The DC Times

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

By Jonathan Bales

Dallas Cowboys vs. New York Giants, Week 17: How Dallas Can Win the NFC East

Jonathan Bales

In addition to my article for the Times on how Dallas can beat Cover 2 Man Under this weekend in the Meadowlands, I also did a piece for the Dallas Observer.  Head over there to check out my DOs and DON’Ts for Dallas. Along with more analysis of the coverage which irritated Dallas in Week 14, I add a full game plan for the ‘Boys.  Here are some of the highlights:

  • Don’t blitz often.  Eli Manning’s passer rating against the blitz is very comparable to that when four or less defenders rush him, but the Cowboys do not have the talent in the secondary to deal with a blitz that fails.  The team should be in the business of playing aggressively while still allowing for a chance to win the game late, and yielding quick scores due to unsuccessful blitz attempts won’t help.
  • The ‘Boys should mimic the Giants’ Week 14 game plan by playing a lot of Cover 2 Man Under.  By keeping everything in front of them, the defense can maximize their chances of halting Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz and force either a tight end or a running back to beat them.  Although Brandon Jacobs wore down Dallas in the teams’ last meeting, Ahmad Bradshaw is the more likely of the two to give Dallas fits this week.
  • The Giants pass a lot out of double-tight formations, so the Cowboys cannot sell out to defend the run when they see the look.  The G-Men used a double-tight set 34 times in Week 14, so the ‘Boys better be ready for it.
  • The Cowboys, on the other hand, do tip their play calls via their formation, personnel package, or down-and-distance.  Jason Garrett could benefit from being a bit less predictable this week.  Garrett’s predictability could be utilized to get the ball downfield with play action. But since 2009, Dallas quarterbacks have thrown for 20-plus yards on only 8.7 percent of play-action passes. And in two-plus years of passes, Garrett has called a play-action pass only eight times with 1-4 yards-to-go for a first down — the situations when faking a run would actually work. Instead, he’s called for a play-action look on 11 plays with 20-plus yards-to-go, when showing a running play is either an obvious decoy or hopeless.

For additional analysis, head over to the Observer and leave your comments there.

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By Jonathan Bales

Why Cowboys’ Montrae Holland More Valuable Than You Think

Jonathan Bales

Believe it or not, the Dallas Cowboys are going to see a dramatic downgrade at guard with the loss of Montrae Holland to a torn biceps.  I have been critical of Holland in the past, providing him with a C+ grade in my 2010 Offensive Line Grades.  Holland is not an incredible athlete and can appear slow-footed at times, often struggling with quick defensive tackles.  Nonetheless, he outplayed every Cowboys offensive linemen not named Tyron Smith in 2011.  Here is why. . .

Holland participated in 641 snaps this season, 361 of which were in pass protection.  He yielded eight pressures, one hit and two sacks in those snaps, good for a pressure rate of 2.21%.  While not at an elite level, that rate is still quite good.  As a comparison, right guard Kyle Kosier has a pressure rate of 2.85% this season.  That falls right in line with his pressure rate of 2.82% from 2010, providing a statistically significant sample size.  You can see the overall 2010 numbers below.

Many of you know I often praise Kosier’s pass protection ability, and Holland has been superior to the veteran in 2011.  To get a broader sense of Holland’s 2011 success, I took a look at the numbers of some of the top-graded guards (and middle tier guards) on Pro Football Focus.

You can see Holland’s pressure rate, although not elite, was well above-average.  The #32 and #33 ranked guards at PFF surrendered pressure rates up to 46% higher than Holland’s.  On top of that, I would grade Holland as the Cowboys’ second-best run blocker all season if I was turning in my grades today.  I would provide him with a ‘B’ in both run blocking and pass protection, and that run blocking grade will undoubtedly be higher than all non-rookie offensive linemen in Big D.

Whether Derrick Dockery or Kevin Kowalski replaces Holland, the Cowboys will see a decline in production.  Holland was having a really strong 2011 campaign. . .and one which was being overlooked even by me.

