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Game Plan | The DC Times - Part 2

The DC Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Limiting Victor Cruz

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

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

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

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

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

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Cowboys vs Giants, Week 1: Game Plan Articles

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

Target Corey Webster

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

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

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

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



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

DO work Jason Witten underneath.

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

Cover2manunder_crop_exact

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

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

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

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

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

Runpassbalance_original

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

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

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Offensive Game Plan for Dallas vs Giants

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

Target Corey Webster

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

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

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

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


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Cowboys-Redskins Week 17 Previews

My latest Running the Numbers entry is a look at the Redskins’ offensive tendencies.

It starts with the running game.

Washington’s offense moves because their star rookie quarterback, Robert Griffin III, is as versatile as they come. In many ways, Griffin lets defensive coordinators pick their own poison. If they play with two deep safeties, RGIII and fellow rookie Alfred Morris will gash them on the ground. If coordinators play with eight men in the box or, even worse, if they blitz, Griffin can beat them with his world-class arm; his record 141.8 passer rating against the blitz is evidence of that.

Averaging 6.6 yards per carry (YPC), the Cowboys can’t let RGIII get going as a runner. They’re going to need to find a way to stop Griffin without moving their safeties toward the line, though, or else they’ll be susceptible through the air.

The running game is the passing game.

For the Redskins, the success of the running and passing games are inherently connected, even more so than for other teams. Because Washington sets up the majority of their offense off of read-option looks, the offense’s ability to run the football is paramount in throwing the ball with some sort of efficiency. The Redskins’ 39.2 percent play-action rate is evidence of just how intertwined their running game is with their air attack. In comparison, the Cowboys’ play-action rate is just over one-quarter of that of Washington’s.

Head to DallasCowboys.com for the full article.

At Dallas Morning News, I broke down why quick passes could be the Cowboys’ best friend on Sunday night.

On the Cowboys’ crucial third down in overtime last week against the Saints, Tony Romo and Dez Bryant were unable to connect on a slant to extend the drive. The Cowboys were forced to punt, and they never saw the ball again.

On the day, Romo completed only three of his seven slants, producing a poor 42.9 percent completion rate that’s highly uncharacteristic for the quarterback. The slant has really been the Cowboys’ best friend all year; thus far in 2012, Romo has completed 51 of his 70 slants (72.9 percent) for 624 yards (8.91 YPA), one touchdown, and no picks—good for a 104.7 passer rating. Even against New Orleans, Romo’s three completions on slants went for 70 yards and a score.

Against Washington, it will be vital for Romo to connect on slants, particular to Bryant and Miles Austin. In addition to extending drives on third downs, slants and other quick-hitting routes could give the Redskins problems. Washington’s starting cornerbacks—Josh Wilson and DeAngelo Hall—haven’t been the best of tacklers this year. Actually, the duo rank last and fourth-to-last in yards-after-catch this year.

Read the whole post at DMN.

At NBC’s Blue Star blog, I presented a possible game plan for Rob Ryan.

Don’t bite on read-option plays.

The Redskins have one of the league’s top rushing games, averaging 5.1 yards-per-carry. In terms of expected points—the number of points a team can be expected to score at any given point on a drive—Washington has “gained” 37.4 on the year. That’s the best number in the NFL by a wide margin, meaning the running game has helped the Redskins score more points than it has for any other squad. To give you an idea of how outstanding Washington’s running game has been, consider that only seven teams in the league have totaled positive expected points from running.

Check it out at NBC.

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How Cowboys Can Keep Pace with Redskins’ Offense

At DallasCowboys.com, I broke down the Redskins’ offense and how Dallas can stop it.

Redskins’ Rushing Offense

At 5.1 yards per carry (YPC), the Redskins rank third in the NFL in rushing efficiency. Led by rookies Robert Griffin III and Alfred Morris, Washington is actually an even better rushing team than their YPC suggests. By breaking down all running plays in terms of the “expected points” a team can expect to score on a given drive before and after a play, it’s possible to account for specific game situations. A 2-yard run on first-and-10 is a negative for an offense, it decreases expected points, whereas a 2-yard gain on fourth-and-1 dramatically increases expected points.

Washington ranks first in the NFL in expected points added from their running game at 37.4, well ahead of every other team. To give you a sense of just how dominant the Redskins’ rushing attack has been in 2012, consider that only seven teams in the entire NFL have even created positive expected points with their running games.

Check it out at the team site.

And at NBC, I took a look at three key matchups for the Cowboys’ offense.

