The DC Times

A New Way to Look at the Cowboys, NFL, and Fantasy Football

By Jonathan Bales

Cowboys vs. Redskins Week 3 Post-Game Notes: Have the ‘Boys Found a Kicker?

Jonathan Bales

There are two ways to look at the Cowboys’ 18-16 win over the Washington Redskins on Monday night–as a sloppy offensive performance marred by a lack of concentration and execution that the team was lucky to win, or as a near-dominant defensive performance that led the way to victory.  In reality, it was probably a bit of both.  Here are some of my thoughts. . .

  • Tony Romo was obviously still affected by his broken rib, as the accuracy just wasn’t there.  Romo continually ducked out of the pocket or threw off of his back foot to avoid being hit, but you really can’t blame the guy.  While Michael Vick came out of the Eagles’ Week 3 game with what turned out to be a bruised hand, Romo returned to his with a broken rib and collapsed lung.  He gutted it out this week as well, and my hat is off to him for his toughness and leadership.

 

  • Dez Bryant is still hurt.  He made a few plays, but this was a game in which he had opportunities to take over.  Instead, he limped around the field quite a bit and was never really able to gain any sort of separation on his routes.  Look for him to have a monster game next week when fully healthy (hopefully).

 

  • Have the Cowboys found a placekicker?  That’s the hope as rookie Dan Bailey went 6-for-6 on field goals, with his team needing each and every one.  His kickoffs were lackluster, but that was expected.  Yes, I still think David Buehler’s leg warrants a roster spot (here is why), but Bailey has some real potential.

 

  • Rob Ryan really didn’t dial up much pressure.  In my preview of the game, I anticipated far more blitzes than we saw.  Obviously Ryan figured it would be best to sit back and force Rex Grossman to continually make good decisions.  One of his rare early blitzes came on a 3rd and 1 on which the Redskins called a fullback dive.  Ryan countered with a perfect safety blitz (Abram Elam) into the “two hole,” and Washington was forced to punt.  After the play, Ryan’s body language suggested he was expecting that exact play call from the ‘Skins.

 

  • I missed on my prediction of a lot of blitzes, but I hit on a far more specific one.  In my pre-game notes, I wrote:

Specifically, I think you’ll see both Bennett and Witten line up at receiver with Bennett eventually motioning into a traditional in-line tight end spot.  The Cowboys ran that look quite often last year against the ‘Skins, calling “3 Wide Strong Right Liz 26 Power” rather frequently.

  • I was right on.  According to my initial count, the Cowboys ran this exact play six times.  Six times.  And yes, the Cowboys did playaction off of the look a few times as well.

 

  • After struggling early against rookie Ryan Kerrigan, Tyron Smith responded nicely and turned in another strong performance.  The same can’t be said for Doug Free, who had a horrific night.  He was beat continually by Kerrigan, Brian Orakpo, and even backup Rob Jackson.  I have heard rumors that Free has an injured left arm or shoulder, and I really think there’s something to that theory.  This is the worst I’ve seen Free play during his entire career.

 

  • What. The. Hell. is wrong with Phil Costa?  Four premature e-snap-ulations.  I have watched those plays again and again, and I have no idea what he was thinking.  No one is firing off the ball, so it isn’t like Romo should be expecting the snaps.  This should be something which can be fixed immediately, but if it continues to happen for some reason, Costa has to sit.  I don’t want that to happen, but the Cowboys are dangerously close to turning the ball over because of his mental errors.

 

 

  • Sean Lee is turning into one of the top playmakers on this team.  His 31 tackles rank second in the NFL, and he’s thrown in two crucial picks as well.  Without him, there is no way the Cowboys would have won last night’s game.

 

  • The Cowboys stuck with the run last night, and they were lucky to win the game because of it.  The team was ineffective early before Felix Jones broke off two big runs, pumping up the average.  In reality, the majority of the runs were unsuccessful and took away from opportunities to get the ball downfield.  I realize the offense was having just as much trouble passing, but I’ll take my shots with a struggling passing game over pounding the ball into a pile of defenders.  The team isn’t going to win many games scoring only 18 points.

 

  • Jason Garrett made three bad decision on 4th down, twice kicking a field goal and once opting to punt.  The first came on 4th and 1 at the 9-yard line, where the numbers suggest average offenses should go for it with around four or five yards-to-go in normal game situations.  The same is true for the team’s 4th and 3 at the 14-yard line.  Garrett also decided to punt on a 4th and 6 from the Redskins’ 41-yard line while down four points in the fourth quarter.  That was his biggest mistake of all, as the statistics show offenses have historically had just as much success going for it on 4th and 10 in that range as they do punting.

  • If you need more math as to why the graph above (provided by Advanced NFL Stats) is correct, check out the expected points graph below.  Had the Cowboys gained a single yard on their 4th and 1 play, for example, they would have an expected point total of around 4.1 for that drive.  That is, over an unlimited number of trials, an average offense can be expected to score 4.1 points per drive when given a 1st and Goal at the opposition’s eight-yard line.

  • Assuming Dan Bailey is about a 95% kicker from the nine-yard line (giving the offense an expected point total of 3 x 0.95 = 2.85), the offense would need to be successful on around 69.5% of their 4th and 1 attempts for the expected points of going for it to exceed that of kicking the field goal.  Offenses have around a 60% success rate on two-point rushing attempts (from the two-yard line), and even with Dallas’ struggles on the ground, I have to think they can convert on 7 out of 10 tries with a single yard needed.  On top of all that, don’t forget  those numbers assume the Cowboys gain one and only one yard on the 4th down play AND a failed fourth down attempt leaves Washington at their own nine-yard line, whereas a made field goal gives them the ball (realistically) around the 20–a difference of around another 0.5 expected points.

  • One of the most overlooked areas of improvement for the ‘Boys (and the one I think is most responsible for their improved defensive play) is better tackling.  Everyone on this team other than Alan Ball is sticking their nose in there to bring down ball-carriers. . .even Mike Jenkins.  If Jenkins is tackling, you need to as well, Alan.  A nice hit on a defenseless player late in the game doesn’t make up for missing tackles on a consistent basis.

 

  • Terence Newman has a concussion, but he played really well in his first game this season.  When healthy, he’s extremely valuable to the defense.  His presence will allow Ryan to be more creative with his calls.

 

  • Even though the Cowboys ended up kicking a go-ahead field goal, I didn’t like the play-calling to end the final drive.  Garrett called three straight runs in an effort to milk the clock, but there was still plenty of time left for Washington to move down the field.  Why not call a playaction pass against a defense selling out against the run?  Of course, Garrett never could have expected Tashard Choice to run out of bounds, making one of the dumbest decisions I have seen in awhile.

