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December, 2013 | The DC Times

The DC Times

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

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Reaction to Cowboys’ Week 15 Loss + Free Agents, Draft Picks Who Could Interest Team

At ABC, I broke down the Cowboys’ Week 15 loss to Green Bay:

The Numbers

Looking at expected points and historic outcomes based on specific game situations, sites like Advanced NFL Stats calculate the win probability for each team at any point during a game. Here’s the Cowboys-Packers win probability graph.

I marked down two percentages—the Cowboys’ win probability at halftime and their win probability prior to Romo’s first interception. Based on their lead and the fact that they were kicking off to Green Bay to start the second half, Advanced NFL Stats calculated the Cowboys’ chances of winning at 96 percent.

Another site that calculates win probability—Pro Football Reference—uses the game lines to factor in team strength. They actually had Dallas’s win probability at halftime at 99.7 percent.

That’s a big difference: a 1-in-25 chance of losing versus one-in-333. In reality, the probability was likely somewhere between those. Even if the Cowboys’ win probability was at the low end of that estimate, their strategy should have been the same: decrease the number of remaining plays as much as possible.

I’m as big of a proponent of passing the ball early and often as you’ll find. In typical game situations, I think the Cowboys actually run the ball way too much, especially on first down. They could benefit from being more aggressive offensively.

The problem was that much of the second half of this game wasn’t “typical.” The Cowboys’ focus should no longer have been on point-maximization—scoring as many points as possible—but rather closing out the game. Their goal should have been calling plays in such a way that the Packers wouldn’t have enough time to mount a comeback, even if they came out firing like they did. That means playing extremely conservatively on both offense and defense.

 

Despite the top football betting markets having the Cowboys as seven-point favorites, Dallas couldn’t capitalize. At Bleacher Report, I proposed some free agents and draft picks who might help the ‘Boys. And of course a few head coaches:

Perhaps the Cowboys’ biggest problem is that the players are continually placed in sub-optimal situations and expected to execute in spite of it. No matter how much talent a team brings in, the players need some help from the coaches.

Actually, I think the head coach is the second most important “position” behind quarterback. Look at what the Eagles and Chiefs have been able to do in just a single season by hiring coaches who embrace analytics, are forward-thinking and don’t coach in a cowardly manner.

If the Cowboys don’t hit in a big way with their next head coaching hire, they could be playing at a huge disadvantage to the Eagles for years to come.

Potential Head Coaches

Art Briles, Baylor

Chris Petersen, Boise State

Urban Meyer, Ohio State

Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M

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Fantasy Fix Podcast + Week 15 Values

I jumped on the RotoGrinders Fantasy Fix podcast with Dan Back, and we talked about my new daily fantasy book and some Week 15 values. Give it a listen right here.

At 4for4, I posted optimal values for DraftKings:

QB Kirk Cousins @ATL $5400

Is everyone on the entire site going to be playing Cousins? Maybe, but I’ll be one of them. If you’re playing multiple tournament lineups, you can diversify a bit just to hedge, but the idea that you need to go against the grain just for the sake of being contrarian is silly. You should bypass players you know will be highly owned only when there’s comparable value.

Cousins costs $100 less than Matt Flynn. He’s an unknown, but he’s been efficient in his limited NFL work and he has an enticing matchup. With Pierre Garcon as one of the top wide receiver values, the Cousins-Garcon connection makes for perhaps the top DraftKings stack, and one that will allow for plenty of flexibility elsewhere.

 

RB Le’Veon Bell vs. CIN $6200

Chris Ogabannaya is a popular choice right now, but I don’t think he’s going to see the necessary workload to give you a legitimate return. It’s difficult to find low-priced running backs with sizeable workloads when there aren’t injuries. We had Joique Bell and Marcel Reece last week, so keep an eye out for late-game scratches.

As of now, though, the most favorable price-workload combo player is probably Le’Veon Bell. At $6200, he’s a mid-tier option, not a bottom-dweller, but the other backs in that range either don’t have comparable projected workloads or they have much worse matchups.

Bell’s matchup isn’t ideal, but that’s priced into his salary. He’s been producing as a receiver lately with 12 catches in the Steelers’ past two games.

