The DC Times

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

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

A bunch of content to get you ready for Cowboys vs. Saints

At Bleacher Report, I’ve been publishing a ton of Cowboys-Saints material. Here’s part of my game plan for Dallas:

DON’T let tight end Jimmy Graham get off of the line.

If there was any doubt that Graham is the league’s top tight end coming into the season, that doubt has been completely erased. Through eight games, Graham is on pace for a final stat line of 98 receptions for 1,492 yards and 20 touchdowns.

Wow.

He’s also scored at least two touchdowns in four games this year. One of those contests was against the Patriots, who actually did an outstanding job on both Graham and Brees. The tight end had the two scores, but he caught just three total passes for 39 yards. Brees was held to only a 47.2 percent completion rate and 236 yards on 36 attempts (6.56 YPA).

Using NFL Game Rewind, let’s take a look at how the Pats played New Orleans.

In the third quarter, the Saints lined up in a shotgun spread formation that’s typical for them, motioning Graham prior to the snap.

The Patriots used cornerback Aqib Talib on Graham for much of the game, using him to bump Graham at the line. As Graham would get into his route, he was frequently contacted by a linebacker, as well, as was the case on this play.

Brees had all day to throw because New England rushed only three defenders—a tactic Dallas would be smart to mimic this week. Despite the time, there was nowhere to go with the football. Eventually, the defenders closed in on Brees.

He forced the ball out to avoid the sack, overthrowing Graham for the interception.

Brees and Graham are going to have their moments, but the key to this game for Dallas is doing everything they can to limit the Saints’ other-worldly tight end.

I also explained why the Cowboys need to keep throwing:

The Numbers on the Run/Pass Balance

Against both the San Diego Chargers and Detroit Lions, the Cowboys remained relatively balanced early in the contests, only to lose down the stretch. In addition to being a poor running team in general, there are a couple reasons that rushing the ball often is a sub-optimal strategy for Dallas.

First, it shortens the game. The Cowboys have a quality offense and should want to run as many plays as possible in most situations. Running the ball decreases the number of potential plays.

Second, and more importantly, it keeps the game close when it shouldn’t be. We saw that against Detroit, but it was especially apparent last year in Baltimore.

Remember when Dallas ran all over the Ravens for 227 yards?

Many blamed kicker Dan Bailey for missing a last-second field goal for the loss, but the Cowboys shouldn’t have even been in that position. When you run the ball a lot, even if you run it efficiently, it keeps the other team in the game and can result in undeserved losses.

But here’s why we really know the Cowboys shouldn’t seek offensive balance in the traditional sense: It hasn’t worked in the past.

Yes, there are a million stats like “The Cowboys are 20-1 when they run the ball 35 times” or “Dallas is 2-20 when Tony Romo throws the ball more than 40 times,” but that’s only because teams that are already winning run the ball and teams that are already losing must throw it.

Offensive balance is often an effect of winning, not a cause of it.

Instead of analyzing final box scores, we should really be looking at how teams call plays earlier in games and how that affects their results. I’ve done that in the past. From an article on the illusion of balance:

“Since 2008, the Cowboys have won just 27.6 percent of their when they pass on greater than 57 percent of their offensive plays. Wow, better keep it on the ground, right?

Before jumping to conclusions, soak this one in: that rate miraculously jumps to 63.6 percent when the ’Boys pass on at least 57 percent of plays through the first three quarters, compared to only 41.9 percent when they pass on fewer than 57 percent of plays.”

When the Cowboys open up games by throwing, they’re a better team than when they keep it on the ground.

It’s not that offensive balance in the final box score is bad, because that can often signify winning. But really, the way to achieve final balance isn’t by remaining balanced early; it’s through passing efficiently to acquire a lead and then running late to close out the game.

First-Down Passing

One of the times when the Cowboys (and all NFL teams) should be passing more often is on first down. Check out the Cowboys’ first-down run rate after each quarter.

That final rate of 42.2 percent, while one of the lowest numbers in the NFL, is still much too high. Take a look at the efficiency of NFL offenses on first down runs versus passes.

That’s a pretty dramatic difference. Coaches justify running on first down because it’s safe and it “sets up manageable third downs.”

And finally, I explained what you need to know heading into Week 10:

What Must Improve: Pass Protection

For the third week in a row, my choice for “what must improve” for Dallas is pass protection. Here’s why.

With 22 pressures allowed on Sunday, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), the Cowboys had their worst day of pass protection all season. They yielded pressure on a season-high 43.1 percent of pass plays. Their previous season high came just a week earlier with a 40.0 percent pressure rate in Detroit.

