The DC Times

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

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How Victor Cruz Beat the Cowboys’ D

At Dallas News, I broke down Victor Cruz’s 70-yard touchdown:

Breaking Down the Victor Cruz Touchdown

With a first-and-10 at their own 30-yard line, the Giants rushed to the line-of-scrimmage in an effort to get off a play before the two-minute warning. The tactic seemed to catch the Cowboys by surprise. You can see that, just before the snap, there was quite a bit of confusion on defense as to what play they’d be running.

In a Gun Spread look, the Giants were able to snap the ball just before the two-minute warning with the majority of Dallas defenders unaware the play was even live.

The Cowboys had a zone blitz called with a quarters coverage behind it. It’s really not a “blitz” in the traditional sense since they initially rushed only four defenders—three down-linemen and Orlando Scandrick. You can see Scandrick near the bottom of the formation.

On the opposite side, DeMarcus Ware basically took Scandrick’s place by slipping into the flat. That’s why zone blitzes are typically safer than traditional blitzes with man coverage behind them; an atypical defender usually drops into coverage to take the place of a rusher, usually a defensive back. So on many zone blitzes, the defense is still rushing just four players.

The blitz didn’t work since the Cowboys weren’t really ready at the snap. Nonetheless, defensive tackle Nick Hayden slipped through to get initial pressure on Eli Manning.

It’s also worth noting that Sean Lee came after Manning as well, although he wasn’t supposed to be part of the blitz. Lee initially hesitated because he appeared to be in coverage, but took off for the quarterback when he saw running back David Wilson stay in to block.

Check out the rest.

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All of my Cowboys-Giants analysis in one place: Dez Bryant, Position Grades, & More

So what’s up? Anything new going on with you guys? Not sure if you knew, but the Cowboys played last night. Won, too. Here’s some analysis.

I recently joined WFAA.com (ABC Dallas), and my first article takes a look at how the Giants really stifled the Cowboys’ offense.

A Look at Cover 2 Man-Under

Over the past few seasons, the Giants have played Cover 2 and Cover 2 Man-Under on nearly every snap against Dallas. Most are familiar with Cover 2—a true zone coverage—especially now that Monte Kiffin is in town. In Cover 2, the safeties play the deep halves and are responsible for the deepest receiver in their area. The cornerbacks play what’s known as “curl to flat”—a fancy way of saying the underneath zone near the sideline.

In 2 Man-Under, though, everyone other than the safeties is in man coverage. That means when a receiver goes deep, he’s effectively double-teamed. No wonder the Cowboys couldn’t secure any big plays on the night; the Giants made sure they kept everything in front of them, particularly when it came to Mr. Bryant.

One of the interesting tricks the Giants employed was mixing up their looks with the cornerbacks. Even though they played a lot of Cover 2 Man-Under, the Giants didn’t always place their cornerbacks in a press position. Instead, they often played off even when in man coverage, as you can see below.

Bryant, isolated at the top of the screen opposite the Cowboys’ “Trips” formation, was able to get a clean release because the cornerback was playing off. But there were advantages for the Giants in playing with off technique, too.

I’ll be doing a bunch of cool stuff at ABC this year, so definitely check it out.

At NBC, I posted some initial thoughts on the offense:

– I absolutely love that we saw the Pistol from Dallas on Sunday night. Not only that, but we saw it multiple times. The Pistol can allow for Tony Romo to be in Shotgun while also giving the Cowboys the freedom to run any play. DeMarco Murray doesn’t need to delay before taking a handoff, so the Cowboys can have the best of both worlds.

– I need to break down the film, but it was obvious that Dallas didn’t have much play-action success. It was still good to see them using it, though. Last year, Romo compiled a 109.1 passer rating on play-action. It can really be an effective tool in their offensive arsenal, whether the running game is working or not. They’re starting to realize that.



At Bleacher Report, I gave grades for each position:

DeMarco Murray handled 20 of the Cowboys’ 21 carries by running backs, and that’s a great sight to see. At nearly 220 pounds with 4.41 speed and past NFL efficiency, Murray is so much better than Phillip Tanner and Joseph Randle that it’s not even funny.

Murray averaged 4.3 YPC, thanks to a few nice runs in the fourth quarter. He also caught eight passes, showing he’ll be a staple in Bill Callahan’s short passing game.

