The DC Times

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

By Jonathan Bales

What’s Wrong With Doug Free?

Jonathan Bales

Heading into the 2011 season, the Cowboys had a lot to worry about concerning the interior of their offensive line, but no one could have anticipated left tackle Doug Free struggling as much as has been the case.  Free played well in his first season at left tackle in 2010, receiving a C+ in run blocking and a B+ in pass protection in my 2010 Offensive Line Grades.  Here is what I had to say about his play last year:

Run Blocking:  C+

Others have commended Free on his run blocking in 2010, and while it wasn’t horrific, I think people are simply pleased with average play due to low expectations.  In reality, the Cowboys averaged just 3.97 yards-per-carry when running behind Free–much, much too low for an offensive tackle.  In comparison, the Cowboys averaged 4.54 yards-per-rush when running behind Free in ’09, and 4.98 behind Flozell Adams the same season.

The fact that 6.6 percent of runs behind Free went for 20+ yards is outstanding, but the ‘Boys need more consistency from their left tackle.  Garrett could aid Free by allowing him to get in space on counters and tosses.

Pass Protection:  B+

I originally planned on giving Free an “A” for his pass protection, but the nine penalties killed him.  There were times when Free was out of position, but I think it is obvious to anyone who watched the ‘Boys that Free was generally doing his job in pass protection.

He yielded one-third as many sacks as Adams in 2009 and half the pressures.  Allowing just three sacks when facing the opposition’s top pass-rushers (especially in the NFC East–Trent Cole, Justin Tuck, Brian Orakpo) is quite impressive.

Below, you can see Free’s pass protection numbers from 2010.

Although struggling with penalties, Free’s three sacks yielded was awesome.  The 19 pressures were less than half of right tackle Marc Colombo, even though Free’s left tackle position is more difficult to play.

In 2011, though, something has changed in Free.  Check out a few of his numbers thus far. . .

No matter how you slice it, Free is performing worse than in 2010.  The yards-per-carry when running behind him is down 4.8% despite a far, far more efficient running game from Dallas this season as compared to last.  Free’s run blocking has actually been better than his pass protection, though, where he has yielded way too much pressure.  A sack rate 2.57 times as high as last year.  Nearly 1.5 times as many pressures.  A penalty rate almost double that of 2010–a year in which it was already much too high.

So what’s wrong with Free?  One theory is that he injured his shoulder in Week 2 against the Niners and simply hasn’t recovered.  There is some credibility to that idea, as we wouldn’t expect such a decline in production from Free, even if he outperformed his skill level in 2010.

But what about his false starts?  Free committed three false starts last week alone, suggesting he isn’t where he needs to be mentally, regardless of his physical condition.  It’s possible that Free’s play is affecting his mindset, causing a lack of concentration.

Whatever the reason for Free’s struggles, you can expect improvement.  This is an athletic, talented left tackle who should excel on the types of plays Jason Garrett is calling in 2011–more counters, screens, and “finesse” plays which allow Free to get out into space where he can utilize his quickness.

My best guess is that Free was injured and the subsequent poor play got to his head, affecting his production.  Eventually, though, you can bet that Free’s effectiveness will “regress to the mean.”  In other words, the “true” Doug Free will shine through at some point, and I imagine the Real Free Shady is closer to the 2010 version than the one we are seeing in 2011.

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By Jonathan Bales

Cowboys Squeak by Dolphins 20-19 on Thanksgiving

Jonathan Bales

The Cowboys will eventually need to play better football as the season winds down, but for now, they’ll take wins however they can get them.  Although they got outplayed by Miami for a large portion of yesterday’s contest, Dallas’ 20-19 win is just as good as a 41-0 blowout.  There are a variety of areas in which they can and must improve, though.  Here are a few of my other thoughts from the game. . .

  • Why does Jason Garrett think it is smart to run basic, predictable plays when near the outer portion of field goal range and in position for a tying or go-ahead score?  When down three points or less late in games, Garrett gets ultra conservative once the offense crosses the opponent’s 30-yard line.  It is like he thinks a field goal is a sure thing (despite Dan Bailey’s success, it isn’t), and this is particularly detrimental when down just three points and a field goal only ties.  Stay with the normal offense and try to score a touchdown when down three, and at least run somewhat unpredictable plays if down by one or two.  It worked out yesterday, but eventually it will come back to bite Dallas.  I know this because the plays were–you guessed it–strong side dives from Double Tight Strong.