And for FanDuel:

WR Torrey Smith @DET $6000

I love Smith as a tournament play because of his big-play ability. Averaging 17.5 YPC this year, Smith is now finding the end zone with a touchdown in three of the past five games. He has four games with at least 10 targets and three with at least 12. Is he a risk? Yes. Don’t put him into your head-to-head leagues, but Smith is an awesome tournament play with a great matchup, especially at his FanDuel price tag.

 

TE Jimmy Graham @STL $8200

Sometimes, the best players to use in tournaments are studs with poor matchups. Players like Graham and Charles can go off no matter who they’re playing. But when they have unfavorable matchups, they aren’t as heavily owned as normal.

Graham is facing a Rams defense that 4for4 has rated as the fourth-stingiest against tight ends. Playing indoors, though, the potential for the Brees-Graham connection is other-worldly. Regardless of his cost—which isn’t unreasonable on FanDuel, which traditionally underprices elite players—you aren’t going to come close to matching Graham’s upside, especially with Rob Gronkowski out for the year.

In my Staking Bales Week 15 article, I looked at some high-floor plays:

QB Tony Romo vs. GB

If you’re going elite at quarterback, I don’t think you can get any safer than Matthew Stafford. That’s the direction I’d head—even over Drew Brees—in many head-to-head leagues. There’s value in his incredible consistency.

If you’re spending a little bit less on a quarterback, though, I think Romo is about as safe as anyone in his price range. It’s popular to argue that Romo is a volatile quarterback just waiting to blow up, but theCowboys have really changed their offensive philosophy this year such that Romo isn’t taking many chances. He has 27 touchdowns to only seven picks.

The downside is that he’s not necessarily the same high-upside play he used to be. His efficiency is down because he’s playing too conservatively—bad for the Cowboys, but good for you if you need a high-floor passer.

 

RB Matt Forte @CLE

Running back is a position at which you often need to pay up for a high floor since their production is so closely linked to their workload and low-priced backs rarely see many carries. The exception, as we saw last week with Marcel Reece and Joique Bell, is when there’s an injury to a starter. Those are highly advantageous situations you always need to monitor on game day.

Otherwise, I think you need to look for pass-catching backs in heads-up leagues. Backs who can contribute as receivers aren’t as susceptible to unfavorable game situations, so they’re less volatile on a week-to-week basis.

Forte, who has at least 16 carries in the Bears’ past eight games with 38 catches over that stretch, is one of those players.

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Cowboys vs. Packers: Here’s my analysis

A few articles to post here in preparation for the Cowboys’ big game against Green Bay this weekend. At Bleacher Report, I broke down my game plan for Dallas:

Don’t play the Packers to run on first down.

Green Bay has been a pass-first team with Rodgers at the helm, although they actually run the ball on first down more than you might think.

In the first half—a time when games are “normal” in that they’re still about point-maximization for both squads—the Packers have actually run the ball more on first down than they’ve thrown it. That’s pretty surprising. It’s not surprising that the first down pass rate has decreased even more with Flynn at quarterback.

So why would I suggest that Dallas still play the pass? Risk and reward. The downside of playing the pass and getting gashed by the run might be 15 or 20 yards for running back Eddie Lacy. The downside of selling out against the run and having Flynn show play-action could be a quick deep strike for a touchdown.

Even with Lacy running well, I’d play aggressively against the pass and force the Packers to beat me with the run.

Attack the nickel cornerback.

The Packers have mixed their nickel cornerback strategy this year, rotating Davon House and Micah Hyde. Both have struggled. Below, I charted the yards-per-route allowed by the Packers’ and Cowboys’ cornerbacks.

I like to analyze yards-per-route because it rewards cornerbacks for quality coverage. When Darrelle Revis has such good coverage that he’s not even targeted, he should benefit from that.

You can see that Hyde and House have both been poor—in the same range as Cowboys cornerback Morris Claiborne, who we know has struggled. Meanwhile, cornerback Tramon Williams—one of the more underrated cornerbacks in the league—has given up a yards-per-route figure in the same range as Orlando Scandrick, who has turned in a career year.

