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November, 2013 | The DC Times

The DC Times

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


The Sportstradamus: Week 13 NFL Game Picks

In Week 12, I went 6-7-1 straight up, 4-9-1 ATS, and 8-6 on totals. That brings my season totals to 115-60-1 straight up, 83-86-6 ATS, and 97-75-1 on totals. I already picked the Thanksgiving games earlier this week. Here are the rest of the picks.

Week 13 Picks

@Indy 28 (-3.5) Tennessee 23 (OVER 44.5)

Denver 28 (-5) @Kansas City 21 (UNDER 49.5)

@Cleveland 23 (-7) Jacksonville 14 (UNDER 40.5)

@Carolina 23 Tampa Bay 17 (+8) (UNDER 42)

Chicago 23 (+1) @Minnesota 20 (UNDER 50.5)

@Philly 27 (-3) Arizona 21 (UNDER 48.5)

@NY Jets 21 Miami 20 (+3) (OVER 39.5)

@Buffalo 27 (-3) Atlanta 20 (UNDER 47.5)

@San Fran 30 (-8) St. Louis 20 (OVER 42)

New England 24 Houston 21 (+9) (UNDER 47.5)

Cincy 23 (+1.5) San Diego 20 (UNDER 48.5)

New York Giants 28 (-1) @Washington 20 (OVER 45)

New Orleans 24 (+5.5) @Seattle 20 (UNDER 47.5)


Thanksgiving Picks

No time to submit all of my game picks today, so I’ll do the three Thanksgiving games and then post the rest on Friday.

@Detroit 28 (-6.5) Green Bay 20 (UNDER 50)

@Dallas 27 Oakland 20 (+9) (UNDER 48)

Pittsburgh 17 (+3) @Baltimore 14 (UNDER 41.5)

Happy Thanksgiving!


Fantasy Football: Week 13 Values

At 4for4, I posted results from Staking Bales, and I also provided some Week 13 Thanksgiving value plays:

You guys wanna hear a funny story? I had Josh Gordon in 75 percent of my lineups on Sunday morning, then took him out of every single one before kickoff.

Because of the wind.

I’m doing some research on wind speeds for my book and I’ve found that when the wind approaches 20 mph, passing production drops to 82 percent of what it is when the wind is below 5 mph. So I did some research, uncovered what I thought was a competitive advantage, implemented it, and lost hundreds of dollars.

BUT, not really. See, the same reasoning that led me to fade Gordon got me off of Victor Cruz and Wes Welker. It also led me to target Josh McCownColin Kaepernick, and Anquan Boldin.

Because of that, I had a pretty poor week heads-up but a profitable week in tourneys. Here’s how it broke down by site.

Site Start Finish Net
FanDuel 1370.78 1345.58 -25.20
DraftKings 199.60 271.10 71.50
StarStreet 371.21 328.53 -42.68
DraftDay 148.54 157.22 8.68


Week 13 DraftKings Values

QB Matthew Stafford vs. GB $9,400

Is Stafford great value at $9,400? Hell no, but you have six quarterbacks you can theoretically choose. In my opinion, the pool is really just two—Stafford or Tony Romo. Stafford is $1,700 more expensive, but he’s also safer with higher upside.

And if you read last week’s article on thinking probabilistically, you know Stafford is a favorite of mine. Take the sure points.


RB Le’Veon Bell @BAL $6,000

There are better values than Bell, including Rashad Jennings at $100 cheaper, but here’s the thing…if you’re playing a Thanksgiving tournament, you’re going to need to diversify your lineup from the pack in some way. Jennings and perhaps Eddie Lacy are going to be very highly owned, but that might not be the case for Bell.

First, he’s kind of a boring back right now. Second, he has a difficult matchup against a Ravens defense that has allowed the sixth-fewest points to running backs. But there’s no good reason to think that Bell won’t see 20 carries and catch at least three passes, so he’s a decent bet for 100 total yards and a touchdown.


Cowboys stuff to read (Dez Bryant + Raiders preview)

At ABC, I published my reaction to the Cowboys’ increased play-action usage versus the Giants:

Breaking Down the Play-Action

The most important sentence from the above excerpt is “Defenders play situations, not past rushing efficiency.” The Cowboys have historically run less play-action than anyone in the NFL because they haven’t been able to run the ball. They believed something to be true without researching it—that you need to run to set up play-action—then used that false “knowledge” as a foundation for building their offense.

When they took the time to study what was going on—and it’s really mind-blowing that it would take them 11 weeks to have someone do that—they realized, hey, maybe we could more frequently utilize this aspect of our play-calling that’s been extremely successful in the past.