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By Jonathan Bales

The Sportstradamus: Week 17 NFL Game Picks

Jonathan Bales

In Week 16, I went 10-6 straight up, 9-7 against the spread, 8-7-1 on totals, and 5-4 on best bets, bringing my season totals to:

  • 160-80 straight up (66.7%)
  • 123-107-10 against the spread (53.5%)
  • 130-104-6 on totals (55.6%)
  • 75-70-2 on best bets (51.7%)

Week 17

@Philadelphia 27 Washington 20 (+8.5) (OVER 46)

@Atlanta 31 (-11.5) Tampa Bay 17 (OVER 46)

San Fran 24 @St. Louis 14 (+10.5) (OVER 35.5)

Chicago 20 (+1) @Minnesota 17 (UNDER 41)***

@Green Bay 24 (+4) Detroit 21*** (UNDER 45.5)

@New York Giants 27 Dallas 24 (+3.5) (OVER 46)***

@New Orleans 27 Carolina 24 (+8)*** (UNDER 55)***

Tennessee 21 @Houston 20 (+3.5) (OVER 40)

Baltimore 23 (-2) @Cincy 20*** (OVER 37.5)***

Pittsburgh 24 (-7) @Cleveland 10*** (UNDER 37)

@Jacksonville 20 (-3) Indy 14 (UNDER 37)

@Miami 24 (-2.5) New York Jets 20 (OVER 41)

@New England 28 Buffalo 20 (+11) (UNDER 51)***

San Diego 24 (+3.5) @Oakland 17*** (UNDER 49)***

@Denver 17 Kansas City 16 (+3) (UNDER 37.5)

@Arizona 24 Seattle 23 (+3) (OVER 41)

By Jonathan Bales

Attacking the Giants’ Cover 2 Man Under Coverage

Jonathan Bales

I did a few preview articles for other sites this week, including this one for the New York Times.   Head over there to take a look at some of my thoughts regarding how the Cowboys must beat Cover 2 Man Under to beat the Giants on Sunday night.  You might be surprised that the primary methods do not involve tight end Jason Witten.  Feel free to leave your comments there.

By Jonathan Bales

Was Switching Over To 3-4 A Good Move For The Cowboys? Stats Say No.

Was Switching Over To 3-4 A Good Move For The Cowboys? Stats Say No.

By Vince Grey

For 42 years the Dallas Cowboys played a 4-3 defense. We are now completing the ninth season of the “great” 3-4 switch. I won’t even bring up all the Super Bowl victories (5), NFC Championships (8), and Division Titles (19) we won during those 4-3 years. Instead, I’ll focus strictly on defensive statistics.

There are three ways to track defensive units: yardage allowed, points allowed, and turnovers. I decided to eliminate turnovers because that number is incredibly unpredictable from year to year and tends to even out over time. In other words, teams that force a lot of turnovers on defense generally see their numbers decline the following season, and vice versa.  Takeaways have no predictive power and are largely the result of luck.

That leaves yards and points. While the NFL uses yards as its primary measuring stick for rating defenses, I prefer to look at points. While I’m not saying yardage means nothing, at the end of the game, the winner has the most points, not the most yardage. If the other team can’t score, you can’t lose.

For a proper comparison between the 3-4 defense and the 4-3 variety, I’m using the past nine seasons as our 3-4 barometer.  I could have taken any period of time for the 4-3, but decided that the seven season from 1996-2002 would be best, because (a) that’s the closest time period, and (b) like 2003 to 2011, Dallas had no Super Bowl appearances, as well as some good and bad years, record-wise. Of course, the NFL is definitely much more pass-friendly and offensive-oriented lately.  Thus, I will use seasonal rankings rather than head-to-head comparisons.

3-4 Defense (2003 – 2011)

Average rank in points allowed – 15.5     Years as a top five unit – 2

Average rank in yardage allowed – 11.3  Years as a top five unit – 1

4-3 Defense (1996 – 2002)

Average rank in points allowed – 11.3     Years as a top five unit – 3

Average rank in yardage allowed – 10.4   Years as a top five unit – 3

As anyone can see, the 4-3 was a superior unit for Dallas, in both points and yards allowed.  With a smaller sample size (seven seasons to nine), the 4-3 defense had twice as many top five rankings. Frankly, except for two seasons, the 3-4 has been a big disappointment in Dallas—a very average, very mediocre defensive unit that doesn’t dominate against the run consistently and certainly has a lot of issues against the pass, both in terms of rushing the passer and secondary play.

