The DC Times

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

By Jonathan Bales

Cowboys vs Steelers: Film Study Observations

At DallasCowboys.com, I posted my film study observations from the Cowboys’ Week 15 overtime victory.

  • It’s tough to sell a negative play being a good call, but Garrett’s decision to call a naked bootleg on third-and-1 at midfield wasn’t necessarily a poor one. It isn’t like the Cowboys call that play often; it was just the second naked bootleg for Romo all year, and the other one was a 1-yard touchdown. The play was there to be had, but the ’Boys simply didn’t execute one block. Nonetheless, if the job of an offensive coordinator is to maximize his team’s chances of succeeding, Garrett did his job with that call. The fact that it didn’t work out shouldn’t be used to retroactively grade the decision.
  • So how can you judge the merits of a particular call if you can’t use the result? That’s one reason it’s beneficial to understand advanced stats. Sure, a punt on fourth-and-1 at the opponent’s 35-yard line might work out in favor of the punting team from time to time, but historic game data tells us that punting is generally a poor choice in that situation no matter how it turns out. Over large sample sizes, the percentages always win out. Sure, stats can be misleading, but that’s really an error on the part of how we interpret them, not something inherent to the numbers. The ultimate goal of any stat is to be predictive, and some stats are more predictive of future success than others. That’s why I often cite numbers like net-YPA and run success rate; they’re highly predictive and thus far more useful than things like bulk stats. It’s also why I told you before the game that the Cowboys were going to be able to run on the Steelers; Pittsburgh was ranked fourth in the NFL in YPC allowed, but 22nd in run success rate, a stat that accounts for game situations and is thus far more reflective of a defense’s true ability to stop the run than YPC. The Cowboys’ running backs ended up averaging 5.35 YPC.

Check it out at the team site.

At Dallas News, I broke down how Jason Garrett’s passing offense has changed over the last few weeks, especially against the Steelers.

Thanks to the Cowboys’ 27-24 overtime win against the Steelers in Week 15, the team may very well be the favorite to win the NFC East. I broke down the Cowboys’ playoff scenarios yesterday—an article that may not have been written had Brandon Carr not picked off Ben Roethlisberger in overtime. While the Dallas pass defense came up big down the stretch, it was a few of Jason Garrett’s alterations to the passing offense that really sealed the win for the Cowboys.

Playing Around

The Cowboys came into Week 15 with the lowest play-action pass rate in the NFL (by far), averaging only four play-action passes per game. Play-action passes are more efficient than straight dropbacks on a league-wide basis; of the 28 quarterbacks who have taken at least half of their team’s offensive snaps, 23 have posted higher YPA on play-action passes than all other pass types.

A few weeks ago, I explained how Garrett has begun using some of his past predictability to his advantage, especially in regards to play-action looks. Garrett utilized play-action passes in a big way against the Steelers, calling 10 on the day. Romo got off eight passes from those calls (one resulted in a sack and the other was the failed bootleg attempt), connecting on seven (87.5 percent) for 121 yards and two touchdowns.

Protect Yourself

Last week, I argued that the Cowboys could benefit from using tight end Jason Witten in pass protectionmore often. Prior to the Steelers game, Witten had been used as a blocker on only 10.6 percent of the Cowboys’ passes, including only seven times in the previous three weeks. Well, Garrett used Witten in pass protection early and often on Sunday; actually, Witten blocked on the Cowboys’ very first play and 11 total passes throughout the day. One of them resulted in a sack, but Romo completed seven of the other 10 for 122 yards and a score. Again, it’s not inherently optimal to use Witten as a blocker, but it’s necessary from time to time in order to give Romo time to get the ball downfield and so that defenses can’t use Witten’s whereabouts as a conclusive key to the Cowboys’ play-calls.

Read it all at DMN.

By Jonathan Bales

Running the Numbers: Cowboys-Bengals Film Study

My latest Running the Numbers article is my final Cowboys-Bengals film study.

