The DC Times

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

By Jonathan Bales

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

By Jonathan Bales

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.

By Jonathan Bales

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.

By Jonathan Bales

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.

By Jonathan Bales

The Sportstradamus: Week 13 NFL Game Picks

In Week 12, I went 6-7-1 straight up, 4-9-1 ATS, and 8-6 on totals. That brings my season totals to 115-60-1 straight up, 83-86-6 ATS, and 97-75-1 on totals. I already picked the Thanksgiving games earlier this week. Here are the rest of the picks.

Week 13 Picks

@Indy 28 (-3.5) Tennessee 23 (OVER 44.5)

Denver 28 (-5) @Kansas City 21 (UNDER 49.5)

@Cleveland 23 (-7) Jacksonville 14 (UNDER 40.5)

@Carolina 23 Tampa Bay 17 (+8) (UNDER 42)

Chicago 23 (+1) @Minnesota 20 (UNDER 50.5)

@Philly 27 (-3) Arizona 21 (UNDER 48.5)

@NY Jets 21 Miami 20 (+3) (OVER 39.5)

@Buffalo 27 (-3) Atlanta 20 (UNDER 47.5)

@San Fran 30 (-8) St. Louis 20 (OVER 42)

New England 24 Houston 21 (+9) (UNDER 47.5)

Cincy 23 (+1.5) San Diego 20 (UNDER 48.5)

New York Giants 28 (-1) @Washington 20 (OVER 45)

New Orleans 24 (+5.5) @Seattle 20 (UNDER 47.5)

By Jonathan Bales

Thanksgiving Picks

No time to submit all of my game picks today, so I’ll do the three Thanksgiving games and then post the rest on Friday.

@Detroit 28 (-6.5) Green Bay 20 (UNDER 50)

@Dallas 27 Oakland 20 (+9) (UNDER 48)

Pittsburgh 17 (+3) @Baltimore 14 (UNDER 41.5)

Happy Thanksgiving!

By Jonathan Bales

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.

And how Dallas better utilized Dez Bryant vs. the Giants:

Play-Action Passes

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.

Crossing Routes

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.

By Jonathan Bales

Here’s about 1 million Cowboys-Giants articles I haven’t posted

At ABC, I posted some New York Giants trends. Here’s one:

The Giants can’t properly randomize their plays.

One of my favorite areas of play-calling to study is that on 2nd down because I think it can tell you a lot about an offensive coordinator’s mindset. Specifically, I like to look at 2nd and 10 because it’s a situation in which the offense often threw an incomplete pass on first down.

Most NFL play-callers can’t randomize their play-calling. Humans in general are poor at replicating randomness, usually alternating occurrences much too often. If someone asks you to guess the result of 100 separate coin flips, you probably won’t have a string of five straight heads (or tails), even though that’s likely to occur just by chance.

NFL play-callers are the same way, often calling a run after a failed pass and a pass after a failed run. They think that by “mixing it up” they’re randomizing their play-calling, but that thought process is ironically making their choices very predictable. The Cowboys were actually one of the worst second-down play-calling teams in the NFL prior to hiring analytics guru Ken Kovash, who wrote a paper on the topic and helped fix the problem. He’s since departed for Cleveland.

Well, the Giants, like most teams, can be predictable. Below, I charted the pass rates for the Giants, Cowboys, and NFL as a whole on 2nd-and-9, 2nd-and-10, and 2nd-and-11.

The rate of passes on 2nd-and-10 is lower than that on both 2nd-and-9 and 2nd-and-11 for all three groups. That’s what we’d expect if teams aren’t properly randomizing play-calls, following incomplete first down passes with too many second down runs. In reality, we should see approximately equal pass rates on all three down-and-distances, or perhaps a slightly higher pass rate on 2nd-and-10 than on 2nd-and-9.

This is a small subset of a much larger issue: teams suck at calling plays in an optimal fashion. The Cowboys can take advantage of this by understanding when the Giants are most likely to run or pass; it should be dependent on the down-and-distance and game situation but independent of the previous play-call (run or pass), but it’s not.

At Bleacher Report, I posted four shocking stats for Dallas:

Romo has attempted a play-action pass on only 10.3 percent of his dropbacks.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Tony Romo has attempted the lowest rate of play-action passes in the entire NFL.

If that doesn’t sound like a joke to you, consider that he has a 121.1 passer rating on those passes, a year after a 109.1 rating on play action. He also ranked last in play-action passes in 2012, by a wide margin.