The Cowboys allowed three sacks against the Vikings, but based on historic pressure-to-sack ratios, they should have allowed 5.5 sacks. They aren’t going to be able to keep winning if they’re allowing pressure on one-third of their pass plays (or more).

The top player who must improve is right tackle Doug Free. After starting the season on fire, Free has allowed 14 pressures in the past three games. On just 143 pass snaps, that’s a 9.8 percent pressure rate, which is horrific. In comparison, Free allowed a pressure on just 2.8 percent of his pass snaps prior to this rough three-game stretch.

 

Key Matchup to Watch vs. Saints: Interior Line vs. DE Cameron Jordan

While tight end Jordan Cameron has surprised some people this year, it’s the reverse—defensive end Cameron Jordan—who has really dominated. Jordan is a specimen at 6’4”, 287 pounds with sub-4.8 speed.

Most important, Jordan has ridiculously long 35-inch arms, which is by far the most predictive trait for pass-rushing success. That’s allowed Jordan to dominate as a pass-rusher in 2013, accumulating 26 pressures—more than J.J. Watt and the second most for any 3-4 defensive end in the NFL.

And he’s still just 24 years old, meaning there’s plenty of improvement to come. Take a look at Jordan’s development since entering the league in 2011.

The Saints use Jordan all over the field, so he won’t face off exclusively against the Cowboys interior linemen. Containing Jordan will really be a team effort, although it’s the Cowboys’ weakness—the interior trio of Ronald Leary, Travis Frederick and Mackenzy Bernadeau—that will see the most of him.

By Jonathan Bales

Cowboys vs. Lions: A Game Plan for Dallas

At Bleacher Report, I posted my game plan for Dallas in Week 8:

DO attack cornerback Chris Houston.

All of the Lions’ cornerbacks have been poor in 2013, each allowing at least 1.30 yards per route. That numbers ranks all the way down at 50th in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus, showing you just how bad they’ve been.

And as bad as cornerbacks Rashean Mathis and Bill Bentley have been, Chris Houston has been much worse. He’s allowed 522 yards—the second-most in the NFL—on 45 targets (11.6 YPA). The Cowboys could find massive success on Sunday just by targeting the receiver covered by Houston.

DON’T run for the sake of running.

The Cowboys might not seem like a running team, but the truth is that they come out of games looking to establish balance. They’ve actually run the ball on 53.7 percent of their first downs in the first quarter.

Balance in the final box score is good because it signifies late running, which is of course correlated with winning. But the way to achieve final balance isn’t always to be balanced early. Instead, the Cowboys should generally be passing early in games, especially on first down, and then running it late once they’ve acquired a lead.

DON’T forget about play-action. . .again.

I’ll stop talking about play-action when the Cowboys run it more often. Through seven weeks, Romo once again ranks last in the NFL in play-action pass rate, having attempted one on just 10.5 percent of his dropbacks. He ranked last in 2012, too, by a wide margin.

Again, you don’t actually need to run the ball a whole lot (or even effectively) to utilize play-action. There’s no correlation between rushing efficiency and play-action passing success, as evidenced by Romo’s 109.1 passer rating on play-action in 2012. This year, Romo is even better on play-action with a 131.1 passer rating.

Ranked second in the NFL in play-action rating, it’s just mind-boggling that the Cowboys haven’t used the look more often in 2013.

By Jonathan Bales

Cowboys vs. Lions: Detroit’s Trends

At ABC, I posted some trends on the Lions:

Numbers never lie.

No really, despite what you might hear, they don’t. Math, as a flawless abstract concept, is pretty cool like that. The numbers, by their very nature, are perfect.

But people lie all the time. And so I can twist and frame numbers in pretty much any way that I want to get my point across. If I were born 20 years earlier and had an unusual fixation with “establishing the run,” I might point out teams are (insert awesome record here) when they run the ball (insert high number here) times, so you need to run the ball.

The numbers didn’t lie and they aren’t “wrong” in any sense, but I manipulated them in such a way that I could back my preconceived notions. I established a correlation but proposed a causal relationship that doesn’t exist. There’s nothing wrong with the math, just my interpretation of it.

Sorry, but Stuart Scott was wrong. Don’t hate the game, hate the player.

But I’m not in the business of using numbers to deceive people. Instead of framing math around my arguments, I want my opinions to be a reflection of the math. I want to properly interpret all of the data that’s so readily available these days to provide a deeper understanding of the Cowboys and the NFL.