To give you an example of how defenders play situations, let’s take a look at tight end Jason Witten’s first touchdown. On a 1st-and-10 at the Giants’ 20-yard line, the Cowboys lined up in “Gun Tight End Trips Left.”

Witten was lined up in-line to the field, and the Giants showed a Cover 2 look. The reason that Witten has been successful against New York this year is that the middle of the field—up the seam, in particular—is open with the safeties split out wide. That leaves the linebackers to trail Witten, which is made more difficult when Dallas shows run-action.

You can see both linebackers bit up on the Cowboys’ run-fake. Two yards into his route, Witten was already behind them. That wouldn’t happen without the play-action.

By the time the ball was in the air, the linebackers—both of whom were in coverage and tried to back up into their zones after they realized the play was a pass—were far out of position. This was a great read from Romo, who needed to deliver the football quickly to fit it into his tight end before the safeties converged on him.

On the Cowboys’ final drive, the ‘Boys ran another play-action pass to wide receiver Dez Bryant. On a 2nd-and-10 at the Giants’ 28-yard line. It was an awesome and unusually aggressive call from Dallas since they were already in field goal range—a sign that perhaps Jason Garrett is understanding that “field goal range” isn’t some magical land in which you can’t possibly miss a field goal.

It was smart because the Giants, who knew Dallas was in field goal range, were susceptible to run-action. On this play, the safety who was sneaking up prior to the snap continued a few steps toward the line when he saw the run-fake to Murray.

That opened up a throwing lane to Bryant—again, one that wouldn’t have been available without the play-action.

The pass was ultimately ruled incomplete—a call that should have automatically resulted in a review from the booth since, in my opinion, Bryant actually caught the ball. The ruling stood, but that doesn’t change the fact that it was an intelligent call for Dallas to make at the time.

It took too long for the Cowboys to recognize that they should be calling play-action, and there’s always a chance that this was just an outlier and they won’t really utilize it more moving forward. But if they did indeed notice that more play-action passes will greatly enhance offensive efficiency, we need to give them credit for taking the bye week to improve their decision-making.

And I also posted some Raiders tendencies:

43.5: Raiders’ first down pass rate through three quarters

The Raiders run the ball a whole lot on first down. Check it out.

Their first down pass rate barely increases over the course of games, always sitting below the league average. Meanwhile, the Cowboys run the ball on first down way, way too often to start games. They correct that by the second quarter, but they really need to consider scrapping the early first down runs.

88.9: Percentage of pass-rushing snaps DE Lamarr Houston lines up over the left tackle

According to Pro Football Focus, Houston—Oakland’s top pass-rusher—almost always lines up over the left tackle. That’s good news for Dallas, since the last thing they’d want is Houston on right tackle Doug Free.

When defenses don’t change their alignments all that much, it can become a little easier for offenses to double-team certain players. If I were a member of the Cowboys’ coaching staff, I’d implement more double-tight formations than normal this week, using an extra tight end to help Smith on Houston, combining the run-oriented looks with play-action to attack downfield in non-obvious passing situations.

Here’s a little Cowboys-Raiders preview at BR:

What Must Improve: Doug Free’s Pass Protection

In giving up two pressures on Sunday, right tackle Doug Free turned in his best performance in pass protection in over a month. Below, I charted Free’s pressure rate in each game this year using data from Pro Football Focus (subscription required).

You can see that, although he played pretty well against the Giants, Free actually had a lower pressure rate in each of the first five games of the season. Over that stretch, Free was arguably one of the top offensive tackles in the NFL.

Since Week 6, though, we’ve seen a different Free. He’s been by no means as poor as he was in 2012, but his pressure rate has exceeded 6.0 percent in five of the past six games. Let’s hope the downward movement in Week 12 is a sign of things to come and not an aberration.

Matchup to Watch on Thanksgiving: LT Tyron Smith vs. DE Lamarr Houston

Free might be struggling a bit, but thankfully for Dallas, the Oakland Raiders use their top pass-rushing threat primarily on the right side of their defense. Defensive end Lamarr Houston has rushed from the left side of Oakland’s defense on just 4.7 percent of his pass snaps, according to PFF. That means he’s going to see a whole lot of left tackle Tyron Smith.

Houston has been dominant this year, racking up 48 tackles, five sacks and 35 pressures. Only two 4-3 defensive ends in the entire league have pressured the quarterback more than Houston. Further, no defensive end has a higher tackle rate, so it’s going to be a challenge for Smith in both the running and passing games.