 

  • Despite all of the mental mistakes and lack of execution, the Cowboys got the win and that’s all that really matters.  Having said that, this team is going to have trouble finishing better than .500 if they don’t pick up their level of play in a big way.  Getting healthy should go a long way in aiding them in that process.

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By Jonathan Bales

The Sportstradamus: Week 3 NFL Game Picks

Jonathan Bales

I wanted to get my game picks in quickly via the blog without taking up a whole post.  I was poor again last week, going 11-5 straight up (22-10 straight up on season), 7-8-1 against the spread (14-16-2 against the spread on the season), 6-10 on totals (14-17-1 on totals on season), and 2-3-1 on best bets (5-8-1 on best bets on season).

Week 3

San Francisco 20 (+3) @Cincinnati 17 (UNDER 38.5)

New England 31 (-7) @Buffalo 20 *** (UNDER 54.5) ***

@New Orleans 34 (-3) Houston 30 *** (OVER 51) ***

@Philadelphia 28 New York Giants 20 (+9) (OVER 47.5)

@Cleveland 20 (+1) Miami 17 (UNDER 41.5) ***

@Tennessee 21 Denver 14 (+7.5) (UNDER 44)

Detroit 27 @Minnesota 26 (+3) (OVER 44) ***

@Carolina 17 (-3) Jacksonville 10 (UNDER 42) ***

@San Diego 30 (-14) Kansas City 14 (UNDER 44.5)

New York Jets 20 @Oakland 17 (+3.5) (UNDER 40.5)

Baltimore 27 (-5.5) @St. Louis 13 (UNDER 41)

Atlanta 21 (+1.5) @Tampa Bay 17 *** (UNDER 46) ***

@Seattle 23 (+3.5) Arizona 17 *** (UNDER 43)

Green Bay 28 (-4.5) @Chicago 20 (OVER 44) ***

Pittsburgh 28 (-10) Indy 17 (OVER 39.5)

@Dallas 28 (-4) Washington 20 *** (OVER 45.5)

By Jonathan Bales

DOs and DON’Ts for Dallas Cowboys vs. Washington Redskins in Week 3

Jonathan Bales

The Cowboys face the Redskins on Monday night in their home opener, and there are a lot of intriguing matchups and things to watch for this one.  For Dallas, the biggest uncertainty is the injury situation.  Dez Bryant, Felix Jones, Phil Costa and Tony Romo are all questionable, with some more likely to go than others.

Whenever the ‘Boys play a division rival, I like to take a look back at some of the pre and post-game notes from the previous season.  If you have time, you should definitely review my 2010 Week 1 Redskins Manifesto, Week 1 Redskins Film Observations, and Week 15 Redskins Film Observations.  There is a lot of cool information in those posts which is relevant to Monday night’s contest.  Here are my DOs and DON’Ts for Dallas this week against Washington. . .

DO run up the middle at London Fletcher.

This is the same “DO” I suggested Week 1 of last year, and the same “DO” the Cowboys failed to accomplish in that loss.  You can see below the Cowboys ran primarily to the left side of the line, away from right tackle Alex Barron.  While I think Dallas needs to run far more counters and tosses, there are some creative ways to run up the middle other than pounding it from “Double Tight Strong.”

2010 Week 1 runs versus Washington

DO run more draws from spread formations.

One of the ways to run up the middle without pronouncing run via the formation is calling draws from spread formations.  In 2009, the Cowboys ran too many draws (this despite being “good” at executing them. . .that is, Jason Garrett simply dialed them up too often).  That season, they called 121 draws, averaging 4.51 yards-per-carry.  In my post on the Cowboys’ 2010 draws, I noted they increased that average to 4.73 yards-per-rush despite being far less effective overall on the ground (they ran 77 total draws, which was probably a primary factor in the increased efficiency).

It is also worth noting the Cowboys gained 5.09 yards-per-carry on draws from spread formations, compared to only 3.56 from tight formations.  That gap (shown below) was even greater in 2009 (note that the 2010 numbers in that chart are through just five weeks).  When the defense is prepared to defend a pass, whether it is due to personnel or the formation, they are less effective against the run.  Thus, when an offense comes out in passing personnel, lines up in a pass-oriented formation, initially shows pass following the snap, then hands the ball off. . .it works.

Part of the reason spread draws can be effective is that they are sometimes run on third down.  Many of you know I love third down runs because they are superior to passes on 3rd and 1 to 3rd and 5 and, shockingly, just as successful as passes on 3rd and 6 to 3rd and 10.  These are not the results of a small sample size contained just to Dallas, but rather representative of league-wide statistics from years of data.  Garrett seemed to take this information into account in 2010, increasing the number of draws the offense ran on third down from 10.7% in 2009 to 18.2% last year.

DO double team Brian Orakpo.

Whether it is on draw plays or, more importantly, in pass protection, limiting Brian Orakpo will be crucial for the ‘Boys.  He is far and away the Redskins’ best player, and he can change the complexion of this game if the Cowboys are not careful.  For this reason, Martellus Bennett would be seeing a lot of snaps on Monday night if I was the coach for Dallas.  Jason Witten is a fine blocker, but with Miles Austin out and Dez Bryant possibly down as well, Witten needs to be a factor as a receiver.  Besides, Bennett is actually a better blocker than Witten.  Plus, Bennett’s presence will allow for the next “DO”. . .

DO pass out of run-heavy personnel groupings and from run-oriented formations.

In my analysis of the Cowboys’ pass rates from specific personnel packages, I wrote the following:

In much the same way that weak side runs can be optimal for an offense, so too can passing the ball out of “untraditional” personnel groupings (or, on the other hand, running the ball from pass-heavy personnel packages).  There’s a reason the ‘Boys have found a ton of success when passing out of “running” formations (and with “running” personnel).

The passing success of the Cowboys out “running” formations is equivalent to the success teams have when running the ball on 3rd down.  There is nothing inherently efficient about running the ball in these situations.  Rather, the success comes from your opponent’s expectations.

Similarly, passing out of “running” formations isn’t an inherently superior strategy to passing with four wide receivers on the field.  Instead, it works because of the defense.

Think of it like this. . .let’s say passing the ball out of a four-receiver set receives a hypothetical score of 80 points (this total is arbitrary and independent of a defense).  Passing the ball out of a double-tight formation, on the other hand, is intrinsically worth just 60 points.

So, why would a team choose the latter scenario–a “sub-optimal” strategy?  Because the strategy is only “sub-optimal” in theory.  In practice, the defense makes substitutions to be able to effectively defend each formation.  To counter the run against the double-tight formation, they knowingly decrease their ability to thwart the pass.

Thus, they may receive a pass defense score of 75 against a four-receiver set, but just 50 against double-tight.  In that case, passing the ball out of double-tight yields a 10 point advantage for the offense, compared to just a five point advantage when throwing the ball out of the “passing” formation.

