The DC Times

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

By

Cowboys vs. Vikings: Game Plan for Dallas

Just a quick note: I didn’t have time to get to my game picks today, so I just want to submit my pick for tonight’s game right now. Cincinnati 28 (-3) @Miami 20 (OVER 42).

Okay, now onto the game plan for Dallas:

DO attack Josh Robinson.

The Vikings have two cornerbacks playing quality football—Xavier Rhodes and Chris Cook. Cook suffered a hip strain last week, but TwinCities.com is reporting he’s day-to-day. Both Rhodes and Cook have allowed 1.05 yards per route or less, according to PFF, ranking them in the top 30 in the NFL. Rhodes’ 0.81 mark is the eighth best in the league.

Meanwhile, cornerback Josh Robinson isn’t playing so well.

At 2.20 yards allowed per snap, Robinson ranks 74th in the league—the second worst for any cornerback who has played at least half of his team’s snaps.

To give you an idea of how poorly Robinson has played, consider that he’s allowed a completion on 50 of 56 throws his way—89.3 percent. No other cornerback in the NFL has allowed more than 35 receptions!

The Vikings probably won’t place Robinson on wide receiver Dez Bryant too much, so it could be a big day for Terrance Williams.

DO run more play action!

I’ve pretty much made a commitment to posting the Cowboys play-action numbers every week. Take a look at the bottom five quarterback in the NFL in play-action passing rate, per PFF.

That’s Romo with the lowest rate, by far, even when compared to the quarterbacks who attempt the fewest play-action passes in the NFL.

And after generating a 109.1 passer rating on play action in 2012, Romo’s current play-action passer rating this year is 126.5. Increasing the play-action rate might decrease Romo’s efficiency on the look, but the overall efficiency of the offense would be enhanced if the Cowboys substantially increased the number of passes on which they use play-action.

By

Cowboys-Vikings Preview Stuff

At ABC, I published some trends on the Vikings. Here’s one:

Blitz. A lot.

We’re not really sure who will start at quarterback for the Vikings—Josh Freeman or Christian Ponder—but both have been horrific against the blitz (five or more rushers). Using data at Pro Football Focus, I charted the passer rating for each quarterback against the blitz in 2013. Freeman’s numbers extend back to his time in Tampa Bay.

Neither Freeman nor Ponder have been able to compile a passer rating above 60.6 when defenses send more than four rushers.

The numbers are even worse when you consider their completion percentages.\

Freeman and Ponder have both completed less than 42 percent of their passes against the blitz. There’s no reason Monte Kiffin shouldn’t send blitzes early and often in Week 9.

And at Bleacher Report, I posted a Week 8 Primer:

What Must Improve: Pass Rush

If you knew the Cowboys would be starting defensive ends Kyle Wilber and George Selvie this year, you probably would have guessed they’d have trouble reaching the passer.

Selvie has been pretty good, but the Cowboys absolutely need to find a way to stop opposing quarterbacks. The Cowboys are one of only three teams to have allowed 2,200 yards passing this year, and they’ve actually given up 2,523! That’s the worst number in the NFL.

Using data from Pro Football Focus (subscription required), I charted the Cowboys’ pressure rate in every game this year.

You can see that, with 11 pressures against Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford, Week 8 was the Cowboys’ second-worst outing of the year.

And how about this stat: In the games in which the Cowboys have generated a pressure on at least 30 percent of their pass-rushing snaps, they’re 3-1 and have allowed an average of 259.5 yards passing. In the games in which they’ve failed to reach the 30 percent pressure threshold, however, the ‘Boys are 1-3 and have yielded an unfathomable 371.3 yards passing per game.

Key Matchup vs. Vikings: RT Doug Free vs. DE Brian Robison

Vikings defensive end Brian Robison is perhaps the unluckiest player in the NFL through Week 8. See, Robison has just one sack on the year, suggesting he hasn’t gotten to the passer all that much. In reality, the defensive end has quietly been one of the league’s most efficient pass-rushers.

Through Week 8, Pro Football Focus has tracked only one defensive end as racking up more than 26 pressures. It’s Robison, and he has 32 of them. Of the other six defensive ends with at least 22 pressures (a group that includes Cowboys defensive end George Selvie), the average sack total is 3.67.

I’ve found that a defensive end’s sacks tend to add up to around one-quarter of his pressures. With 32 pressures, Robison’s most likely sack total at this point in the season is closer to eight than it is to one.

Robison has rushed from the left side of the Vikings defense on 99.2 percent of his snaps in 2013, per PFF. That means he’ll be matched up exclusively on right tackle Doug Free.

Although it might be tempting to double-team veteran defensive end Jared Allen, the numbers suggest the Cowboys need to worry about Robison just as much.

By

Could Deion Sanders Have Shut Down Megatron?

