The DC Times

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

By Jonathan Bales

The Sportstradamus: Week 8 NFL Game Picks

Jonathan Bales

Last week, I went just 8-5 straight up, 7-5-1 against the spread, 6-7 on totals, and 5-2 on my best bets, bringing my season totals to:

  • 73-30 straight up (70.9%)
  • 55-43-5 against the spread (56.1%)
  • 55-46-1 on totals (54.5%)
  • 29-25-1 on best bets (53.7%)

Week 8

@Tennessee 23 Indianapolis 17 (+9.5) (UNDER 43.5)

@Houston 27 (-8.5) Jacksonville 13 (UNDER 41.5)***

@Carolina 28 (-3) Minnesota 20 (OVER 46)***

@Baltimore 31 (-12) Arizona 17 (OVER 44)

@New York Giants 24 (-9.5)*** Miami 10 (UNDER 43)

@Buffalo 24 Washington 20 (+7) (UNDER 46)

New England 21 @Pittsburgh 20 (+4)*** (UNDER 51)***

@San Fran 21 Cleveland 14 (+10) (UNDER 38.5)***

@Seattle 21 (+3) Cincinnati 20 (OVER 38)

Dallas 27 (+3) Philly 23 ***(UNDER 51)***

New Orleans 34 (-13) @St. Louis 10 (UNDER 48)***

Detroit 27 (-3.5) @Denver 20 (OVER 44)

San Diego 24 @Kansas City 21 (+4.5) (OVER 44)

By Jonathan Bales

Dallas Cowboys vs. Philadelphia Eagles, Week 8: DOs and DON’Ts for Dallas

Jonathan Bales

Each week, I consider a team’s strengths prior to creating my “DOs and DON’Ts.”  For the most part, they are intended to stop what the opposition does best.  Against the Patriots, it was limit Wes Welker.  The Cowboys’ pre-game plan versus Detroit was to control Calvin Johnson.  But who do you focus on this week?  Jeremy Maclin is the Eagles’ top receiver thus far, but does he deserve more attention than DeSean Jackson?  Do you sit back in an effort to stop big plays and risk LeSean McCoy going wild underneath?  And Philly’s quarterback isn’t too bad either.

Dallas will score their points this week, but the result of the game will be determined by Rob Ryan and this defense’s ability to thwart the Eagles’ offense.  It should be evident early who they try to contain, but this week more than ever, the defense needs to play solid, unified, fundamental football.

DON’T blitz too often, unless necessary.

Despite this “DON’T” being a reoccurring theme of mine this season, I’m not against blitzing.  I think it is vital to get pressure on the quarterback and the ability of Rob Ryan to do that successfully has been the primary reason we’ve seen a turnaround from the Cowboys’ defense (in addition to superb tackling).  Blitzing Michael Vick is a risky proposition, however, because he can use his legs to buy time.  If he evades the initial surge, it’s quite easy to find an open receiver when only five or so defenders are in coverage.

That isn’t to say the Cowboys should sit back in Cover 2 and Cover 3 all day long.  There are times when blitzing is appropriate, but I really think Dallas can benefit from playing cautiously aggressive and mixing up looks.  Follow a five-man blitz with a three-man rush.  Stack the line of scrimmage and back out post-snap.  Show Cover 2 and bring a safety late.   Game situations will dictate the total amount of pressure that must be applied, but I would not come out blitzing incessantly and risk getting down early.

The blitz will still be a useful tool in Dallas’ arsenal, but only when used at the right times.  While passer rating can be a poor tool to assess a quarterback’s performance, there is still something to be said for the disparity in Vick’s rating when he throws in the face of pressure.  When given a clean pocket, Vick’s rating is 104.2.  When pressured, it drops to 49.3. While we would expect the passer rating of any signal-caller to drop when he has defenders in his face, the significance of that disparity is reinforced by Vick’s passer rating when not blitzed (97.1) versus when extra defenders are sent after him (69.6).

So why not blitz all of the time?  Because eventually, he is going to beat you for a big play.  The Cowboys need to come out in a manner that is both cautious and aggressive, playing hard-nosed football and attempting to get pressure without sending more than five defenders.  If that doesn’t work, you can think about turning up the dial.

DO be careful with “Psycho.”

Rob Ryan’s “Psycho” look is tremendously effective.  Employing one (or sometimes zero) down lineman (shown below) and utilizing pre-snap chaos in the box, the look creates confusion among the offensive linemen and quarterback regarding who might be rushing.