And it’s not like Dallas hasn’t used high draft picks trying to make it work. Since 2003, DeMarcus Ware, Anthony Spencer, Marcus Spears, Terence Newman, and Mike Jenkins were all first round picks (as was Bobby Carpenter), while Sean Lee, Bruce Carter, and Kevin Burnett (no longer with team) were second-rounders.

So why did Jerry go for the switch? Part of it was his belief that you could build and maintain a good 3-4 for less money than a 4-3 and that 4-3 defensive linemen are more difficult to find than 3-4 linemen. Frankly, I think the first part is total bunk.  As for the second—that is perhaps so, but there’s a reason most NFL teams play the 4-3.  It’s simply a superior defense, all things considered, especially for pressuring the quarterback.  The other reason was then-head coach Bill Parcells, a died-in-the-wool 3-4 man, as Jerry wanted the Big Tuna in Big D at that time.

But Parcells is long gone, and Jason Garrett—a Jimmy Johnson disciple—is here now. Jimmy believed in the 4-3. I wonder what Jason truly thinks about it.

Perhaps Rob Ryan can work some magic and make the 3-4 a top defensive unit in the next season or two. I have serious doubts, not so much because of Ryan as due to our questionable personnel.  Plus, it just feels wrong.  Always has.  Always will. It’s. . .tradition. Dallas is a 4-3 town. A 4-3 team. Think of it this way. . .what if Jerry decided to make the blue uniforms the primary version and use the white only occasionally? Or change the star to a picture of a cowboy riding a football? Or get rid of the cheerleaders?

See what I mean? Tradition.

At some point, I hope Jerry sees the light and goes back to the defense that took us to so many championships: the 4-3 defense.

 

By Jonathan Bales

Tony Romo Mic’d Up

Tony Romo and Donald Penn wired: http://www.nfl.com/videos/auto/09000d5d82549368/Sound-FX-Tony-Romo

By Jonathan Bales

Dallas Cowboys vs. Philadelphia Eagles, Week 16: Dallas May Be Able to Clinch NFC East

Jonathan Bales

One of the advantages of playing at 4pm on Christmas Eve is that the Cowboys will know if they will be able to clinch the division with a win.  If the Giants lose to the Jets during their 1pm tilt, Dallas will be the NFC East champs with a win over Philly.  If the Giants win, the game doesn’t become meaningless for Dallas, as they could still theoretically win a Wild Card spot if they do not secure the division.

I have a feeling the G-Men are going down on Saturday, meaning this one has the potential to be an incredibly important game for the ‘Boys.  They do not want to head to New York in Week 17 needing a win to get into the playoffs.  Here is how they can take down Philly. . .

DON’T blitz much from Psycho, Cloud, and other unique passing down alignments.

Last week, we saw the Cowboys line up in Psycho (below) and similar “chaotic” alignments quite often, but they usually backed into safe coverages.  They should do more of that on Christmas Eve.  If they can confuse Michael Vick and the Eagles’ offensive line, it will be much easier to generate pressure with just three or four rushers.  One of the major keys to the game will be if Dallas can get to Vick without blitzing too often.

DO place DeMarcus Ware all over the field, but rush him primarily from the right side of the defense.

Last week, we saw Ware line up at middle linebacker and a few other spots before the snap.  Even if he eventually shifts to his normal seven-technique alignment, it is valuable for Dallas to hide Ware’s rush location for as long as possible.  A lot of Philly’s protection calls will be based on Ware’s position.  If he is constantly shifting, it will be difficult for the Eagles to make proper protection calls.