When analyzing Garrett’s personnel-based play-calls, we see that he is generally improving.  When the Cowboys implement two tight ends, two wide receivers and a running back, they are generally a balanced team, passing the ball 58.6 percent of the time.  This is down from a 71.9 percent pass rate in 2009.

Garrett is also calling more passes from run-oriented personnel packages (such as two tight ends, one receiver and two running backs), and less passes from pass-oriented personnel groupings.  The only exception is the one tight end/four receiver package, which the Cowboys implemented only 25 times all season.

I’d still love to see the Cowboys run the ball more in three-receiver sets and pass more out of 2 TE, WR, 2 RB (one of those “2 RB” is usually a fullback, by the way).  If Garrett finds a way to efficiently run the ball without a fullback on the field and continue to throw the ball well out of two-tight end looks, the Cowboys will take huge strides in becoming a much more unpredictable, and potent, offensive football team.

If you are as strangely interested in playcalling theory as me, here is another analysis on why Dallas should pass out of double tight formations more often.

DO use unique alignments, motions, and shifts to make blocking Orakpo easier.

This is another “DO” from 2010, and it worked well for the Cowboys.  Prior to the Week 1 matchup, I wrote the following:

Utilizing double-tight sets is advantageous for Dallas because it doesn’t  allow the Redskins to make a strength call–that is, they can’t set their defense  based on the Cowboys’ alignment.  If that’s the case, Orakpo will probably line  up on the right side of the defense (the quarterback’s blind side) where most  weak side linebackers are most comfortable.  Thus, Dallas can run double-tight  sets (such as “Ace”) with Bennett on the left side of the formation so he’s  already in position.  If Orakpo chooses to line up on the left side of the  defense in “neutral” offensive formations, the ‘Boys can simply switch Bennett’s  alignment.

If all of that doesn’t work, the Cowboys can utilize motions and shifts to put themselves in optimal situations.  Let’s assume the Cowboys line up in “Double Tight Right Ace,” for example.

In that case, Orakpo will line up over Doug Free on the right side of the  Redskins’ defense.  A simple motion of Bennett to that side, however, would put  the Cowboys in a perfect situation to block Orakpo.  The ‘Skins wouldn’t switch  their strength call, and Dallas would have their best-blocking lineman and tight  end on Washington’s top rusher.

For this reason, I think you will see the Cowboys use a lot of two-tight end formations, as well as motion Bennett around the field quite often.  Specifically, I think you’ll see both Bennett and Witten line up at receiver with Bennett eventually motioning into a traditional in-line tight end spot.  The Cowboys ran that look quite often last year against the ‘Skins, calling “3 Wide Strong Right Liz 26 Power” rather frequently.

This week, you might see a variation of this play with John Phillips in the game rather than a true fullback.  If Dallas can establish any type of success with this sort of play, it is a great look from which to run playaction passes later in the game.

DO target Josh Wilson.

This one is pretty simple, as cornerback Josh Wilson is a rare weakness on a Washington defense that is very underrated.  Even if Bryant plays and the Redskins place DeAngelo Hall on him, there will still be ways to get Bryant matched up on Wilson.  The Cowboys can run bunch formations, for example, that may force the Redskins to make “Banjo” calls.  A “Banjo” call (Washington probably has a different name for it) is when a defense audibles out of man coverage due to receivers being lined up close together, as the defenders would likely get picked if they stayed in their man-to-man assignments.

If Washington calls Cover 1 (man coverage with a free safety deep) and Dallas lines up in “Trips Left,” for example, the ‘Skins might audible to Cover 3.  In that scenario, Bryant would draw someone other than Hall if he runs any sort of crossing route.  Look for Dallas to line up in ‘Trips’ with Bryant lined up outside, then run him underneath the other receivers on slants, digs, and other crossing routes.

DO run double moves on DeAngelo Hall.

Whether Bryant plays or not, the Cowboys can still attack Hall.  He is a playmaker, but also one of the most overrated cornerbacks in the league.  He gives up as many big plays as he makes because he jumps routes more than anyone not named Asante Samuel.  I’m in the business of making very specific predictions in this article, so here is another. . .look for Dallas to run slants in the first half, allowing Hall to become impatient before they attack him with a “sluggo” (slant-and-go) in the second half.

DON’T respect anyone but Santana Moss deep.

Cover 1, Cover 1, Cover 1.  It will allow the Cowboys to blitz often in an effort to force bad decisions from Rex Grossman, yet still maintain help over the top against Washington’s only big-play threat.  The counter-argument against this is that Grossman will make mistakes regardless of the defense, so if you play it safe and increase the number of plays on which he must not be a dumbass, he will screw up eventually.

That isn’t the M.O. of this new Cowboys team, though, and it certainly isn’t the philosophy of Rob Ryan.  Plus, the Cowboys are the better team and will benefit from running a lot of offensive plays.  The more time the defense spends on the field, the less time the offense has the ball, decreasing the odds of their superiority winning out due to a smaller sample size of plays.

DON’T place Bradie James on Tim Hightower or Fred Davis.

James has been splitting time with Keith Brooking lately, and I would make sure neither of them are placed on Hightower or Davis (Washington’s newest receiving threat and one who could create much larger problems for Dallas than fellow tight end Chris Cooley).  When the Redskins are in two-tight end sets, James or Brooking should be covering Cooley with Sean Lee and Gerald Sensabaugh matched up on Hightower and Davis, respectively.

DO run a lot more screens.

In last season’s opener, the Redskins blitzed or showed blitz on a ridiculous 60.9% of snaps, confusing the Cowboys offense quite a bit.  You can bet that will happen again, and the screen game could be Dallas’ best friend this week.  Kevin Ogletree will start regardless of Bryant’s status, and his biggest contributions might be in the form of smoke screens, particularly on third down.  Also look for DeMarco Murray to get some targets as well.  By the way, you can expect plenty of screens to follow playaction looks, as always.

DO throw the ball downfield.

When the Cowboys aren’t screening, they should be taking some shots down the field.  I’ve already shown there exists at least somewhat of a positive correlation between pass length and passing efficiency, and Tony Romo is one of the most highly-rated downfield passers in the NFL.  Take a look at these numbers through most of the 2010 season. . .

Through Week 14

O.J. Atogwe is an above average safety who has some play-making ability, but Laron Landry is stiff in coverage, in my opinion.  The Cowboys can avoid Atogwe regardless of the coverage by simply throwing the other way if the Redskins are in Cover 2, or looking him off if they blitz and he is in the middle of the field.  Either way, the Cowboys’ passing game plan should be screen often, use Witten in the intermediate passing game, and use playaction to set up some shots down the field.  And as I explained the other day, playaction will be effective if the Cowboys run well, not necessarily often.