Smart Football has a great post on the ways by which a team can beat “Psycho,” and two of them suit the Eagles’ offense quite well:

- Sprint out or quick bootleg from gun. Isolate run/pass defenders and attack them in the flats, on the corner, and so on. Get outside of the garbage inside. The quarterback must know he can’t dilly dally, however. It must be first pass choice, second pass choice, run or throw it away.

  • - Screen them. Fast screens in particular, but also tunnel screens, runningback screens, and so on. Try to use their aggressiveness against them. Get to the perimeter and away from the junk and get the ball to playmakers in space.

  • Philadelphia has been the best screen team in the NFL for perhaps a decade, so the ‘Boys need to be really careful about how they attack the Eagles.  Send too much pressure, particularly from “Psycho,” and LeSean McCoy or DeSean Jackson could be off to the races.  Further, if “Psycho” really creates a vulnerability in a defense which can be exploited via bootlegs, Dallas could find trouble.

    When Ryan does decide to blitz, especially from “Psycho,” he should use primarily zone looks behind it.  Zone blitzing has two primary advantages for Dallas, as it allows for safe coverages behind looks which can generate pressure, and it limits Vick’s ability to run wild.  If you blitz from the traditional man coverage and Vick escapes, he has nothing but defenders with their backs to him and lots of green in his sights.  In a zone blitz, the linebackers and linemen who are in coverage will have their eyes on Vick and, even if they can’t bring him down in the open field, they can slow him up until help arrives.

    DON’T go out of your way to force Vick to his right.

    There was a time when forcing Vick right was a surefire way to halt his game.  Teams would overload the right side of their defense and do everything possible to get Vick to scramble away from the side of his throwing arm.  Vick has improved dramatically with his ability to throw from the pocket and on the run, however.  This season, his passer rating is not substantially better when throwing to any single portion of the field.

    Actually, Vick’s passer rating when throwing left (about 70) is lower than when he throws right (over 100). On top of that, the majority of the success Vick has had while throwing left has come on screens and other throws behind the line of scrimmage, where he is 9-for-11 for 107 yards and two scores.  Beware of the screen to the left, but other than that, there is no need to apply pressure from primarily one side of the field.

    DON’T spy Vick.

    To me, spying Vick is wasting a defender.  If that’s the only method you employ to corral him, you’re going to get burnt.  A single defender isn’t going to be able to tackle Vick in the open-field.  The Cowboys need to work as a unit to stop him, and that means mixing up blitz looks with safe coverages and tackling him when he does get into the open field.

    DO double-team Trent Cole.

    Last year, the Cowboys used a “new” formation against the Colts to limit the effectiveness of Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, and that formation cropped up again versus Trent Cole and Philadelphia.  It was Gun 5 Wide Tight (below).

    In my view, Cole is far and away the Eagles’ top defensive player.  He creates havoc in the opposition’s backfield whether defending the run or the pass.  He’s consistently one of the most underrated players in the NFL.  If the Cowboys leave either tackle (particularly Doug Free) on an island against Cole, he will likely get beat.

    To negate Cole’s impact, the Cowboys can chip him with Jason Witten from “Gun 5 Wide Tight.” This obviously isn’t an all-encompassing plan to stop the defensive end, but it will help keep Romo upright on passing downs.  With the Eagles’ ends lining up very wide in their untraditional “nine-technique” position, Witten and/or Martellus Bennett can practically be lined up in the slot and still get a body in front of Cole.

    DO bring out the screen game, particularly with DeMarco Murray.

    Murray was unreal last week against the Rams, and he’ll be a huge factor in Sunday night’s game in Philly.  He had 71 receptions last year in college, and Jason Garrett needs to get him more involved in the passing game.  The Eagles have blitzed far less than usual this season, but I think you’re going to see them play more aggressively this week.  If they do send a lot of pressure, Garrett should have Murray and the screen game ready to combat that strategy.

    You can expect a lot of pressure on 3rd down, particularly in medium-to-long yardage situations.  Almost paradoxically, I think the Cowboys can succeed by throwing the ball deep on 1st down or 2nd and short, but throwing short (with screens) on 3rd and medium to long.

    DON’T play Keith Brooking or Bradie James much.