If I were game-planning for Green Bay, I’d do everything possible to exploit their weakness in the secondary. Since they typically move cornerback Sam Shields into the slot in nickel situations, I’d leave wide receiver Dez Bryant out wide, using motion or whatever’s necessary to get him matched up on Hyde or House.

Don’t double-team outside linebacker Clay Matthews.

Matthews is Green Bay’s most well-known pass-rusher, but he’s not playing at an elite level right now. Below, I charted the pressure rate for Matthews and fellow Green Bay outside linebackers Nick Perry and Mike Neal, as well as defensive ends George Selvie and DeMarcus Ware, as per PFF.

You can see that Perry has been the best of the bunch, ahead of even Ware. Even Neal—a 6’3”, 285-pound monster for an outside linebacker—has a higher pressure rate than Matthews. The Packers’ star pass-rusher has pressured the quarterback at nearly the same rate as Selvie.

The Cowboys might be tempted to double-team Matthews just because of his big name, but I don’t think that’s a path they necessarily need to go down.

Also at Bleacher Report, I explained why Monte Kiffin’s defense isn’t working:

2) Injuries

We can say all day long that every team suffers injuries and you need to respond to them, and while that’s true, it’s not like every team’s injury fate is equal. Some teams will just be more unlucky with injuries than others in a given season, and that obviously hurts their ability to produce. There’s a reason the starters are starters.

This season, 40 players have played at least one snap on the Dallas defense, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). Forty!

While the result is all that really matters for Dallas, the team’s ability to achieve the desired result is hampered when players like Caesar Rayford and Jarius Wynn are receiving significant playing time.

1) There’s no pressure.

The top reason that Kiffin’s defense isn’t working in Dallas, hands down, is that the Cowboys haven’t been able to generate much pressure. Take a look at the pressure rates for their top three rushers—defensive tackle Jason Hatcher and defensive ends George Selvie and DeMarcus Ware.

I marked the Cowboys’ wins with an asterisk. You can see the Cowboys’ pressure rates dropped from the beginning of the season to the midpoint—a stretch during which they lost to the Lions and barely beat a poor Vikings team. The pressure rate was at its highest against the Raiders and Giants—both games the Cowboys won.

While the Cowboys have been pretty lucky with takeaways this year, the best way to keep them coming is to get pressure. The correlation between defensive pressure and takeaways is astounding.

Moving Forward

There’s not much the Cowboys can do about their injuries, and it’s not like Kiffin is going to dramatically alter his scheme at this point in the season. One things the ‘Boys can do to improve, though, is disguise their looks. They need to do something to create confusion for offenses.

Second, they absolutely need to find a way to get more pressure, even if it means blitzing more. It’s a high-risk strategy, but the Cowboys aren’t good enough to play conservatively and consistently beat good teams. They need to press the issue and just hope the ball bounces their way.

At ABC, I compared Aaron Rodgers, Matt Flynn, and Tony Romo:

Yards-Per-Attempt

There are various ways to measure yards-per-attempt. The blandest form of pure YPA can be a little misleading because it doesn’t account for aggressiveness. Tony Romo began his career extremely aggressively, and his YPA was at its highest. The problem was he was throwing a ton of picks, so it didn’t do all that much good. Recently, Romo has actually played too conservatively—minimizing interceptions at the cost of running an inefficient offense.

Net-YPA factors sacks into the mix. While sacks are frequently assigned to the offensive line, they’re actually more strongly correlated with the quarterback. There’s a reason Peyton Manning has “the best offensive line” wherever he goes; he makes them look like that.

Finally, Adjusted Net-YPA (ANYPA) is probably the most predictive stat we have in football right now. If you’re trying to predict the outcome of a game and you can look at only one stat, it should be ANYPA. That’s because it factors touchdowns and interceptions into the mix, weighting them according to their importance.

Looking at the numbers for each quarterback, you can see Romo is actually last in career YPA. Part of that is because Flynn just hasn’t played all that much, but you can see that Flynn’s numbers drop considerably once you account for sacks, touchdowns, and interceptions. That suggests that if Flynn were to play a less aggressive style of quarterback, his efficiency (in terms of YPA) would plummet.