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By Jonathan Bales

Assessing Football Strategy: Is Running the Football Often Necessary?

Jonathan Bales

We’ve had so many insightful comments recently, so I wanted to take some time to address some of the issues raised by frequent DCTers in previous articles. All of these thoughts are in relation to the in-game strategy of the Cowboys and other NFL squads. . .

I don’t think David Buehler is being asked to purposely avoid touchbacks. On the two “shanks” from Sunday afternoon, he appeared to simply mis-kick the football. Plus, I don’t see any way Joe D would risk a big return simply for the ability to more consistently pin the opposition at the 15-yard line instead of the 20. Here’s why:

With a 1st and 10 at the 15-yard line, offenses have expected points of 0 for the drive (meaning the average points they score and the average points scored by the opposition following punts/turnovers is about equal). At the 20-yard line, the offense’s expected points are about 0.3. Over the course of, say, 1,000 kickoffs (far more than the Cowboys would conduct in one season, but a fine sample size for demonstration purposes), the Cowboys would “gain” 300 points if they performed the “kick-it-high-and-not-too-deep-and-then-have-perfect-coverage-strategy.”

The problem is that Buehler is incapable of consistently kicking the ball high and not too deep, and the coverage unit is incapable of never missing tackles. Note that, with a first down at the 30-yard line, offenses have 1.0 expected points for the drive. For the short kickoff strategy to make sense, the Cowboys would have to let the return team reach the 30-yard line (and no farther) on 30% of kickoffs or less.

The story doesn’t end there, of course, since the infinitesimal odds of the ‘Boys stopping the return team at exactly the 30-yard line undoubtedly offset the expected points gained from a failure of the return team to reach the 15-yard line. For now, let’s forget kick returns which surpass the 30-yard line but do not reach the end zone and simply factor in kick returns for touchdowns.

If we assume just a 1% touchdown rate, the ‘Boys would yield approximately 70 points on said touchdowns over a 1,000 kickoff sample size. All of a sudden, the kickoff team’s coverage has to get a whole lot better, since they would need to stop the opponent at the 15-yard line on 76.3% of kickoffs (If 763 of the 1,000 kickoffs ended there, the Cowboys would “gain” 0.3 expected points per return, or 228.9 points. The 10 kickoff returns for touchdowns equate to -70 points, while the 227 returns to the 30-yard line add up to -158.9 expected points).

If we would factor in all of the returns which exceed the 30-yard line but fail to reach the end zone, that “success rate” of 76.3% would have to jump significantly, probably to well over 90%. You think Buehler and the coverage unit can stop the return team inside their 15-yard line nine times out of 10? Me neither.

———————————————————-

The debate between running the ball versus running effectively continues. You all know I find myself in the latter group, and the numbers seem to support the idea that rushing the football just isn’t as important as it once was. According to Advanced NFL Stats, passing yards-per-attempt is the most important statistic as it relates to winning–or at least the one most correlated to winning–with a strength of correlation of 0.61. Rushing attempts comes in at second with a 0.58 strength of correlation. So rushing the ball frequently leads to wins, right?

Not quite. Remember, these numbers represent the correlation between a specific statistic and winning football games, not necessarily causation. Teams do not win football games because they run the football, but rather run the football because they are already winning. The high strength of correlation between rushing attempts and winning seems to be limited to being just a correlation, not representative of causation. This idea is supported by the negative correlation (-0.17) between passing attempts and winning–losing teams throw the football.

On the other hand, a team’s passing efficiency probably will not increase too much if they are losing. Sure, a defense might play a little softer near the end of games so as to not yield big plays, but the net yards-per-attempt is highly unlikely to be affected as much as the rushing attempts from the team which is winning.

The strength of correlation between rushing yards-per-attempt and winning is 0.18–over three times less than that of passing efficiency. So why run the football at all? The reason I still think rushing efficiency is important is because the majority of the positive effects of a strong rushing game (in terms of efficiency, not total yards) are actually represented in a team’s passing efficiency. We’ve all heard the truism that “you need to run the ball to set up the pass.” While this is far from a necessity, rushing the ball well certainly aids an offense’s ability to throw the football effectively.

So with your permission, I’d like to alter “you need to run the ball to set up the pass” to “you may run the ball, if you would like to do so, and if you can do it with relative success, it should help you perform what really wins football games–throwing the football efficiently.” I don’t think that one’s going to get adopted, but whatever.

So when you hear me say things like “Rushing the ball is only important insofar as it helps to garner big plays via the passing game,” these numbers are the reason why.

————————————————————

Lastly, in my Cowboys-Niners post-game review, I discussed why Jim Harbaugh’s decision to decline a 15-yard penalty on Dallas that would have given his offense a 1st and 10 at the Cowboys’ 22-yard line in favor of a made field goal was a toss up call–meaning neither strategy was significantly superior to the other. A couple readers then asked me how I could claim it was a mistake for Harbaugh to kick a field goal on 4th and 1 at Dallas’ 38-yard line (which I argued was his real mistake). How can a 4th and 1 at the opponent’s 38-yard line be better than a 1st and 10 at their 22?

The reason is the uncertainty built into the field goal. San Fran didn’t know the Cowboys would commit a personal foul to give them an opportunity for a first down, but they also were unaware if David Akers’ would connect on the field goal attempt. The odds of Akers missing the field goal (probably somewhere between 40% and 50%, based on historical kicking data and Akers’ own career success rate in that range) surely trumps the small chance of the Cowboys committing a penalty. The 1st and 10 at the 22-yard line is “worse” in a way than the 4th and 1 at the 38 because the former scenario has three points built into it. To take the 1st and 10, Harbaugh had to take three points off the board. To take the latter, Harbaugh simply would have had to forgo a field goal attempt with expected points in the range of about 1.8. In the end, Harbaugh should have never had to take any points off the board because he should have not been so risk-averse on the fourth down.

Having said all that, I have had a slight shift in my thoughts regarding the decision to accept or decline the penalty on Dallas (once the Niners had already decided to perform a sub-optimal strategy in attempting a 55-yard field goal). When I gave you win percentages in my last article in relation to each strategy (91% for accepting the penalty, 90% for declining it), the time remaining on the clock was not a factor in those numbers. Many people might argue that the Niners were smart to decline the penalty for just that reason, as a 10-point lead with seven minutes to play is almost insurmountable (almost, of course).

However, San Francisco would have had a first down near the Cowboys’ red zone, allowing them to run even more time off of the clock. At worst, they could have drained the clock down to five minutes or less and be left with a kick that would probably be no more than a 35-yard attempt. I’ll take a 95% chance of a 10-point lead with five minutes left on the clock (and a very solid chance–probably around 50%–of making another first down and putting the game almost certainly out of reach) versus a 100% chance of the same lead with 7:30 to play.