And how Dallas better utilized Dez Bryant vs. the Giants:

Play-Action Passes

If you’ve been a regular reader of mine here at Bleacher Report, you’ve probably noticed that I harp on the importance of play-action passes just about every week. I explained my views on play action at WFAA Sports prior to this week’s game:

Want jaw-dropping evidence that the Cowboys don’t embrace analytics and are unwilling to adapt to new information? Last year, Romo ranked last in the NFL in play-action percentage, attempting a play-action pass on just 10.0 percent of his dropbacks despite totaling a 109.1 passer rating on those passes.

In 2013, Romo ranks last in the NFL in play-action percentage, attempting a play-action pass on just 10.3 percent of his dropbacks despite totaling a 121.2 passer rating on those passes.

All kinds of success on play-action, yet the rate has increased 0.3 percentage points? With that sort of improvement, we’ll only need to wait just over 37 years until the Cowboys reach THE LEAGUE AVERAGE in play-action percentage.

Oh, but the Cowboys can’t run the ball, you say, so why use play-action? First, Romo’s ridiculous play-action success is reason enough to increase the rate. But more important, play-action efficiency isn’t correlated with rushing success.

Defenders play situations, not past rushing efficiency, so the Cowboys don’t need a strong running game for play-action to work. If they implemented more of a scientific approach to decision-making over the faith-based approach they currently utilize, they’d probably know that.

Well, the Cowboys obviously placed an emphasis on improving their usage of play action during their Week 11 bye, because Pro Football Focus (subscription required) indicates that quarterback Tony Romo showed play action on 15 dropbacks on Sunday.

Romo was highly successful on those passes, completing eight for 111 yards, a touchdown and 7.4 yards per attempt. On straight dropbacks, he totaled only 5.35 YPA.

That’s been a trend for years, and it appears the Cowboys are finally trying to exploit it.

Bryant was a big part of their play-action plans on Sunday right out of the gate. On the first play of the game, the Cowboys lined up in the “Ace” formation. That’s a balanced, double-tight look from which the ‘Boys have historically passed the ball around two-thirds of the time.

Bryant was lined up near the top of the screen, but notice the position of safety Antrel Rolle. The Giants appeared to be in Cover 3 on this play—the two cornerbacks and safety playing with deep-third responsibility—which means that Rolle would have had the underneath zone on Bryant’s side of the field.

When Romo showed run action on the play, though, Rolle trickled up toward the line and was late to drop into his zone. Again, defenders play situations, so when you show a run fake on 1st-and-10, the underneath defenders will attack the line.

By the time Romo turned to throw the football, Rolle was out of position and unable to help underneath. Working alone against cornerback Prince Amukamara, Bryant made an easy catch on a comeback route for 11 yards.

Crossing Routes

Later in the game, the Cowboys faced a 1st-and-10 at their own 14-yard line, lining up in “Double Tight Right Ace.” Bryant was lined up to the boundary (bottom of the screen). Also take note of linebacker Keith Rivers.

Bryant got a clean inside release off the ball while working on Amukamara. The Cowboys again showed play action, drawing Rivers and the other linebackers near the line.

Bryant didn’t run a quick crossing route on this particular play, but the effect was the same.

Running an in-breaking route on a play-action pass, Bryant was afforded all sorts of room over the middle with which to work. If the Cowboys continue to work Bryant over the middle and use run action to draw defenders away from that area, they’re going to be successful.

Near the end of the third quarter, the Cowboys again used Bryant on a crossing route—this time of the more traditional underneath variety.

Lined up outside of wide receiver Miles Austin, Bryant immediately cut inside underneath Austin after the snap. Two steps into his route, Bryant had seven yards of separation.

When teams want to press Bryant at the line, these sorts of route combinations from tight formations can be the Cowboys’ best friend.


Fantasy Football: Probabilistic Thinking and Week 12

At 4for4, I wrote about a new way to look at fantasy football value:

Every weekend, my brothers (who play daily fantasy) call me and ask who I think is going to have a big game that week, and I answer the same thing:

“Players X, Y, and Z, but just watch out for their salary. They only have value at a certain price.”

And that’s definitely true. Daily fantasy football—especially a heads-up league—is all about finding value. You want as many projected points as possible for each dollar that you spend.

But there’s also value in, you know, actually getting those points. It doesn’t do you much good if those projected points aren’t realized.

I’ve explained in the past that I think $/point, while useful, is a little misleading because a high-salary player who matches his projection is more valuable to you than a low-salary player doing the same. Same $/point, different worth to your lineup.

Even in head-to-head games, though, I think there’s something to be said for having high-upside players. When you stock your team with high-floor/low-ceiling players, you’re increasing the probability of each one of them individually reaching a certain threshold of points, but are you really doing the same for your entire team? If you need seven players to all score at least 12 points, that’s going to be really difficult, even if they’re all “safe” players who are likely to accomplish the feat on their own.

