Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Decoding Callahan: Week 11 - Play Action Passing

Studying the offense over the course of many years gives us lots of information about what the Cowboys like to do.  Unfortunately, there is another list of things they don't like to do that remain unanswered and a mystery.

When I am asked about the Cowboys offense and what I would change, there has been a consistent answer that I give.  The question often goes like this, "After assembling all of this data, what would you do differently if you had a chance to change the Cowboys offense?"

I have a list actually that has been tailored to 2013 based on the personnel available and the stage of their careers that they are all at.  One idea is out in the public view and suggested in many places, which is to play Dez Bryant in the slot way more often as many have pointed out that Dez moves around the lineup as little as almost any contemporary in the sport.

Another is to stay out of shotgun as long as possible, because the run/pass balance issue that so many people fret about is not as strategically useful in my opinion as shotgun/under center splits.  I have always believed that being 1-dimensional has way more to do with what the defense thinks you are going to do in pre snap, rather than what you actually do in the play.  That may seem like a small distinction, but to deceive the linebackers and safeties is the name of the game in offensive football.  And if you are in shotgun all of the time, the amount of deception available goes down considerably.  But, if you are under center, this deception is available from all sorts of formations and personnel groupings, simply because under center, run/pass information is around 50/50, whereas in the shotgun, passing rates are at 85% and rising.

But, without question, the number one omission from the Cowboys offense that I have never understood, hoped they would run more often, and even found myself getting frustrated with the Cowboys distaste for is that they run play-action passes as little as anyone in professional football.

Play-action passing has been around for decades in the NFL, and it is maybe the most useful and effective form of deception in pro football history.  It is crazy how much effective it truly is, because the only thing that it generally requires is the fake handoff before running the same passing plays you normally run.  It is run better with things added to it like pulling offensive linemen and all involved really selling it hard - including the QB hiding the ball with his body - but like cats to a ball of yarn, the linebackers and safeties cannot ignore a run fake.  They almost always respond by taking a step or two forward.  And when they do, they open up huge spaces right behind them for easier passing lanes.

People have argued for years that play-action only works when a team can run the ball well, but I have not seen proof of that.  What I have seen is that defensive coaching staffs will dedicate fewer players "in the box" to stop the run, but those who are there still respond to run fakes by filling the holes.  The idea that they just stand there with their arms crossed is not correct when you look at film.

It is Passing 101, and for reasons I cannot possibly understand, the Dallas Cowboys appear to despise play-action passing.  Why?  I am not sure.

But, since the start of 2012, the Cowboys have run fewer play-action pass plays than any team in football.  That is right - according to ProFootballFocus and their signature stats as well as Football Outsiders, the Cowboys are ranked 32nd in play-action passing league wide.

So, when the Cowboys unleashed 15 different play-action pass plays against the Giants on Sunday (the most by any team this weekend in the entire league), after running only 37 play-action pass plays in the first 10 weeks of the season, we are left to wonder what happened.  Did the Cowboys ask themselves this question during the bye week?  Did they suddenly discover one of the oldest truths in football?  Did this have anything to do with Jason Garrett back in the mix of play-calling and taking more control of the deployment of the offense?  If it is, we might ask Mr Garrett why his offense has never run play-action when he was the sole architect, but we will not attempt to defeat this week's momentum.

Let's look at the best example of play-action from Sunday:

Now, let's break down this play with still shots off the coaches film.

The first thing to note here is that the Giants are only putting 6 in the box.  This suggests they don't fear the Cowboys running game, but this also requires those who are in the box to do a much better job stopping the run.  That is why the run-fake is so effective.  If they had 7 or 8 up there, they might not be so anxious to sniff out the play.  Then, the Cowboys are going to pull their RG 73-Bernadeau to the left as a lead for Murray on the fake run play, which definitely sells it better as Linebackers key off guard movement as their eyes go from the guards to the running back on most normal 1st and 2nd down plays in may defensive schemes.

Above, note another item here in this run fake.  Witten and Gavin Escobar are both running straight at their defenders which is a nice way to carry out the idea that at the time this frame is snapped, all the Giants are still thinking run.  Witten looks like he is run blocking here and so does Escobar.  The opposite Giants safety is still not sure, but he is looking for that ball.

Now, one second later, the ambush is sprung.  The Giants LBs are all standing on the 20 yard line - the original line of scrimmage - and Witten has a giant area to allow Romo to pitch and catch.  The safeties are too wide and the only question left is whether Witten can get all the way into the end zone.

Beautiful.  Touchdown.

And this is why I believe that play-action passes must be a major part of the Cowboys offense moving forward.  They allow a great deception tool that Dallas never uses and needs to use more.  Let's hope it is here to stay.