  • I’ve never really been a fan of the end-around because it’s a high-risk/low-reward play. Believe it or not, end-arounds are probably best in short-yardage situations because they’re typically good for a few yards, especially when the defense is playing to stop a run up the middle. With the ball-carrier moving horizontally across the field, however, it’s difficult to spring an end-around for a long gain. It seems like the Cowboys have called double-digit end-arounds this year, but it’s actually only four: two to Dez Bryant and two to Kevin Ogletree. They’ve gained three total yards on those plays, although the total was 14 yards (gains of 5, 5 and 4) prior to Bryant’s 11-yard loss on Sunday.

 

  • On the first drive, Garrett decided to kick a field goal on fourth-and-1 from the Bengals’ 19-yard line. With about a half-yard to go for the first down, I thought it was a time to keep the offense on the field. Historically, teams that have been in the same situation have scored more points by going for it – 1.18 extra points per drive, actually. For the decision to go for it to be correct, the Cowboys would need an expected conversion rate of 49.0 percent. The league-wide conversion rate on fourth-and-1 is 66.4 percent, and the Cowboys have converted 65.3 percent of their plays on third- and fourth-and-1 since 2009. Since the ’Boys needed even less than a full yard and the offensive line had shown a good push earlier in the drive, the Cowboys may have benefited from leaving the offense on the field. In Garrett’s defense, the offense was in a position on the field where a field goal would be nearly automatic and a fourth-down conversion wouldn’t guarantee seven points.
  • I counted 16 blitzes from Cincinnati, seven of which were disguised. Romo struggled badly against the blitz to start the game, completing only one of his first seven passes when the Bengals rushed at least five defenders. On the day, Romo completed 5 of his 13 attempts against the blitz for just 52 yards, getting sacked once. Even though the Bengals blitzed on 30.4 percent of the Cowboys’ passes, Romo threw only two of his 10 off-target passes against the blitz.

Read the rest at DallasCowboys.com.

By Jonathan Bales

Cowboys vs Bengals: 4 Pivotal Play for Dallas

A handful of plays changed the course of the Cowboys’ 20-19 win in Cincinnati. I took a look at four of the most crucial plays.

With the Cowboys down 19-10 midway through the fourth quarter in Sunday’s monumental win over the Cincinnati Bengals, Tony Romo threw an incomplete pass to Miles Austin on 2nd and 10 at the Bengals’ 42-yard line. It might seem inconsequential, but Dallas faced longer odds to win after that pass than at any other point in Week 14. With 7:24 left to play, the Cowboys’ odds of winning, according to Advanced NFL Stats’ win probability graph, were just 11 percent.

Just as they have done numerous times this year, the Cowboys overcame being significant underdogs to obtain the comeback victory. Let’s take a look at four vital plays that shaped the game for Dallas. . .

1: Brandon Carr Interception

Already down by seven in the second quarter, the Cowboys’ defense was giving up ground to Cincinnati. On a 1st and 10 at midfield, however, Carr intercepted Andy Dalton on the quarterback’s pass to A.J. Green, returning it to the Bengals’ 27-yard line. Instead of going down by two scores early, the Cowboys scored a touchdown of their own to tie the game at 10. The interception increased the Cowboys’ chances of winning from 20 percent to 35 percent, and it rose as high as 50 percent following the DeMarco Murray touchdown on the subsequent drive.

Check out the rest at Dallas News.

By Jonathan Bales

How Jason Garrett Used His Predictability for Good

I’ve often discussed how predictability can be advantageous at times (see my article “Predictability Kills” at Advanced NFL Stats). Specifically, if a coordinator utilizes his past calls to acquire big plays in the future, some predictability can be good. On Sunday, Jason Garrett did just that.

Earlier today, I broke down four plays that won the game for Dallas on Sunday night. The analysis of win probability shows just how dramatically a play or two can alter the course of a game. The Morris Claiborne 50-yard fumble return for a touchdown increased the Cowboys’ chances of winning from 67 percent to 97 percent, for example.