  • Although there may have been somewhat of a mix up on each of Tony Romo’s interceptions, both of them were really on him.  They were on the same route, although one should have been thrown deeper and one should have been back-shouldered.  You might recall that Romo was emphasizing back shoulder throws last preseason, but at this point it still remains perhaps his weakest throw.  With Dez Bryant on the team, Romo’s improvement in that area could be valuable for the offense.

  • What the heck is up with Doug Free?  He committed three false start penalties, likely in an effort to get a step on Cameron Wake.  I called for the Cowboys to double Wake quite often in my pre-game DOs and DON’Ts, but Dallas didn’t go overboard with it.  Wake had a solid game, and the Cowboys won in spite of his efforts.

  • Another reason this contest was so close is because the Cowboys really played horribly at cornerback, letting Brandon Marshall go off a bit.  Terence Newman had a really weak game, Orlando Scandrick was bad, and Alan Ball was again horrific.  In my opinion, Ball needs to be cut.

  • I wasn’t at all shocked Rob Ryan called so many blitzes, but I was a little surprised he didn’t dial up many zone blitzes.  I counted just a couple, but I thought he would want to send pressure with Cover 2 and similar looks behind it to limit Marshall.  He probably thinks Gerald Sensabaugh is playing well enough that Cover 1 (man underneath with Sensy free in the deep middle) is a smart coverage, and he’s probably right.  Even Sensabaugh’s best play can’t make up for Ball getting continually harassed by players like Brian Hartline, though.

  • Victor Butler had a really good game, sans one play when he got absolutely embarrassed by Reggie Bush.  Bush took a pitch to the left and made Butler look like a fool.  Phil Simms was commentating the game and noted Butler “did his job” by forcing Bush inside, but Simms is about the dumbest announcer on television.  Sorry Victor, but falling on the ground from a move isn’t “doing your job.”

  • Maybe I was wrong on Matt Moore.  I thought he wouldn’t be able to continually beat Dallas deep, and he did.  Better play from the cornerbacks stops that, but offenses will take advantage of a defense’s weak link over and over.  Until Ball is gone, expect him to get abused.

  • A week after the Cowboys were incredible on third down, they turned in just a 2-for-9 performance on Thanksgiving.  A lot of that came because the team got in a few 3rd and very long situations due to penalties.  Dallas will be fine on third down moving forward.

  • DeMarco Murray’s efficiency seems to fluctuate based on the types of runs which are called for him.  I’m not sure why Garrett didn’t call more outside runs yesterday, particularly against a Miami defense that is very stout up the middle.  I realize runs like counters are “riskier” than dives and not necessarily options in short-yardage situations, but Murray has been dominating on the perimeter.  Even the dives which were successful yesterday came as a result of Murray bouncing them outside.

  • Tyron Smith seems to have one bad penalty every game, but he’s still doing a nice job on the right side.  Surprisingly, his pass protection is what needs the most work, as he’s been dominating in the running game.

  • Kenyon Coleman continues to play really good football, reinforcing the decision to cut Igor Olshansky.  He’s been the Cowboys’ top defensive end in 2011, even outperforming a rejuvenated Marcus Spears.

  • I still love Dan Bailey.

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By Jonathan Bales

Dallas Cowboys vs. Miami Dolphins, Thanksgiving Game: DOs and DON’Ts for Dallas

Jonathan Bales

Thanksgiving is always a special game for the Cowboys, and this year’s version actually figures to be more competitive than many might anticipate.  Miami grades out as the 11th-best offense on Pro Football Focus, including No. 6 ranked run blocking team.  Despite that, they have a mediocre rush offense (zero expected points added per play and 29th in success rate, according to Advanced NFL Stats), likely due to sub-par running backs.

A lot of Miami’s atrocious numbers came with Chad Henne at the helm, though, and they have seen a spike in productivity since Matt Moore has taken over.  Many Dallas fans remember Moore’s days in Big D, and some even think he Cowboys let him get away.  He leads a Dolphins team that is far different from the one which began the season.