Yet the Cowboys absolutely refuse to attempt more play-action passes. Now it sounds more like a joke, right?

The obvious answer for this phenomenon is that the Cowboys can’t run the ball, so there’s no reason to run play action. But guess what? You don’t need to be able to run the ball to utilize play action. There’s no correlation there at all.

Take a look at the top 10 quarterbacks in play-action passer rating.

That’s Romo at No. 3, behind Philip Rivers and Peyton Manning. After each quarterback, I added their team’s rank in yards per carry. The average for this list is 17th, which is obviously below the league average.

Rivers and Manning in particular have absolutely dominated on play-action passes this year. Manning has attempted one on 29.3 percent of his passes, which is nearly three times the rate of Romo. Yet both Rivers and Manning play on offenses that have been horribly inefficient at running the football.

When you blindly accept vague ideas such as “you need to run to set up the pass,” it leads you to run an offense and an entire team that’s outdated and incapable of evolving.

The Cowboys’ play-action passing rate and inability to get the most out of Bryant are just the tip of the iceberg for an organization that’s stuck in the 1990s in just about every imaginable way.

I broke down what you need to know this week:

What Must Improve: First-Down Offense

Check out these stats compiled by ESPN Dallas’ Tim McMahon regarding the Cowboys’ third-down offense:

  • The Cowboys rank 30th in the NFL in third-down conversion rate (32.8 percent, 38-of-116).
  • Romo’s third-down QBR (19.8) ranks 29th in the NFL.
  • Romo ranks 30th in the NFL in average yards per attempt on third downs (5.74).
  • Romo’s third-down passer rating (57.6) ranks 32nd in the NFL.
  • Romo’s third-down completion percentage (47.1) ranks 34th in the NFL.

Those are some horrible numbers—but they’re misleading.

One reason that third-down stats are misleading is that there isn’t a huge sample, so the results are fragile. With only 116 third-down plays on the year so far, a small jump in third-down conversions would send the Cowboys soaring in the rankings. It’s really difficult to determine if the Cowboys’ third-down failures are real or just random. Their ability to pass the ball effectively overall suggests that their third-down struggles are perhaps more illusory than real.

Second, offenses shouldn’t be playing to set up short third downs. Instead, they should try to avoid third down altogether. And the Cowboys have done a pretty good job of that; although they clearly could benefit from better third-down play, they also have faced the fewest third downs in the NFL.

So while third downs are important, they aren’t standardized, because offenses approach first and second down in different ways. The best offenses often have a low percentage of third-down plays because they convert before they even reach third down.

Despite seeing few third downs, the Cowboys still need to do a much better job on first down. Specifically, they need to attack defenses downfield. Quarterback Tony Romo has a 69.7 percent completion rate on first down, which is the third-highest for any quarterback with at least 50 attempts, behind only Philip Rivers and Peyton Manning.

Even with a stellar completion rate, though, Romo has compiled only 6.7 YPA on first down (compare that to 9.5 YPA and 9.2 YPA for Rivers and Manning, respectively). That number ranks him 29th in the NFL.

The numbers suggest that the Cowboys are playing extremely conservative on first down. No, they aren’t running the ball all the time (although they’re still doing it too much early in games), but they’re are substituting short throws for more carries.

Instead, the ‘Boys should treat first downs as the high-upside situations they are by attacking defenses vertically.

If their focus is solely on converting third downs, they’re going to lose sight of the big picture, as the goal shouldn’t be increasing the third-down conversion rate at all costs, but rather increasing overall offensive efficiency. By running and using short passes to create “manageable third downs,” Dallas is leaving yards and points on the table.

I also wrote about how Dallas can get Dez Bryant more involved:

Later in the game, the chance for a back-shoulder throw was available. New Orleans was again up in Bryant’s face.

Even with a safety deep, this is a situation in which the Cowboys need to get the ball to their stud receiver. If the opposing cornerbacks are going to get in his face and turn their back to Romo, the ‘Boys need to take advantage of Bryant’s superior ball skills by throwing to his back shoulder whenever possible.

Just about the only time that’s not available is when Bryant sees something like this.

Yeah, that’s probably not a beatable coverage.

With that said, I’ve brainstormed four ways the Cowboys can get the ball to Bryant more frequently and more effectively.

Throw him more back-shoulder passes.

Duh.