The majority of the time, though, I would rush Ware from the right side of the defense.  Some might argue he should be placed on the left side to rush against Todd Herremans instead of the vastly superior left tackle Jason Peters (Pro Football Focus‘s top-rated tackle in the league), but I disagree.  Ware is superior to just about any tackle he faces, and his presence on the right side of the defense means the Eagles will send help to the left side of their offense.  This leaves open the ability to. . .

DO blitz from the left side of the defense.

I think the Cowboys should blitz fairly often in this game (just not as much in obvious passing situations), and there are five reasons they should send most of those blitzes from the left side of their defense:

  • With Ware on the right side, Anthony Spencer, Victor Butler, and Orlando Scandrick from the slot should be isolated nearly all of the time.
  • RT Todd Herremans and RG Danny Watkins are inferior to LT Jason Peters and LG Evan Mathis.
  • The right side of the Eagles’ offense is Vick’s blind side.
  • As I discussed in my previous Eagles-Cowboys preview, Vick does not throw any better when rolling left (contrary to popular opinion), so go ahead and force him that way.
  • It will help stop the running game.  The Cowboys were overpowered on the ground in the teams’ first meeting, and that can’t happen again.

The second bullet point is the primary reason to blitz from the left side of the defense.  Together, Peters and Mathis (ranked as the top players at their positions in the NFL by PFF) have yielded 29 total pressures on the season.  Herremans and Watkins have given up 51.  I’ll take my chances with Peters on Ware and hope the left side of the Cowboys’ defense can work together to get to Vick.

DON’T use Jason Witten to help Doug Free.

Don’t get me wrong–Free needs all the help he can get against Trent Cole.  Cole is an absolute monster and has been the Eagles’ best defensive player for awhile.  He will destroy Free if he is singled up against him.  I think the ‘Boys should use primarily Martellus Bennett to aid Free, however, allowing Witten to go out into routes.  Witten has been an Eagles-killer, and that could very well be the case again this week with Philly’s horrendous linebacker corps.  Jamar Chaney, Casey Matthews, Brian Rolle. . .who is going to stop Witten?

DO use Tony Fiammetta on passes.

You can probably expect a lot of double-tight sets so that the ‘Boys can help Free and Witten is still able to catch passes, but there is another option.  I think now wold be a good time to use Fiammetta on passing plays.  Thus far this season, Fiammetta has played 79.7% of his snaps on running plays.  I have noticed on film that defenses are keying Fiammetta and attacking the line of scrimmage when he is in the game.  This is one of the reasons the Cowboys’ rushing efficiency has declined a little in recent weeks (as compared to Demarco Murray’s initial run).

Fiammetta is still a major tool in the Cowboys’ rushing arsenal, but it might behoove the team to use him on some passes this week.  Obviously he doesn’t have much use in clear passing situations, but on 1st and 10, 2nd and medium, 3rd and short, why not use Fiammetta as a decoy?  He can help Free on the left side of the line, giving Romo time to get the ball downfield.  Plus, it should confuse Philly.

DON’T forget about Jason Babin.

The most likely matchup Philly will exploit is Cole vs. Free, but fellow defensive end Jason Babin is no slouch either.  With 18 sacks on the year, Babin has an outside chance to break the all-time single-season sack record.  He’s gotten a little “lucky” since he actually has one less pressure (32) than Cole, but it isn’t like Babin can’t cause major problems for Dallas.  The only way to ensure (or come as close as possible) that neither Cole nor Babin cause problems is to. . .

DO use max protection a lot.

The Eagles will be aggressive this week, and they have the potential to give Dallas’ entire offensive line fits.  Don’t forget defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins has the third-most pressures of any tackle in the league.  He will be a nightmare for center Phil Costa.  To combat that rush, the Cowboys may use more max protection than normal, sending just two or even a single receiver into routes.  I like the idea, as either Miles Austin, Dez Bryant, or Laurent Robinson should be able to find openings if Romo is provided ample protection.  If the ‘Boys can get one of them isolated on Asante Samuel or Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, double-moves will work.  It all comes down to protection.

DO play far more nickel than normal.

Even though LeSean McCoy killed the Cowboys’ on the ground earlier this season, I’d make the Eagles and their pass-happy offense do it again.  Until they find continued success in the running game, I’d be in my nickel defense.  It’s a better one from which to blitz anyway.