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By Jonathan Bales

Dallas Cowboys vs. San Francisco 49ers Week 2 Review: Legendary Romo Performance

Jonathan Bales

Unlike most media outlets, I try to refrain from loading headlines with extraordinary or misleading statements in an effort to simply attract visitors.  Thus, when I write “Legendary Romo Performance,” I mean it.  Tony Romo not only broke a rib in Sunday’s thrilling win over the San Francisco 49ers, but he also punctured a lung.  While the injury creates a bit more uncertainty regarding his status for the Cowboys’ Week 3 contest against Washington, the fact that Romo led Dallas back from a 10-point deficit, on the road, with just over seven minutes to play. . .AND did it all with a broken rib and punctured lung. . .has to sit well with his teammates.   The quarterback who many describe as lacking elite ability in clutch situations (despite a career fourth quarter passer rating of 100.0 entering the game–best of any quarterback in NFL history) showed he can and will do everything in his power to will his team to victory.  Incredibly gutty and impressive performance by Romo.

  • Can you imagine what Joe Cowboys Fan would have been saying had Romo not come back into the game but Jon Kitna led them to a win?   Make no mistake about it. . .Kitna is one of the better backup quarterbacks in the league, but the idea that he is in any way comparable to Romo is a joke.

 

  • Even before injuring his shoulder (which will put his status for Week 3 in doubt), Felix Jones did not look great.   He appeared slower than usual and tentative to hit the hole.   It was a really disappointing performance from Jones, but let’s hope he bounces back from his separated shoulder.   His value is greater than ever with Miles Austin out until perhaps after the Cowboys’ Week 5 bye.

 

  • And how about Austin? Take a look at his numbers from the first five games of 2010 before Romo went down:  33 receptions for 486 yards–numbers which put him on pace for receptions for 106 receptions for 1,555 yards.   Even with Dez Bryant emerging as one of the top young pass-catchers in the league, Austin is the 1A of the 1A/1B designation between the two.   He’s so electric after the catch, and Jason Garrett’s willingness to put him in the backfield at times, despite receiving harsh criticism, is justified.

 

  • Did you notice Phillip Tanner saw some snaps?   The young back played some fullback, lead blocking quite well, in my opinion.   He didn’t give any knockout shots (which isn’t to be expected), but he used really intelligent body position to create running lanes for Jones.

 

  • Bill Nagy looked poor last week, and Derrick Dockery wasn’t much better this week.   He was okay in the run game, but struggled in pass protection and, as you probably noticed, picked up two bad false start penalties.   Left guard is obviously the week spot on the offensive line.

 

  • Phil Costa will be out a few weeks with a knee.   This is exactly why I thought it was a mistake to cut Andre Gurode.   I’ll take Gurode and his somewhat hefty salary over Kevin Kowalski all day.   With Kowalski and Dockery next to each other, Romo probably won’t see much of a pocket for awhile.

 

  • Jesse Holley, Jesse Holley, Jesse Holley.   We could all see he was improving as a receiver during the preseason, but who knew he would be the primary target on the biggest play of the game?   Hell of a play-call by Garrett to fool the 49ers, too.   He dialed up max protection and had Holley jog out as if he was going to block, then take off down the field.

 

  • Holley’s main contributions will still be on special teams–an area of the game to which Sean Lee should not contribute anymore.   I realize special teams is important and after you take out quarterbacks, star players, veterans, etc. there aren’t a ton of options left, but Lee is too important to the defense to risk injury covering kicks.   He’s doing an awesome job at it, but he’s doing an even “awesomer” job at linebacker.

 

  • Doug Free played poorly this week.   He was continuously beat in pass protection, displaying poor feet and losing his leverage.  He got Romo killed a bunch of times, including a few when the quarterback had no idea he was about to get hit.   Rookie Aldon Smith even abused Free at times.   Free should respond well, but the challenge won’t get any easier on Monday night versus Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan.

 

  • Jason Witten may win the award for Most-Awkward-Run-After-Catch-Player-Ever, but he sure is an incredible football player.   He’s one of the top blocking tight ends in the league and uses a combination of intelligence and positioning to overcome a lack of elite athleticism as a pass-catcher.   He’s the prototype for why you select great football players over great athletes (assuming the two are exclusive properties).

 

  • As in Week 1, DeMarcus Ware was DeMarcus Ware.

 

  • Jason Hatcher really ramped up his play this week.   In addition to getting to Alex Smith, Hatcher was a force against the run.   Rob Ryan’s scheme is undoubtedly a big part of Hatcher’s success thus far, but Hatcher also looks quicker and more aggressive.

 

  • I haven’t seen the sort of progress from Victor Butler for which I was hoping.   He hasn’t received a great deal of snaps, but his name hasn’t been called much.  Anthony Spencer is playing extremely well against the run right now, so Butler will really need to step it up to push for snaps.   I think it’s just a matter of time before the youngster makes a play.

 

  • Despite recording an interception, Alan Ball was horrendous.   He got picked on incessantly in the first half, yielding completion after completion on critical third downs.   He eventually got replaced by recently-signed Frank Walker, but Ball was atrocious on Sunday.   The Cowboys desperately need Terence Newman and Orlando Scandrick to return.

 

  • After missing from 21 yards, Dan Bailey redeemed himself with a long game-tying field goal to send the game to overtime, plus the eventual game-winner.   We’ll have to see how this one plays out.   David Buehler, on the other hand, is making a case that he should be released.   He shanked two kickoffs on Sunday.   He’s a kickoff specialist, and he has one job: put the ball through the end zone.   If that doesn’t happen regularly, he needs to go.

 

  • In my preview of the game, I argued the Cowboys should focus on limiting big plays from Frank Gore and Braylon Edwards.  Edwards got injured early and the ‘Boys did a really impressive job of limiting Gore on the ground.  He ran the ball 20 times for just 47 yards.

 

  • It was obvious Garrett and Romo made a big effort to make sure the ball got snapped with more time left on the play clock.  It didn’t hinder the Niners’ pass rush too much, but it will be important for the offense to continue that trend as the season progresses.

 

  • If you have time, check out this analysis from Advanced NFL Stats regarding Jim Harbaugh’s decision to decline a 15-yard penalty on the Cowboys on a 4th-and-1 field goal attempt (in favor of retaining the three points from the successful field goal).  The penalty would have given the 49ers a first down at the Cowboys’ 22-yard line and, given the score and game situation, a 91% chance of winning the game.  Declining the penalty provided the Niners with a 90% chance of winning, so the call was really a toss up.