Grade: C

And at Dallas News, I explained why I think Monte Kiffin’s defense wasn’t that good:

We can and should give the defense some credit for being in the right place at the right time, but we also can’t expect them to force more than a couple of turnovers in each game. And when those disappear, where does that leave this team? Had the Cowboys not gotten some fortuitous bounces against the Giants, this game could have been a blowout.

Again, I’m a fan of Kiffin and I even predicted the Cowboys’ takeaways to increase substantially just before the Giants game. But the ability to force turnovers is about one part skill for every three parts luck. I’ve heard people argue that it doesn’t matter because the Cowboys won the game, and in some ways that’s true, but it does matter if we’re looking to the future. And I don’t know about you, but I’m more concerned with the next 15 games than this single victory.

 

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Cowboys Analysis: Game Plan vs Giants, Player Projections, and 8 Bold Predictions

A bunch of articles posted today. At Bleacher Report, I posted eight predictions for Dallas in 2013:

I’m all about making predictions because I think they convey true understanding. All writers should make predictions—lots of them—but here’s the key: They should be forced to revisit them at the end of the year. Good or bad, that’s what I plan to do with these 2013 Cowboys predictions, just as I did with my 2012 predictions.

When I’m making any prediction, I’m looking for cases where past results aren’t necessarily a reflection of reality. Jason Witten is a great example of that. Although he had 110 receptions in 2012, he saw a career high in targets because the Cowboys were losing so much. If Witten has a lighter workload, his bulk stats will decline in a big way.

So I’m really just searching for predictors of future play that aren’t necessarily represented in past results.

At Dallas News, I posted a breakdown of how Dallas can stop the Giants’ offense:

Limiting Victor Cruz

You’re going to see nickel cornerback Orlando Scandrick on Cruz quite a bit. Although he’s a poor tackler, Scandrick is incredibly underrated in coverage. Last season, he allowed a 51.3 percent completion rate, 5.7 YPA, and a 68.6 passer rating. That low completion rate is particularly impressive playing in the slot, where he can’t use the sideline as an extra defender.

And Scandrick was highly impressive against the Giants in particular last season. In two games, he was targeted six times, allowing just two catches for 30 yards. One reason for that is that Rob Ryan gave his cornerbacks safety help over the top. That’s important for Dallas because it will allow Scandrick and the other cornerbacks to really play aggressively underneath.

And at DallasCowboys.com, I used aggregate projections and past player comps to project the Cowboys’ skill players this week:

For the first time, I’ll be completing week to-week projections for just about every skill position player in the league. It’s primarily for fantasy purposes, but I think the projections could actually give us some unique insights into the Cowboys. There are many ways in which fantasy football is nothing like the NFL, but sometimes the numbers are meaningful; if we know Tony Romo will throw three touchdowns or that Jason Witten will catch eight passes, that’s useful information.

Here’s a screenshot of what I’ve done thus far for the wide receivers:

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Cowboys vs Giants, Week 1: Game Plan Articles

I’ve been posting some game plan articles for Dallas heading into Week 1, the first at Dallas News:

Target Corey Webster

Webster was a quality corner a few years ago, but he’s been really poor in the past two seasons. Last year, Webster allowed 10.3 YPA—one of the worst marks in the NFL. That included a Week 1 thrashing from Dallas during which Webster was targeted six times, allowing five catches for 127 yards and a touchdown.

Opposing quarterbacks have been picking on Webster since 2011, when he was targeted an incredible 130 times. In comparison, Brandon Carr was targeted 87 times in 2012 and Morris Claiborne just 69.

The Giants will likely place Prince Amukamara over top of Dez Bryant. The Cowboys should basically force the ball to Bryant no matter what, but he’ll be involved in one heck of a mismatch of Webster is on him.

It will be interesting to see if the Giants continue a trend they’ve shown against Dallas over the past couple seasons—playing Cover 2 Man Under. In my opinion, that defense—with two deep safeties and man coverage underneath—is the best way to stop Dallas. It’s really the only way to effectively double-team Bryant and it could force the Cowboys to remain patient with the running and quick passing games.



This morning, I published a bunch of DOs and DON’Ts for Dallas in this game:

DO work Jason Witten underneath.

I’ve gone on record as arguing that Witten’s play is declining (and has been for a few years), but it was difficult to spot last season since he had so many targets. Even though I’m bearish on Witten, I think he can play a huge role in this contest.