Further, I think there are true high-floor/high-ceiling players out there. I’ve been touting Antonio Brown as one of them all year, and he’s been in my lineup every week. Brown has at least five catches and 50 yards in every game, but he also has two games with at least 147 yards and two touchdowns. Due to the nature of his game and the Steelers’ offense, Brown is safe with high upside.

Because of that, I think a player like Brown (and there are others) offers value that isn’t reflected in $/point. There’s value in playing a guy like Brown in a head-to-head matchup because you can be relatively certain he’s going to reach a set level of production, but he can also make up for other players not doing the same. And that’s excessively valuable. In effect, Brown acts as a hedge against down performances from others.

But here’s the thing: his salary has risen after last week’s big game, dramatically so on some sites. By the numbers, Brown isn’t a quality $/point option. He’s ranked rather low on both the FanDuel and DraftKings Value Reports. He’s getting near the top of the second tier of receivers in terms of price, and if you’re looking at his mean projection, his value is rapidly disintegrating.

And I’m still going to own Brown this week. I’ll have more than just a little exposure to him because he offers you something outside of the traditional value calculation. When you view Brown as a range of probability—something I’m trying to do more and more as a daily fantasy player—I think his true value is more apparent.

I’ve proposed this idea in the past when analyzing bargain bin players. Yes, they offer $/point value, but what’s the probability that they and a high-priced player both reach a certain threshold? Probably not superior to a pair of second-tier players who have the same total salary and $/point value.

Now, I’m deconstructing (<— no idea if that’s the right word, but I like it) that argument to apply solely to the individual. You should care about $/point, yes, but think about the range of possibilities surrounding each player in a given week. Consider game flow—how the various courses of the game could affect certain players, and the probability of each occurring. Think about players’ ceiling and floors in all league types, not just one for heads-up and one for tournaments. In effect, consider not only the mean projection for each player relative to his salary, but also ponder the odds that he provides you certain levels of points.

Also did another Google Hangout and talked Week 12. . .


Here’s about 1 million Cowboys-Giants articles I haven’t posted

At ABC, I posted some New York Giants trends. Here’s one:

The Giants can’t properly randomize their plays.

One of my favorite areas of play-calling to study is that on 2nd down because I think it can tell you a lot about an offensive coordinator’s mindset. Specifically, I like to look at 2nd and 10 because it’s a situation in which the offense often threw an incomplete pass on first down.

Most NFL play-callers can’t randomize their play-calling. Humans in general are poor at replicating randomness, usually alternating occurrences much too often. If someone asks you to guess the result of 100 separate coin flips, you probably won’t have a string of five straight heads (or tails), even though that’s likely to occur just by chance.

NFL play-callers are the same way, often calling a run after a failed pass and a pass after a failed run. They think that by “mixing it up” they’re randomizing their play-calling, but that thought process is ironically making their choices very predictable. The Cowboys were actually one of the worst second-down play-calling teams in the NFL prior to hiring analytics guru Ken Kovash, who wrote a paper on the topic and helped fix the problem. He’s since departed for Cleveland.

Well, the Giants, like most teams, can be predictable. Below, I charted the pass rates for the Giants, Cowboys, and NFL as a whole on 2nd-and-9, 2nd-and-10, and 2nd-and-11.

The rate of passes on 2nd-and-10 is lower than that on both 2nd-and-9 and 2nd-and-11 for all three groups. That’s what we’d expect if teams aren’t properly randomizing play-calls, following incomplete first down passes with too many second down runs. In reality, we should see approximately equal pass rates on all three down-and-distances, or perhaps a slightly higher pass rate on 2nd-and-10 than on 2nd-and-9.

This is a small subset of a much larger issue: teams suck at calling plays in an optimal fashion. The Cowboys can take advantage of this by understanding when the Giants are most likely to run or pass; it should be dependent on the down-and-distance and game situation but independent of the previous play-call (run or pass), but it’s not.

At Bleacher Report, I posted four shocking stats for Dallas:

Romo has attempted a play-action pass on only 10.3 percent of his dropbacks.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Tony Romo has attempted the lowest rate of play-action passes in the entire NFL.

If that doesn’t sound like a joke to you, consider that he has a 121.1 passer rating on those passes, a year after a 109.1 rating on play action. He also ranked last in play-action passes in 2012, by a wide margin.

Yet the Cowboys absolutely refuse to attempt more play-action passes. Now it sounds more like a joke, right?

The obvious answer for this phenomenon is that the Cowboys can’t run the ball, so there’s no reason to run play action. But guess what? You don’t need to be able to run the ball to utilize play action. There’s no correlation there at all.

Take a look at the top 10 quarterbacks in play-action passer rating.