 

  • Of course, the real mistake from Harbaugh came when he decided to attempt a 55-yard field goal in the first place.  Let’s do some math.  The chance of a kicker converting on a 55-yard field goal attempt is 50%. . .to be conservative, let’s say David Akers, as an above average kicker, has a 60% chance of converting.  The expected points of such a scenario is 1.8 (3 x 0.6).  Meanwhile, the expected points for an average offense who has a first down at the opponent’s 22-yard line is 4.61.  Let’s say the 49ers’ actual EP from that area is only 4.0 (since they have a below average offense).  The chance of converting on the 4th-and-1 play is historically 75%, but we’ll assume it is only 65% for San Fran (again, a very conservative estimate).  Even using those numbers, the overall expected points in the ‘go-for-it’ scenario is 2.6 (4 x 0.65).  At best, the Niners “lost” 0.8 points by attempting a 55-yard field goal on 4th-and-1.

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By Jonathan Bales

Dallas Cowboys vs. San Francisco 49ers Week 2: What to Watch for Dallas

Jonathan Bales

Taking a look at some things to watch and DOs and DON’Ts for Dallas in their Week 2 matchup with the 49ers. . .

Will Rob Ryan continue to blitz on nearly every snap?

Last week, Ryan dialed up far more pressure than I anticipated.  The results were varied, with the Cowboys generating a fair amount of big plays, but allowing some as well (they did not give up the “home run,” however).  All in all, I was impressed with the defense’s effort on Sunday night, particularly without the top three cornerbacks for much of the contest.  Let’s see if Ryan continues to blitz this week in San Francisco.

How effectively will Dez Bryant play?

Bryant will likely give it a go for Dallas, but his actual health is still not quite known.  He doesn’t have a serious injury that will nag him all season, but it could still hinder him this week.  We should know how the coaching staff feels about Bryant within the first quarter or so, depending on the number of targets he receives.  Both he and Miles Austin have prime matchups.

Will Jason Garrett run the ball more in the red zone?

Most fans clamor for Garrett to run the ball more at all times, but I actually think the overall pass rate should increase a bit.  Inside the 10-yard line, however, I’d like to see Garrett run the ball more often, particularly on first and second down.  In that range, the real estate available on which the offense can work is small enough that the advantages of passing the ball are minimized.

The Cowboys’ 2010 red zone success improved dramatically over that in 2009 due to smart play-calling from Garrett.  You can see my study on that here.  Expect the Cowboys to take advantage of the Niners’ weak cornerbacks to move the ball up the field, then rely on the power running game and Jason Witten to get the ball into the end zone.

Will David Buehler garner touchbacks?

As I said in my review of the Cowboys’ Week 1 game, Buehler’s value to this team is effectively nothing if he doesn’t consistently kick the ball into the back of the end zone.  A lot of his success this week might be determined by the wind.

How often will the 49ers test Alan Ball?

Orlando Scandrick and Terence Newman will be out again, meaning Ball will start opposite Mike Jenkins.  Even with Jenkins’ injuries, the 49ers figure to test Ball early and often.  Judging from last week’s effort, San Fran will probably run at him as well.

DOs and DON’Ts

DON’T let the play clock drop to one second too often.

Here’s the study on the Cowboys’ play clock woes.  It needs to be fixed.

DON’T respect any wide receiver except Braylon Edwards deep.

Even though Edwards hasn’t lived up to his potential in the NFL, he’s still a dynamic receiver who can beat you deep at any time.  I don’t think the 49ers can win unless they get multiple big plays, and only Edwards and Ted Ginn can really do that for them on offense.  If the Cowboys play a lot of Cover 1 and roll the free safety to Edwards’ side, they should be fine.  That way, they can still blitz often.

DO put Sean Lee or Gerald Sensabaugh on Vernon Davis.

Keith Brooking or Bradie James on the stud tight end will be a problem.  Lee played magnificently in Week 1, and his primary objective this week should be containing Davis.

DON’T let Frank Gore get hot.

Gore is the obvious guy to stop this week.  He’s a talented player, but I don’t think it will be too difficult to limit his production if the Niners can’t pass the ball.  This will be all about pass protection–if San Francisco can protect Alex Smith and find even a little success through the air, it will open up things inside for Gore.

DO throw early and often.

Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown make up one of the league’s worst starting cornerback duos.  With Patrick Willis patrolling the middle of the field, I’d throw it outside quite a bit.

DO run right at Patrick Willis, but away from Justin Smith.

When Dallas does run the ball, they need to neutralize Willis.  The best way to do that is to make his speed and sideline-to-sideline ability a non-factor by running right at him.  They also need to steer clear of Smith, who is one of the top 3-4 defensive ends in the NFL.

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By Jonathan Bales

The Sportstradamus: Week 2 NFL Game Picks

Jonathan Bales

Not a great Week 1 for me, as I went 11-5 straight up, 7-8-1 against the spread, and 8-7-1 on totals.  That included going 3-5-1 on my “best bets.”  I will rebound in Week 2.

Notes before reading
  • An’@’ symbol is listed in front of the home team.
  • Game lines alter slightly based on the source.
  • The winner versus the spread is listed in bold.
  • The picks about which I am most certain are denoted with ****
  • I don’t advocate gambling.  These picks are simply for fun (and to prove I’m better than 95 percent of “experts” at picking games).
2010 Results

Week 2 Game Lines

@New Orleans 27 (-6) Chicago 20

@Detroit 28 (-8) Kansas City 14

@New York Jets 23 Jacksonville 17 (+9)

Oakland 23 (+3.5) @Buffalo 17****

Arizona 20 (+3.5) @Washington 17

Baltimore 23 (-6) @Tennessee 17

@Pittsburgh 28 Seattle 20 (+14.5)

Green Bay 31 (-10) @Carolina 10****

@Minnesota 21 Tampa Bay 20 (+3.5)

@Indianapolis 21 (+3) Cleveland 20

Dallas 28 (-3) @San Francisco 17****

Houston 27 (-3) @Miami 24

@New England 27 San Diego 21 (+7.5)

@Denver 20 (-3.5) Cincinnati 14****

@Atlanta 28 (+3) Philadelphia 20

@New York Giants 24 St. Louis 21 (+6)

Week 2 Totals

New Orleans/Chicago UNDER 47.5

Detroit/Kansas City UNDER 45

New York Jets/Jacksonville OVER 39

Buffalo/Oakland UNDER 43.5

Washington/Arizona UNDER 45****

Baltimore/Tennessee OVER 38

Pittsburgh/Seattle OVER 40.5****

Green Bay/Carolina UNDER 47

Minnesota/Tampa Bay UNDER 41.5

Indianapolis/Cleveland OVER 39

Dallas/San Fran OVER 42.5

Houston/Miami OVER 48

New England/San Diego UNDER 54

Denver/Cincinnati UNDER 40

Philadelphia/Atlanta UNDER 49.5

By Jonathan Bales

Why the Cowboys Must More Effectively Manage the Play Clock

Jonathan Bales

I alluded to the idea that the Cowboys must more effectively manage the play clock in my review of the Jets game, but I wanted to dedicate a few more words to the topic.  For several seasons (really since Jason Garrett has been calling plays in Dallas), the offense has continually allowed the play clock to dip down to one second before snapping the football.  Even worse, that number sometimes reaches zero and costs the team five valuable yards.  This is a problem that might not seem monumental but really has major consequences on how efficiently the offense can be run.