At Bleacher Report, I tried to answer the hypothetical of whether or not Prime Time could have shut down Calvin Johnson:

The Numbers

Whenever possible, it’s helpful to let the numbers tell the story. In the case of Megatron vs. Prime Time, though, the on-field stats aren’t going to mean much. Football is already a chaotic game that’s anything but standardized in the same manner as a sport like baseball. It’s challenging to compare the stats for players who are on the field together, much less those who suited up years apart from one another.

There are some numbers that can be of use to us, though: those taken at the NFL Scouting Combine. Traits like height, weight and speed are highly predictive of NFL success. They’re why those who argue a wide receiver like Don Hutson could excel in today’s NFL are absolutely out of their minds.

The game has changed so much over the years—even a lot since Sanders’ prime—that it’s unlikely many of the athletes from even a couple decades ago would be able to hang with the big boys in the NFL in 2013.

Sanders was a unique specimen, however—a player most seem to agree was the best to ever play his position.

But he wouldn’t have been able to shut down Johnson on a consistent basis. Here’s why.

Coming out of Florida State in 1989, Sanders checked in at 6’1”, 195 pounds. That’s on the light side for a cornerback, even in Sanders’ days, but Prime Time’s game was of course built upon his jaw-dropping speed.

Sanders ran his 40-yard dash before the NFL instituted electronic timing, so we don’t know exactly how fast he covered the distance. Most reports have him in the range of 4.21, which is blazing.

But playing cornerback in today’s NFL isn’t all about speed. Actually, many teams prefer tall, heavy cornerbacks who can play press man and win in jump-ball situations.

Why the change? Take a look at the height for the top 10 wide receivers in yards in 2012.

The black line is the average of every wide receiver who attended the 2013 scouting combine—a number that’s representative of the NFL as a whole.

You can see that only two wide receivers who finished in the top 10 in the NFL in yards last season check in below the average height for players at their position. That average of 72.9 inches is well below the mean of 74.4 inches for the top 10 receivers.

Looking at weight, we see the same phenomenon.

Three of the top 10 receivers checked in below the league average in weight (202.9 pounds), but most were well above. The average for the top 10 receivers was an incredible 218.2 pounds.

And that’s just for the top receivers in terms of yards. Looking at touchdowns, the results are the same; the average height and weight for the top 10 wide receivers in 2012 touchdowns was 74.4 inches and 217.2 pounds.

At 6’5”, 239 pounds, Johnson is a freak—a man among boys. His scorching 4.35 speed doesn’t hurt, but it’s really that size and his uncanny ball skills that have allowed him to thrive in the NFL—and the reason Sanders wouldn’t be able to come close to shutting him down.

By

A Look at the Cowboys’ Poor Decisions vs. Lions

At ABC, I examined the Cowboys’ poor decisions against the Lions:

Fourth-and-Two

The Cowboys’ handling of the end game is consistently among the worst of any team in the league, and we saw that again in Week 8. I’ll get to that in a minute, but they might not have even been in that situation had they more appropriately managed earlier choices.

The worst of the bunch was a second quarter field goal try on a fourth-and-two at the Lions’ 35-yard line. Using the Fourth Down Calculator, we can establish some baseline stats for the situation. Again, these are based on how offenses have performed in the same situation in the past.

In attempting the field goal, the Cowboys lost 0.98 expected points. Another way of thinking about that is if the Cowboys were to play out that situation 1,000 times, they would score right around a full point more, on average, by going for it over kicking a field goal. The ‘Boys lost a decent chance to score a touchdown on that drive instead of coming away with three points—points that ultimately decided the game.

You might argue that kicker Dan Bailey made the field goal, justifying Garrett’s decision to kick it. I have a feeling many people within the Cowboys’ organization would propose that rationale, but it’s just wrong. It’s that sort of “ex post facto” thinking that has resulted in mediocrity in Big D.

Further, the numbers might be even more in favor of going for it when we factor in the specifics for Dallas. Bailey is 9-for-14 in his career on 50-plus yard field goals. This one was from 53 yards out, and we wouldn’t expect Bailey’s expected conversion rate to be much higher than the 50 percent used in the calculator. But even if we bump Bailey’s expected conversion rate to, say, 70 percent, the Cowboys should still have gone for it.

That’s especially true when you consider that the Cowboys have an above-average offense. They might have been playing poorly at that time, but it’s hard to think their chances of converting a fourth-and-two were worse than that for the typical NFL offense.

By

Cowboys Mid-Season Position Grades

At BR, I posted position grades for the Cowboys after Week 8. Here’s Romo’s:

Through Week 8, quarterback Tony Romo has turned in the worst efficiency of his career (excluding the 2010 season in which he got hurt) in terms of yards per attempt. That’s the bad.

The good is that Romo has 18 touchdowns to only five interceptions. He’s taking care of the football, sacrificing efficiency to do it.

