The DC Times

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

By Jonathan Bales

Cowboys vs. Redskins Analysis: Film Study & Grades

At ABC, I broke down two important plays in the Cowboys’ Week 6 win over the Redskins, including the Terrance Williams touchdown:

The Terrance Williams Touchdown

Facing a second-and-10 at the Redskins’ 15-yard line with just under 10 minutes to play in the third quarter, the Cowboys held a five-point lead. They lined up in “Gun Trips”—a formation I’ve discussed in the past because the Cowboys simply don’t run out of it. Despite using it in situations like this when they could run, the ‘Boys have done so on less than one percent of their hundreds of snaps from the formation since 2009.

On this particular play, Williams was lined up at the bottom of the screen. The Redskins blitzed, rushing six defenders—everyone who was lined up in the box other than the middle linebacker, as well as the slot cornerback.

That slot defender—Josh Wilson—got in clean in Romo, who didn’t have a hot read on the play.

Romo’s only option was to either throw the ball away or try to avoid Wilson. He chose the latter, just barely eluding Wilson without going down to the ground.

Romo wasn’t done, though, gathering himself before firing to Williams in the back of the end zone. Williams wasn’t open, but Romo threw an absolutely perfect ball over top of cornerback E.J. Biggers. It was the quarterback’s best throw of the night, by far.

Romo didn’t play an outstanding game, primarily because he was under constant pressure from Washington, but this particular play changed the course of the contest. It gave the Cowboys a two-score lead—a lead they never relinquished—and set them up to head into Philadelphia tied with the Eagles atop the NFC East.

At Bleacher Report, I handed out position grades:

Tony Romo

Statistically, it was a putrid game for Tony Romo. Coming off of his record-breaking 506-yard, five-touchdown performance against the Denver Broncos, Romo was able to compile just 170 yards against Washington. He did it on 30 attempts, good for just 5.7 yards per attempt. That’s the sort of efficiency we saw from him when the ‘Boys were losing early in the season.

In his defense, Romo threw just one pick on a tipped pass and had really poor protection all day. The Cowboys couldn’t give him time to throw, even when he wasn’t looking downfield.

Actually, offensive coordinator Bill Callahan did a good job of moving to five-wide and other spread sets once 1) running back DeMarco Murray was injured and 2) he realized the offensive line couldn’t give Romo time to throw. By spreading the field, Callahan made Romo his own blocker, giving him the option to throw hot at times. It wasn’t overly successful, but it ironically allowed him to avoid sacks.

Ultimately, the Cowboys got the win. But we can’t grade Romo, or any quarterback, solely on team wins. A good question to ask is this: “If he plays like this again, will the Cowboys win?” Against the Broncos, the answer was a resounding “yes.” Not so much this week.

Grade: D+

And at NBC, I posted a few other random thoughts:

- Rookie running back Joseph Randle had 11 carries for 17 yards and a touchdown. His efficiency will inevitably increase, but by how much? Probably not a lot considering he’s a light back with poor speed. I didn’t like Randle before the draft, I didn’t like him after it, and I don’t think he’ll offer the Cowboys much long-term value. It was smart for Dallas to wait on a back in the draft, but not one with a horrific weight/speed combination.

- Prior to the season, I argued that Barry Church will have a big 2013 season. Still, I projected him at only 80 tackles in the preseason and 98 tackles after Week 1. He’s currently on pace for 125, which is remarkable. Church still needs to improve in coverage, but he’s playing some good football.

- Orlando Scandrick has undoubtedly been the Cowboys’ best defensive player in 2013. He’s been a lockdown player inside, and he was rewarded with an interception on Sunday night. Who could have seen this sort of play coming from Scandrick? Me, when I graded him as the top player on the team last season. He’s also the most underappreciated.

By Jonathan Bales

The Good and the Bad from Cowboys’ Win Over Rams

You got the sense that the Cowboys were going to be able to move the ball on St. Louis right out of the gate when DeMarco Murray took a Pistol handoff from Tony Romo and galloped for 14 yards on the team’s first play. Murray’s success was a welcome sight for Dallas; although the Cowboys can’t win without passing effectively, some rushing efficiency sure would help Romo & Co.

Watching the game, there were a bunch of positives from Dallas—the play-action passing game, the dominant pass-rush, and the outstanding offensive line play among them. There were also a handful of negatives, such as Dwayne Harris’s muffed punt and Dan Bailey’s missed field goal. I’m going to take a look at one positive and one negative that I think could most affect the ‘Boys moving forward.

Orlando Scandrick: Defensive MVP?

Last year, Scandrick graded out as my No. 1 player on the entire team. He had a few memorable miscues that caused some people to sour on him, but he’s been playing outstanding football. And if the MVP of the Cowboys’ defense through Week 3 isn’t DeMarcus Ware, it’s Scandrick.