One way that’s possible is by identifying predictive ability. The fake “establish the run” stat I gave you isn’t very useful—it’s misleading, in fact—because it’s not predictive of what wins. That’s why we see teams that pass the ball a lot early generally have a lot more success than the running teams (with the overall run-pass balance evening out as teams that are already winning run the ball and teams that are already losing pass it).

By establishing a stat’s predictive ability, we’re basically measuring how much it “lies.” That allows us to sort through the noise, like time-of-possession (also a result of winning), in favor of the signal.

Detroit Lions By the Numbers

I hear the Cowboys have a game against the Lions this week, so I guess I should stop ranting on the philosophy of math and take a look at that, huh? Okay, fine.

51.9: Lions’ first down run rate

You might have noticed that I tend to analyze first down stats quite a bit and third down stats very little. The reason is that, for the most part, first down is standardized. Whereas third down plays can be of any distance, around 95 percent of first down plays are the same: first-and-10, typically near the middle of the field.

As a quick side note (I promise I’ll talk about the game soon), that’s one reason that third down conversion rates are useless stats. Yes, you want a high conversion rate. Yes, third downs are really important in each game. But the goal for many teams is putting themselves in “manageable third downs” when it should be maximizing offensive efficiency.

Running the ball on first and second down to set up a bunch of third-and-three situations might lead to a high third down conversion rate, but it’s not beneficial to the offense. You know what’s better than converting a high percentage of third downs? Not facing third down at all because you didn’t run the ball on first and second down.

By Jonathan Bales

A Game Plan for Dallas vs. Washington

At Bleacher Report, I posted a game plan for the Cowboys vs. the Redskins:

DO play the run early

The Redskins haven’t run the ball as much as they’d like, simply because they’ve been down too many points late in games, but you better believe they will want to establish the run early against Dallas.

Take a look at Washington’s first-down run rate after each quarter.

It’s nearly 65 percent in the first quarter, declining from there as the Redskins have gotten down in games. The Cowboys need to be prepared for Washington’s potent running attack and stop it early so they can avoid facing it late.

DON’T play the Redskins to run on 2nd-and-10

This might seem like an odd suggestion, but 2nd-and-10 is a really unique down in that it usually follows an incomplete pass. And across the league, there’s actually predictability in play-calling on 2nd-and-10, with the majority of teams running the ball way more than the numbers suggest they should.

The reason? Coaches try to be unpredictable in their calls. In doing so, they often mix it up, running after passes and vice versa. Ironically, many coaches become painfully predictable in certain down-and-distance situations specifically because they’re trying to be unpredictable!

NFL teams should generally pass on 2nd-and-long anyway; it often works because defensive coordinators expect a run on 2nd-and-10 after an incomplete first-down pass.

Well, the Redskins haven’t run the ball all that much on 2nd-and-10, doing so on just 11 of 25 such plays (44.0 percent). And RGIII has absolutely killed it in these types of situations, completing 12 of 14 passes for 169 yards (12.1 YPA) and a touchdown—good for a 140.8 passer rating.

It’s a small sample, but the broader picture remains; NFL offenses can be productive by going against the grain against defenses conditioned to look for something in a particular situation. Defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin needs to be prepared for the Redskins’ passing game on 2nd-and-long, particularly play-action looks.

DO attack cornerback David Amerson

The Cowboys have a unique situation this week with wide receiver Miles Austin appearing to be healthy. That’s a positive, of course, but it will be interesting to see how much playing time Austin receives coming off of his hamstring injury. That’s because rookie Terrance Williams played so well last week against Denver, catching four passes for 151 yards and a touchdown.

Dallas might be smart to get three or more receivers on the field, too. The Redskins’ starting cornerbacks—Josh Wilson and DeAngelo Hall—have both played decent football, each allowing under 1.30 yards per route run against his respective coverage.

But nickel cornerback David Amerson has struggled. He’s allowed 2.30 yards for every snap that he’s been in coverage—the second-worst mark in the entire NFL.

In most situations, Amerson will be lined up over Austin in the slot. That’s a matchup that the Cowboys can and should exploit, so Austin might just be a bigger part of the game plan than you think.

By Jonathan Bales

Dallas’s Week 5 Game Plan vs. Denver Broncos

At Bleacher Report, I posted some DOs and DON’Ts for Dallas in Week 5:

DO be ready for the pass early.

The Broncos pass the ball early and often, but they particularly like to air it out on first down early on.