When Garrett calls plays into Tony Romo, he often provides the quarterback with two plays: the first is the play which is most likely to be run, and the second is a “conditional” play that the offense will run if Romo checks out of the first play.  Each time you hear Romo yell “Kill, Kill, Kill” prior to the snap of the ball, he is “killing” the first play, alerting the offense to run the second play that was dialed up.

If Garrett gives Romo instructions to call an off-tackle power play (first) and a screen to the left (second) in the huddle, for example, the offensive players will line up with the mentality of running the first play.  In the first scenario, Felix Jones will analyze the defense as though he is running off-tackle.  If the defense shows blitz from their left side, however, Romo might check out of the first play using a “Kill” call.  When this happens, the mental assignments of the players shift to the second play.  In this second scenario, Jones is now scanning the defense so as to be prepared to run the screen to the left.  This has a few consequences for the offense and defense:

  • The play clock tends to drop to just one second (or the offense gets a delay of game) because the long play-calls and extra pre-snap mental work required by the offense take time.

 

  • The offensive players may not be fully mentally prepared to run the second play.  Often times, Romo gives his “Kill” call and then snaps the ball almost immediately due to a dwindling play clock.  I have doubts the players can fully prepare themselves for their blocking assignments, routes, etc. with such little time.  Full comprehension of a defense’s intentions (as it relates to the new second play) may not come until a step or two into the play, and by that time, it is too late.

 

  • Perhaps most importantly, the defense can jump the snap.  Whether it is a defensive lineman or blitzing linebacker, it is a rather large advantage to “know” when a snap is coming.

Many of you know I track all kinds of information from each play of Cowboys’ games, from the distance of passes to motions to who stayed in to block and more.  I have never taken data on the play clock, however, and it might be a good idea to do so in the future.  If snapping the ball at the last possible second is truly detrimental to Dallas, we would expect it to be represented in the statistics–whether it comes in the form of yards-per-play, sack numbers or whatever.

Of course, allowing the play clock to drain may not even be necessary if the team’s “Kill” calls are not effective.  That is, if the advantage the offense gains from calling two plays in the huddle does not exceed the advantage the defense garners from the low play clock, there is really no reason for the Cowboys to call two plays in the huddle.  Luckily, I have two years of data pertaining to the team’s audibles.

In my 2010 Quarterback Grades, I noted that both Romo and Jon Kitna called audibles that, in terms of statistical significance, were not superior to non-checks.  71 of these 72 checks were “Kill” calls.  We saw a similar thing in the team’s 2009 Audibles , although Romo was slightly better with his checks, gaining 0.39 yards-per-play more on his audibles as compared to regular plays.  75 of the 79 audibles that year were “Kill” calls, meaning we can be fairly certain the statistics of all audibles (150) are representative of the success of “Kill” calls (145 of them).

2010 (72 checks)

  • Romo expected yards: 152
  • Romo actual yards: 143
  • Kitna expected yards: 223
  • Kitna actual yards: 234
  • Overall expected yards: 375
  • Overall actual yards: 377

2009 (79 checks)

  • Expected yards: 459
  • Actual yards: 490

2009-2010 (151 checks)

  • Expected yards: 834
  • Actual Yards: 867
  • Total advantage from 2009-2010 (33 yards on 151 checks–0.22 yards-per-play)

You can see that, as a whole, the Cowboys have “gained” 0.22 yards-per-play on checks over the past two years.  With 150 audibles, this result is significant enough to show us the offense does not acquire a significant advantage from “Kill” calls.  On top of this, the advantage the defense receives from the snaps on which the play clock runs down to one is likely more valuable than that “extra” 0.22 yards-per-play.  Remember, this defensive advantage comes not just on audibles, but on any snap on which the clock has run down due to two plays being called in the huddle.  Most times, the second play is never run, yet the clock still dips to one second.

Of course, the delay of game penalties over the last couple of years probably “make up for” the 0.22 yards-per-play offensive advantage on their own.  When combined with the ability of the defense to jump the snap, I think it is pretty obvious the Cowboys’ “Kill” calls are, at best, a waste of time. . .and at worst, detrimental to the offense.

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By Jonathan Bales

Dallas Cowboys vs. New York Jets Week 1 Review: Romo at Fault?

Jonathan Bales

I apologize for the delay in posting, as this loss was a difficult one to swallow.  Despite never losing a game when up by 14 in the fourth quarter (246-0-1), the Cowboys managed to quickly blow that lead against the Jets last night.  According to Advanced NFL Stats’ win probability formulas, Dallas had a 96 percent chance of winning the game at one point.  In a period of 2 minutes and 31 seconds in the fourth quarter, the team’s odds of winning dipped from 91 percent to just 36 percent.

Starting the season 0-1, especially in the fashion in which the ‘Boys did so, is never okay.  I do not believe in “moral victories,” and I would much rather see the Cowboys play like garbage and get a win than outplay their opponent and lose.  Having said that, there are a few things I saw which should provide Cowboys fans with a lot of hope in 2011.  Here are some of my thoughts, good and bad. . .

  • Tony Romo didn’t lose the game for Dallas, but his fourth quarter play was unintelligent.  The interception to Darelle Revis is one thing, but the decision to run the ball on 3rd and Goal and dive short of the end zone was a poor one.  Romo fumbled the football and, instead of potentially going up by 10 points with a field goal, the contest remained a one-possession game.  We’ll see how Romo responds next week, but I’m really disappointed in his decision making down the stretch.

 

  • A lot of writers have criticized Garrett’s call to throw the ball on Romo’s 3rd and Goal fumble, but those criticisms are unwarranted.  The Cowboys will be far more aggressive in 2011 than in past years, as should be the case.  If you don’t trust your players to throw the ball on a 3rd and Goal inside the 10-yard line, you have a problem.  I realize a field goal puts you up to scores, but intelligent aggressive play is superior to passive play.  The problem came in Romo’s decision to dive and not protect the football, not in the decision to throw the football.

  • A large part of the blame for Romo’s interception can be placed on Dez Bryant, who remained on the field despite being obviously detrimental to the offense.  An even larger portion of blame can be placed on the coaches who left Bryant out there.  Someone has to see Bryant’s lack of explosion and pull him, whether he wants to come out of the game or not.  Dez Bryant at 90 percent is fine.  Bryant at 50 percent is not.

