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Cowboys Analysis: Dez Bryant, Orlando Scandrick & Week 8 Primer

At DallasCowboys.com, I broke down why I like Orlando Scandrick:

Through Week 7, Scandrick has been targeted 41 times, a pretty high number for a cornerback playing so well. He’s yielded 26 receptions (63.4 percent) for 217 yards (5.29 yards per attempt or YPA). That efficiency is outstanding for any cornerback.

Actually, anything around 7.5 YPA or lower is great, and Scandrick has checked in below that in all but two games.

He turned in a decent performance against the Broncos (although you might say it was above average given the competition) and a slightly below-average game against the Redskins, but otherwise, Scandrick has been unbelievable. Even considering his work solely in the slot, Scandrick has allowed only 5.35 YPA.

One of the other cool ways to judge cornerbacks is by how many yards they allow on a per-route basis. That way, they’re actually rewarded for having good coverage and not getting targeted. Whereas a cornerback who gave up one completion of 15 yards in 100 snaps would be penalized in terms of YPA, he’d rank highly in yards per route (YPR).

Looking at how Scandrick compares to the Cowboys’ other cornerbacks and the NFL as a whole, we can start to visualize his dominance.

The top cornerback in the NFL in YPR is unsurprisingly Tampa Bay’s Darrelle Revis, according to Pro Football Focus. But not far behind him, ranking well within the top 10, is Scandrick. Cowboys cornerback Brandon Carr, who ranks in the top 20 in the NFL in YPR at 1.01, is performing better than he did in 2012. Still, at 0.73 YPR, Scandrick is over a quarter-yard better than the Cowboys’ “best” cornerback. He’s allowing well below half of Morris Claiborne’s 1.63 YPR.

At Dallas Morning News, I explained why I think Dez Bryant might eventually be better than Calvin Johnson:

A Different Look

One of the rebuttals I heard regarding the original Bryant vs. Johnson debate is that Bryant had a superior quarterback during his first three years in the NFL. That’s certainly true. And while you might think there’s no way to quantify that, we can look at market share—the percentage of their teams’ total passing yards and touchdowns that each receiver generated.

When we look at it through that lens, Johnson comes out on top.

Although the numbers are relatively close, Johnson had a higher percentage of his team’s yards (30.7 percent) and touchdowns (39.7 percent) through his first three seasons.

While this is certainly a positive for Johnson, there are a couple reasons I think it doesn’t matter as much as the original numbers. First, Johnson had way more targets in his first three years (382 versus 313 for Bryant). If we account for those numbers, the market share stats look very comparable.

Second, the total market share numbers reward Johnson for playing on a poor team. For example, he had 21 touchdowns in his first three seasons, while Bryant totaled 27. But Johnson’s market share of touchdowns was higher because the Lions as a team threw only 53 total touchdowns during that time, compared to 91 for the Cowboys.

Finally, there’s value in having the same market share with higher bulk stats. What’s more difficult: posting 10 touchdowns on a team that throws for 20, or 20 touchdowns on a team that has 40? The latter, for sure, but market sure doesn’t capture that.

We definitely need to examine quarterback quality when determining if Bryant’s first three seasons were indeed superior to Johnson’s, and market share is part of that. It certainly gives us a glimpse into just how poor Johnson’s team was, at least. But when you consider Bryant’s efficiency and bulk stats in combination with the market share numbers, there’s at least a semi-convincing argument to be made that he’s on the path to Johnson-esque greatness.

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

Key Matchup to Watch: RT Doug Free vs. DE Willie Young

The Lions are loaded across the defensive line, with defensive ends Ezekiel Ansah and Willie Young out wide and defensive tackles Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley inside. Suh is the big name and the Lions’ top pass-rusher, but Young has been pretty effective as well.

Young checks in just below Suh in pressure rate, and he leads the Lions in quarterback hits. Pro Football Focus has tracked Young as lining up on the left side of Detroit’s defense on 70.8 percent of his pass snaps, so he’ll face off primarily against right tackle Doug Free.

Free has improved significantly over last year, allowing pressure on just 3.6 percent of his snaps (compared to 6.1 percent in 2012). If Free can contain Young on his own, the Cowboys will be in a better position to help their interior linemen face off against one of the league’s premiere defensive tackle duos.