STATS FOR WEEK 11 against New York Giants

Starting Field PositionD25
1st Down Run-Pass13-18
2nd Down Avg Distance to Go8.89
2nd Down Run-Pass5-14
3rd Down Avg Distance to Go8.90
3rd/4th Down Run-Pass0-10
3rd Down Conversions4-10, 40%

*4-11 on 3rd Downs is the official total, but the 11th time was a FG attempt that ended the game, but did not convert a 3rd Down into a 1st.

**60 snaps is actually subtracting the 2 from the official count of 62 based on the 2 knees taken at the end of the game.


Here are the passing charts to see what was being accomplished on Sunday.  Intern Tim has made some pleasing to the eye charts for us to see.

Blue is a completion. Red is incomplete. Yellow is a touchdown, and Black is an interception. The passes are lines from where Romo released the pass to where the pass was caught. This shows you his release point and where he likes to throw when he slides in the pocket.

1ST HALF PASSING CHART -  (Red incomplete, Blue Completion, Yellow TD, Black INT)

2ND HALF PASSING CHART -  (Red incomplete, Blue Completion, Yellow TD, Black INT)

There are some amazing and important throws in this 2nd half, and Romo did a great job of spreading the ball around the field and finding his spaces.

Dez Bryant Passing Chart -  (Red incomplete, Blue Completion, Yellow TD, Black INT)

And look at the way they moved Dez all over the field and used him in many spots.  This, again, is another modification that they need to continue to pound home as they go.  

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 - New York Giants: 5 Run/7 Pass - 42% Run
Wk 2 - Kansas City Chiefs: 3 Run/9 Pass - 25% Run
Wk 3 - St. Louis Rams: 8 Run/2 Pass - 80% Run
Wk 4 - San Diego Chargers: 6 Run/4 Pass - 60% Run
Wk 5 - Denver Broncos: 3 Run/8 Pass - 37% Run
Wk 6 - Washington Redskins: 5 Run/4 Pass - 55% Run
Wk 7 - Philadelphia Eagles: 5 Run/9 Pass - 35% Run
Wk 8 - Detroit Lions: 9 Run/5 Pass - 64% Run
Wk 9 - Minnesota Vikings: 2 Run/8 Pass - 20% Run
Wk 10 - New Orleans Saints: 6 Run/5 Pass - 54% Run
Wk 11 - New York Giants: 6 Run/5 Pass - 54% Run

2013 Totals: 88 Drives - 58 Run/66 Pass - 46% Run
* This statistic doesn't count the 1-play kneel down drives.

2011 Total: 181 Drives - 79 Run/102 Pass - 44% Run
2012 Total: 173 Drives - 76 Run/97 Pass - 44% Run


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.

Hey look, it is a sub 60% shotgun game!  Only the 4th time all season, by the way.  Cowboys are now 3-1 in such scenarios.

Wk 1 - NYG: 44 Shotgun/71 Total Plays - 61.9%
Wk 2 - at KC: 46 Shotgun/60 Total Plays - 76.6%
Wk 3 - STL: 28 Shotgun/59 Total Plays - 47.4%
Wk 4 - at SD: 33 Shotgun/56 Total Plays - 58.9%
Wk 5 - DEN: 39 Shotgun/54 Total Plays - 72.2%
Wk 6 - WASH: 23 Shotgun/50 Total Plays - 46%
Wk 7 - at PHI: 53 Shotgun/73 Total Plays - 72.6%
Wk 8 - at DET: 33 Shotgun/55 Total Plays - 60%
Wk 9 - MIN: 50 Shotgun/63 Total Plays - 79.3%
Wk 10 - at NO: 27 Shotgun/43 Total Plays - 62.3%
Wk 11 - at NYG: 32 Shotgun/60 Total Plays - 53.3%

Season Total - 408 Shotgun/644 Total Plays - 63.3%

2011 Total - 445/1012 43.9%
2012 Total - 565/1038 54%

Here is the breakdown by groupings:

And now, a look at the efficiency of each personnel grouping.

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.

Below, see that they finally make sense.  This is really how the offense was supposed to look when they left camp.  Lots of multiple tight end looks, lots of 11 personnel.  Lots of under center and still plenty of shotgun.  It is almost like they decided to actually stick with a game-plan for 60 minutes.

Totals by Personnel Groups:

PackagePlays RunYardsRunPass
11884-104- -2
133222-321- -10

* - Knee Plays are not counted in play calls.

Totals by Personnel Groups on 3rd/4th Down:


Pass Rushers Against Dallas - 43 Pass Situations vs Giants

And Perry Fewell blitzed a nearly identical percentage of the time (23%) as he did back in week 1 (26%) as they appear to be a 4-man rush team that enjoys sending men more than others, perhaps due to the coverage problems behind the rush that they generally deal with.