Use more bunch formations

The Cowboys usually leave Bryant alone outside, which is fine if you’re going to take advantage of what that offers. But since Romo doesn’t seem too eager to throw to Bryant’s back shoulder, and the coaches don’t appear too ready to tell Romo to do it, the team could at least benefit from moving Bryant inside.

As mentioned, that can open up new routes, make it more difficult to double him since defenders can’t use the sideline to their advantage and allow for Bryant to get off of press coverage more easily.

 

Motion him

Another way for Bryant to beat the press is to put him in motion. Using Bryant in pre-snap motion, which is something Dallas doesn’t do often, might not only help Romo diagnose the coverage, but it could also make it more difficult for cornerbacks to get in position to jam Bryant.

Use more crossing routes

Finally, the Cowboys absolutely must stretch the field both vertically and horizontally. We always make a big deal about Dallas not attacking downfield, and that’s a very legitimate concern, but they ironically don’t really stretch the field horizontally, either. They run a whole lot of curls, hitches, quick outs and so on.

Against the Saints, you saw quarterback Drew Brees have all sorts of success on deep crossing routes. They’re difficult for cornerbacks to defend in man coverage if they get behind the receiver right off of the snap, but they can also be zone-coverage killers when receivers sit down in open areas.

Utilizing more crossing routes will help the entire Dallas offense, but Bryant could be the main beneficiary.

And finally, here’s my game plan for Dallas against the Giants in Week 12:

DON’T bite up on run action.

The Giants are one of the league’s worst rushing teams, ranked 30th with only 3.2 YPC. Only 36.6 percent of the Giants’ runs have increased their probability of scoring, according to Advanced NFL Stats, which is the fourth-worst number in the NFL. Even the Cowboys have a 40.7 percent run success rate.

In addition to the Giants not being able to run the ball, the Cowboys also need to consider the success of play-action passes around the NFL. Take a look at the difference inYPA and touchdown rate across the league on play-action versus straight dropbacks.

The Cowboys rank last in the NFL in play-action rate, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), showing it on just 10.3 percent of dropbacks. The Giants don’t do it much either, but the downside of jumping up on play-action and allowing a downfield pass is much greater than sitting back and letting running back Andre Brown run for six yards.

It’s simple risk/reward. Even though NFL teams still teach defenders to play the run and react to the pass, that’s not the strategy the Cowboys should implement this week (or ever, really). Don’t let quarterback Eli Manning gash you on play-action, and react to the run if he hands it off.

DO blitz Eli Manning often.

Manning has really struggled against the blitz (four or more rushers) in 2013. Below, I used numbers from PFF to chart the percentage of his peak YPA, touchdown-to-interception ratio and passer rating on passes versus the blitz and those against four or fewer rushers.

You can see Manning has been at his best in every category when defenses haven’t blitzed. He’s actually compiled 85.3 percent or less of his non-blitz production in every single category.

Plus, the Cowboys should play more of a high-variance defensive strategy anyway. They’re 5-5 and need to get hot to do anything in the regular season and playoffs, so it’s time to take some chances. Plus, if they want to play more man coverage as Jerry Jones suggested to DallasCowboys.com, that will be a necessity on most blitzes.

DO attack the Giants’ offensive tackles.

The Giants haven’t given Manning much time to throw the football this year, and it starts on the outside. Left tackle William Beatty and rookie right tackle Justin Pugh have been awful. Take a look at their pressure rates compared to offensive tackles Tyron Smith and Doug Free in Dallas.

Neither Smith nor Free, who have allowed the same amount of pressure, have been sensational by any means. Yet both Beatty and Pugh have allowed a good deal more pressure than the Cowboys’ tackles.

DON’T overlook the Giants’ pass rush.

The Giants rank last in the NFL with only 14 sacks. Defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul has two sacks and fellow pass-rusher Justin Tuck has just 1.5 sacks. But that doesn’t mean that those players and the Giants defense as a whole can’t get to the passer.

Sacks are notoriously fluky. Despite their low sack total, the Giants are actually getting to the quarterback. They have 117 pressures on the year, which would normally put them around 25 sacks or so. The fact that they have 11 less than that suggests they’ve been incredibly unlucky, but that their future sack rate will increase.

My guess is that it starts this week against the ‘Boys.

By Jonathan Bales

The Sportstradamus: Week 12 NFL Game Picks

In Week 11, I went 11-4 straight up, 9-3-3 against the spread, and 7-6 on totals. That brings my record on the year to 109-53 straight up, 79-77-5 ATS, and 89-69-1 on totals. Only one ESPN expert has a better record than me on straight up picks, and I’m sure I’ll pass him by the end of the year.