That graph is really telling of the game plans for both Dallas and Denver. While the Cowboys try to maintain first down balance early on, the Broncos realize that their biggest advantage comes through beating defenses with the pass.

DON’T blitz Manning.

The Cowboys will obviously need to mix up their looks against Manning, but in general, it might be best not to blitz him.

For one, it’s unlikely that Dallas is going to be able to fool the quarterback on a consistent basis. Last year, Manning totaled a 102.2 passer rating against the blitz. This year, he has posted a mark of 141.3.

The second reason to not blitz Manning is related to shortening the game. The Cowboys need to minimize the total number of drives the Broncos have, and blitzing probably won’t help that. If Manning is going to score his points anyway, you might as well make sure it takes him a while to do it.

Here’s the whole article.

By Jonathan Bales

Cowboys vs. Chargers: Game Plan for Dallas

At Bleacher Report, I posted my game plan for Dallas in Week 4:

DO run more play-action.

Quarterback Tony Romo has compiled a 110.2 passer rating through three games, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), a year after totaling a 109.1 rating on play-action passes. Yet the ‘Boys have barely increased their play-action pass rate over 2012 and Romo still ranks 28th in the NFL in play-action passes.

While the Cowboys established some obvious rushing success last week against theRams, it’s not really a prerequisite for the play-action game. It’s fun to think that “running sets up the pass,” but half of the league’s best play-action passers in 2012 were on teams that ranked in the bottom 10 of the NFL in rushing.

Defenders play situations, so the Cowboys should be running play-action passes in just about every scenario in which they could theoretically run the ball. San Diego will play the down-and-distance, not the Cowboys’ pass-rushing efficiency.

DON’T run the ball just to run it.

Running back DeMarco Murray finally broke out for 175 yards and a touchdown on 26 carries last week. The rushing success was certainly helpful to Romo, who had by far his most efficient game of the year.

But the Cowboys didn’t win because they just “stuck with the run”—that’s not why it worked. Instead, they “stuck with it” because it was already working. There’s a big difference.

Running the ball just for the sake of running it, or to set up easier third downs, is a pretty sub-optimal offensive strategy. Even better than short third downs is not even facing third down because your team didn’t run the ball twice on first and second down.

Everything should set up well for the Cowboys to pass the ball this week. The Chargers have given up the most passing yards and the second-worst passing efficiency in the NFL, which has led to poor run defense.

San Diego has allowed at least 100 yards rushing and 282 yards passing in all three games. The league averages right now are 106 yards rushing and 248 yards passing.

DO to get the ball downfield.

Having thrown accurately on 71.4 percent of his passes over 20 yards, Romo is the NFL’s most accurate deep ball passer through three weeks. He’s averaged 14.4 yards per pass, thrown three touchdowns and tossed no picks on deep looks. And yet, only St. Louis’s Sam Bradford has attempted fewer deep passes than Romo.

Some of the lack of downfield passing has been due to game situations. The Giants played a two-high safety scheme that made it really difficult to attack downfield, for example. The Cowboys could do just about everything they wanted last week against the Rams. They won’t be every game by three scores, though, which means they’ll need to optimize offensive efficiency by attacking downfield, namely to Mr. Dez Bryant.

DON’T target tight end Jason Witten so much.

Prior to the season, I predicted that Witten wouldn’t be able to pass the 900-yard mark this season. That wasn’t a popular prediction, of course, but it looks good right now with Witten on pace for only 795 yards, despite having some favorable matchupsthrough three games.

In reality, the prediction wasn’t a difficult one from a statistical standpoint. Most of the media won’t admit it, but Witten’s efficiency has been declining for years.

We can make all the excuses in the world for Witten’s declining yards per route, but at some point, maybe the reasoning should be that he’s just not as effective. He’s still a good tight end, but to argue that Witten is the same player he was a half-decade ago is silly. The Cowboys need to replace some of his targets with looks to other receivers.

By Jonathan Bales

Game Plan for Dallas vs. St. Louis

At Bleacher Report, I posted a comprehensive game plan for Dallas:

DO blitz quarterback Sam Bradford.

Although Kiffin typically play a lot of zone coverages, he’ll still blitz when necessary. If the ‘Boys can’t get decent pressure with four rushers, this week might be a good time to send extra defenders. Using stats at Pro Football Focus, take a look at Bradford’s career success against the blitz.

Bradfordblitz_original

The quarterback has improved against the blitz over the past three seasons, but that’s just because he’s gotten better as a quarterback. He’s still been much better against three and four-man rushes, so Dallas could find some success attacking Bradford—one of the league’s less mobile passers.