    Instead, the Cowboys should use a nickel defense as their base.  The Eagles are the No. 1 rushing team in the NFL, but that’s because of the way in which they run their offense.  Vick contributes greatly to that total, and McCoy is one of the most underrated backs in the league, but they are not a great inside running team.  They thrive off of draws and other unconventional runs that work due to their spread offense, effective passing game, and so on.  In essence, their running game is so efficient because their passing game is the same, and if you contain the latter, the former is unlikely to beat you.

    Thus, I would have Orlando Scandrick on the field at all times, forcing the Eagles to run the football.  If the Cowboys can limit Vick & Co. through the air, it will be a lot easier to stop McCoy on the ground.

    DO place Terence Newman on DeSean Jackson.

    From last year’s Cowboys-Eagles Week 14 Manifesto:

    Newman has traditionally played well against Jackson and other small receivers like him.  (In 2010), he caught only seven passes for 79 yards in the three games he played against the Cowboys.

    I think the Cowboys should play a lot of Cover 2 early in the game as well.  That will put the cornerbacks in a great position to get their hands on Philly’s receivers and disrupt their routes. That’s a must when receivers are attempting to get 20+ yards downfield.

    With the two safeties deep, Cover 2 is also a safe enough coverage to limit the Eagles’ big plays early.  Plus, with up to nine defenders underneath, it’s about as good of a coverage as exists for halting Vick on the ground.

    DO attack Asante Samuel.

    Samuel is a playmaker. . .both for his own team and the opposition.  His interceptions are negated by all of the big plays he gives up, and the Cowboys can surely attack him with double-moves.  Those slants and outs early in the game, even if not completely effective, can give way to sluggos and out-and-ups late.

    The key, as always, will be proper protection, so perhaps the Cowboys should implement max protection from a double-tight set when they plan to attack deep.  That look will be most successful if used on 1st down or 2nd and short, as the Eagles will be anticipating a run.

    DON’T shy away from Nnamdi Asomugha.

    There was a time that throwing at Asomugha, or even looking at him, wasn’t in your best interest.  Now that he is forced to play more zone coverage in Philly, he’s been far less effective.  Already targeted 17 times, Asomugha has yielded 10 completions and 10.0 yards-per-attempt.  He’s also racked up three penalties. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Samuel should be the main targets, but there’s no reason to ignore Miles Austin or Dez Bryant if Asomugha is lined up on them.

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    By Jonathan Bales

    Dallas Cowboys Skill Position Grades Through Week 7

    Jonathan Bales

    I completed quarter-season grades for the secondary, front seven, and offensive line, but I never got to the Cowboys’ skill position players.  Let’s take a look at their play through seven weeks of the 2011 season. . .

    Quarterback

    • Tony Romo

    Outside of a couple late-game miscues on which everyone in the media will judge his overall performance, Romo has been his usual self in 2011.  He’s on pace for nearly 5,000 yards passing despite just 166 last week.  While it is fun for a lot of people to pick fun at Romo’s game-to-game inconsistency, take a look at his career passer ratings to learn more about his season-to-season consistency–the lowest (91.4) is just slightly below the highest (97.6).  Of course, he will again be judged on his ability to get Dallas to the playoffs and win some games once there, and at this point, that’s how it should be.

    Running Back

    • Felix Jones

    In the initial part of the season, Jones failed to display the burst which was apparent in the preseason.  He averaged only 4.0 yards-per-carry and had only one game where he ran for more than 3.6 yards-per-rush.  A lot of that has to do with the incapability of the offensive line through the first quarter of the season, but Jones deserves some blame too.  His pass blocking has improved considerably, though, as he’s been in pass protection on 38 snaps, giving up no sacks and two pressures.

    • DeMarco Murray

    Murray is averaging 3.6 YAC/rush, 0.8 yards better than Jones.  For a player whose primary knock was an inability to overpower defenders, that’s a good sign.  He was effective on Sunday because he showed that, unlike Jones, he doesn’t always try to run around defenders, instead opting to lower his shoulder at times.  My overall grade of Murray is going to be a little surprising to some people, but let’s not forget he didn’t particularly stand out prior to Sunday’s game against the Rams, and his 6.5 yards-per-carry on the season drops to 4.8 without his 91-yard touchdown.

    • Tashard Choice

    Choice has been really poor thus far in 2011, and it just looks like he doesn’t want to be in Dallas anymore.  He’s averaging only 2.7 yards-per-rush, and only 1.9 after contact.  He’s made defenders miss just one time (3.6% of his runs), compared to seven for DeMarco Murray (13.7%) and 11 for Felix Jones (17.5%).