Predicting Cowboys vs. Eagles Winner with Common Games

At Dallas News, I looked at the Cowboys’ and Eagles’ common games:

Passing/Rushing Yards Against

Defensively, the Cowboys and Eagles have been quite similar in regards to total yards allowed. Below, I charted the rushing and passing yards allowed for both teams against all five common opponents.

You can see the results have been eerily similar against each opponent. As a unit, the Cowboys’ defense allowed 77 more combined yards than the Eagles against their common opponents.

Passing/Rushing Yards For

Offensively, though, the Eagles have outperformed the ‘Boys in their common games. Check it out.

The passing offenses have been similar. Even with Tony Romo’s huge day against Denver, Philly quarterbacks passed for just 35 fewer yards in the five games.


Week 7 Preview and More on Joseph Randle

At Bleacher Report, I posted a Week 7 preview:

What Must Improve: Pass Protection

So much can change in a week. After the Cowboys’ Week 5 loss at the hands of the Broncos, the offense was coming off of one of the premiere games for any team in NFL history, while the defense allowed 51 points.

Fast-forward seven days, and it’s the ‘Boys’ defense and special teams that got them the victory over Washington on Sunday night. Meanwhile, the Cowboys’ top rusher was Murray with 29 yards and their top receiver was Cole Beasley with 44 yards. Yikes.

To fix the offense in Week 7, the Cowboys desperately need superior pass protection. The line allowed just one sack against the Redskins, but that’s really just because Romo got the ball out quickly and dodged trouble when it was near.

After allowing an average of 7.4 pressures in their first five games, the line yielded eight pressures on Sunday night. That’s a small increase, but let’s not forget Romo also had only 30 attempts. He was averaging 37.6 attempts coming into the game.

That means the pressure rate against Washington (26.7 percent) was higher than in Weeks 1 through 5 (19.7 percent). Here’s a breakdown of the Cowboys’ pressure rate by week.

You can see the Cowboys’ top offensive performances came in the two games—versus St. Louis and Denver—when they allowed the lowest pressure rates. That’s not a coincidence.

Against the Eagles, the Cowboys probably can’t focus on stopping just one player because the Philadelphia rushers are strong across the board. Starting outside linebackers Trent Cole and Connor Barwin have near the same pressure rate as defensive end Vinny Curry, with defensive end Cedric Thornton not far behind.

Surprisingly, though, it’s the Eagles backups who have been the most efficient. Outside linebackers Vinny Curry and Brandon Graham have dominated in limited action. Curry has seven pressures in 47 pass-rush snaps and Graham eight pressures in 69 snaps. Compare that to 11 pressures each for Barwin and Cole in 175 and 190 pass-rush snaps, respectively.

And at Dallas News, I argued that Joseph Randle is going to struggle:

Here’s a visualization of how much the 40 time matters for running backs.

Those are all backs drafted since 2000, measured by approximate value (which takes into account all stats like rushing yards, receiving yards, touchdowns, and so on). It’s kind of a hard chart to ignore.

And the backs that have succeeded despite sub-par long speed (Arian Foster and Alfred Morris today or Emmitt Smith in the 90s, for example), are all built like houses. They’re not lean runners who’ve overcome both a lack of size and a lack of speed. That just doesn’t seem to happen.

Maybe that’s why we’re seeing this sort of efficiency from the backs in 2013:

The sample size is limited, certainly, but this is a trend that we see all across the league: fast running backs excel, slow ones perish.

None of this means that Randle can’t at all succeed on a game-by-game basis. Running back production is highly dependent on the offensive line, and if the ‘Boys open up running lanes for Randle, it’s not like he can’t take what’s there. He even has a favorable matchup this week in Philly.

But if Dunbar is healthy, past running back stats—his own and those across the NFL—say he should be the man to see most of the workload. And if you’re looking to Randle to be an effective long-term option at running back for Dallas, you might want to look again.


This stat suggests improvement for Dallas

Over at Dallas News, I posted this article on a stat that suggests the ‘Boys will improve:


That’s quarterback Tony Romo’s Adjusted Net Yards Per Attempt (ANYPA) through Week 5. ANYPA is a stat that factors touchdowns, interceptions, and sacks into a quarterback’s YPA. It’s the most predictive stat in all of football; year in and year out, the best teams are those that rank highest in ANYPA.

