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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.