One of the plays I mentioned in that breakdown was the 28-yard touchdown pass to Miles Austin. Prior to the touchdown, the Cowboys had run the ball four times over the course of just six snaps from “Double Tight I/Strong.” The alignment below came just a few plays before the Austin touchdown.

Jason Garrett has utilized this formation over the years, very often running a strong side dive. Actually, the rate of strong side dive running plays from “Double Tight I/Strong” was as high as 77.6 percent in 2009. Garrett often calls for the play in short-yardage or late-game situations (although not always), and teams around the league know that the ‘Boys like to run up the middle from the formation. Thus, when the Cowboys lined up in “Double Tight Left I” (below), the Eagles were surely anticipating a run.

Those suspicions were confirmed when Romo showed play-action. The fake to Felix Jones was a good one, and it forced the linebackers to jump up to defend the run.

Check it out at DMN.

By Jonathan Bales

Running the Numbers: Cowboys-Eagles Film Study

At DallasCowboys.com, I broke down my Cowboys-Eagles film study.

  • Head coach Jason Garrett called four play-action passes on the night, two of which went for touchdowns: the 23-yard scramble pass to Dez Bryant and the 28-yard strike to Miles Austin. The first was really all Tony Romo, but the latter play-action touchdown was set up beautifully by Garrett. Just before that play, the Cowboys had run the ball on five straight occasions. Four of those runs came from a Double Tight I/Strong formation, the same formation Garrett called on the play-action score to Austin. Dallas gained only nine yards on those four carries, but they showed the same look multiple times. The last of the runs from the formation was on first-and-10, suggesting Garrett knew he wanted to take a shot off of the look a few plays before it even happened.
  • Another way Garrett set up the play-action pass to Austin was keeping Witten in to block. Witten stayed in to block on only two other passes all night, both of which were screens. The Eagles surely understood that Witten has been in a route on more passes than ever this year, so when they saw him stay in to block, it really confirmed what the formation suggested – that a run was on the way. But, they were wrong.
  • Overall, Romo was 3-for-4 for 51 yards and two touchdowns on his play-action passes, good for a passer rating of 156.3. Romo owns a 99.9 rating on play-action this year.
  • The Cowboys were really able to gash the middle of the Eagles’ defense through the air. I track the location of every pass, and 54.1 percent of Romo’s passing yards actually came on throws between the hashes. That included a 28-yarder to Witten down the seam, a 36-yarder to the tight end on a post, and of course, the 28-yard Austin touchdown.

Check out the rest at the team site.

By Jonathan Bales

Running the Numbers: Cowboys-Redskins Film Study

I took another look at the Cowboys’ big Thanksgiving loss in my Running the Numbers column.

If you recall, Garrett has shied away from calling play-action passes this year in a big way, and the most obvious reason for that is the lack of a rushing game. It certainly seems like play-action passes would be useless without some rushing efficiency, but I’m not sure that’s the case. Of the 10 worst rushing teams in the NFL in terms of yards per carry (YPC), only one has a lower yards per attempt (YPA) on play-action passes as compared to straight dropbacks. The Dolphins have totaled 3.6 YPC, only 0.1 more than Dallas, but Ryan Tannehill has passed for nearly five full yards more on play-action passes as compared to all other attempts. The Jets have averaged only 3.8 YPC, but Mark Sanchez has 2.1 more YPA on play-action passes, and the list goes on. While it sure seems like you’d need an effective running game to “set up” play-action, the numbers don’t bear it out. The Cowboys can and should run play-action in normal game situations moving forward, regardless of how well they’re running the ball. Of course, the majority of the loss to the Redskins was far from normal situations, so the lack of play-action looks yesterday isn’t a concern.

Read the rest at DallasCowboys.com.

By Jonathan Bales

Cowboys vs Browns: Cowboys Lucky to Be 5-5

At DallasCowboys.com, I broke down the Cowboys-Browns film in more depth.