    Wide Receiver

    • Miles Austin

    It’s amazing how much we forget about Austin’s presence and what it means to Dallas.  He’s not the first person you think of when you imagine the Cowboys’ offense, but maybe he should be.  While Austin’s only had one huge game this season, you saw the Cowboys’ offense take on a different persona with Austin injured.  He’s averaging only 4.4 YAC/reception and has dropped three passes, but his value to Dallas is unquestioned.

    • Dez Bryant

    Bryant has made defenders miss six times, good for 31.6% of the time he catches the football.  He’s averaging a ridiculous 7.7 YAC/reception.  67.2% of his snaps are pass plays.  I’m really not sure why Jason Garrett has him back on returns, as he’s option 1B in the offense at this point.

    • Laurent Robinson

    Robinson has caught 70% of the passes thrown his way and has the same 7.7 YAC/reception as Bryant.  A lot of that is due to defenses giving him single-coverage, but you don’t see Kevin Ogletree taking advantage of it like Robinson.

    • Kevin Ogletree

    Two of Romo’s interceptions have been intended for Ogletree, despite the fact that the receiver has only nine catches all season.  He’s not a great blocker, isn’t overwhelming on special teams, and he’s been shown up by Robinson in recent weeks.

    Tight End

    • Jason Witten

    I’m going to get some crap for this but here goes. . .Witten hasn’t been a very good blocker all season.  I have said for the last two years that Bennett is superior to Witten in the run game, and it is particularly true this season.  He’s slow to react and, although he uses good body position, he gets beat by quicker defenders.  It is worth noting that Romo has a passer rating of over 112 when throwing to Witten on the left side of the field, but just under 78 in the middle of the field.

    • Martellus Bennett

    I realize Bennett offers next to nothing as a receiver and that can hurt Dallas, but he really is an elite run blocker.  The Cowboys are averaging 6.4 yards-per-rush when running behind Bennett this season.

    • John Phillips

    Phillips is having a really poor season.  He’s caught seven of the eight balls which have come his way, but he’s averaging only 6.0 yards-per-reception.  He’s also been horrific as a blocker, struggling in the run game and yielding three pressures and a sack in only 29 snaps in pass protection.

    Overall Grades

    A few notes before looking at my grades:

    • Romo’s grade is weighted 3:1 in terms of passing to leadership, the running back grades are 3:1:1 in terms of running to receiving to pass protection, the receivers are 3:1 in terms of receiving to blocking, and the tight ends are 3:2 in terms of receiving to blocking.

    Tony Romo

    • Passing: B+
    • Leadership: C

    Overall: B (86.3)

    Felix Jones

    • Running: C+
    • Receiving: C+
    • Pass Protection: A-

    Overall: B- (82.0)

    DeMarco Murray

    • Running: B+
    • Receiving: B
    • Pass Protection: C

    Overall: B (86.0)

    Tashard Choice

    • Running: D
    • Receiving: C
    • Pass Protection: B

    Overall: C- (71.0)

    Miles Austin

    • Receiving: B
    • Blocking: B

    Overall: B (85.0)

    Dez Bryant

    • Receiving: B+
    • Blocking: B

    Overall: B+ (88.8)

    Laurent Robinson

    • Receiving: B-
    • Blocking: C

    Overall: C+ (78.8)

    Kevin Ogletree

    • Receiving: C-
    • Blocking: C-

    Overall: C- (70.0)

    Jason Witten

    • Receiving: A-
    • Blocking: C

    Overall: B (84.0)

    Martellus Bennett

    • Receiving: D
    • Blocking: A

    Overall: C (77.0)

    John Phillips

    • Receiving: C
    • Blocking: D-

    Overall: D+ (69.0)

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    By Jonathan Bales

    Cowboys vs. Rams Week 7 Breakout: The DeMarco Show

    Jonathan Bales

    The Cowboys’ Week 7 romping of the St. Louis Rams was really all about DeMarco Murray, who exploded for 253 on 25 carries, including a 91-yard touchdown scamper to start the game.  Prior to the 2011 NFL Draft, I was fairly high on Murray, ranking him as the No. 7 running back and No. 65 overall on my Big Board.  Here is my initial scouting report on Murray:

    Scouting Report

    Murray has solid agility and start-and-stop ability.  His quickness and long speed are both really, really good.  He ran a 4.41 40-yard dash at the Combine and he really does possess home run ability.  While I don’t like the timing of the pick, I think there are only a few runners in this draft who are better for Dallas than Murray.  He’s an insurance policy against a Felix Jones injury, which was really an underrated “hole” for the ‘Boys.