Cover2manunder_crop_exact

The reason is Cover 2 Man-Under—a defense the Giants love to play against Dallas. Actually, the Giants have played it on as many as 57.1 percent of their snaps in a single game. So what’s Cover 2 Man-Under? Take a look.

As the name suggests, the defenses utilizes a Cover 2 shell with two deep safeties, but man coverage instead of zone coverage underneath. It’s really effective at defending outside receivers, particularly deep. When Dez Bryant runs downfield, he’ll effectively be double-teamed.

Well, one of the best ways to beat Cover 2 Man-Under is with the tight end. If the Giants are going to focus on Dez Bryant, which is extremely likely, Witten should be able to take advantage of man coverage over the middle of the field. Look for Witten to rack up a ton of receptions on out and hitch routes; 64.7 percent of his 2012 routes were one of those two.

And I also took another look at the Cowboys’ changing running game:

Some teams can win games when rushing often—namely teams that run the read-option—but the Cowboys aren’t one of them. They win more frequently when theypass the ball early and often. Actually, it’s that way for the average NFL team too. Check this out:

Runpassbalance_original

Year in and year out, we see the same thing: the best passing teams are the best teams period.

Having said that, it’s still important for the Cowboys to run the ball effectively. And while offensive coordinator Bill Callahan might or might not bring a more balanced early-game approach to Dallas, it’s clear from watching the preseason games that the Cowboys’ approach to running the football has shifted dramatically.

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Offensive Game Plan for Dallas vs Giants

At DMN, I posted a quick game plan for Dallas on Sunday night:

Target Corey Webster

Webster was a quality corner a few years ago, but he’s been really poor in the past two seasons. Last year, Webster allowed 10.3 YPA—one of the worst marks in the NFL. That included a Week 1 thrashing from Dallas during which Webster was targeted six times, allowing five catches for 127 yards and a touchdown.

Opposing quarterbacks have been picking on Webster since 2011, when he was targeted an incredible 130 times. In comparison, Brandon Carr was targeted 87 times in 2012 and Morris Claiborne just 69.

The Giants will likely place Prince Amukamara over top of Dez Bryant. The Cowboys should basically force the ball to Bryant no matter what, but he’ll be involved in one heck of a mismatch of Webster is on him.

It will be interesting to see if the Giants continue a trend they’ve shown against Dallas over the past couple seasons—playing Cover 2 Man Under. In my opinion, that defense—with two deep safeties and man coverage underneath—is the best way to stop Dallas. It’s really the only way to effectively double-team Bryant and it could force the Cowboys to remain patient with the running and quick passing games.


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Cowboys Analysis: Lance Dunbar and Third Downs

A couple articles of note today. At NBC, I posted more on running back Lance Dunbar.

Dunbar is out for the time being with a sprained foot, but he sure looked impressive during his limited action. The shifty running back averaged 5.6 YPC on his eight rushes and caught all six of his targets for 83 yards, highlighted of course by the big 43-yard reception on which Dunbar fumbled the ball. I wouldn’t worry too much about the fumble unless it becomes a habit; what’s more important is that Dunbar is showing the sort of explosiveness that Joseph Randle doesn’t possess.

Coming out of North Texas, Dunbar was timed anywhere from the low-4.4s to the high 4.4s. Players with his small stature need speed. It’s basically a prerequisite at the running back position; backs in Dunbar’s range of speed have produced at over four times the rate of those as fast as Randle. Randle’s 4.63 time was really poor in isolation, but it’s especially poor when you consider that he’s just 204 pounds.

And at Dallas News, I posted some info on the Cowboys’ 2012 third downs.

The Cowboys were one of the best third down teams in the NFL last year, due primarily to their passing offense. As I searched through my database, I found some cool numbers on the Cowboys’ third/fourth down plays. Check it out.

Interestingly, the Cowboys were better on third-and-four than they were on third-and-one through third-and-three. At first I thought that was because they couldn’t run the ball all that well, but the ‘Boys were actually a decent short-yardage rushing team last year. So I compared the Cowboys’ conversions to those across the league.

You can see that Dallas was a little bit better than average on third-and-short, but significantly better than most NFL teams on third-and-medium. Their advantage extended from third-and-three to third-and-six.

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More on Why I Love DeMarco Murray in 2013

At Dallas News, I explained why I’m leading the DeMarco Murray hype train:

One of the players who has soared up my board of late is running back DeMarco Murray. I’ve explained in the past why I’m so bullish on Murray, and there are multiple reasons. First, he’s young. Take a look at this.