 

  • Jason Garrett’s biggest task as a play-caller is going to have to be getting plays in faster.  The offense allows the play clock to run down to one second on just about every play, allowing defensive players to pin their ears back and anticipate the snap.  This has been a problem in Dallas for a few years, and it stems from the fact that the team calls two plays in the huddle.  Whenever you hear Romo yell “Kill,” he is alerting the offense that the first play he called is dead, meaning they will run the second play he called.  All of that verbiage takes time, however, and Garrett will either need to speed up his calls or start providing Romo with just a single play to run.  I would prefer the former option, if possible.

 

  • Phil Costa snapped the football early on multiple occasions.  I always through Andre Gurode simply went braindead from time to time, but perhaps there is something flawed with the offense’s Shotgun snap signals.  For a coach who prides himself on his attention to detail, you would think simple things like snap counts would be worked out (whether the system or the players are at fault).

 

  • I was really impressed with Tyron Smith.  He played very well, allowing a few pressures but generally thwarting his man.  Even more impressive was his toughness to come back from a hyperextended knee he suffered just a few days prior to the game.  When you combine that with Smith’s versatility to overpower defenders, get to the second level, and recognize blitzes, you have to be really excited about what the Cowboys may have found in him.

 

  • How about Sean Lee?  From the run game to the interception to special teams, it was a hell of a night for the second-year player.  He looks far more comfortable on defense, flowing well to the football.  Again, be excited about what you saw out of Lee last night.

 

  • Felix Jones is obviously going to be the workhorse in the backfield this season.  He didn’t quite display the explosion he showed in the preseason, but he’ll be fine.

 

  • I knew we would see a lot more innovative looks from Dallas than we saw in the preseason, but the abundance of unique blitzes, twists, alignments (plenty of one down lineman looks) was surprising.  Like I suggested in my Cowboys-Jets preview, Rob Ryan manages to maintain aggressive play without sacrificing safe coverages.

 

  • The largest improvement no one is mentioning is the tackling.  Aside from a horrible tackle attempt from Alan Ball, the tackling on defense was outstanding.  Even Mike Jenkins got into the act.

 

  • DeMarcus Ware was DeMarcus Ware.

 

  • Danny McCray really surprised me.  I knew he is perhaps the team’s top special teams player, but his sack and forced fumble play was outstanding.

 

  • The Cowboys didn’t lose the game because of injuries, but you have to think their chances would have been a lot better with Terence Newman, Orlando Scandrick and Mike Jenkins healthy for the entire game.  Bryan McCann made some plays and Alan Ball wasn’t atrocious, but you lose a lot of flexibility in the secondary with just two cornerbacks left unscathed.

 

  • I’ve long been a proponent of David Buehler remaining on the roster due to his strong leg, but if he isn’t generating touchbacks on nearly every kickoff, what’s the point?

 

  • Romo’s fumble, his interception, the injuries. . .there are a lot of things which could have changed the outcome of the game had they gone differently, but the most obvious one is the blocked punt.  That was an assignment error and obviously cannot happen.  One of the things which I was looking forward to most with Garrett as coach was the reduction of mental mistakes and superior special teams play.  For at least one play, those things disappeared. . .and so did the win for Dallas.

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By Jonathan Bales

Seven Cowboys Who Need to Step Up in 2011

Jonathan Bales

7.  Phil Costa

While I don’t agree with the release of Andre Gurode, I think Costa is ready.  He looked good in the preseason and should be an upgrade over Gurode in the run game.  Remember, despite the notion that Gurode’s strength was as a run blocker, I gave him a “D” in that category in 2010.  Instead of impacting the center position, Gurode’s release indirectly affects the guard position (as Costa probably would have started there over rookie Bill Nagy).

6.  Abram Elam

I didn’t talk much about Elam during the preseason, but I wasn’t impressed with his play.  I like his athleticism and on paper he appears to be a good fit, but I didn’t see the sort of range in coverage this team desperately covets from the safety position.  As of now, I am holding out hope that Rob Ryan knows Elam well enough to understand he’s a good fit here.  Either way, he’s a more vital cog in the defense than most realize.

5.  Sean Lee

In my 2010 Inside Linebacker Grades, I gave Sean Lee a “B-”–the highest grade of any inside ‘backer.  Lee beat out Bradie James and Keith Brooking in regards to tackles-per-play, missed tackle percentage, yards-per-attempt against, and yards-per-snap while in coverage (despite playing the majority of his snaps in passing situations).  He was underwhelming in the preseason, but I think you’ll see a really effective player in 2011.

4.  Felix Jones

Jones led Cowboys running backs in every significant category in 2010, which is why he received an 86.3% from me in my 2010 Running Back Grades.  Jones is the team’s best inside runner, outside runner, pass-catcher, and short-yardage runner.  His presence on this list is less about his talent and more about his health.  The Cowboys need Jones to stay healthy throughout the season to have any shot of making the playoffs.  DeMarco Murray looks promising, but the play-making ability of Jones cannot be replaced if he goes down.

3.  Tyron Smith

Smith is questionable this week against the Jets, and I think Dallas should sit him if he isn’t 100% ready to go.  This is certainly an important game, but not as important as Smith’s future health.  For a rookie, the Cowboys are leaning on Smith about as much as is possible.  He’ll be an upgrade over Marc Colombo from a year ago, and perhaps a significant one.  If Tony Romo has even an average amount of time to throw the football this season, this offense will be dangerous.  Smith and fellow bookend Doug Free are big parts of that.

2.  Mike Jenkins

After a 2009 season in which he received one of my highest grades, Jenkins regressed badly in 2010.  I gave him a 64.6% overall grade, including a D- against the run.  Jenkins allowed a 67.4% completion rate (higher than his grade, which is sad), six touchdowns, 11.17 yards-per-attempt, 1.07 yards-per-snap, and missed 12.9% of tackles.  The lack of pass rush certainly contributed to Jenkins’ struggles last season, but there is no doubt he needs to improve in a big way.  With Terence Newman currently down, Jenkins’ play is more vital than ever.

1.  Anthony Spencer

The player who just claimed he “mailed it in” at times in 2010 is perhaps the player the Dallas Cowboys need to improve the most in 2011.  Rob Ryan’s scheme should help some, as should the push from backup outside linebacker Victor Butler.  Look for Ryan to place Spencer, Butler and DeMarcus Ware on the field at the same time often this season, as well as create innovative looks that should help Spencer get to the quarterback.

I didn’t think Spencer’s 2010 play was atrocious, but it can undoubtedly improve (click here for 2010 Outside Linebacker Grades).  His success is strongly linked to the play of the secondary.  Maybe I’m being naive, but I think Spencer racks up double-digit sacks this season.

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