WR Dez Bryant/Miles Austin versus CB DeAngelo Hall/Josh Wilson

It’s almost a foregone conclusion that Bryant will have a big game this week. The receiver has now scored in seven straight games, including three contests with two touchdowns. Bryant’s 23.3 percent touchdown rate over that time is phenomenal. Meanwhile, Redskins cornerbacks Hall and Wilson have both allowed at least 9.55 YPA and a 93.3 passer rating. Wilson has yielded six touchdowns and Hall a 69.6 percent completion rate.

Perhaps more important, Wilson and Hall have given up 463 and 366 yards-after-catch, respectively, ranking them as the worst and fourth-worst cornerbacks in the entire NFL. With the size and run-after-catch ability the Cowboys have with Austin and Bryant outside, look for the rate of quick screens to continue to increase.

Check out NBC for the full article.

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Cowboys vs Saints: Offensive Game Plan for Dallas

I posted a four-point offensive game plan for the Cowboys against the Saints in Week 16.

Attack the Saints over the middle.

Free safety Malcolm Jenkins was just lost for the season and replaced by Isa Abdul-Quddus. Paired with Roman Harper, the Saints may very well possess the worst starting safety duo in the NFL. Harper—who the Saints could very well use to cover Witten—has allowed 9.98 YPA on 62 targets this year.

Use DeMarco Murray as needed.

The Saints’ run defense is poor. Harper helps out by lining up within eight yards of the line on nearly half of his snaps, but New Orleans has still allowed 5.0 YPC this year—second-worst in the league. The Cowboys don’t necessarily need to run the ball often early on, but they shouldn’t have any trouble getting Murray going when they need it.

Check out the whole game plan at NBC.

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How to Stop the Saints’ Prolific Offense

The Saints aren’t a particularly good team right now, but their offense is still among the best in the NFL. At NBC, I broke down three key matchups for the Cowboys’ defense in this contest.

DT Sean Lissemore versus OG Jahri Evans

When I was in high school, I visited a football camp at a small Division II college in northern Pennsylvania called Bloomsburg. There, I watched a massive man bench press 185 pounds 50 times, easily, and then get up and walk away. They called him “Rhino,” and now he (Jahri Evans) is one of the best offensive guards in the NFL.

The Saints love to run the football outside (when they run it, that is), averaging 7.4 YPC on 78 carries outside of the tackles. Outside linebackers Anthony Spencer and DeMarcus Ware play so well against the run, however, that New Orleans could be forced to run it up the gut. There, Lissemore’s ability to man his ground against Rhino & Co. could be the deciding factor in the Saints’ ability to rush the ball effectively. Playing against one of the league’s most lethal air attacks, the last thing Dallas needs is to be unable to stop the run as well.

Read the whole post at NBC.

And at Dallas Morning News, I examined how Rob Ryan could potentially limit Drew Brees.

Getting Pressure

The Cowboys would obviously benefit from sacking Brees, but more important than that is consistently getting in his face. At 6’0’’, Brees struggles most with rushers right in front of him. The problem is that blitzing Brees is a risky proposition; Brees has a 102.6 passer rating when blitzed in 2012. Thus, the Cowboys will need to find ways to get to Brees with three, four, and the occasional five-man rush.

Let’s take a look at how the Giants picked off Brees in Week 14. . .

With heavy “22” personnel, the Saints lined up in Twins Right on a first down at the Giants’ 31-yard line. The Giants showed two deep safeties prior to the snap and didn’t appear to be in a blitz.

As the Saints have done on 19.3 percent of their passes this season, they showed a run-fake. The Giants linebackers didn’t bite on the fake and their four down-linemen continued toward Brees on their rush.

As Brees turned back around to throw, Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul was hot on his trail. As Brees threw the football, JPP got a hand up and nearly swatted it away.

Knowing the Giants were in Cover 2, Brees figured the deep middle of the field would be open. With Lance Moore on a go on the outside and tight end Jimmy Graham running a seam route, Brees immediately tossed the ball down the middle to what should have been an open area for Graham.

Safety Stevie Brown didn’t bite deep on the go from Moore, however, instead playing over top of Graham. It looked as though that was the plan for the Giants throughout the game, and it worked; Brees knew where Brown should have been, so he decided to hit Graham on what’s usually a Cover 2-beater. The pressure in his face from Pierre-Paul probably hurt his ability to see Brown creeping over.

See the rest at DMN.

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Offensive, Defensive Game Plans for Cowboys vs Steelers

At Dallas Morning News, I published an analysis of the Steelers’ screen game.

On a 1st and 10 at the Chargers’ 39-yard line, the Steelers lined up in a bunch trips formation, isolating Brown to the boundary (top of the screen).

Already the third quarter, it was one of the few times a San Diego cornerback played off-coverage. The Steelers had a stretch run to the right called—you could tell by the way the linemen fired off of the ball. Nonetheless, when Ben Roethlisberger saw cornerback Antoine Cason’s position, he pulled the ball from the running back’s belly.