That’s running back efficiency based on age, and you can see just how important youth is to a running back’s success. Actually, running backs come into the NFL at near peak efficiency! By age 27, the typical running back is producing at just 75 percent of his previous high.

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Tony Romo Best in Fourth Quarter. No, For Real.

At Dallas News, I showed why Tony Romo gets a bad rap as a choke artist.

And the stats overwhelmingly suggest that Romo is clutch when the stakes are high. That might seem ridiculous given his reputation, but Romo actually has the highest fourth quarter passer rating of any quarterback in the NFL since 2000. Higher than Tom Brady. Higher than Peyton Manning. Higher than Drew Brees. Higher than Aaron Rodgers. On top of that, Romo has a higher passer rating in December and January than he does in the earlier months. That doesn’t fit well with what we “know” about Romo late in the season, does it?

Well, I just found a little more evidence that Romo is fine in clutch situations. Take a look.

Over the past two seasons, only Eli Manning has led more fourth quarter comeback wins than Romo. There’s a little bit of a selection bias at work because some quarterbacks, such as Brady and Rodgers, don’t lead a lot of comeback victories since their teams aren’t losing that often. But it’s still interesting that Romo has beat out many of his more comparable peers.

 

 

 

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Is Dez Bryant a Calvin Johnson-Caliber WR?

At Dallas News, I explained why I think Dez Bryant has the potential to be better than Megatron:

Bryant, who will begin the 2013 season at age 24, is coming off of a season in which he posted a line of 92/1,382/12 at an age when the average NFL wide receiver is playing at just 83 percent of his eventual peak efficiency. That’s a really, really scary thought for opposing cornerbacks.

And although it now seems like Johnson dominated the league from the moment he was drafted by the Lions, that’s not the case. So let’s compare Bryant’s first three seasons in the NFL to Megatron’s initial three campaigns. First, let’s look at yards per target.

Johnson received 382 targets in his first three NFL seasons, compared to just 313 for Bryant. Despite that, the two posted very comparable receiving totals. That’s because Bryant was more efficient, averaging a robust 9.17 yards per target, compared to just 8.04 for Johnson.

Second, Bryant is one of the game’s premiere scoring threats. The same is true for Megatron, but I’d go as far as to say that Bryant is the NFL’s best red zone receiver. His ball skills are simply out of this world and he seems to never lose in any jump ball situations. If forced to guess on who will score more touchdowns in 2013, my choice would be Bryant, and it wouldn’t even be close.

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Why I’m “Selling” DeMarcus Ware and “Buying” Tyron Smith

At NBC, I posted three Cowboys I’m “selling” in 2013.

DE DeMarcus Ware
Let me be clear that I’m not arguing that Ware is an ineffective player or that I’d trade him for a mid-round pick or anything like that. He’s awesome. But I don’t think he’s quite as awesome as most. It seems like everyone is expecting Ware to return to his 20-plus sack form, but I think we’ll see a lot of disappointment if that’s the case. His efficiency has declined for a few years in a row, and at age 31, he’ll be playing at an age that has historically been the start of a precipitous drop in production for pass-rushers. So I’m not selling Ware as a meaningful contributor to the defense (and really still one of the better defensive players in the NFL), but rather as the dominant 20-sack player we saw a few seasons ago.

And at Dallas News, I broke down why I love Tyron Smith in 2013:

One of the reasons that I ranked Smith as high as I did is Romo’s proclivity for hanging onto the football too long. If Smith played with Peyton Manning in Denver, for example, I think his pressure rate would basically be cut in half. Romo makes tons of plays by buying time, but he also artificially inflates the pressure rates of his linemen.

Second, and even more important, Smith is just 22 years old. He’s entering his third season in the NFL at an age when many players are just coming into it as rookies. Cowboys rookie wide receiver Terrance Williams will be 24 before Smith is 23, for example. That’s amazing, and it really goes a long way in trying to project Smith’s potential breakout. Offensive tackles typically have very long careers, but it takes them a few years to come into their own. Smith’s age is such a positive because, given his experience at 22, he’ll have more years playing at peak efficiency.

Plus, Smith was good as a run blocker last year. Dallas running backs averaged 4.47 YPC with Smith at the point-of-attack—well above the overall average of 3.56 YPC. Overall, I gave Smith a B- grade in my final 2012 report card. He’s primed for a huge 2013 season.