For the ‘Boys, the most important task tomorrow is not taking Miami too lightly.  They aren’t nearly as talented as Dallas, but the Dolphins are probably a better team than the Redskins squad which has given the Cowboys fits twice in 2011.  If the Cowboys do not come to play, they may very well lose.  Here are a few other keys for Dallas. . .

DO game plan for two players: Brandon Marshall and Cameron Wake.

Marshall is quietly having a really solid season in Miami, on pace for 86 catches.  He’s also caught just two touchdowns, though, which is one reason why he isn’t being named as a top flight receiver anymore.  His talent is elite, however, and he can be a terror for the Cowboys.

There are a number of ways to limit Marshall tomorrow, including Cover 1, Cover 2, Cover 4, and so on.  All of those looks allow a safety to play over top of Marshall if needed.  Since he is really the lone offensive threat for the ‘Phins (and Reggie Bush at times), it will be easy for the Cowboys to double him and still blitz.

Wake is the most talented player on the Dolphins, and it isn’t even close.  The game’s most underrated pass-rusher has 34 pressures on the year–most of any outside linebacker in the NFL and five more than DeMarcus Ware.  His six sacks are not representative of his talents, especially since teams double him all the time.  Dallas should do the same.

They can accomplish this by throwing a variety of blockers at Wake, chipping, cracking, and blocking him from various angles to keep him from developing a rhythm.  Although Miami has some other solid defenders, stopping Wake should be the No. 1 priority for the offense.  Look for a lot of double-tight sets with Martellus Bennett lined up to the left.

DON’T overlook Matt Moore.

This is true of the entire Dolphins team, but especially for Moore.  He’s a player that some might take lightly, but one who has played really, really good football lately.  In his last three games, Moore has six touchdowns and just one interception, throwing for 8.5 yards per attempt in the process.  He doesn’t throw a great deep ball, but his accuracy underneath is enough to test the Dallas’ secondary and linebackers.

DO blitz heavily from the left side of the defense.

Although I think superior teams should limit blitzing to avoid yielding big plays, the Cowboys need to come out with an aggressive mindset tomorrow.  It is easier to take Miami lightly when playing Cover 3 all day than when defenders are allowed to be aggressive and apply pressure.

Another reason the Cowboys should blitz a lot tomorrow is to throw off the timing between Moore and Marshall.  Marshall is a big-play threat who could put points on the board in a hurry, but that will be made all but impossible if Moore doesn’t have adequate protection.  With a safety over top of Marshall and little time to throw, getting the ball deep shouldn’t be an option.

Plus, Moore throws equally well to all areas of the field except deep.  He is just 7-for-26 for 236 yards, one touchdown and four interceptions on passes of 20+ yards.  That’s good for a passer rating of 38.1.  Miami won’t shy away from trying to acquire easy points through long touchdown passes, and the ‘Boys have an opportunity to force some turnovers if they can get Moore to force the ball into traffic in the face of pressure.

When they do blitz, Dallas should bring it from the left side of their defense.  Marc Colombo plays right tackle, and Jake Long mans the left side.  Pretty simple.

DON’T be too conservative on defense.

Yet another reason to blitz: Moore’s passer rating when pressured is just 52.2, compared to 96.5 when given a clean pocket.  Neither number is extremely surprising, as a quarterbacks will naturally have a weaker efficiency rating when throwing with defenders in his face.  Still, when combined with Miami’s weak pass protection and their in ability to get the ball downfield, the inherent risk that comes with blitzing is limited.  Take care of Brandon Marshall, and you can blitz Moore all day long.  Similarly, blitz all day long, and you can perhaps take care of Marshall.

DO continue the success on third down.

Last week, the Cowboys were incredible on third down.  They thrived not by running the ball and setting up 3rd and short or medium situations, but by converting crucial 3rd and long plays.  This was due to a variety of factors, not the least of which was a small sample size.

Nonetheless, the Cowboys can continue their third down success by continuing to run the ball well and sending less men into routes on third down passes.  Jason Garrett has done a nice job of utilizing max protection plays, a trend that is in contrast to his usual style of sending five men into routes.

DO attack through the air.

In terms of expected points, Miami has the eighth-best rush defense, but the eighth-worst pass defense.  That gap is likely even larger than it appears since teams have generally had late leads against the ‘Phins, forcing them to run the ball in obvious running situations (and hence limiting efficiency).  Running the ball will help set up the pass, but either way, the Cowboys should be able to gash Miami through the air.