Note that Romo has been one of the league’s premiere quarterbacks in terms of all three stats. The fact that Rodgers ranks so far ahead of him in two of them is amazing.

Touchdown/Interception Rates

To better track the quarterbacks’ ability to lead their offenses without making mistakes, I charted their career touchdown and interception rates.

Not surprisingly, Rodgers has the highest touchdown rate and lowest interception rate. Romo ranks in the middle in both categories. Rodgers’ stats have been so impressive over the years because of the fact that he doesn’t throw interceptions. Again, it’s easy for a quarterback to post a high YPA when he’s being reckless with the ball. Not so easy when you’re throwing picks as infrequently as anyone in the NFL.

Completion Rate

Finally, take a look at the completion rate for each quarterback.

Although scheme plays a big role in these numbers, there’s little doubt that Rodgers is an incredibly accurate passer. At this point, that’s probably Flynn’s biggest weakness—and the reason I think the Cowboys will take down the Packers if he’s their starting quarterback on Sunday.

And finally, I analyzed some trends for Dallas through Week 14:

George Selvie

After starting the year on fire in terms of sacks, Selvie doesn’t have a sack over the past month.

His pressure rate has been pretty volatile this year, but he’s been playing okay over the past couple games. One of the main reasons that Selvie hasn’t gotten to the passer quite as much, though, is that he’s just not playing as many snaps. The Cowboys have subbed him out at times; he has only 42 pass-rushing snaps in the past two games, for example—his only two games with fewer than 28 snaps versus the pass.

Dez Bryant

Let’s take a look at Dez Bryant’s workload.

The asterisks represent the Cowboys’ wins. When Bryant sees over 10 targets per game, the Cowboys are 3-1. When he sees 10 or fewer targets, the ‘Boys are 4-5. Since we know that there’s a possible selection bias—Bryant should see more targets in games the Cowboys are losing since they need to throw to catch up—the numbers are perhaps more significant than they appear.

DeMarco Murray

Finally, here’s DeMarco Murray’s YPC by game.

This is a pretty obvious trend. I bring it up because Murray ran all over the Saints and Bears in recent weeks, yet the Cowboys got annihilated. Murray is averaging 5.2 YPC in losses and 5.3 YPC overall.

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A bunch of fantasy football articles for you to read now

As I’ve mentioned, I recently released Fantasy Football (and Baseball) for Smart People: How to Turn Your Hobby into a Fortune. I’ve been doing a bunch of guest posts to promote it:

At the New York Times, I discussed some Week 15 flex plays:

Week 15 Flex Plays

With season-long owners now in the playoffs and likely to be facing head-to-head matchups, most should be coveting safety — high-floor players who will “guarantee” a certain level of production.

In daily leagues, you should be seeking low-variance players when in head-to-head games (or other small leagues that require safe play). The following are flex options who make for excellent season-long options and also offer value on DraftKings:

Running Back: Rashad Jennings (OAK) vs. Kansas City (DraftKings: $6,000;DraftStreet: $8,468; FanDuel: $7,000) — There are a lot of question marks surrounding Jennings right now. He didn’t play on Sunday, but the Raiders have already said he’ll be the starter in Week 15.

The bigger issue with Jennings is that the Raiders play the Chiefs. That sounds like a horrible matchup and will scare people away, but Kansas City’s run defense is not unbeatable. Actually, the Chiefs rank seventh-worst in yards-per-carry allowed.

Jennings might not be the best high-upside play, but his heavy projected workload in a matchup that’s of average difficulty makes him a surprisingly safe play.

Wide Receiver: Torrey Smith (BAL) vs. Detroit (DraftKings: $6,300; DraftStreet: $10,017; FanDuel: $6,000) — Smith had just one reception in a good matchup in Week 14, but the game was also played in poor weather. Smith thrives on big plays and the Ravens couldn’t generate any in the elements last week, but they play inside against the Lions in Week 15.

With 55 catches and 963 yards in 2013, Smith should have more than four touchdowns, especially because he’s big enough to be a relevant red zone player. In a friendly matchup, consider Smith a high-upside flex play this weekend.