    If you haven’t done so yet, check out Murray’s career numbers.  I don’t look at stats when I look at film because 1) they could potentially cloud my judgment and 2) I don’t particularly care.  At the running back position, though, you always want to see a guy produce no matter the circumstances.  Murray had a ridiculous 63 total touchdowns in his career and, more important to me, 157 career receptions (including 71 alone in 2010).  Running backs must be able to catch the ball nowadays, and Murray is a natural receiver.

    Murray is a continuation of what appears to be a revised draft plan for the Cowboys.  He’s a versatile player who will be especially helpful in the passing game.  Tyron Smith is a versatile player who will be especially helpful in the passing game.  Bruce Carter is a versatile player who will be especially useful in the passing game.  See a trend?

    Murray’s vision is solid and he makes very quick decisions with the football.  You won’t see Murray dancing in the backfield.  He isn’t great after contact, however, and his legs sometimes die after he gets hit.  He isn’t particularly effective in short-yardage situations either.  Due to his upright running style and carelessness with the football, I think he could be prone to fumbles at the next level.

    A major reason I think the ‘Boys had Murray rated so highly is that he has value as a returner.  The Cowboys don’t want Dez Bryant on returns again and it’s unclear what Akwasi Owusu-Ansah and Bryan McCann can do, so Murray’s return ability could be useful as soon as 2011.

    Murray’s home run ability was useful on Sunday, and now that Jones is down, it is Murray’s time to shine.  It will be really interesting to see what the Cowboys do when Jones returns from his high ankle sprain if Murray continues to play well.  My guess is that Jones will regain his starting spot, but that will be tough to justify if Murray keeps it up.

    By Jonathan Bales

    Dallas Cowboys vs. St. Louis Rams Week 7: DOs and DON’Ts for Dallas

    Jonathan Bales

    A little late, but here are my keys to the Cowboys’ Week 7 matchup with St. Louis.  In short, don’t blow it. . .

    DON’T be so schizophrenic with play-calling.

    I’m not just talking about Jason Garrett here.  I am primarily talking about Garrett, but Rob Ryan could be included in here as well.  For Garrett, the key is to remember he is an aggressive coach running what should be an aggressive offense.  This will probably be the last time I talk about it, but with a three-point lead and 3:36 remaining in the Patriots game, the Cowboys should have been doing everything possible to gain a first down.  There wasn’t 1:36 left, and the Pats had all three timeouts.  I’ve talked about it here and here, and I also found an incredible breakdown of Garrett’s decisions here.  Until continual running of the ball can all but necessitate a win (up 24 points in the second half, for example), the team should be running the plays that best put them in a position to gain first downs and score.

    The situation is a bit different for Ryan, whose defensive calls should display a chaotic look.  Being a good defensive coordinator is perhaps made easier by being a bit schizophrenic at times, but it is a controlled schizophrenia.  Ryan should have attacked Tom Brady on the final drive, at least in certain situations.  His choice to play safe coverages and not disguise looks is a deviation from everything he preaches on defense.

    Again, there was plenty of time left on the clock that Dallas should have been playing defense at least close to how they do normally.  You can say they would risk yielding a big play, but that’s sure a lot better than having New England meticulously march the ball down the field and win the game with just a few ticks left on the clock.

    Simply put, be yourselves, ‘Boys.  You are an aggressive, pass-happy team, and should remain that way until the game situation dictates another strategy is undoubtedly superior.

    DO capitalize on takeaways.

    I wrote about this the other day, but in some senses it is out of the team’s control.  Of course they can and should execute better following takeaways, but a 1st and 10 at the 20-yard line is the same whether it comes as the result of a touchback or turnover.  Even so, the Cowboys will see their winning percentage increase as they perform more efficiently following positive results.

    DON’T sell out against the run.