Wk 1: NY Blitzed 13/49: 26%
Wk 2: KC Blitzed 19/46: 41%
Wk 3: STL Blitzed 10/25: 40%
Wk 4: SD Blitzed 8/41: 19%
Wk 5: DEN Blitzed 10/40 25%
Wk 6: WAS Blitzed 17/31 55%
Wk 7: PHI Blitzed  22/48 46%
Wk 8: DET Blitzed 9/31  29%
Wk 9: MIN Blitzed 9/54  17%
Wk 10: NO Blitzed 3/27  11%
Wk 11: NYG Blitzed 10/43 23%

Season Blitz rate vs Dallas 130/435: 30%

Pass Rushers3 Rush4 Rush5 Rush6 Rush
Short (0-5 Yds To Go)0100
Second Level (5-10 Yds To Go)01221
Open Field (10+ Yds To Go)0200

Pass Rushers3 Rush4 Rush5 Rush6 Rush
Short (0-5 Yds To Go)0200
Second Level (5-10 Yds To Go)0631
Open Field (10+ Yds To Go)0210

Pass Rushers3 Rush4 Rush5 Rush6 Rush
Short (0-5 Yds To Go)1100
Second Level (5-10 Yds To Go)1301
Open Field (10+ Yds To Go)0201


13 -
118 -
38 -
7 -
8 -
99 -
39 -
8 -
9 -
61 -
30 -
5 -
1 -
Totals30 -
278 -
107 -
20 -
1 -

Thanks to John Daigle and Tim Krajewski for their work on the charts and graphs.


SUMMARY:  There is no question that the offense was in a battle all day long and that certain aspects are far from fixed.  Pass protection was an issue and the interior is vulnerable in 1-on-1 battles regardless if it is Ron Leary, Travis Frederick, or Bernadeau.  They all are decent, but when a guy like Cullen Jenkins can get them isolated, we can see how it is still a problematic.

They also had issues all day on 3rd Downs (until the magical drive late) and are still 32nd in the league at converting 3rd Downs in road games, despite converting their last 3 in a row.  Overall, the Cowboys are 29th in the NFL on the money down, ahead of 3 teams that don't have offenses: Cleveland, Oakland, and Jacksonville.

But, they won a key game in a place where winning is difficult to do and in weather where Cowboys teams have not done well.  In fact, aside from a few wins in Washington against ridiculously bad Redskins teams, Sunday was the first cold weather win for Dallas since 1993.

They gained 327 yards and were also aided by a ton of Giant penalties (3 personal fouls) and had a productive and acceptable day from many offensive standpoints.  They did not score as many points as they would like, but in a game they never trailed, it is difficult to be too harsh in our grading.  They relied on one drive to win the game for them, and that final drive was a thing of great beauty and one that we discussed at great length yesterday.

Here is just a brief passage from that:  They converted 3 different 3rd Downs that were all mandatory to the victory, with a beautiful read on a 3rd and 7 which turned into finding Dez down the sideline on a fade when the safety took away Austin on the slant.  Then, on another 3rd Down and 5, it was Dez again on a tricky slant himself.  A beautiful pass inside to Austin on a 2nd and 10 put the Cowboys into long field goal range, but the final 3rd Down conversion was the best of the bunch. 
The fact that they even threw the pass into a tight space like that speaks to the idea that Jason Garrett and Romo both realize their risk aversion in these situations is no way to realize their fullest potential given the circumstances.  Other situations like these (at Baltimore in 2012 comes to mind) involve going very conservative the second they believe they are in Dan Bailey's range.  Get to the 30 yard line and then hand the ball off a few times is usually the order of the day.  
it seemed out of character for the Cowboys to put the game to the sword by throwing downfield even after the ball might have been in Field Goal range.  And after losing out on the long completion to Dez down to the 5, on 3rd and 10, they resisted the urge to run the draw and instead had Romo look to convert it.  If they did run it, the Giants use their final timeout and get the ball back with over a minute to go - down 3.  But, instead, Romo finds Cole Beasley on a fantastic route and they convert the 3rd Down and get Bailey even closer down to the 15-yard line.  From there, because of their aggressive posture, the game was over if their kicker could put it through.  And of course, with Dan Bailey, that is as automatic as almost any kicker in the business. 
The offense has put drives together in the final 2 minutes in each of their last 2 wins and now has a self belief about their ability to buckle down and convert.  

It is not perfect by any means, but much like in 2012, the week after playing at the Giants has the offense feeling as good about itself as it has felt all season.  An easy win against the Raiders would be just what the Thanksgiving doctor ordered.

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