Tight End: Vernon Davis (SF) vs. Tampa Bay (DraftKings: $5,100; DraftStreet: $9,944; FanDuel: $6,100) — In daily fantasy, you can start a tight end in the flex because they have cheap salaries. Spending on Jimmy Graham at tight end and then pairing him with Davis in the flex is a legitimate strategy. To give you an idea of Davis’s value, consider that his salary is less than Cordarrelle Patterson’s and Tavon Austin’s on DraftKings, and just $100 more than Aaron Dobson.

Again, the numbers suggest that tight ends might not be the best plays for safety over the long run, but a Graham-Davis combination could provide enough upside (and be cheap enough to allow for flexibility elsewhere) to win a big tournament in Week 15.

At Business Insider, I talked about the importance of “stacking” in daily fantasy tournaments:

In tournaments, a mediocre score isn’t going to do you much good. You need greatness, so median player projections are basically worthless. You must know each player’s ceiling — the maximum possible points he could score — and how likely he is to reach that ceiling.

One way to do that is to understand position and individual stat consistency numbers. If you know that there’s a more linear relationship between running back points and their salaries than there is between wide receiver points and their salaries, for example, that can be used in all different league types.

Unlike in head-to-head leagues, though, you actually want to seek volatility in tournaments. You want those boom-or-bust players in your lineup — the wide receiver who could give you next to nothing or could explode for 150 yards and two touchdowns.

If you examine the NFL consistency stats from the previous chapter, you’ll find that top wide receivers are far less consistent than running backs from week to week. That means wide receivers’ points tend to come in bunches — there’s a pretty big deviation between their best weeks and worst weeks — so they’ll typically have higher ceilings (relative to their average level of production) than the backs.

For tournaments, qualifiers, and other large-field leagues that pay out a relatively small portion of entrants, you should sacrifice stability and consistency for volatility. That means spending for elite wide receivers saving at running back.

Stacking the Deck

If upside is what you crave, the manner in which you structure your lineups will be of the utmost importance to you. Namely, you want to create dependent relationships within your lineup — situations through which the superiority of one player increases the probability of another player (or multiple players) producing for you.

When you enter a big tournament that pays out a small percentage of entrants, it doesn’t matter if you have a score in the 30th percentile — you need great, not just good — so your goal should really be to shoot for the moon. That will increase the ceiling of your team. The act of pairing teammates to increase upside is known as “stacking” in the world of daily fantasy sports.

When playing daily fantasy football, you can increase upside by pairing your quarterback with one of his receivers. If the quarterback has a big day, which is pretty much a prerequisite for taking down a tourney, it’s highly likely that your pass-catcher will produce as well.

At rotoViz, I discussed some of my favorite tournament plays this week:

QB Andy Dalton @PIT $6400

Coming off of a big performance in Week 14, you’d think Dalton’s salary would jump. At $6400, though, he’s just the 22nd-priciest quarterback on DraftKings. He also has a nice matchup in Pittsburgh (but just monitor the weather situation). Plus, the data suggests going low at quarterback in tournaments is the right move, assuming the value is there.

 

RB Rashad Jennings vs. KC $6000

Like quarterback, running back is a position at which bargain bin players have led to tournament success. Jennings isn’t unbelievably cheap, but he’s still priced as a low-end RB2. In that range, you’re not going to find many players with the same expected workload. The Raiders have said Jennings, who missed Week 14, will resume his normal duties.

If the matchup scares you away, look again. The Chiefs have the seventh-least efficient run defense in the NFL. The only worry is that Oakland will get down big early, but Jennings is versatile enough to still give you production as a receiver.

 

WR A.J. Green @PIT $8100

The data suggests that pairing an elite wide receiver with a low-priced quarterback on his team is the way to go in large-field leagues. Green is the fifth-priciest receiver on DraftKings.

Another QB-WR stack to jump on? Tony Romo to Dez Bryant.

 

TE Jimmy Graham @STL $7500

At $7,500, Graham costs 23.0 percent more than the second most expensive tight end. Over the long-run, though, I think he’ll more than make up for that difference in price. DraftKings typically underprices their elite players just a tad, especially at tight end. Go with either Graham or Vernon Davis in your GPPs and don’t look back.