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 screen a lot, but bring out the power running game as well.

The screen is always useful against Philly, and you should see a lot of it with Felix Jones.  You might also see the return of some wide receiver screens which have made their way out of the playbook in 2011, especially on third downs.  I normally advocate a finesse running game of counters and tosses to complement the screens, but this week I would stick to a power rushing attack.  The Cowboys’ offensive line should be ale to overpower just about everyone on defense other than Cole.  I’d run away from Cole with powers, and even up the middle at times.  Cullen Jenkins is an excellent pass-rusher, but he can lose gap integrity and give up big plays on the ground.  The lead draw will be a useful way for Dallas to get Jenkins out of position, then hit him with a power running play.

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By Jonathan Bales

The Sportstradamus: Week 16 NFL Game Picks

Jonathan Bales

I had a horrible Week 15, going just 6-10 straight up, 5-10-1 against the spread, 8-8 on totals, and 8-9 on best bets.  This brings my season totals to:

  • 150-74 straight up (67.0%)
  • 114-100-10 against the spread (53.3%)
  • 122-97-5 on totals (55.7%)
  • 70-66-2 on best bets (51.5%)

Week 16 Picks

Houston 23 (-5.5) @Indy 16 (UNDER 40)

Oakland 24 (+1) @Kansas City 21 (OVER 42)

Denver 20 @Buffalo 17 (+3.5) (UNDER 43)***

@Tennessee 20 Jacksonville 17 (+7.5)*** (UNDER 40)

@Cincinnati 21 (-4) Arizona 14 (UNDER 40)

@New England 31 Miami 23 (+10.5) (OVER 48)

@Baltimore 23 Cleveland 13 (+13.5)*** (UNDER 39)***

@New York Jets 27 New York Giants 26 (+3) (OVER 46)

@Washington 24 Minnesota 21 (+7) (OVER 44)

@Carolina 31 (-7) Tampa 17 (UNDER 48)

@Pittsburgh 28 St. Louis 14 (+17) (OVER 37)

San Diego 28 (+2) @Detroit 20 (UNDER 52)***

San Fran 21 (-2.5) @Seattle 10 (UNDER 39)***

@Dallas 27 (-2) Philly 24 (OVER 50.5)

@Green Bay 21 Chicago 17 (+13)*** (UNDER 45)***

@New Orleans 31 Atlanta 28 (+7)*** (OVER 53)

By Jonathan Bales

Tracking Cowboys’ Improvements Over Last Decade

Jonathan Bales

Over at Advanced NFL Stats, a new feature has taken the world (my world) by storm.  If you click on the link, you can see the offensive and defensive “Expected Points Added” (a metric used to grade each play of a football game–a touchdown obviously has an EPA of six, while a 1st and Goal at the one-yard line is very close that number).  By tracking EPA, you can determine which teams are playing well, even if it is not reflected in their record, and which have simply been lucky.  For us here at DCT, we can take a look at the improvements of the Cowboys over the past decade.  Click on the link above to check out the graphs, or just scroll below.

In the first graph, you can see the Cowboys’ historic offensive performance as compared to their defensive efficiency.  A few notes:

  • Since Jason Garrett has taken over as the offensive coordinator, the Cowboys have had well above-average offensive efficiency in every year except for 2008.
  • Their best season over the last decade, as you might guess, was in 2007.  This season has fallen right in line with 2006 and 2009.
  • Somewhat surprisingly, the best defenses in Dallas were in the first part of the 2000s.  Since Garrett has been in town, the Cowboys have been below-average on defense, in terms of EPA, every year.

Above, you can track the Cowboys’ offensive improvements over the last 10+ years.  The most important aspect of this graph, in my view, is the fact that offensive performance is leveling out under Garrett.  Yes, the offense has been really solid during Garrett’s tenure, but we see the team was moving in that direction since 2002.  There are two ways to look at this. . .