Right now, the Cowboys rank fifth in the NFL in the category, behind the Broncos, Chargers, Eagles, and Saints. That’s good news for Romo and the ‘Boys, suggesting they’re better than their 2-3 record indicates.

To visualize the effect ANYPA has on winning, I charted the winning percentage for different groups of teams based on both their passing and rushing efficiency.


Cowboys Lucky to Be 2-2?

At Dallas News, I debated whether or not the Cowboys are lucky to be 2-2:

Using points scored and allowed, here are the “Pythagorean Wins” for the NFC East.

Team Record Pythagorean Wins
Dallas Cowboys 2-2 2.47
Philadelphia Eagles 1-3 1.25
Washington Redskins 1-3 1.52
New York Giants 0-4 0.45

Another way of looking at these numbers is this: if the teams played the first quarter of the season 1,000 times with the same number of points for and against that we’ve seen in 2013, what would be their average number of wins? If the ‘Boys scored 104 points and allowed 85 points over the course of 1,000 seasons, their average win total would be somewhere around 2.47.

With this methodology, you can see Dallas has actually been quite superior to their division rivals. Even though their most likely record is 2-2—the same as the probable record for the Redskins given their 1.52 expectation—the ‘Boys have played a little better than their record suggests.

Another way to analyze team strength is to examine net expected points. Expected points is a calculation of how many points a team should have scored (or allowed) based on how well they played from play to play. The metric uses actual past game data, so it’s really accurate.

Team Expected Points Expected Points Allowed Adjusted Pythagorean Wins
Dallas Cowboys 97.3 85.5 2.30
Philadelphia Eagles 116.2 130.4 1.73
Washington Redskins 97.0 107.4 1.76
New York Giants 47.7 100.8 0.58

Again, the Cowboys come out on top. However, you can see the Cowboys’ win expectation drops when we analyze them in terms of expected points, whereas the expectations for the other three teams all rise.

That means that while the Cowboys have still played the best football in the NFC East through four games, the Eagles and Redskins, in particular, aren’t that far behind.


Projecting George Selvie’s 2013 Sacks

At Dallas News, I tried to predict George Selvie’s final 2013 sack total:

Projecting Selvie in 2013

Through three games, Selvie has a pair of sacks. However, he’s actually pressured the quarterback more than anyone on the team, according to Pro Football Focus. I’ve found that sacks tend to add up to one-quarter of pressures over the long run, so considering Selvie his 12 pressures, his most likely sack total at this point is three.

Moving forward, it’s unrealistic to expect Selvie to post four pressures per game. In comparison, DeMarcus Ware’s career-high in pressures is 61—under four per game. However, based on how much offenses double-team Ware and how that leaves Selvie singled up on most plays, I think he can legitimately record three pressures per game.

Head there for the final prediction.


Why I think DeMarcus Ware will slow down in second half of 2013

At Dallas News, I argued that DeMarcus Ware isn’t likely to keep up his current pace deep into the 2013 season:

Prior to the season, I projected defensive end DeMarcus Ware at just 10.5 sacks in 2013. A major reason for that prediction was that Ware’s production has been trending downward for some time.

Part of Ware’s 2012 decline was certainly due to his injuries; he was banged up for much of the year and really played the majority of the season unhealthy. Still, his career curve resembles that of the typical pass-rusher

I bet that Ware’s drop in production last season was due more so to his age than his injuries. It was probably a combination of both, but the defensive end’s early 2013 dominance as a pass-rusher suggests that he’s still got something left in the tank, when healthy.

The problem is that he’s playing at an age that makes him far more susceptible to injuries than someone a half-decade younger. If you recall, Ware actually played outstanding football to start the 2012 season, too. He had four sacks in his first three games—the same as this season—six sacks in the first five games, and 10 of his 11.5 sacks in the first 10 contests.

There’s no doubt that Ware is playing great football right now. He’s pressured the quarterback on 10 percent of his rushes—near the levels of pass-rushing efficiency he posted in 2010 and 2011, when he had 35 sacks combined. But can he keep it up?