DO target Sean Smith.  Or Vontae Davis.  Or Will Allen.

Smith has been targeted 70 times already in 2011, yielding a catch on 62.9% of passes his way and surrendering over eight yards per attempt.  No. 1 cornerback Vontae Davis is considered a rising young player, but he’s given up 18 catches in the six games he’s played this season.  That wouldn’t be so bad except he’s also allowing over nine yards per attempt.  Will Allen has also been pedestrian.  Together, the cornerback trio has combined for just one pick.

DO continue to run outside.

Nose tackle Paul Soliai and inside linebacker Karlos Dansby are stout against the run.  Dansby already has 52 tackles this season.  The counters and tosses Garrett has been calling more lately should work well again tomorrow.  Plus, running right at Wake with powers might be the best way to contain him.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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By Jonathan Bales

The Sportstradamus: Week 12 NFL Game Picks

Through Week 11

  • 105-55 straight up (65.6%)
  • 83-71-6 against the spread (53.9%)
  • 78-62-4 on totals (55.7%)
  • 47-37-1 on best bets (56.0%)

Week 12 NFL Game Picks

Green Bay 31 (-6) @Detroit 20 (UNDER 56)***

@Dallas 27 (-6.5) Miami 17*** (UNDER 44.5)

@Baltimore 20 San Fran 17 (+3.5) (UNDER 38.5)

@St. Louis 27 (-3) Arizona 17*** (OVER 40)

@New York Jets 27 Buffalo 20 (+8) (OVER 42.5)

@Cincy 24 (-7) Cleveland 10 (UNDER 38)***

Houston 27 (-3) @Jacksonville 17*** (OVER 37.5)***

Carolina 27 (-3) @Indy 17 *** (UNDER 44.5)***

@Tennessee 23 (-3) Tampa 14 *** (UNDER 43.5)***

@Atlanta 30 Minnesota 21 (+10) (OVER 44)***

@Oakland 24 (-5) Chicago 13 (UNDER 42)

@Seattle 20 Washington 17 (+4) (UNDER 38)

New England 31 (-3) @Philly 27 (OVER 50)

@San Diego 27 (-6) Denver 20 (OVER 42)

Pittsburgh 24 @Kansas City 14 (+10.5) (UNDER 40)

@New Orleans 27 New York Giants 23 (+7.5) (UNDER 51.5)

By Jonathan Bales

Dallas Cowboys vs. Washington Redskins, Week 11: What We Learned About Dallas

Jonathan Bales

Anyone else tired of the current overtime system?  Although the Cowboys came out victorious on Sunday in their overtime tilt with Washington, the sudden death overtime format should be a thing of the past.  According to Advanced NFL Stats, the team that wins the coin toss wins the game 60% of the time.  I realize people will argue that defense is just as important as offense and losing the coin toss does not necessitate a loss.

Still, the team that wins the toss must do just one thing correctly (score), as opposed to stopping the opposition and (unless the defense scores a touchdown) scoring on offense.  There is something fundamentally flawed about an instant 60-40 advantage that is based on a random event.  Here are some of my other observations from Sunday’s game. . .

  • Another example of how the running game, even when efficient, can actually be detrimental to an offense. When the ground attack is going well, it can certainly be beneficial, assuming it is utilized to set up bigger plays in the passing game. When teams stick with the run too much, even with it is effective, though, they are forced to beat a defense again and again. One slip up and a punt ensues. Meanwhile, you need just a single successful medium-range pass to move the chains. Jason Garrett called too many runs early in the game, and it almost cost Dallas.

 

  • Jason Garrett did everything in his power to lose this game for the Cowboys. On the first drive, he opted for a punt on 4th and 5 at the Redskins’ 35-yard line. I shouldn’t need to rehash the importance of attempting more plays on fourth down, especially in that “gray area” on the field where a field goal might be too long and a punt has the potential to net 15 yards (which it did for Dallas).  Statistically, Garrett should have gone for it up until 4th and 10 in that range, especially in a situation as “normal” as the first drive of the game.

  • Garrett also reverted back to the “Double Tight Strong” strong side dive. I’m not even going to go over this one again. Predictability kills.  Worse, he didn’t use the play to set up playaction looks.