    This might seem illogical, as the Rams’ primary threat on offense is running back Steven Jackson and quarterback Sam Bradford has already been ruled out of the game.  While many people (including some in the NFL) are of the mind that you should attack poor quarterbacks, I am not.  A.J. Feeley is not going to consistently beat you, so why provide the opportunity for a big play?  Until the Rams start smashing it down the Cowboys’ throats via the run, I would sit back in safe coverages and force Feeley to keep making good decisions and accurate throws.  The Rams are a heavy underdog and they will not win this game unless they garner multiple big plays.  Don’t give them that chance.

    On the other hand, maybe Feeley is capable of making good decisions. . .

    Feeley's Wife

    DO double-team Brandon Lloyd.

    When you aren’t blitzing, it’s relatively easy to double-team a player.  Although Lloyd was just acquired by St. Louis, he is by far their biggest threat in the passing game.  I’d be placing a safety over top of him on just about every snap, forcing Brandon Gibson, Danario Alexander or Greg Salas to beat me.

    DON’T blitz much.

    See “DON’T sell out against the run.”

    DO establish the run, and by run I mean pass.

    I’ve written before about how the traditional run/pass dichotomy we use to break down offensive plays is flawed.  Instead, play-calls are less black and white and should be placed in of a range of “passiness,” if you will.  Some pass plays are more “pure” passes than others (and the same is true of runs).  Here is how I explained it earlier:

    The rejection of a distinct dichotomy also creates a range of contrast. A cell phone is not inherently artificial, for example, but only more or less so than something else (just as a playaction pass can be simultaneously “more of a pass” than, say, a flea flicker, and “less of a pass” than a straight dropback).  Thus, “opposing” qualities take on a pluralistic characteristic: not absolute, yet not radically relativistic, as the ‘absoluteness’ comes with the implementation of a ‘relative’ perspective.  This allows for the concurrent existence of contrasting qualities without a logical contradiction.

    In the image above, you can see how certain plays are more “passy” than others.  A screen play, which I did not display, is very close to being a run–many refer to it as an ”extended hand-off.”  Thus, when I say establish the run, I mean those plays which are closer to the middle portion of the range, and thus more difficult for a defense to decipher.  Screens, shovel passes (Does anyone know if these are ‘shovel’ or ‘shuffle’? I’ve heard different variations from numerous NFL types.), draws, counters, and even playaction passes are not “pure” runs or passes, and consequently they are often among the most effective types of calls.

    To me, the Cowboys can gain the same advantages and overall effect from an efficient screen game as they could from a solid running game.  Yes, runs can set up the playaction game, but screens can slow down pass-rushers and open up things downfield.  Plus, they are safe enough to run in late-game situations–say, with 3:36 left on the clock and a three-point lead.

    DO overload the left side of the defense.

    Pro Football Focus lists Rams left tackle Rodger Saffold as one of the worst tackles in the league thus far in 2011.  DeMarcus Ware is going to handle him with ease, and St. Louis is going to have no choice but to place tight ends and backs on the left side of the formation to help Saffold.  The Cowboys should overload the left side of their defense with rushers, causing the Rams to either leave someone unblocked or potentially single Ware.  This doesn’t necessitate blitzing.  Look for Anthony Spencer and/or Victor Butler (if he gets more snaps) to have a big day.

    DO throw it deep.

    Tony Romo has been the most accurate deep ball passer in the league in 2011, converting on a ridiculous 60% of his passes which travel 20+ yards.  That’s 39.9% better than Tom Brady, who is still in the middle of the pack in the NFL.  Nonetheless, Romo has attempted such passes on only 10.4% of his throws–good for 23rd in the league among starting quarterbacks.  I don’t think this is due to an unwillingness from Romo to air it out, but rather the plays being called.

    I’ve written two articles on deep passes in the past, one on why it is efficient in general and another on why Dallas should throw deep more often. The most obvious set of calls which could be altered to create more deep looks is playaction passes.  In my 2010 Playaction Pass Guide, I noted the Cowboys threw deep on 12.8% of playaction passes.  That is up from 4.8% in 2009, but it could still be improved.  Playaction passes are a great opportunity to suck up the defense and get receivers behind the safeties, so throwing short on the majority of them makes little sense.

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    By Jonathan Bales

    The Sportstradamus: Week 7 NFL Game Picks

    Jonathan Bales

    I had an up-and-down Week 6, going a solid 10-3 on straight up picks but only 5-7-1 against the spread.  I was also 8-5 on totals and 4-4-1 on my best bets.  All of my records on the season (below) are quite good, outside of the best bets.  I have no good reason for it, but I would imagine they will at least level out to around the percentage of games I pick correctly against the spread.