  • The first is that Garrett is overrated as an offensive coordinator because the offense improved for multiple years since 2002 and their play has been stagnant since Garrett took over.
  • The other way to view the graph is that the Cowboys were bound to improve since their horrible 2002 campaign, and Garrett’s ability to keep the offense around the 5.0 EPA/G mark is a testament to his ability.

I think we are seeing more of the second explanation than the first.  If the Cowboys were consistently ranked No. 1 in offense each year, we wouldn’t say Garrett has shown an inability to improve as a coordinator.  When teams are playing at either a very high or very low level, we are sure to see their play regress to the mean.  This is one reason why it should be a coach’s dream to take over a 1-15 team.  Even if the coach does absolutely nothing right, the team will likely win more games the following season, and the coach will be viewed as “improving” his squad.  The fact that the offensive EPA has “leveled out” with Garrett here is a good thing.

Onto the defense. . .

This is where the Cowboys need to improve to become a Championship-caliber football team.  Still, the “decline” in defensive production since the early part of the decade is not as drastic as it seems.  The Cowboys have become a far better offensive football team over the last five years because they have been able to throw the ball well.  In the early part of the 2000s, that wasn’t the case.  The team opted to shorten games under head coach Bill Parcells, and that resulted in a superior EPA/G as compared to the current defense.

It is not the job of a coach to maximize offensive or defensive EPA, however, but rather to create the largest gap between their team and the opposition.  EPA is not an efficiency stat as we are using it here, so the “superior” EPA/G displayed by the early-2000s Cowboys does not necessarily represent a better defensive football team.

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By Jonathan Bales

Dallas Cowboys vs. Tampa Bay Bucs Game Notes: Dallas Regains Lead of NFC East

Jonathan Bales

With a win over Tampa Bay on Saturday night, the Cowboys have now regained control of the NFC East and can clinch the division with a win and a Giants loss on Christmas Eve.  The G-Men have an “away” game against the Jets, and I think they will have trouble getting the ‘W.’  The Jets are coming off of a humiliating defeat against the Eagles (who are still alive in the playoff race, which hurts Dallas).  Nonetheless, I think they are going to give their crosstown rivals some trouble in what is a near must-win game for both squads.

Luckily for the Cowboys, the NYC battle starts at 1pm ET, so the ‘Boys will know if their 4pm game “means anything.”  If the Giants go down, both the Eagles and Cowboys have a huge matchup ahead, with an Eagles win meaning they need just a Week 17 win and a Cowboys loss to clinch the division, and the Cowboys obviously being crowned NFC East champs if they take down Philly.

This was all set up by a relatively well-played game by Dallas on Saturday.  Here are my thoughts. . .

