has been mostly frustrating and inconsistent during that span as well.
But not in 2014.  This season, the reports have been mostly glowing and positive - because what could somebody possibly complain about when it comes to 7 weeks of the Scott Linehan offense?
If you go by NFL Rankings, here are the categories in the NFL rankings where the offense is not in the top half of the league:  Fumbles lost (30th), Giveaways (25th), Yards after catch (23rd), Quick strike drives - scoring drives in less than 4 plays (22nd), Rushes for negative yardage (26th), and 2nd down rushing average (28th).  As you can see, most are either inconsequential categories or they lead back to DeMarco Murray fumbles (3) and Tony Romo interceptions (6).  Only 7 teams in the NFL have given the ball away more than the Cowboys, but beyond that, this offense has almost nothing to complain about.
For instance, as you consider Week 7's win against the Giants, the offense was on point for most of the afternoon.   Another 400 yard performance (423) with 156 on the ground and 267 through the air of net yards that gobbled up 33:49 of time of possession.  When you out gain your opponent in all 4 of those categories, you have to be pleased when you "watch the tape" to see how you measured up with an opponent.
However, football requires that we dig a bit deeper into how those yards and possession time was amassed.  If it is not being accumulated in the right context, it can mislead us, so we look carefully at the art of "situational football", something that Tony Romo himself referenced after the game on Sunday to the DMN's David Moore:
“I wouldn’t say it’s the same plan, but it’s the same formula,” Romo said. “We want to run the football. We want to be great on third down, be great in the red zone, situational football that matters. I just think we have guys that are pretty gifted at those certain things, guys who just go out and do what they do.”
You may also recall, that Jimmy Johnson once spoke freely about Romo's lack of grasp about "situational football": "He’s such a freewheeler, an improviser, a style that makes him an exciting quarterback for three quarters, but he does not understand situational football. Romo scares me in the 4th quarter."
Well, we have discussed his 4th Quarter rating that is the highest of all-time, but it is also worth noting that there have been several ill-advised moments that bring down the average severely in those "big situations" pre-2014. To read my previous "Tony Romo's 5 worst decisions" post, click here if you want the details.  That post won't include the Green Bay decision of last December or anything from SF in Week 1, but you will get the idea.
However, the 2014 application worth discussion is his remarkable uptick in "situational football" as it pertains to red zone efficiency (which frankly, is being helped dramatically by the running game) and 3rd Down conversions.
The Cowboys were 3-3 in the Red Zone on Sunday which is fantastic and continues a trend that has been really impressive.  But, nothing is more impressive than the way they have been killing 3rd Down conversions.  #1 in the NFL by a growing margin, and they are red hot with 19 conversions in the last 2 games.  Trust me, you won't find another 2 game span with 19 3rd Down conversions around these parts.  That is historically amazing.
Take a look at the graphic to demonstrate how he has gone from some of the absolute worst 3rd Down seasons of his career in 2012 and 2013, to the best in 7 weeks:
Here is a fun-fact.  In 2014, Romo throws on 3rd Down have already moved the chains 40 times.  If you are curious how that ranks, know that he only was able to do that 48 times in all of 2013!  That is right.  Somehow, he was at about 3 throws a game that moved the chains all last year - and now is on a pace to basically double that.
Now, the team is better on 3rd Downs for a number of reasons - better running game is setting up shorter 3rd Down attempts, better running game is converting 3rd downs on the ground, better pass protection is allowing more time, etc.  But, for me, if you asked for one specific reason for the insane uptick in 3rd down production, I am going to tell you that somehow, they have figured out how to deploy their weapons in a way that attacks defenses without relying too much on Dez Bryant and Jason Witten.  In fact, years of tendencies where Romo would lock in on 82 and his best WR (Owens, Austin, Bryant) are now being used against the league because those players are drawing all the coverage while Lance Dunbar (3), DeMarco Murray, Terrance Williams (3), Cole Beasley (6), and Gavin Escobar (4) are getting the ball and moving the chains.  It all makes too much sense.
He is still using Bryant and Witten a ton on 3rd Downs, in fact, they are responsible for 22 of his 40 3rd Down successful throws.  But, when you can get 18 more from the "supporting cast", you are attacking them everywhere and they don't know how to slow you down.
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Which brings us to Mr. Escobar.  The 2nd round pick of the 2013 has certainly not received rave reviews from the fans and media, but let's be honest - the Cowboys drafted him and then, like so many things with this offense seemed to have no idea what to do with him.
Now, this is also often travelled road for those of us who closely follow this team.  They continue to look for a TE to compliment the offense and play behind a Hall-of-Fame Tight End who not only never misses a game, but also hardly ever misses a single snap.  So, if Jason Witten is never coming out of a game - the last time he missed a single play was Week 17 of last season when he played only 68 of 69 snaps against the Eagles - they need to find a role for a guy who cost a lot but can't play a lot. The math is simple - if you only have 5 skill positions and Murray, Bryant, and Witten are going to play nearly all of them, then you have to figure out how to divide the other snaps between 7 pieces: Williams, Beasley, Escobar, Hanna, Harris, Dunbar, Randle, and Clutts.  If you have only 60 snaps, we are looking at limited opportunities where one must take advantage of - and hope Romo looks his way on the 5-10 snaps where a pass is called and he is on the field.  If you look at it that way, you can understand why somebody like Martellus Bennett might start stressing his opportunities.