 

  • Quietly, Tony Romo has played quality, mistake-free football of late. He is making really smart decisions with the football, opting to throw it away or check down when things don’t look good deep. His yardage isn’t as eye-dazzling as a result of this small shift in decision-making, but it’s worth the decrease in turnovers.

 

  • I was a little worried Felix Jones would garner too many touches now that he is healthy, but Garrett did the right thing by feeding rookie DeMarco Murray the rock 31 times. Murray said it was the most physical game in which he’s ever played, but he will be ready to go by Thursday.

 

  • Murray is undoubtedly playing at a higher level than Jones, but it is obvious the offensive line has progressed in their run blocking in the latter part of the season. Tyron Smith has been dominant all year, and Doug Free has looked better in the running game of late too. Most importantly, Garrett has begun calling far more runs behind his two stud tackles, especially counters and tosses. Murray has been sensational, but don’t discredit better play-calling in the running game and more dominant blocking.

 

  • It’s amazing how miniscule events in football games can drastically alter the public perception of the strength of a team. Had Graham Gano made either one of the two field goals he missed, Dallas all of a sudden looks a whole lot weaker at 5-5. Instead, they are 6-4 with two weak opponents on tap the next two weeks, and control of their own destiny in the NFC East.

 

  • Dez Bryant appears to be “getting it” a little bit lately. I say this primarily because his route-running has been much crisper than at the start of the year.

 

  • Kenyon Coleman and Marcus Spears both played really well on Sunday. We all know 3-4 defensive ends will never rack up gaudy numbers, but they ate up blockers, created some havoc in the backfield, and just made things easier for their teammates.

 

  • Not a great game from the cornerbacks. Terence Newman played too far off of the line on multiple occasions, providing too much cushion on crucial second and third down plays. Orlando Scandrick was beat off of the line in the slot a few times, although he redeemed himself with a heck of an interception in the third quarter. Alan Ball played about average for Alan Ball. . .in other words, he looked like a really solid Division II college player.

 

  • I love Dan Bailey.