The Steelers have a lot of plays like this one in which Roethlisberger can abandon the running play and hit a receiver on a quick screen. This particular screen to Brown resembled a traditional play-action pass, but the original intention was really to run a stretch.

The Steelers’ screen game is a major reason they’re no longer considered a “balanced” football team; they’ve thrown the ball 60.2 percent of the time in 2012, including on 61.3 percent of plays through three quarters. It’s easy to get caught up in such numbers and say the Steelers are passing too often, but the screens they run are high-percentage passes that are really nothing more than an extended handoff.

The screen to Brown went for nine yards, setting up Pittsburgh in a desirable 2nd and 1 situation. That down-and-distance is the most valuable in all of football, possessing the opportunity to strike on a big play with minimal risk; if you don’t connect, you’re still left with two plays to get one yard. The Steelers have thrown the ball two more times on 2nd and 1 than they’ve run it this year, making them one of only five teams with pass-heavy 2nd and 1 play-calling. If you see Pittsburgh in a 2nd and 1 this week, especially near midfield, look out for the long ball.

Check out the whole post at DMN.

And at NBC, I examined how Jason Garrett should attack the Steelers’ defense.

Get Jason Witten on linebackers.

Earlier this week, I mentioned that the Cowboys should keep tight end Jason Witten in pass protection more often to help the offensive line and so that defenses can’t key him as effectively to diagnose the play. Well, those plans should be put off a week. The biggest advantage the Cowboys’ offense will have over Pittsburgh is over the middle of the field, for two reasons.

First, inside linebackers Lawrence Timmons and Larry Foote simply can’t hang with Witten. Timmons has actually played well in coverage this year, but the Cowboys will take that matchup all day. Secondly, the Steelers rush their inside linebackers more than any team in the NFL, by far. Timmons and Foote have combined to rush on 251 snaps this year, which is remarkable. Foote alone has rushed the quarterback on 17.5 percent of his snaps; in comparison, Sean Lee checked in at 10.9 percent and Bruce Carter at 5.3 percent.

Read the whole article here.

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Cowboys vs Bengals: Game Plan for Dallas

At NBC, I posted a game plan for the Cowboys’ offense in Week 14.

Run behind Tyron Smith.

It’s no surprise that the Cowboys are most efficient when running behind left tackle Tyron Smith. That works out well for them this week. Cincinnati has one of the league’s premiere run-stopping defensive ends in Carlos Dunlap; Dunlap has recorded a tackle on 11.5 percent of his run snaps—the highest mark for any 4-3 end in the NFL. Luckily, Dunlap plays almost exclusively on the left side of Cincinnati’s defense, meaning he’ll be matched up primarily with Doug Free. Free is going to lose that battle, but Smith should be able to get something going on Bengals defensive end Michael Johnson. Johnson is an outstanding pass-rusher, but his tackle percentage ranks him just 43rd in the league among seven-technique defensive ends.

On top of that, defensive tackle Geno Atkins will be lurking in the middle of the field. Atkins is the top defensive tackle in the NFL right now, hands down. Look for the ‘Boys to run to the left perimeter, away from Atkins and Dunlap.

Check out the other points.

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Running the Numbers: Bengals’ Offensive Tendencies

My latest ‘Running the Numbers’ article is a look at the Bengals’ offensive tendencies.

45.2: Bengals’ first down pass rate.

The typical NFL team passes the ball 47.9 percent of the time on first down, so Cincinnati is a bit more run-heavy than the average offense with a new set of chains. Defenses may have caught on since the Bengals have totaled only 3.15 yards per carry (YPC) on first down in 2012. Even over the past three weeks, when the Bengals have really gotten their running game going, they’ve averaged only 3.06 YPC on first down. Compare that to 7.5 yards per attempt (YPA) and a 101.6 passer rating on first down for Andy Dalton this season.

The Bengals’ run-heavy philosophy on early downs is a major reason they have a low first down conversion rate. They’ve converted only 17.9 percent of their first downs, compared to a league average of 20.9 percent. The running game has helped Cincinnati set up manageable third downs; they’re average distance-to-go on third down (6.27 yards) is nearly a full yard superior to the league average.

Nonetheless, the Bengals would probably be a more potent offense if they sought more upside on first down. Sure, their third downs might become less “manageable,” but they’d also see fewer of them, meaning their overall offensive efficiency would improve. Plus, it isn’t like the Bengals are converting on a whole lot of third downs anyway; their 36.0 percent conversion rate is three percentage points below the league average. For the record, the Cowboys own one of the league’s best third down conversion rates at 43.1 percent.

Check out the entire article at DallasCowboys.com.