    2011 Season

    • 65-25 straight up (72.2%)
    • 48-38-4 against the spread (55.8%)
    • 49-39-1 on totals (55.6%)
    • 24-23-1 on best bets (51.1%)

    Week 7 Picks

    @Tampa Bay 23 (+1) Chicago 17 (UNDER 44)

    @Carolina 24 (-2.5) Washington 20 (OVER 43)

    @New York Jets 23 (+3) San Diego 20*** (UNDER 44)

    @Cleveland 17 Seattle 16 (+3) (UNDER 41.5)***

    Houston 21 (+3) @Tennessee 20 (UNDER 44.5)

    @Miami 20 (+1) Denver 14 (UNDER 42)***

    @Detroit 28 Atlanta 27 (+3) (OVER 47)

    @Oakland 28 (-5.5) Kansas City 17 (OVER 42)

    Pittsburgh 28 (-4) @Arizona 14*** (UNDER 43)

    @Dallas 28 St. Louis 17 (+14) (OVER 43.5)

    Green Bay 28 @Minnesota 20 (+10.5)*** (OVER 46)

    @ New Orleans 27 Indy 17 (+14) (UNDER 48)***

    Baltimore 27 @Jacksonville 20 (+10) (OVER 39.5)***

    By Jonathan Bales

    Cowboys Must Capitalize on Takeaways

    Jonathan Bales

    One of the most overlooked items from the Cowboys’ 20-16 loss to New England is the offense’s inability to capitalize on four turnovers from the Pats.  The defense put Romo & Co. in prime position to put points on the board, but they managed only six of them following four takeaways.  Advanced NFL Stats has a great article on it, along with a graph detailing the Cowboys’ woes on the subsequent drives. . .

    AdvancedNFLStats.com

    You can see the Cowboys failed miserably on all but one drive which followed a takeaway.  They managed only 97 yards on 28 plays, as well as a combined expected points total of almost -5 for those drives.  When the ‘Boys gained possession on those four drives, the combined expected points for the drives (in blue) was almost nine.  In just four possessions, the Cowboys saw a swing of nearly 14 potential points–that is, had they performed “average” on those drives, they almost certainly would have won the game.

    —————————————–

    By the way, also over at ANS is another great post detailing each team’s chances of making the playoffs.  You can see that, despite the 2-3 start, the Cowboys still hold a 63 percent chance of making the playoffs.  They are also actually the favorites to win the NFC East, doing so on 45 percent of 5,000 simulated seasons.  Of course, the criteria used to determine those percentages is based on the expected points and win probability from the site, so if you don’t buy those stats, these numbers aren’t of much use to you.  Still, it is interesting to see that the Cowboys still appear to be playing well enough to overcome their poor start.

    The Cowboys did see their probability of making the postseason decline 19 percent after losing to the Pats.  In reality, it is a bit more than that, as their odds would have increased from the pre-game 82 percent had they won.  They are still the favorites in the East, however, because they have the third and fifth-most efficient offense and defense, respectively, in the NFL.  They’ve also played the most difficult schedule in the league thus far.

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    By Jonathan Bales

    More on Jason Garrett’s Decision to Run Late vs. Pats

    Jonathan Bales

    In my recent article for The Fifth Down, I detailed why I thought Jason Garrett was wrong to run the ball three straight times late in the fourth quarter against the Patriots.  Even with 3:36 to play and a three point lead, I thought Garrett could benefit from being more aggressive in that situation.

    Some of you have chimed in with your thoughts on the situation, two of which I will address here.  The first is that we (I) vilified Garrett run throwing the ball in the third and fourth quarter against the Lions, yet I am also criticizing him here for not airing it out.  Can I have it both ways?  The other idea is that, had the Cowboys been more aggressive and Romo thrown an interception, the damage to his psyche and the team’s season would be far worse than the current situation.  With a relatively soft remaining schedule, the team still has every opportunity to get back into the playoff hunt, and the confidence of the quarterback is vital to that process.

    Both are solid thoughts and have some merit, but I do not whole-heartedly agree with either.  A 24-point lead is far different from a three-point lead (even in the fourth quarter versus with 3:36 to play), and the numbers show that.  While the Cowboys’ win percentage peaked at 85 percent against New England, it was as high as 97 percent against Detroit, including 95 percent just before the start of the fourth quarter.