That’s Romo at No. 3, behind Philip Rivers and Peyton Manning. After each quarterback, I added their team’s rank in yards per carry. The average for this list is 17th, which is obviously below the league average.

Rivers and Manning in particular have absolutely dominated on play-action passes this year. Manning has attempted one on 29.3 percent of his passes, which is nearly three times the rate of Romo. Yet both Rivers and Manning play on offenses that have been horribly inefficient at running the football.

When you blindly accept vague ideas such as “you need to run to set up the pass,” it leads you to run an offense and an entire team that’s outdated and incapable of evolving.

The Cowboys’ play-action passing rate and inability to get the most out of Bryant are just the tip of the iceberg for an organization that’s stuck in the 1990s in just about every imaginable way.

I broke down what you need to know this week:

What Must Improve: First-Down Offense

Check out these stats compiled by ESPN Dallas’ Tim McMahon regarding the Cowboys’ third-down offense:

  • The Cowboys rank 30th in the NFL in third-down conversion rate (32.8 percent, 38-of-116).
  • Romo’s third-down QBR (19.8) ranks 29th in the NFL.
  • Romo ranks 30th in the NFL in average yards per attempt on third downs (5.74).
  • Romo’s third-down passer rating (57.6) ranks 32nd in the NFL.
  • Romo’s third-down completion percentage (47.1) ranks 34th in the NFL.

Those are some horrible numbers—but they’re misleading.

One reason that third-down stats are misleading is that there isn’t a huge sample, so the results are fragile. With only 116 third-down plays on the year so far, a small jump in third-down conversions would send the Cowboys soaring in the rankings. It’s really difficult to determine if the Cowboys’ third-down failures are real or just random. Their ability to pass the ball effectively overall suggests that their third-down struggles are perhaps more illusory than real.

Second, offenses shouldn’t be playing to set up short third downs. Instead, they should try to avoid third down altogether. And the Cowboys have done a pretty good job of that; although they clearly could benefit from better third-down play, they also have faced the fewest third downs in the NFL.

So while third downs are important, they aren’t standardized, because offenses approach first and second down in different ways. The best offenses often have a low percentage of third-down plays because they convert before they even reach third down.

Despite seeing few third downs, the Cowboys still need to do a much better job on first down. Specifically, they need to attack defenses downfield. Quarterback Tony Romo has a 69.7 percent completion rate on first down, which is the third-highest for any quarterback with at least 50 attempts, behind only Philip Rivers and Peyton Manning.

Even with a stellar completion rate, though, Romo has compiled only 6.7 YPA on first down (compare that to 9.5 YPA and 9.2 YPA for Rivers and Manning, respectively). That number ranks him 29th in the NFL.

The numbers suggest that the Cowboys are playing extremely conservative on first down. No, they aren’t running the ball all the time (although they’re still doing it too much early in games), but they’re are substituting short throws for more carries.

Instead, the ‘Boys should treat first downs as the high-upside situations they are by attacking defenses vertically.

If their focus is solely on converting third downs, they’re going to lose sight of the big picture, as the goal shouldn’t be increasing the third-down conversion rate at all costs, but rather increasing overall offensive efficiency. By running and using short passes to create “manageable third downs,” Dallas is leaving yards and points on the table.

I also wrote about how Dallas can get Dez Bryant more involved:

Later in the game, the chance for a back-shoulder throw was available. New Orleans was again up in Bryant’s face.

Even with a safety deep, this is a situation in which the Cowboys need to get the ball to their stud receiver. If the opposing cornerbacks are going to get in his face and turn their back to Romo, the ‘Boys need to take advantage of Bryant’s superior ball skills by throwing to his back shoulder whenever possible.

Just about the only time that’s not available is when Bryant sees something like this.

Yeah, that’s probably not a beatable coverage.

With that said, I’ve brainstormed four ways the Cowboys can get the ball to Bryant more frequently and more effectively.

Throw him more back-shoulder passes.


Use more bunch formations

The Cowboys usually leave Bryant alone outside, which is fine if you’re going to take advantage of what that offers. But since Romo doesn’t seem too eager to throw to Bryant’s back shoulder, and the coaches don’t appear too ready to tell Romo to do it, the team could at least benefit from moving Bryant inside.

As mentioned, that can open up new routes, make it more difficult to double him since defenders can’t use the sideline to their advantage and allow for Bryant to get off of press coverage more easily.


Motion him

Another way for Bryant to beat the press is to put him in motion. Using Bryant in pre-snap motion, which is something Dallas doesn’t do often, might not only help Romo diagnose the coverage, but it could also make it more difficult for cornerbacks to get in position to jam Bryant.