More to come. You can buy the book in paperbackon Kindle, or as a PDF.

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New Book Published on Amazon & Week 14 Values

My new book on daily fantasy sports, Fantasy Football (and Baseball) for Smart People, is now available on Amazon. You can buy it in paperback, on Kindle, or as a PDF on my site FantasyFootballDrafting.com.

At 4for4, I posted a sample from the book:

For the most part, daily fantasy players don’t pay much for kickers. Amateurs and pros alike understand that it’s usually senseless to pay top-dollar for a position that’s not consistent from week to week. It doesn’t matter how many points a player scores and it doesn’t matter how scarce those points are if you can’t predict his performance.

We all seem to intuitively know that we shouldn’t pay for kickers, but few people extend this argument to the other positions. In leagues in which safety is the name of the game, there should be a strong positive correlation between the percentage of cap space you’re willing to spend on a player and your ability to accurately project his performance.

It’s not like any of the skill positions are unpredictable in the same way as kickers, but there’s still varying degrees of predictability. Those should undoubtedly have an influence on your decision-making. All other things equal, you could maximize your team’s long-term floor by allocating a higher percentage of the cap to the safest players.

In my first book on daily fantasy, I calculated the consistency of each position. I’m going to use the same methodology here, but with updated results. To obtain the numbers, I looked at the top fantasy scorers over the past four years. They are the players who would typically cost the most money on daily fantasy sites.

I charted the number of “startable” weeks for the players at each position. A “startable” week was defined as finishing in the top 33 percent at the position (among the top 30 quarterbacks, tight ends, defenses, and kickers and the top 75 running backs and wide receivers).

You can see that running backs have been by far the most consistent position, with the best of the bunch giving you a top 10 performance 67.0 percent of the time. Quarterbacks aren’t far behind at 61.1 percent, but no other position is close.

When you think about it, that shouldn’t be a surprise. Consider the number of opportunities each position has per game. For quarterbacks, it might be 35 attempts. For top running backs, it’s in the range of 15 to 25 touches.

Meanwhile, wide receivers and tight ends might be lucky to see 10 targets in a game, and it’s often much fewer. Just based on those numbers alone, you’d expect quarterbacks and running backs to be more consistent, and thus more predictable. It’s like asking if a baseball player will come closer to hitting at his career average after five games or after 20 games; there’s just no contest.

Taking it a step further, I analyzed the percentage of “top-tier” weeks turned in by each position. I defined “top-tier” as a top two finish for quarterbacks, tight ends, kickers, and defenses or a top five finish for running backs and wide receivers (the top 6.7 percent for each position).

Again, no contest. Quarterbacks and running backs are just far more consistent on a week-to-week basis than all other positions. When you’re paying for reliability, you should start with the quarterback and running back positions.

I also did a Week 14 Google Hangout with Josh Moore.

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5 Matchups to Watch for Dallas vs. Chicago

Just a heads up that I’m a little short on time, so I’ll get to my game picks tomorrow. For tonight, I’m going Houston 23 (-3) Jacksonville 17 (UNDER 44).

I just posted my matchups to watch for Dallas this week. Here are two of those:

DT Jason Hatcher vs. RG Kyle Long

This matchup will just be a fun one to watch. Long is a highly athletic rookie guard who might just have what it takes to hang with defensive tackle Jason Hatcher on the inside.

In terms of generating a pass-rush, though, the Cowboys need Hatcher to come up big. I think that Dallas is going to get surprising pressure on the outside, but if they don’t and Hatcher can’t beat Long & Co. inside, it’s going to be a long night for the pass defense.

Ideally, you’d like to see Dallas get pressure up the middle so that they don’t have to blitz, allowing them to play Cover 2.

CB Orlando Scandrick vs. WR Alshon Jeffery

The primary advantage of Cover 2 against Chicago is that the ‘Boys can put a safety over top of wide receivers Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall. That’s going to be important, even though cornerback Orlando Scandrick has played outstanding football this year.

Those are the top five cornerbacks in the NFL in yards-per-route in 2013. Scandrick is hanging with the big boys. Nonetheless, Jeffery stands 6’3″, 216 pounds and poses a problem for Scandrick from a physical standpoint.