As it stands right now, this figures to be my fourth (out of four) straight year being profitable in NFL. If you bet in NFL every game and over/under, you’d be 22 games above .500. Although this isn’t a great year for me, it’s still a decent record considering I pick every game and total.

Let’s take a look at the NFL game lines for Week 12 and make some picks…

Week 12 NFL Game Picks

New Orleans 31 (-9.5) @Atlanta 21 (UNDER 53.5)

@Detroit 30 (-8.5) Tampa Bay 20 (OVER 48.5)

@Houston 28 Jacksonville 20 (+10) (OVER 43)

@Green Bay 34 (-3.5) Minnesota 20 (OVER 44)

@Kansas City 24 San Diego 20 (+5.5) (OVER 41.5)

@Carolina 24 (-4) Miami 17 (UNDER 41.5)

@Cleveland 23 (-1) Pittsburgh 20 (OVER 39.5)

Chicago 23 (+1.5) @St. Louis 17 (UNDER 46.5)

@Baltimore 24 NY Jets 20 (+4.5) (OVER 38.5)

Tennessee 23 (+1) @Oakland 20 (OVER 41)

@Arizona 23 (-1.5) Indy 21 (UNDER 45.5)

@NY Giants 24 (-2.5) Dallas 17 (UNDER 46)

Denver 28 (-2.5) @New England 23 (UNDER 55)

San Fran 21 @Washington 20 (+6) (UNDER 47.5)

Here’s another take on the Cowboys-Giants matchup from CBS Sports:

Dallas (5-5) at NY Giants (4-6), 4:25 p.m. ET

Last week, Redskins linebacker London Fletcher decided to rank the teams in the NFC East. Despite the Cowboys being tied with Philadelphia atop the division at the time, Fletcher ranked the Eagles first, the Giants second, the Cowboys third and the Redskins last. London Fletcher has played in 250 consecutive NFL games, so I feel like he knows more about football than I do. I think my point here is that I’m going to roll with his rankings. Also, the Cowboys pass defense somehow manages to get worse every week and I think Eli will take advantage of that — like every other quarterback has this season.

Giants 30-27 over the Cowboys.

And one more from SB Nation:

Dallas comes off a bye week aiming to blunt the momentum of the division-rival New York Giants. And two key trends indicate the Cowboys are in good shape to return a profit at the sportsbook window.

The Cowboys are 7-1 ATS past 8 seasons following a bye week and 6-2 ATS in their past eight games as an underdog. They are trying to move into a tie atop the NFC East, while derailing the Giants’ hopes of becoming the first NFL to ever start 0-6 and still make the playoffs.

By Jonathan Bales

The Sportstradamus: Week 11 NFL Game Picks

I was horrific Week 10 straight up and against the spread, going 7-7 and 5-9, respectively. I was good on totals at 10-3-1. That brings my record on the year to 98-49 straight up, 70-74-2 ATS, and 82-63-1 on totals.

If you bet $110 on every ATS and over/under pick I’ve made this year, you would have made all of $130 so far this year. I’ve been profitable every year I’ve been doing this, but I haven’t been so hot ATS in 2013. I’ve beaten out every ESPN expert except one (Jaws), and I’ve beaten them all every year for the past three years. It’s whatever.

NFL Week 11 Game Picks

@Tennessee 24 (+3) Indy 20 (OVER 42.5)

Atlanta 28 (-1) @Tampa 24 (OVER 43)

@Buffalo 20 (pk) NY Jets 17 (UNDER 41)

Detroit 24 (-2) @Pittsburgh 20 (UNDER 47.5)

@Philly 27 (-4) Washington 21 (UNDER 54)

@Miami 28 (+2.5) San Diego 27 (OVER 45.5)

@Chicago 24 (-3) Baltimore 17 (UNDER 46)

@Cincy 21 (-5.5) Cleveland 14 (UNDER 42.5)

@Houston 21 Oakland 20 (+7) (UNDER 43)

Arizona 20 (-7) @Jacksonville 10 (UNDER 41.5)

@Denver 27 Kansas City 20 (+8.5) (UNDER 50)

@Seattle 27 (-12.5) Minnesota 10 (UNDER 46.5)

@New Orleans 27 (-3) San Fran 20 (UNDER 48.5)

@NY Giants 24 (-4.5) Green Bay 20 (OVER 42)

@Carolina 24 (-1.5) New England 21 (UNDER 46.5)