DON’T worry too much about wide receiver Tavon Austin.

Austin is an explosive athlete and certainly a fun player to watch. But if the Cowboys are going to game-plan to stop one player on the Rams offense, it should be Cook. He’s the player who can more effectively get the Rams up the field and, more important, get into the end zone.

Austin is a versatile player, but players as small as him usually don’t remain relevant in the red zone. And as much as he can look “electric” in the open field, we’re kind of already seeing Austin’s game in St. Louis; he’s been targeted 19 times and has 12 catches for 88 yards—7.3 yards per catch and 4.6 yards per target. That’s bottom-dwelling efficiency.

Playing primarily in the slot, Austin will be matched up a lot with cornerback OrlandoScandrick. Although he’s not a fan favorite, Scandrick is perhaps the most underrated player in Dallas, and he’s at it again this year, allowing just 4.9 yards per attempt.

Here’s a bold prediction for this game: Scandrick & Co. will hold Austin to under 50 yards and no scores.

By Jonathan Bales

Cowboys vs Chiefs: Game Plan for Dallas

At Bleacher Report, I posted my “DOs and DON’Ts” for Dallas:

DON’T leave Doug Free on an island.

Free played admirably in Week 1, so there’s hope that he’s a new player on the right side. But this week will be one of his toughest matchups all year. Free will face off primarily with outside linebacker Justin Houston, who lined up on the right side of the Kansas City defense just 6.3 percent of snaps, according to Pro Football Focus.

And Houston is really one of the league’s most underrated players. Still just 24 years old and coming off of a season with 10 sacks, Houston erupted for three sacks against the Jaguars last week. He’s an explosive athlete, as evidenced by his 10’5’ broad jump, who can beat defenders with speed or power.

But his defining trait is his long arms. Although he’s just 6-3, Houston has ridiculous 34’5’ arms. I’ve found that, although teams seek tall pass-rushers, the correlation between height and success is really just because taller players tend to have longer arms. So Houston’s “small stature” doesn’t hurt him on the outside; actually, it helps him because he can maintain a low center of gravity while still using his arms to fend off blockers and maintain leverage.

I think the Cowboys match up pretty nicely with the Chiefs’ front seven, but this battle is really where they could struggle. If the ‘Boys leave Free on an island against Houston on a consistent basis, he’s going to get eaten up.

DO run right at Justin Houston and Tamba Hali.

One of the ways to slow down the Chiefs’ formidable pass-rushing duo of Houston and Hali is to run right at them, for a few reasons. First, the Cowboys are just a much better rushing team when they get the ball outside. I tracked the offense as running a straight dive up the middle on 57.2 percent of their runs in 2012, yet they gained only 3.27 YPC on those plays. Meanwhile, they have one of the better young run blockers in the game in Tyron Smith. DeMarco Murray averaged 6.4 YPC when Smith was at the point-of-attack in Week 1.

Second, the Chiefs’ run defense is stronger up the middle with nose tackle Dontari Poe. While I don’t think that Kansas City’s three down-linemen will give the Cowboys major problems in pass protection, Poe, Tyson Jackson, and Mike DeVito could cause problems in the running game. The ‘Boys should continue to use the stretch plays that we saw on Sunday night.

DO keep it on the ground to move the ball.

When I say “keep it on the ground to move the ball,” I mean using the running game as an actual offensive weapon as opposed to just mixing it up. The Cowboys aren’t a great rushing team and I typically don’t advocate that they run the ball much early in games, but I think they’re going to find some rushing success in this contest.

That’s because we know the Chiefs are going to mimic the Giants’ game plan, which involved playing two deep safeties on nearly every snap. If that’s the look Dallas sees, they’ll need to change their offensive approach—one that resulted in Tony Romo’s lowest single-game YPA since 2009.

And there’s not much reason to think Romo substantially improve in Week 2. Using the Game Similarity Level Projection app at rotoViz, we can look at how quarterbacks really similar to Romo have performed in recent matchups with defenses comparable to that of the Chiefs—a really good way to project players moving forward.

And looking at Romo’s 25 closest comps, the average in matchups like this one has the following stat line: 21-for-38 (55.3 percent) for 232 yards, 1.52 touchdowns, and 0.8 interceptions. Not great. The truth is that this is a very underrated Chiefs defense that is going to give Romo looks with which he struggled in Week 1.

By Jonathan Bales

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.