Yards per attempt and interceptions are inversely correlated. In the past, Romo has typically played ultra-aggressively and you just kind of had to live with the interceptions. It’s the exact opposite in 2013, with Romo balancing conservative play with trying to attack downfield.

Romo’s high touchdown-to-interception ratio in 2013 has positively affected his passer rating, but his play hasn’t been quite as good as those numbers suggest. He’s still certainly an above-average NFL quarterback, but his career-low YPA is one reason the Cowboys are 4-4.

In terms of advanced stats, Romo ranks eighth in the NFL in expected points added (EPA)—a metric tracked by Advanced NFL Stats that measures a player’s ability to produce points. EPA is a great way to measure production because it quantifies how many points each player’s contributions are “worth.”

Sitting at eighth in EPA, Romo is in the really-good-but-not-great category of quarterbacks in 2013.

Grade: B-

By

Cowboys vs. Lions: 5 Matchups to Watch for Dallas

At Bleacher Report, I published some matchups to watch today. Here’s one:

WR Terrance Williams vs. CB Chris Houston

No wide receiver in the NFL has generated a higher passer rating for his quarterback than Williams. When throwing to Williams, Romo has completed an amazing 24 of 28 passes for 380 yards, three touchdowns and one pick.

You can see how Williams’ efficiency has increased throughout the year.

His top three games in terms of yards per target have been over the past three weeks. During that time, he’s averaged an unreal 19.2 yards per target.

Williams will likely be matched up primarily on Houston because, with Houston struggling, the Lions likely won’t want him on wide receiver Dez Bryant.

Houston ranks near the bottom in the NFL in yards allowed per route. If he’s on Williams, look for the rookie wide receiver to have a big day.

By

Staking Bales: Week 8 Strategy + Google Hangout

At 4for4, I posted my Week 8 daily fantasy strategy (and values):

Week 8 Values

QB Robert Griffin III @DEN

RGIII is back. After rushing 18 times in his first four games, Griffin has 20 carries in the past two. He’s totaled 161 yards on those rushes, including runs of 23 and 26 yards. The coaches seem more open to letting him use his legs as a weapon and, more important, Griffin isn’t hesitating to leave the pocket anymore.

When Griffin runs, he’s a top five fantasy quarterback. He’s going to see a whole lot of dropbacks this week, and thus a bunch of opportunities to rack up both passing and rushing yards.

RB Le’Veon Bell @OAK

Bell is one of the few mid-priced running backs who could see a heavy workload. He’s received at least 16 carries in his first three NFL games, and you just aren’t going to see other backs as cheap as him getting those kind of touches.

With a quality matchup in Oakland, Bell is a good bet to score at least once this week. The Steelers have also used Bell at least moderately in the passing game; he has eight receptions in his three games, which would put him on pace for 43 in a 16-game season.

I also did another Google Hangout with Josh Moore.

By

Fantasy Football: Daily Optimal Plays and Creating the Best Possible League

At 4for4, I provided optimal plays for both FanDuel and DraftDay. Here’s FanDuel:

They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing again and again and expecting different results. That’s not actually the definition of insanity, but whatever, let’s roll with it.

They also say there’s a fine line between genius and madness. I think I’m walking that line right now, and I have a strong hunch that, instead of being brilliant, I’m insane. A lunatic. A nut.

Because I will indeed be doing the same thing this week that I’ve done almost all season—starting Eli Manning in my fantasy leagues—and expecting a different result.

I really don’t like Eli at all. I hate the way he licks his hands. I hate the way he tilts his head all the time. I hate that he looks like Eeyore.

That didn’t even take me 10 minutes to create in Paint. Nbd. Donkeys talk out of their shoulders, by the way.

But despite Manning’s paradoxical ability to be likeable and hated at the same time, I’m going to be all over him again this week. So I ask, please, will you all join me in placing an exorbitant amount of your bankroll in Eli Manning until he severely cuts into our profitability and eventually bankrupts all of us? It should be a fun ride.

Week 8 FanDuel Values

QB Eli Manning @PHI $6800

In all seriousness, I think fantasy owners need to be willing to buy into guys who have burned them in the past. If you haven’t had Manning on any teams this year and you look at his salary and matchup in Week 8, you’ll probably be more likely to recognize he offers value than someone who had him in their lineups over the past month.

But that’s the beauty of daily fantasy football; we get a new go at it each week, so your past choices shouldn’t affect your current ones. If you think Manning offers a high ceiling-to-price ratio, which he does, you need to be willing to pull the trigger even if he’s killed you in the past.

As a side note, don’t play Manning in Thursday leagues. The reason is that I think we should monitor the weather in Philly on Sunday morning before putting him into lineups. Namely, if it’s excessively windy, don’t start him. As much as people think rain and snow hurts the passing game, it’s wind that really kills it. The Eagles’ stadium has the ability to turn into a wind tunnel, so make sure everything is calm on that front before plugging him in.