  • The Cowboys didn’t cross the Browns’ 40-yard line in the entire first half. Interestingly, the Browns rarely blitzed Romo through the first two quarters, sending five or more rushers on just four of the Cowboys’ 28 offensive plays (14.3 percent). For whatever reason, Cleveland changed their strategy at halftime and sent far more pressure in the second half and overtime, blitzing on 27 of the Cowboys final 49 plays (55.1 percent). Such a high-variance strategy, as you might expect, led to big plays for both teams. Cleveland was able to sack Romo four times, but they also allowed completions of 30 and 28 yards to Bryant, the second of which went for a score.
  • Romo attempted five deep throws of 20-plus yards on the day. Two of them, the aforementioned completions to Bryant, were successful, while the other three fell incomplete. Of course, the deep passing game paid big dividends late in the fourth quarter when Romo looked deep forDwayne Harris and the Cowboys were able to draw a pass interference penalty. That doesn’t show up in the box score, but it was a smart move by Romo to get the ball deep against man coverage when the offense needed a big play.

Read the entire article.

By Jonathan Bales

Running the Numbers: More Cowboys-Eagles Film Study Stats

My latest Running the Numbers entry analyzes some more stats from my Cowboys-Eagles film study.

  • I loved some of the things the Cowboys were able to do on the ground, especially early in the game. The offense totaled 47 rushing yards on eight carries (5.88 YPC) on the first drive by whipping out a lead dive, toss, fake-toss fullback trap, counter and draw. The Cowboys ended up running five combined tosses and counters on the night after totaling only seven such running plays through their first eight games.
  • Head coach Jason Garrett also utilized a few delayed handoffs, gaining 29 yards on three variations of the draw play. The Cowboys have now run 27 draws on the season for 114 yards (4.22 YPC). Felix Jones, a player who has always excelled on delayed handoffs, has totaled 67 yards on 12 draws (5.58 YPC) in 2012.
  • With a three-point lead and just over one minute left in the first half, Dallas punted on a fourth-and-1 at the Eagles’ 41-yard line. Based on the game situation, the Cowboys could be expected to increase their expected points by going for it if they anticipated at least a 46 percent success rate. Since 2009, the ’Boys have converted on 64.6 percent of plays on third-and-1 and four-and-1, so even with a dwindling clock, Dallas probably could have benefited from keeping the offense on the field.

Read the rest at DallasCowboys.com.

By Jonathan Bales

Running the Numbers: More Cowboys-Falcons Film Study

My Running the Numbers piece takes a look at more interesting stats for the ‘Boys following their big loss in Atlanta in Week 9.

  • Sunday night’s loss is the perfect example of why passing attempts are strongly correlated with losing; it isn’t that frequent passing is a cause of losing, but rather that teams that are already losing are forced to pass the ball late in games. The Cowboys aired it out on 12 of their 13 fourth quarter plays, bringing the final pass rate to 66.7 percent. The truth is that the Cowboys attempted to be balanced through the first three quarters, passing the ball just 23 times compared to 17 runs.
  • Romo threw for 9.17 yards per attempt (YPA) and recorded a 109.3 passer rating. The late passing attempts were too-little-too-late for a team that managed only 3.61 yards per carry (YPC) on the ground. Amazingly, 50.8 percent of the offense’s rushing yards came on two carries to start the third quarter.

Check out more at DallasCowboys.com.

By Jonathan Bales

Cowboys vs Falcons: Initial Film Observations

Over at NBC, I published some stats from my film review. . .

  • We saw two screens from the Cowboys—one to Lance Dunbar and one to Miles Austin. The ‘Boys have now tried only 12 screen passes in all of 2012, and only seven of those have been to running backs. If the rationale for Garrett’s lack of downfield routes is poor pass protection, how can the team average less than one true screen pass per game?
  • Romo, one of the league’s premiere deep ball passers over the past few years, attempted only three deep passes (traveling at least 20 yards past the line-of-scrimmage) against the Falcons—through no fault of his own. He completed two of them for 94 yards and a touchdown. Until Garrett opens up the offense, there will be no running game and defenders can continue to sit on routes.

Read the whole article.