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.
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.
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.