Use more crossing routes

Finally, the Cowboys absolutely must stretch the field both vertically and horizontally. We always make a big deal about Dallas not attacking downfield, and that’s a very legitimate concern, but they ironically don’t really stretch the field horizontally, either. They run a whole lot of curls, hitches, quick outs and so on.

Against the Saints, you saw quarterback Drew Brees have all sorts of success on deep crossing routes. They’re difficult for cornerbacks to defend in man coverage if they get behind the receiver right off of the snap, but they can also be zone-coverage killers when receivers sit down in open areas.

Utilizing more crossing routes will help the entire Dallas offense, but Bryant could be the main beneficiary.

And finally, here’s my game plan for Dallas against the Giants in Week 12:

DON’T bite up on run action.

The Giants are one of the league’s worst rushing teams, ranked 30th with only 3.2 YPC. Only 36.6 percent of the Giants’ runs have increased their probability of scoring, according to Advanced NFL Stats, which is the fourth-worst number in the NFL. Even the Cowboys have a 40.7 percent run success rate.

In addition to the Giants not being able to run the ball, the Cowboys also need to consider the success of play-action passes around the NFL. Take a look at the difference inYPA and touchdown rate across the league on play-action versus straight dropbacks.

The Cowboys rank last in the NFL in play-action rate, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), showing it on just 10.3 percent of dropbacks. The Giants don’t do it much either, but the downside of jumping up on play-action and allowing a downfield pass is much greater than sitting back and letting running back Andre Brown run for six yards.

It’s simple risk/reward. Even though NFL teams still teach defenders to play the run and react to the pass, that’s not the strategy the Cowboys should implement this week (or ever, really). Don’t let quarterback Eli Manning gash you on play-action, and react to the run if he hands it off.

DO blitz Eli Manning often.

Manning has really struggled against the blitz (four or more rushers) in 2013. Below, I used numbers from PFF to chart the percentage of his peak YPA, touchdown-to-interception ratio and passer rating on passes versus the blitz and those against four or fewer rushers.

You can see Manning has been at his best in every category when defenses haven’t blitzed. He’s actually compiled 85.3 percent or less of his non-blitz production in every single category.

Plus, the Cowboys should play more of a high-variance defensive strategy anyway. They’re 5-5 and need to get hot to do anything in the regular season and playoffs, so it’s time to take some chances. Plus, if they want to play more man coverage as Jerry Jones suggested to DallasCowboys.com, that will be a necessity on most blitzes.

DO attack the Giants’ offensive tackles.

The Giants haven’t given Manning much time to throw the football this year, and it starts on the outside. Left tackle William Beatty and rookie right tackle Justin Pugh have been awful. Take a look at their pressure rates compared to offensive tackles Tyron Smith and Doug Free in Dallas.

Neither Smith nor Free, who have allowed the same amount of pressure, have been sensational by any means. Yet both Beatty and Pugh have allowed a good deal more pressure than the Cowboys’ tackles.

DON’T overlook the Giants’ pass rush.

The Giants rank last in the NFL with only 14 sacks. Defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul has two sacks and fellow pass-rusher Justin Tuck has just 1.5 sacks. But that doesn’t mean that those players and the Giants defense as a whole can’t get to the passer.

Sacks are notoriously fluky. Despite their low sack total, the Giants are actually getting to the quarterback. They have 117 pressures on the year, which would normally put them around 25 sacks or so. The fact that they have 11 less than that suggests they’ve been incredibly unlucky, but that their future sack rate will increase.

My guess is that it starts this week against the ‘Boys.


Fantasy Football: Predicting WR Breakouts and Week 12 Analysis

At RotoWire, I published the correlation between wide receiver stats and fantasy rank:

The Numbers

So with that said, let’s take a look at the correlation between a few stats and final wide receiver fantasy rank over the past four seasons. Note all the correlations are negative because as each increase, final wide receiver rank decreases (meaning it improves).

It’s a little surprising to me that the wide receivers who’ve put up the most yards have been more valuable than those with the most touchdowns. Yards account for a greater percentage of points, but there’s more deviation in touchdowns.

I’ve actually built my wide receiver corps around red-zone ability in recent years – which I’ll likely continue to do since it’s such a consistent stat from year to year – but the receivers with the most points are more likely to lead the league in yards than touchdowns.

At 4for4, I’m still running the “Staking Bales” series:

It was around a month into the season when I told you guys that I’d be taking some shots in this staking series, hoping to “pay for” my tournament entries with head-to-head and 50/50 winnings. Well, here are the results of that endeavor.

Tournaments are relatively volatile, so you just need to stay in the game long enough to cash in on a big payday. Well, I’ve stayed in the game, currently sitting at $2,090.13 on the year. Here are screenshots of each account balance up to this point.

