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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:


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


The Sportstradamus: Week 8 NFL Game Picks

Last week, I went 10-5 straight up, 10-5 against the spread, and 9-6 on totals. Not a bad week, bringing my record on the year to 71-36 straight up, 50-55-2 ATS, and 61-46 on totals.

Week 8 NFL Game Picks

Carolina 23 (-6) @Tampa 14 (UNDER 40.5)

San Fran 30 (-16) @Jacksonville 7 (UNDER 41)

@Detroit 24 Dallas 23 (+3) (UNDER 51)

@Philly 27 (-5) NY Giants 20 (UNDER 52.5)

@Kansas City 23 Cleveland 17 (+7.5) (OVER 38.5)

@New Orleans 27 Buffalo 20 (+11.5) (UNDER 49.5)

@New England 23 Miami 20 (+6.5) (UNDER 45.5)

@Cincinnati 24 (-6.5) NY Jets 17 (UNDER 41.5)

Pittsburgh 24 (-2.5) @Oakland 20 (OVER 40)

@Denver 38 (-12.5) Washington 24 (OVER 58.5)

@Arizona 28 (-2.5) Atlanta 24 (OVER 45)

Green Bay 34 (-9) @Minnesota 24 (OVER 47)

Seattle 24 (-11) @St. Louis 10 (UNDER 43)


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.


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.


Cowboys’ Week 7 Game Plan in Philly

At Bleacher Report, I posted my Week 7 game plan for Dallas:

DON’T worry about DeSean Jackson in the red zone.

Jackson is highly effective between the 20s, but he’s one of the league’s worst red-zone receivers. That’s not really surprising considering Jackson is 5’10” and 175 pounds, but take a look at his career red-zone touchdown rate:

Jackson has converted only 12.7 percent of his career red-zone targets into touchdowns, which is an awful rate. Dez Bryant, in comparison, has a 42.2 percent red-zone touchdown rate.

Thus, while Jackson can be incredibly dangerous when the Eagles have a lot of field with which to work, he’s not much of a threat when the field is condensed.

DON’T put a linebacker on running back LeSean McCoy.

LeSean McCoy is a talented player, as evidenced by his 5.1 YPC this year. He’s been particularly efficient out of the backfield, catching 15 passes for 241 yards (16.1 yards per catch).

McCoy has the potential to really hurt the Dallas defense as a receiver.

The ‘Boys have struggled with covering tight ends and running backs this year. Both Bruce Carter and Sean Lee have been poor in coverage, which is unusual for the duo. The Eagles’ linebackers have outperformed Carter and Lee on a per-route basis.

The Cowboys’ top priority needs to be containing McCoy, and that means finding a way to halt the big plays both on the ground and through the air.

DO target Bradley Fletcher.

Take a look at the yards per route allowed for the cornerbacks in this game.

Cowboys cornerback Morris Claiborne is the obvious outlier, with Cowboys nickel cornerback Orlando Scandrick and Eagles cornerback Cary Williams leading the way. Cornerbacks Brandon Boykin and Bradley Fletcher have been about as efficient in Philly as Brandon Carr in Dallas.

If the Cowboys are going to attack one of these cornerbacks in particular, it should probably be Fletcher. Boykin works in the slot, so we’d expect his yards per route to be a little higher (which is what makes Scandrick’s play so impressive).

Plus, Boykin won’t be lined up on the player the Cowboys desperately need to break out in pretty much every game—Dez Bryant.


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.


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.