Cowboys-Rams Week 3 Analysis: Game Notes, Position Report Card & More

At Dallas News, I posted a breakdown of the Cowboys-Rams win probability graph:

One of the coolest (and most useful) things we can do with stats is predict each team’s probability of winning a game in real time. The win probability graphs over at Advanced NFL Stats use historic game data to display the chances of each team winning a game as the game is happening. Here’s the Cowboys-Rams win probability graph from Sunday afternoon:

This is one of the most boring win probability graphs you’ll see all season, and that’s a great thing for Dallas. The ‘Boys dominated this game throughout; within nine minutes, the Rams’ chances of winning were under 25 percent, and they never improved. By halftime, the Cowboys had a 93 percentchance to win, and again, it never got worse for Dallas from there on out.

At NBC, I posted a few of my notes from the game:

– All of the cornerbacks played outstanding football, but we really need to tip our hats to Orlando Scandrick. He held rookie speedster Tavon Austin to just 30 yards on six receptions. When you can corral a player like Austin before he gets going, his value is limited because he doesn’t run many downfield routes and he can’t score in the red zone. Scandrick also had a sack and a quarterback hit.

– Based on the halftime score of 17-0, the Cowboys had a 93 percent chance to win the game after two quarters. That assumes the teams were evenly matched, so the Cowboys’ win probability was probably closer to 95 percent or better.

– Bill Callahan did a really nice job of calling plays, especially on the first drive. The Cowboys opened up the game with the same “Pistol” look that we saw in Week 1. We also saw the old “kill” audible system, meaning Romo was actually given less freedom at the line in this game, and way more play-action passes.

And at Bleacher Report, I posted grades for each position:

1. DeMarco Murray

2. Lance Dunbar

3. Phillip Tanner

Running backs Lance Dunbar and Phillip Tanner combined for eight carries, so this was really the Murray show all day. Murray ran for 175 yards on 26 carries. Even if you take out his longest run of 41 yards, Murray still totaled 134 yards on 25 carries—5.36 YPC.

Murray also added three receptions for 28 yards, giving him 16 receptions on the year. If he keeps up his current pace, Murray will total 85 catches this year. It’s unlikely he’ll reach that mark, but 65 receptions isn’t out of the question just because, with defenses playing wide receiver Dez Bryant the way they are, the underneath stuff will be open for Murray out of the backfield.

Grade: A


Assessing DeMarco Murray in Week 3, Beyond

At Dallas News, I examined DeMarco Murray’s future, starting in Week 3 vs. the Rams:

Using Murray’s comps as a guide, we can estimate the likelihood of him hitting certain milestones this week. First, the touchdowns:

You can see there’s around a 64 percent chance that Murray doesn’t score in this game and an 84 percent chance that he scores no more than one time. His projected yards tells a different story:

Of the five different subsets of total yards, the single most likely is 121 or more. Actually, based on his comps, Murray has right around a one-in-three shot of breaking out for at least 121 yards on Sunday.

And some of those players went for way more; there were two performances of at least 220 yards and seven with at least 160. That means that of the eight players who went for at least 121 total yards, seven of them actually totaled at least 160 yards.


One way to fix the Dallas offense

At Dallas News, I discussed one thing the Cowboys really need to do better offensively:

What does the Cowboys’ offense possess that other teams don’t? Where can they really find an advantage on game day? The answer is Dez Bryant. He’s absolutely one of the top players in the NFL—one I argued will be better than Calvin Johnson—and the Cowboys aren’t using him correctly.

Before I get into 2013’s numbers, let’s take a look back at 2012. Check out the frequency with which Bryant was targeted deep (20 or more yards downfield) in each game.

The ‘Boys had an obvious flaw in their early-season offensive attack, targeting Bryant downfield only four times in their first six games, including not at all in two-thirds of those contests. They learned from the mistake, making an obvious change to get Bryant the ball deep. And it worked.

Bryant in Games 1-6: 63.7 yards, 0.33 TDs per game
Bryant Games 7-16: 100.4 yards, 1 TD per game

Think there’s something there? I do. Bryant is so talented that he absolutely needs to be fed the ball just about every time he’s not in an obvious double-team situation.