    Courtesy of AdvancedNFLStats.com

    You could make a solid argument that, if you do nothing but run and secure the football from the third quarter on against the Lions, you cannot lose the game.  At worst, your chances of winning would be no less than that 97 percent mark at which they peaked.  How many times out of 100 can the Lions score 24 points in 25 minutes without the aid of takeaways?  One or two? Whatever it is, it is certainly low enough that Dallas should not have been throwing the ball on first down in the second half.

    Even with under four minutes to play, a three-point lead, and possession of the football, the Cowboys should have attacked on Sunday.  As I detailed in the New York Times article, the fact that the Cowboys failed in their aggressive attack against Detroit really has no bearing–or shouldn’t have–on their aggressiveness versus the Pats.  Even if the situations were the same, a sample size of one game is hardly enough to affect future decisions.  You don’t stop going for it on 4th and 1 because you failed once, or twice, or any number of times, because those numbers will level out in the long-run.  Similarly, you don’t scrap your offensive approach because it hasn’t worked of late.

    Of course, statistics cannot account for everything, and one of those things (as it currently stands, anyway) is the impact a decision might have on the team’s future, particularly in a psychological way.  If the psyche of the team, namely Tony Romo, would have broken following a potential interception, could it be possible that running the ball, although perhaps not statistically superior to passing in the narrow sense, was the correct decision when we take the bigger picture into account?

    While I see why one might think this, I don’t think it should be a factor in a team’s decision-making.  Would Romo’s confidence plummet following another late-game interception?  Perhaps.  Would it affect the team’s ability to win down the road?  Maybe.  But he is a professional football player, and if his psyche is so fragile that he cannot block out past interceptions and respond well from adversity, the team probably wouldn’t be able to win with him anyway.  Further, a player who could potentially lose confidence so easily surely wouldn’t feel good about his offensive coordinator taking the ball out of his hands late in a three-point game.  If Garrett doesn’t believe in his quarterback, who does?

    Luckily, I don’t think Romo’s psyche is truly that fragile.  He’s a confident player, and he possesses every requisite trait to lead this team to the playoffs.  Perhaps unfortunately for Dallas, he sometimes isn’t put in situations which are optimal for him to display those traits. . .and win football games.

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    By Jonathan Bales

    Why Jason Garrett Was Wrong to Run Late vs. New England

    Jonathan Bales

    Jason Garrett has received a lot of criticism for his decision to  call three straight runs while up, 16-13, with 3 minutes 36 seconds to play in Sunday’s  game in New England, perhaps the harshest of which came from his boss.  “We rolled the dice at the end and went conservative,” the Cowboys’ owner, Jerry Jones, said, ”and it bit us. You always second-guess whether or not we should  have tried to run a little offense down there instead of running it  three times.”

    Jones is often misguided in his critiques of coaches and players,  but this one is spot-on.

    You can read the rest of this post at the New York Times’ Fifth Down Blog.

    By Jonathan Bales

    The Sportstradamus: Week 6 NFL Game Picks

    Jonathan Bales

    After two outstanding weeks in which I raised my correct pick percentage to 71.2% straight up and 59.0% against the spread, I went 9-4 and 7-6, respectively, in Week 5.  Here are my totals so far on the season. . .

    • 55-22 straight up
    • 43-31-3 against the spread
    • 41-34-1 on totals
    • 20-19-1 on best bets

    Week 6 Picks

    @Green Bay 30 St. Louis 14 (+17) *** (UNDER 47.5)

    @Pittsburgh 24 (-11) Jacksonville 10 (UNDER 40.5)***

    @Washington 24 (+3) Philadelphia 21 (UNDER 47.5)

    @Detroit 27 (-4) San Francisco 20 (OVER 46)

    @Atlanta 28 Carolina 27 (+4) *** (OVER 50.5)

    @Cincinnati 27 (-6) Indianapolis 20 (OVER 41)

    @New York Giants 28 (-3) Buffalo 20*** (UNDER 50)***

    @Baltimore 27 Houston 20 (+8.5) (OVER 45)

    @Oakland 28 (-6) Cleveland 13*** (UNDER 44.5)

    @New England 31 Dallas 28 (+7)*** (OVER 55.5)

    New Orleans 23 (-5) @Tampa Bay 14*** (UNDER 50)

    @Chicago 27 (-2.5) Minnesota 21 (OVER 41)

    @New York Jets 23 (-7) Miami 10 (UNDER 43)***