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By Jonathan Bales

Dallas Cowboys vs. Washington Redskins, Week 11: DOs and DON’Ts for Dallas

Jonathan Bales
The Cowboys squeaked by Washington in Week 3, and they really had no business winning that game (at least in terms of the offensive performance).  This week, they should continue to do what has worked against the Redskins in the past: focus on containing Brian Orakpo and Santana Moss.  Here are my DOs and DON’Ts. . .
  • DO chip Brian Orakpo with a tight end or running back.
Orakpo is Washington’s best defensive player (actually, their best player overall), so Dallas needs to monitor him at all times.
If there’s one thing the Cowboys miss about Marion Barber, it’s his pass protection.  I’d like to see a lot of double-tight formations when DeMarco Murray is on the field so Martellus Bennett–one of the team’s best blockers–can help out on Orakpo.
  • DO use unique alignments, motions, and shifts to make blocking Orakpo easier.
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.  For example, suppose the offense comes out in “Double Tight Right Ace” (below).
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.
Actually, the Cowboys might then want to take some shots down the field in that particular situation.  They’d be in “Ace” formation (below).
This formation was Dallas’ second-most productive passing alignment in all of 2009.  The team ran only 29 plays out of “Ace” in 2009, and 24 were passes (82.8 percent).  They averaged 11.46 yards-per-attempt on passes from the formation, but even more impressively, they threw the ball downfield.  12 of the 24 passes went for 10+ yards, while five went for 20 or more.
  • DO run right at linebacker London Fletcher.
Fletcher is a great player and under-appreciated, but he’s too small to take on the Cowboys’ interior linemen.  Washington’s 3-4 defense isn’t helping him, as he now has just one lineman to cover him up instead of two.  You can see the results in Fletcher’s numbers, as he’s on pace for the fewest tackles since 2001.
  • 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.
  • DON’T respect the Redskins’ running game–just focus on No. 89.
This goes hand-in-hand with the previous “DON’T.”  The Cowboys are the better team.  Favorites shouldn’t take a lot of chances.  The only way Washington can win this game, in my opinion, is to do it like they did in Week One of 2010–secure quick, fluky scores.
The Redskins’ biggest opportunity for quick scores on offense is Santana Moss.  If Dallas limits him, it will be difficult for Washington to score enough points to win the game, barring another disastrous pre-halftime play.
Here is more from a previous Game Plan on how the ‘Boys can limit Moss:
This task will become much easier if the Cowboys can get a decent  pass rush with just four defenders.  Then, Dallas should be able to sit  back in Cover 2, which would allow Alan Ball to have less area to cover.
In Cover 2, both safeties have what is known as “deep half,” meaning   they simply can’t let anyone beat them deep on their side of the field.
If Dallas can’t get to McNabb with just four rushers, they will  need  to blitz, meaning a safety (likely Sensabaugh) would have to come  up  to either play a zone closer to the line of scrimmage or cover a  player  man-to-man.  Sensabaugh isn’t exactly Ed Reed in coverage, so the   Cowboys don’t want him matched up with a player like Chris Cooley or   Devin Thomas too often.
As Sensabaugh’s responsibility changes, so does Ball’s.  The Cowboys  like to play Cover 1 (also known as “man-free”) when they blitz, which  puts Ball in a centerfield-type position.  He is free to roam, but his  pre-snap alignment (usually near the center of the field) makes it very  hard to cover sideline-to-sideline (as opposed to Cover 2, where Ball  only needs to cover from the middle of the field to one sideline).
If the Cowboys do end up blitzing and playing Cover 1, Ball should  shade the side of Santana Moss very heavily.  Moss is the one player on  Washington who can beat Dallas deep (sorry, Devin Thomas) and, as I  explained earlier, the ‘Boys cannot give up quick, easy scores on Sunday  night.  Ball needs to make sure he is in position to stop Moss,  regardless of the coverage. . .even if it means leaving the opposing  cornerback on an island.  I’ll take my chances with either Terence  Newman or Mike Jenkins on the ‘Skins No. 2 receiver.
  • 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 the Redskins place DeAngelo Hall on Dez Bryant, 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.  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.
  • 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.  DeMarco needs more touches in the passing game anyway.   By the way, you can expect plenty of screens to follow playaction looks, as always.

By Jonathan Bales

True Pass Rates

I just saw an awesome post at The Fifth Down that recalculates team’s pass rates based on score.  In my last article, I detailed why rushing numbers correlate to wins, but not due to a causal relationship.  Well, the opposite is true, as teams that are winning games tend to pass less.  To see that, look no further than the Green Bay Packers, who, despite being correctly labeled as a pass-first team, are just 18th in the NFL in passing attempts.

If you follow the link above, you can see the most pass-heavy offenses in the NFL, after accounting for game situation.  The top 10?  Green Bay, Baltimore, Pittsbrugh, New England, Philly, Chicago, New Orleans, Detroit, Carolina and Dallas (combined winning percentage of 61.5%).  The bottom 10 are Jacksonville, Kansas City, Oakland, Denver, St. Louis, Minnesota, Cleveland, Indy, New York Jets and San Fran (combined winning percentage of 36%).

As if we needed more evidence that passing wins games. . .

By Jonathan Bales

Dallas Cowboys take down Bills with rushing attack. . .or did they?

Jonathan Bales

After calling a running play on 34 of 61 plays yesterday, head coach and offensive coordinator is being praised for finally sticking with the running game.  The Cowboys (DeMarco Murray, primarily) ran all over the Bills and clearly won the game because of it, right?  Well, maybe.

I’ve written in the past about why the relationship between rushing attempts/rushing yards and wins is primarily a correlation, not due to a strongly-linked causal relationship.  Winning teams run the football, not necessarily the other way around.  Here are my thoughts:

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.

On Sunday, the Cowboys’ strong rushing attack was certainly a major reason for their success, but a lot of the advantages they gained because of it came in the passing game.  Despite rushing the ball 55.7% of the time Sunday, the Cowboys did so on just 38.6% of plays prior to the fourth quarter (those numbers do not include two late-second quarter runs and a kneel which were used to drain the clock).  On top of that, Dallas’ first three touchdowns came via the air, including two long plays of 34 and 58 yards.

The running game was important on Sunday, but make no mistake about it. . .Dallas won primarily because they were able to capitalize off of their rushing success in the passing game.