At only 5’10”, 191 pounds, Scandrick could have good coverage on Jeffery and still not be able to work around his big body. That’s especially true in the red zone, where I’m predicting the cornerback struggles this week.

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Cowboys vs. Bears Preview Articles + Why DeMarco Murray Is Underrated

At ABC, I explained why I don’t like yards-per-carry as a stat (with a little Cowboys-Bears analysis in there):

Yards-per-carry is one of the most misleading statistics in football. As a statistic that records the average, YPC doesn’t account for how runs are distributed. Because of that, it’s very susceptible to fluctuation due to outliers.

If the Cowboys were to record a single run of 80 yards, for example, their YPC would shoot from 4.10 to 4.40. That would move them from below the league-average up into the top 10 in the NFL. Is that fair? Should one play—perhaps the result of a defender failing to tie his shoe or something else random—totally distort a stat?

That’s why rushing success rate is a much more accurate way to judge team rushing strength. Rushing success rate is the percentage of plays on which a team increases their chances of scoring on a drive. A one-yard run on 1st-and-10 would be considered unsuccessful, for example, while a one-yard run on 4th-and-1 would be a success.

Since success rate isn’t distorted by outliers—an 80-yard rush is just as successful as five-yard first down run—it’s immune to wild fluctuations. And since we know big plays via the running game are relatively volatile, success rate is a more accurate way to analyze the running game.

I bring this up because I think the Cowboys use their running game in a way that’s a little bit superior to what most people believe. This year, they rank 19th in YPC but 14th in success rate; 41.6 percent of their runs have increased their expected points.

Last year, the effect was even larger. Despite one of the “worst rushing offenses ever” according to YPC, they still ranked 17th in the NFL in success rate. That’s not outstanding, but Dallas was far from 2012’s worst rushing offense.

The reason that YPC can’t be trusted, in addition to outliers, is that teams run the ball in different situations. Frequently, the “best” rushing teams in YPC are those that use the run in the wrong way. If you run the ball often in situations with high upside, such as 1st-and-10, you might maximize YPC but you won’t be doing the same to your team’s chances of scoring.

Meanwhile, a team that uses the running game more often in short-yardage situations—when it should be utilized—will naturally have a lower YPC. But are they really a worse rushing team?

Not at all. The Cowboys, for example, have converted 75.0 percent of their plays on 3rd and 4th-and-1 this year, thanks in large part to an underrated short-yardage rushing game. Meanwhile, the Bears have converted only half of their plays in those situations, ranking them fourth-worst in the NFL.

Any time we analyze a stat, we need to make sure it’s standardized. We need to make sure we’re looking at the same thing for each team.

When it comes to the running game, we aren’t. Offenses that run the ball properly, using primarily the passing game in situations with high upside, should naturally have lower YPC. That doesn’t make them a worse rushing team. It makes them intelligent.

So who is the better rushing team: the Cowboys or the Bears?

Well, Chicago ranks in the top 10 in YPC and has 1,318 rushing yards on the year. Dallas ranks well in the bottom half in YPC and 27th with 1,021 yards.

Pretty clear, right?

Not so fast. Once you account for game situations, you realize the Cowboys have been better than the Bears on the ground. Chicago has just a 36.4 percent rushing success rate, ranking them 28th in the NFL. As mentioned before, the ‘Boys rank 14th.


At Bleacher Report, I published a game plan for Dallas:

Attack the Perimeter of Chicago’s Offensive Line

If there’s one shocking graph I could create regarding the Bears, it’s this one…

The Bears offensive tackles have given up all kinds of pressure this year, ranking last and fourth-last, according to Pro Football Focus. Left tackle Jermon Bushrod has been really bad, but right tackle Jordan Mills has been just atrocious.

Even if the Cowboys don’t blitz much, they can throw some different looks at the Chicago offensive tackles to create pressure with only four rushers.

By the way, Mills’ struggles are the primary reason I’m projecting defensive end George Selvie to have a monster game.

 

Don’t Double-Team Defensive End Julius Peppers

Peppers is still one heck of a player, but he’s not the dominating pass-rusher he used to be.