And DraftDay:

Week 8 DraftDay Values

QB Michael Vick vs. NYG $13500

I’m generally bullish on players others view as injury-prone (even if they are indeed injury-prone) in daily fantasy because the odds of getting injured in a single game are small. Having said that, I’d still play Vick only in tournaments this week, just to be safe. The last thing you want it to put half of your heads-up money on him and he pulls up lame in the first quarter.

RB Darren Sproles vs. BUF $11250

Sproles is always a high-ceiling week-to-week play in PPR leagues. I think he’s going to have a monster game against the Bills, but his salary has fallen into the mid-tier range to account for his recent drop in production. Like Vick, he’s probably just a tournament play due to a potentially low number of touches.

At RotoWire, I attempted to take the variance out of fantasy football. Here’s a preview:

I participate in too many fantasy leagues to mention without being horribly embarrassed, one of which is a league with some people work within the Dallas Cowboys organization (some writers, a Cowboys cheerleader, and a fan).

Now I’m not going to completely speculate on the quality of the owners in the league because some might be decent for all I know, but let me just say Tom Brady was drafted in the first round. So there’s that.

You’d think I could just run over a league like that. But after missing the playoffs last year, I’m currently 2-5 and in second-to-last place. I’ve scored almost 50 points less than the cheerleader. I’m winning or in the top quarter of multiple high-stakes leagues, yet I can’t crack the top half of a league in which Brady was a first-rounder and Jamaal Charles nearly slipped into the third.

You might argue I’m writing this because I’m bitter, and you’d be exactly right. It’s pretty annoying to make what you consider to be optimal decisions and then just get killed by a game filled with so much inherent variance.

By

The Sportstradamus: Week 8 NFL Game Picks

Last week, I went 10-5 straight up, 10-5 against the spread, and 9-6 on totals. Not a bad week, bringing my record on the year to 71-36 straight up, 50-55-2 ATS, and 61-46 on totals.

Week 8 NFL Game Picks

Carolina 23 (-6) @Tampa 14 (UNDER 40.5)

San Fran 30 (-16) @Jacksonville 7 (UNDER 41)

@Detroit 24 Dallas 23 (+3) (UNDER 51)

@Philly 27 (-5) NY Giants 20 (UNDER 52.5)

@Kansas City 23 Cleveland 17 (+7.5) (OVER 38.5)

@New Orleans 27 Buffalo 20 (+11.5) (UNDER 49.5)

@New England 23 Miami 20 (+6.5) (UNDER 45.5)

@Cincinnati 24 (-6.5) NY Jets 17 (UNDER 41.5)

Pittsburgh 24 (-2.5) @Oakland 20 (OVER 40)

@Denver 38 (-12.5) Washington 24 (OVER 58.5)

@Arizona 28 (-2.5) Atlanta 24 (OVER 45)

Green Bay 34 (-9) @Minnesota 24 (OVER 47)

Seattle 24 (-11) @St. Louis 10 (UNDER 43)

By

Cowboys vs. Lions: A Game Plan for Dallas

At Bleacher Report, I posted my game plan for Dallas in Week 8:

DO attack cornerback Chris Houston.

All of the Lions’ cornerbacks have been poor in 2013, each allowing at least 1.30 yards per route. That numbers ranks all the way down at 50th in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus, showing you just how bad they’ve been.

And as bad as cornerbacks Rashean Mathis and Bill Bentley have been, Chris Houston has been much worse. He’s allowed 522 yards—the second-most in the NFL—on 45 targets (11.6 YPA). The Cowboys could find massive success on Sunday just by targeting the receiver covered by Houston.

DON’T run for the sake of running.

The Cowboys might not seem like a running team, but the truth is that they come out of games looking to establish balance. They’ve actually run the ball on 53.7 percent of their first downs in the first quarter.

Balance in the final box score is good because it signifies late running, which is of course correlated with winning. But the way to achieve final balance isn’t always to be balanced early. Instead, the Cowboys should generally be passing early in games, especially on first down, and then running it late once they’ve acquired a lead.

DON’T forget about play-action. . .again.

I’ll stop talking about play-action when the Cowboys run it more often. Through seven weeks, Romo once again ranks last in the NFL in play-action pass rate, having attempted one on just 10.5 percent of his dropbacks. He ranked last in 2012, too, by a wide margin.

Again, you don’t actually need to run the ball a whole lot (or even effectively) to utilize play-action. There’s no correlation between rushing efficiency and play-action passing success, as evidenced by Romo’s 109.1 passer rating on play-action in 2012. This year, Romo is even better on play-action with a 131.1 passer rating.

Ranked second in the NFL in play-action rating, it’s just mind-boggling that the Cowboys haven’t used the look more often in 2013.