I also published optimal plays for DraftKings:

WR Pierre Garcon vs. SF $6,300

Garcon has a difficult matchup this week, but he’s also priced to reflect that. With that in mind, it’s difficult to pass on a player who already has 109 targets this year, including at least 10 in all but two games. Garcon also has five catches in every game, so he’s a relatively safe option, even against the Niners.

TE Jordan Cameron vs. PIT $3,900

This is me going out on a limb: I think Cameron will have a big game on Sunday. He hasn’t scored in a month and he has only 33 combined yards in his past two games. But he’s so cheap that he’ll give you lots of flexibility elsewhere in your lineup, and he’s so athletic that his upside is outstanding. The quarterback situation is awful, but it’s been that way all year. If you’re going cheap at tight end, might as well use someone with elite athletic ability.

And optimal plays for FanDuel with a little aside on randomness:

If you aren’t a regular reader of AdvancedNFLStats.com, I highly recommend it. If you enjoy the analytical approach to fantasy football here at 4for4, you’ll probably like the same approach to NFL decision-making.

In this week’s ANS Podcast, Brian Burke—the site’s creator—was discussing randomness and had a cool story about a college professor who split his class into two groups, telling one to flip a coin and mark down “heads” or “tails” and the other to recreate a series of “heads” or “tails” just by guessing what the sequence might look like.

After excusing himself from the class for this exercise, the professor came back and instantly recognized the non-random sequence. If you ask someone you know to do this same task (have them start with trying to reproduce a random sequence), you should be able to recognize the random series as well.

Why? Because humans suck at identifying and replicating randomness. We’re built to detect patterns, so we naturally create them. Most people equate “random” to “alternating,” creating a series that might look something like HTHTHHTTHT, regardless of how long the sequence extends. In reality, long stretches of either heads or tails are common—expected, even.

If you flip a coin 100 times, you’ll almost certainly get a run of five straight heads or tails at some point. So imagine if someone who’s never seen a coin (Bill Gates hasn’t) were to watch our hypothetical coin-flipper and the first thing he saw were a stretch of six straight heads. What do you think he’d guess for the next flip?

I bring this up because, at this point in the season, we’ve seen some long stretches of outstanding and awful play. Some of this is due to repeatable factors, such as a change in scheme or personnel. But some of it is just noise, and we can obtain an advantage by recognizing which stretches of poor play are likely to improve in the future. That’s really all we’re doing in the world of daily fantasy sports—predicting regression.


The Sportstradamus: Week 12 NFL Game Picks

In Week 11, I went 11-4 straight up, 9-3-3 against the spread, and 7-6 on totals. That brings my record on the year to 109-53 straight up, 79-77-5 ATS, and 89-69-1 on totals. Only one ESPN expert has a better record than me on straight up picks, and I’m sure I’ll pass him by the end of the year.

As it stands right now, this figures to be my fourth (out of four) straight year being profitable in NFL. If you bet in NFL every game and over/under, you’d be 22 games above .500. Although this isn’t a great year for me, it’s still a decent record considering I pick every game and total.

Let’s take a look at the NFL game lines for Week 12 and make some picks…

Week 12 NFL Game Picks

New Orleans 31 (-9.5) @Atlanta 21 (UNDER 53.5)

@Detroit 30 (-8.5) Tampa Bay 20 (OVER 48.5)

@Houston 28 Jacksonville 20 (+10) (OVER 43)

@Green Bay 34 (-3.5) Minnesota 20 (OVER 44)

@Kansas City 24 San Diego 20 (+5.5) (OVER 41.5)

@Carolina 24 (-4) Miami 17 (UNDER 41.5)

@Cleveland 23 (-1) Pittsburgh 20 (OVER 39.5)

Chicago 23 (+1.5) @St. Louis 17 (UNDER 46.5)

@Baltimore 24 NY Jets 20 (+4.5) (OVER 38.5)

Tennessee 23 (+1) @Oakland 20 (OVER 41)

@Arizona 23 (-1.5) Indy 21 (UNDER 45.5)

@NY Giants 24 (-2.5) Dallas 17 (UNDER 46)

Denver 28 (-2.5) @New England 23 (UNDER 55)

San Fran 21 @Washington 20 (+6) (UNDER 47.5)

Here’s another take on the Cowboys-Giants matchup from CBS Sports:

Dallas (5-5) at NY Giants (4-6), 4:25 p.m. ET

Last week, Redskins linebacker London Fletcher decided to rank the teams in the NFC East. Despite the Cowboys being tied with Philadelphia atop the division at the time, Fletcher ranked the Eagles first, the Giants second, the Cowboys third and the Redskins last. London Fletcher has played in 250 consecutive NFL games, so I feel like he knows more about football than I do. I think my point here is that I’m going to roll with his rankings. Also, the Cowboys pass defense somehow manages to get worse every week and I think Eli will take advantage of that — like every other quarterback has this season.