  • Jason Garrett is still a long way away from being an effective manager of the clock.  Although it didn’t hurt the team due to their fast start, Garrett’s clock management just before halftime was horrible.  On a 2nd and 1 at the 4-yard line and 50 seconds left to play, the Cowboys called timeout.  Why?  With a full stash of timeouts, let the clock run down before you run the play.  Even if the offense gets the first down but doesn’t get into the end zone, you have enough timeouts to stop the clock (with around 30 seconds left, maybe) and still run any three plays you would like.  Garrett was so worried about letting the clock run down (again) that he called a timeout way, way too early.
  • The Cowboys got stopped on their 2nd and 1 run and Garrett called the team’s second timeout on third down with 40 seconds left to play.  Again, this was a mistake.  Same reasoning as above.  This isn’t a huge deal against the Bucs, but if the Cowboys score a touchdown with 40+ seconds left against a team like Green Bay, for example, the chances of giving up a field goal right before halftime are pretty good.  Garrett does a good job making sure the players pay attention to details.  He should do the same himself.
  • Anthony Spencer has always been tremendous in pursuit, and he was rewarded for it with a forced fumble on the first drive of the game.  How many times do you see Spencer fly down the line of scrimmage and make plays on the opposite side of where he lined up?  He and DeMarcus Ware also do a really nice job of stripping the football, especially when a ball-carrier is already wrapped up.  I know it is frustrating to watch defenders miss tackles on occasion because they are going for a strip, but I actually think the extra yardage is worth the exchange for an occasional takeaway.  Of course, it depends on game situation.  A missed tackle at the line of scrimmage on 3rd and 1 is debilitating, while a missed tackle in the backfield with other defenders around doesn’t hurt much.  If nothing else, Rob Ryan seems to have improved the defensive intelligence of his unit.
  • I liked the early play-calling by Garrett, particularly as it related to the usage of Felix Jones.  The first play was a screen pass and the first running play was a toss.  Those sorts of plays should help Doug Free, who played fairly well after some early struggles.  He was nowhere near as good as Tyron Smith, though, who was absolutely dominating on tosses and counters.  He’s a future Pro Bowl player.
  • Tony Romo’s “Kill” calls are getting too easy to read.  I’ve explained how “Kill” calls work in my analysis of Romo’s audibles. A kill call is a form of an audible in which the offense simply “kills” the first play which was called in the huddle and runs the second.  We have seen less of these checks since Garrett started calling just a single play at a time (something I urged him to do just a week earlier).
  • Still, when Romo makes a “Kill” call, it is really easy to see whether the offense is going to run or pass.  It is based primarily on the depth of the linebackers.  If they are off of the line and/or the safeties are in a Cover 2 look, Romo will “kill” the first play (if it was a called pass) to a run (Garrett usually calls two plays–one a run and the other a pass–in situations when either a run or pass might come).  If the defense shows blitz, Romo “kills” to a pass (or simply runs the first play if it was called a pass in the huddle).
  • If I was a defensive coordinator, I would call a whole lot of feigned blitzes with safe coverage behind (or blitzes from Cover 2 looks), particularly in situations like 2nd and 5 when the ‘Boys could either run or pass.  If the defense shows a Cover 2 look pre-snap, for example, Romo will almost certainly make sure the team runs.  With a run blitz called alongside that safe alignment, the defense could gain an advantage.  Similarly, a fake blitz should force Romo to “kill” to a pass, at which time the defense can drop seven-plus men into coverage.

 

  • On top of all that, I have showed multiple times that Romo plays best when he “knows” what the defense is going to do, i.e. he really struggles when teams fake blitzes or  blitz from regular looks.  From my article on Romo’s blitz numbers:

I think Romo’s failures stem from the importance he places on pre-snap reads.  When defenses show blitz but then don’t come, Romo’s original read is usually taken away.  He can then sometimes panic, and although I truly believe Romo is a tremendous talent and a Championship-level quarterback, he does not possess incredible accuracy.  He makes a lot of his plays by buying extra time to allow receivers to become wide open.

This would explain why he still does well when teams do not show blitz but then end up coming after him.  What he sees post-snap may differ from his pre-snap reads, but he possesses not only a quick release, but also the athleticism to make good things happen that may not have been designed in the original play.

Overall, it seems clear Romo performs much better when he “knows” whether or not a blitz is coming.  When teams do not blitz, his passer rating is 181 percent better when teams do not show it as opposed to feigning a blitz.  When defenses do send extra defenders, Romo’s passer rating is 24.1 points better if the defense “shows” it as opposed to disguising their intentions.

So you want to stop Romo?  Well, don’t blitz often, but feel free to act as if you will.  When you do blitz, you better disguise that as well.

  • Rob Ryan did a really nice job of getting Ware isolated on Donald Penn.  Ware lined up in a number of places on Saturday, including middle linebacker at times.  Most of the time he shifted to his normal seven-technique location just before the snap, but it was a creative way to make sure the offense cannot anticipate from where Ware will rush.  Look for it to continue.
  • Another improvement I saw from Ryan was the late-game pass-rush.  The Cowboys lined up in a variety of creative alignments in passing situations, including Psycho (shown below) and Cloud (zero down linemen).

  • Despite this, the Cowboys generally sent just four (sometimes three) defenders.  This allowed them to play safe coverages but still confuse the Bucs’ offensive line.  It is also in contrast to the blitz-heavy calls we saw in the Cowboys’ loss to the Giants in Week 14.  I love the chaotic looks Ryan throws at offenses, and they are even more useful when the defense does not always blitz from them.

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