So, Linehan has deployed multiple tight ends as his featured grouping and on Sunday played 36 snaps with 2 or more Tight Ends.  That means more chance to load up beef to block on the run, and more chances for Escobar or Hanna to be matched up with soft zones or Linebackers in coverage.
Behold, the breakout of Gavin Escobar:
3rd Down opportunity above where the Cowboys have Witten and Dez with shallow crosses in each direction.  So, follow Escobar who is in the right slot who then takes a deeper route (almost a Dig) and while the LBs are trying to sort 88 and 82, Romo knows that Escobar is going to get the least attention (they never throw it to 89 out of the red zone) so here is an easy conversion for a 1st Down.
Again, playing off all of the attention that Jason Witten gets to run to the sticks and curl, watch Escobar run right past him and barely attract anyone.  Here he shows the hands that we saw at San Diego State for maybe the 1st time in a game in his career.  He really catches the ball like a WR if you ask him to run an advanced route instead of what he has done so far as a Cowboy.
Finally, here is fantastic work.  13 personnel, with play-action.  All of that running leaves a bare secondary, right?  Look, single-high safety, but he is far more worried about helping with Dez Bryant.  Meanwhile, 31-Zack Bowman is playing as if he does have a safety to the inside (or that he is pretty sure this is a run play).  Honestly, the coverage isn't horrid, and the throw is on the money.  The catch is impressive and even more so that he took a body-rocker and held on.  This is the best example of the skills of a guy who has been underutilized severely. Score another one for Scott Linehan for sorting out what used to be a series of messes in the Cowboys offense.
Offensive Participation: With no Doug Free at Right Tackle, all eyes were on Jermey Parnell who was seeing his first extended action since 2012 when he filled in for 2 games for Tyron Smith and then split the final month with Free series for series.  I thought he played really well and had almost no busts that were significant.  Otherwise, Hanna 29, Escobar 26, and Beasely 20 were the complimentary pieces that played more than 7 snaps.  All snap numbers courtesy of PFF and they include all snaps including plays that were not official because of penalties.
STATS FOR WEEK 7 AGAINST NEW YORKWe talk situational football and then we see it on paper.  9-14 on the money down.  3 for 3 in the red zone.  Bravo.  The Giants could not get a stop when it counted.
PASSING CHART 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 7 Summary
Notice here, how many shots down the field Romo is taking.  They are passing less, but passing for higher stakes.  Stretch them vertically when they want to crash down to stop the run.  The Cowboys are playing offensive chess.
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. 
 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
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.
Like a proud papa, I smile when I see how little they rely on the shotgun these days.  Balance!
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.) 
* - Knee Plays are not counted in play calls. Balance.  Every week.  It is almost now assumed that this is the new identity.
PLAY-ACTION PERFORMANCE
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
2014 Total: 20/34, 58 Cmp%, 352 Yds, 4 TD, 3 INT, 13 FD, 4 Sack
They hit on some big play-action against the Giants, and with 34 Play Action attempts in 2014, they have finally joined the NFL in this category again - after a few years ranked 30th or lower on using it.
BLITZING ROMO Pass Rushers Against Dallas - 25 Pass Situations vs New York
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%
Wk 7: NYG Blitzed Dallas 5/25 - Blitzed 20%
2014 Total: Opponents Blitzed Dallas 56/228 - Blitzed 24%
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:  Again, this series was started because the offense was underachieving and we all wanted to know why.  That was many, many moons ago, and somehow in 2014 the Cowboys are so good offensively at the moment that those of us who love to dissect have nothing but good news to report in nearly every phase - especially if our relative comparisons are Cowboys offenses of the past.
My takeaway of the last few seasons was the conclusion that the Cowboys needed a fresh set of eyes to look at the issues and attempt to sort them out.  I think the personnel has improved - primarily with Frederick and Martin on the inside and Williams and maybe even this Escobar kid - but, man, the way they are being deployed and used is a real credit to the minds of this offense figuring it out.
Linehan deserves a ton of credit, but we can't forget that Romo is the man with the ball in his hands.  And if he wasn't making these decisions and throws at the moment of truth like he is, then this train is not speeding down the tracks.  The national narrative that he is not as high leveraged is part-truth, part-ridiculous.  He has the ball all of the time and his 3rd down performances are not that of a bus driver.  But, in the end, the national narratives (and local ones) don't really matter.  The win-loss record does.
I am sure there is a crisis ahead at some point, but for now, I can honestly say I have never seen this Cowboys offense look so strong during the course of this study.  They really have become an offensive powerhouse in the first 2 months of 2014.