You can see that both Shea McClellin and Corey Wootton have pressured the quarterback at nearly the same rate as Peppers.

Plus, Peppers has rushed the passer from the right side of the Bears defense on 88.3 percent of his pass-rush snaps. That means he’ll be matched up primarily on left tackle Tyron Smith. I wouldn’t give Smith much help unless he shows that he needs it.

Also at BR, I broke down DeMarco Murray:

Running back DeMarco Murray‘s goes unappreciated by most Dallas Cowboys fans. While he’s not an elite back in the mold of Adrian Peterson, Murray is an above-average player who doesn’t receive the credit he deserves in Dallas.

Those who might be finally coming around on Murray after his three-touchdown performance on Thanksgiving should have seen the back’s stellar play coming a long time ago. In the preseason, I published four reasons why Murray would break out and explained why I was leading the Murray hype train.

One reason was that Murray is big and fast. Guess what? Speed matters for running backs. A lot. I charted approximate value for backs based on their 40-yard dash time at the NFL Scouting Combine.

If a running back doesn’t clock in faster than 4.50 in the 40-yard dash, his chances of NFL success are tiny. We’ll always have Alfred Morris-esque outliers, but for each Morris, there are bunches of other runners who’ve thrived on straight-line speed.

The second reason I was bullish on Murray is that we often place too much emphasis on film study. Murray hardly looks overwhelming on tape, but he consistently gets thejob done for Dallas. When a 215-pound back with 4.4 speed is highly efficient in his first three seasons in the NFL, I’m not really too concerned with what he looks like on film. The numbers are meaningful enough that I don’t need to let my eyes be deceived.

Let’s take a look at those numbers.

DeMarco’s Numbers

While league-average efficiency typically hovers around 4.2 YPC, Murray’s career mark is 4.8 YPC. That’s impressive, especially when you consider that the Cowboys offensive line has long been considered one of the worst in the league.

Take a look at how Murray stacks up with the backs drafted ahead of him in 2011.

That graph says a lot about the inefficiency of NFL teams when drafting running backs, but Murray has still been far more effective than his peers.

Murray’s largest weakness up until this point in his career has been his inability to stay on the field. Is he injury prone? Maybe, maybe not. But even in terms of bulk yards, Murray blows the other backs out of the water.

Murray has missed 11 games during his three-year NFL career. At this point, it’s really difficult to determine if that’s due to being injury prone or simply the result of randomness. Murray could very well be more susceptible to injuries than the average player, but we just don’t know that for sure at this point.

Either way, he’s been efficient enough that he’s certainly worth his four-year, $2.97 million contract. Murray is on pace for 1,351 total yards, 55 receptions and 10 rushing touchdowns in 2013, despite already missing two games.

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George Selvie’s Decline for Dallas

At ABC, I broke down George Selvie’s recent play:

Breaking Down Selvie vs. Oakland

One of the reasons that Selvie hasn’t been dominant of late is that he’s not an extremely quick player, so he needs to get a good jump off of the ball. I’ve found arm length to be far more important than quickness or straight-line speed for pass-rushers, but Selvie has been too slow off of the ball at times.

That happened early in the game against the Raiders. Selvie was lined up on the right side of the line—a position from which he rarely rushes.

Selvie was the last lineman off of the ball for Dallas. You can see DeMarcus Ware two steps ahead of Selvie on the opposite side of the line.

Selvie will win more battles with his length than his quickness, but he needs to get off of the ball faster to at least put himself in a position to utilize those long arms.

Even when he gets off of the snap adequately, though, Selvie has been letting defenders get into his body.

On the Raiders’ final drive, Selvie was rushing from a stand-up position. He got off of the ball well, but didn’t use his length advantage to fend off the right tackle.

As I’ve watched Selvie this season, it seems as though he struggles when he fails to capitalize on his distinct advantage. Again, he’s not an incredibly quick player, so if Selvie doesn’t utilize his long arms, he’s not going to be effective.

However, I have a feeling Selvie will break out this week against the Bears. Chicago right tackle Jordan Mills has allowed the most pressures in the NFL by a wide margin. He’ll be matched up primarily with Selvie, so look for the defensive end to get back on track in Week 14.