Giants 30-27 over the Cowboys.

And one more from SB Nation:

Dallas comes off a bye week aiming to blunt the momentum of the division-rival New York Giants. And two key trends indicate the Cowboys are in good shape to return a profit at the sportsbook window.

The Cowboys are 7-1 ATS past 8 seasons following a bye week and 6-2 ATS in their past eight games as an underdog. They are trying to move into a tie atop the NFC East, while derailing the Giants’ hopes of becoming the first NFL to ever start 0-6 and still make the playoffs.


3 Reasons Third Down Stats Are Misleading

At ABC, I broke down why third down stats are overrated. Here’s one reason:

Third Downs Aren’t Standardized

The most important reason that third down stats need to be taken with a grain of salt is that they aren’t standardized. The Cowboys, for example, have had an average of 7.45 yards to go on their third downs this year. The Colts, on the other hand, are all the way down at 6.32 yards to go. The Giants are all the way up at 8.46 yards to go.

Shortening the distance to go on third down of course aids offenses in converting on third down, but here’s the hidden downside: they face more third downs. Third down offense is important, but first and second down are just as vital since, you know, they’re the downs that come before third down. If you want to improve your offense as a whole, you should try to avoid third down altogether.

And the Cowboys have actually done that pretty well this year. They’ve faced 116 third downs—the fewest in the NFL. They haven’t run that many plays, but third downs represent only 19.6 percent of all of their offensive snaps. That’s a good number, and one that suggests the Cowboys’ offense is way better than their third down numbers show.

Coaches who obsess over third down stats and guide their offense to set up “manageable third downs” are really doing a disservice to their teams. The goal shouldn’t be to do everything possible to convert on third down; it should be to do everything possible to avoid third down.

None of this means that the Cowboys’ third down offense has been satisfactory or that they’re doing everything they need to do correctly on first and second down. Actually, they should stop running the ball so much on first down early in games in order to see even fewer third downs.

If you really want to perform the silly task of grading entire offenses based solely on third downs, then you should consider not only their third down conversion rate, but also the average distance to go for a first down and the frequency with which they face third downs.

Third down conversions are important, but they’re more the result of a quality offense rather than the cause of it. Chasing a high third down conversion rate is synonymous to running the ball a whole lot because rushing attempts are correlated with winning; both confuse the cause with the effect.

That doesn’t mean third downs aren’t important, and converting obviously increases win probability. So what’s the Cowboys’ win probability this week against the Giants? Most sports betting sites like SportsBettingOnline.ag have the Cowboys between one and three-point underdogs, so probably in the neighborhood of 40-45 percent.


The Sportstradamus: Week 11 NFL Game Picks

I was horrific Week 10 straight up and against the spread, going 7-7 and 5-9, respectively. I was good on totals at 10-3-1. That brings my record on the year to 98-49 straight up, 70-74-2 ATS, and 82-63-1 on totals.

If you bet $110 on every ATS and over/under pick I’ve made this year, you would have made all of $130 so far this year. I’ve been profitable every year I’ve been doing this, but I haven’t been so hot ATS in 2013. I’ve beaten out every ESPN expert except one (Jaws), and I’ve beaten them all every year for the past three years. It’s whatever.

NFL Week 11 Game Picks

@Tennessee 24 (+3) Indy 20 (OVER 42.5)

Atlanta 28 (-1) @Tampa 24 (OVER 43)

@Buffalo 20 (pk) NY Jets 17 (UNDER 41)

Detroit 24 (-2) @Pittsburgh 20 (UNDER 47.5)

@Philly 27 (-4) Washington 21 (UNDER 54)

@Miami 28 (+2.5) San Diego 27 (OVER 45.5)

@Chicago 24 (-3) Baltimore 17 (UNDER 46)

@Cincy 21 (-5.5) Cleveland 14 (UNDER 42.5)

@Houston 21 Oakland 20 (+7) (UNDER 43)

Arizona 20 (-7) @Jacksonville 10 (UNDER 41.5)

@Denver 27 Kansas City 20 (+8.5) (UNDER 50)

@Seattle 27 (-12.5) Minnesota 10 (UNDER 46.5)

@New Orleans 27 (-3) San Fran 20 (UNDER 48.5)

@NY Giants 24 (-4.5) Green Bay 20 (OVER 42)

@Carolina 24 (-1.5) New England 21 (UNDER 46.5)