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By Jonathan Bales

Dallas Cowboys Mid-Season Review: Top 5 Over-Performing Players Through Week 9

Jonathan Bales

Over-performing is a difficult term to define because it is linked to preconceived notions.  For Marc Colombo to over-perform, for example, he simply needs to play like an average NFL player.  If Tom Brady played like an average player, he would be under-performing like no one has ever seen.

With that in mind, take a look at the five players I believe are over-performing the most for Dallas in 2011. . .and thus the five players most likely to see a regression in their productivity over the second half of the season.

5. Laurent Robinson

Robinson has made the most of his opportunities in 2011, playing primarily as a starter during injuries to both Dez Bryant and Miles Austin.  To accompany his 368 yards and two scores, Robinson has a catch rate of 72.7%, hauling in all but nine of the 33 passes thrown his way.  His 7.0 YAC/reception is stellar.  Robinson has over-achieved in the sense that those numbers are unlikely to be replicated over the second half of the season.  The Cowboys won’t care, however, if his spot his taken by a healthy Miles Austin.

4. Gerald Sensabaugh

Sensabaugh is a really good player who I rated as one of the top defenders on the team in 2010.  He scored well again in my 2011 Quarter-Season Secondary Grades, and he’s actually played even better since that time.  He’s yielded 12 completions on the year, none of them for touchdowns, while also racking up 35 tackles–good for second on the team.  The Sensabaugh we saw over the first few games of the 2011 season is the “real” one, while the version that has played out of his mind over the last couple games will come back to reality.

3. DeMarcus Ware

Shocking?  As I detailed in my article on Ware’s chances of breaking the all-time sack record, he’s recording pressure and sack rates which exceed his career averages.  Ware is going to be an All-Pro type player for years to come, but we can’t expect him to continually record sacks at his current pace.  The difference between Ware and the other guys in this list, though, is that he has the ability to potentially play at this level over the course of an entire season. . .or two. . .or five.

2. Tyron Smith

Outside of a horrific game against the Eagles, Smith has been sensational this season.  He’s been so good that I would venture to argue he’s been the team’s best offensive player.  Smith is rated as the fifth-best offensive tackle in the league by Pro Football Focus.

The 20-year old is bound to go through more difficult times, though, and it will be interesting to see how he responds after putting together two stinkers in a row.

1. DeMarco Murray

After the best three-game stretch in franchise history, it is easy to see why Murray is “over-performing.”  No one expects him to keep up his current pace, regardless of whether Felix Jones comes back soon or not.  Murray should be the feature back when Jones returns, but expect to see a few mediocre performances sprinkled in between 100+ yard outings.

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By Jonathan Bales

The Sportstradamus: Week 10 NFL Game Picks

Jonathan Bales

In Week 9, I went only 7-7 straight up, 8-6 against the spread, 7-6-1 on totals, and 6-3 on best bets.  That brings my records on the season to:

  • 87-43 straight up (66.9%)
  • 67-57-6 against the spread (54.0%)
  • 72-55-2 on totals (56.7%)
  • 40-31-1 on best bets (56.3%)

Week 10

@San Diego 27 (-7) Oakland 17 (UNDER 47.5)***

Pittsburgh 27 (-4) @Cincy 20*** (OVER 41)

@Kansas City 24 (-3) Denver 20 (OVER 41)

Jacksonville 27 (-3.5) @Indy 17 (OVER 37.5)

@Dallas 24 (-4) Buffalo 17 (UNDER 48)***

Houston 28 (-3.5) @Tampa 17*** (UNDER 46)

@Carolina 24 (-3) Tennessee 20 (UNDER 46)***

Washington 17 (+4) @Miami 10***(UNDER 38)***

New Orleans 27 (pk) @Atlanta 20 (UNDER 50)

@Philly 28 Arizona 20 (+14) (OVER 46)

@Chicago 24 Detroit 23 (+3.5) (OVER 45)

St. Louis 14 (+3) @Cleveland 10 (UNDER 38)***

Baltimore 28 (-7) @Seattle 17 (OVER 41)***

New York Giants 23 (+4) San Fran 20*** (OVER 42)

New England 24 (+1) New York Jets 20*** (UNDER 47.5)***

@Green Bay 27 Minnesota 17 (+14) (UNDER 51)***