There are a few different ways to grade cornerbacks, one of which is the yards they allow per pass attempt. In that metric, Scandrick has outplayed both Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne.

Actually, he’s among the best in the NFL with just 3.93 YPA allowed. That’s less than half of the YPA posted by Carr and Claiborne. And playing in the slot, Scandrick really has a difficult job because he can’t use the sideline to his advantage. Still, he’s allowed only 4.29 YPA when playing inside.

An even better metric to analyze cornerbacks is yards per route in coverage. That way, cornerbacks aren’t penalized for not getting targeted. Many of the league’s best cornerbacks are so good because they rarely get thrown at—something that will always be reflected in their yards per route.

And there, Scandrick has been even better, allowing just 0.46 yards per route. That ranks him second in the entire NFL, according to Pro Football Focus. Scandrick hasn’t made any big plays thus far in 2013, but that doesn’t mean he’s not playing elite football.

Fourth-and-Goal

That’s the good. Now for the bad. Up 7-0 with just over two minutes remaining in the first quarter, the Cowboys faced a fourth-and-goal with the ball placed between the Rams’ one and two-yard lines. For the sake of this analysis, we’ll just assume they were at the two-yard line.

Using Pro Football Reference’s play finder, we can quickly check conversion rates from the two-yard line. Since 2008, there have been 963 plays run on the opponent’s two-yard line, and 419 of those (43.5 percent) have resulted in a touchdown. If we look at only third and fourth down plays, the touchdown rate is slightly higher at 44.9 percent.

So if we assume the Cowboys had a 45 percent chance to score on the fourth down play, the expectation would be 3.15 points (7 * 0.45). That’s clearly higher than a field goal try, which would result in an expectation of around 2.98 points since Dan Bailey would almost never miss the kick.

If the Cowboys would fail to convert the touchdown, they’d still be in a good position with the Rams backed up. Actually, a first-and-10 at your own two-yard line has historically been “worth” -0.5 expected points to the offense. It’s one of the only areas of the field where possessing the ball is not an advantage.

When you factor in that St. Louis would have started at their own two-yard line if the Cowboys didn’t score but (likely) at their own 20-yard line if Bailey connected on the field goal, the decision to go for it is pretty clear.

But there’s more. First, the Cowboys showed they could run on the Rams up to that point. It probably would have been in their best interest to run on third down instead of throwing a fade to Gavin Escobar, then run it again on fourth down if need be.

Second, the ball wasn’t really at the two-yard line. It was perhaps closer to the one-yard line, and that actually dramatically changes the numbers. From the one-yard line, offenses have scored a touchdown 51.9 percent of the time since 2008.

When you put it all together, the Cowboys probably lost somewhere in the range of two expected points by kicking the field goal. No one would expect the coaches to be doing math on the sidelines to optimize their decision-making, but a simple fourth down chart would probably suffice.

In the end, the fourth down decision didn’t affect the outcome of the game, but that doesn’t mean it was any less wrong. When you’re a perennial 8-8 team involved in a lot of close games, a handful of “minor” choices that increase your team’s win expectation by even a few percentage points can have a major impact by the end of the year.

By Jonathan Bales

Cowboys-Rams Week 3 Analysis: Game Notes, Position Report Card & More

At Dallas News, I posted a breakdown of the Cowboys-Rams win probability graph:

One of the coolest (and most useful) things we can do with stats is predict each team’s probability of winning a game in real time. The win probability graphs over at Advanced NFL Stats use historic game data to display the chances of each team winning a game as the game is happening. Here’s the Cowboys-Rams win probability graph from Sunday afternoon:

This is one of the most boring win probability graphs you’ll see all season, and that’s a great thing for Dallas. The ‘Boys dominated this game throughout; within nine minutes, the Rams’ chances of winning were under 25 percent, and they never improved. By halftime, the Cowboys had a 93 percentchance to win, and again, it never got worse for Dallas from there on out.

At NBC, I posted a few of my notes from the game:

- All of the cornerbacks played outstanding football, but we really need to tip our hats to Orlando Scandrick. He held rookie speedster Tavon Austin to just 30 yards on six receptions. When you can corral a player like Austin before he gets going, his value is limited because he doesn’t run many downfield routes and he can’t score in the red zone. Scandrick also had a sack and a quarterback hit.

- Based on the halftime score of 17-0, the Cowboys had a 93 percent chance to win the game after two quarters. That assumes the teams were evenly matched, so the Cowboys’ win probability was probably closer to 95 percent or better.

- Bill Callahan did a really nice job of calling plays, especially on the first drive. The Cowboys opened up the game with the same “Pistol” look that we saw in Week 1. We also saw the old “kill” audible system, meaning Romo was actually given less freedom at the line in this game, and way more play-action passes.

And at Bleacher Report, I posted grades for each position:

1. DeMarco Murray

2. Lance Dunbar

3. Phillip Tanner

Running backs Lance Dunbar and Phillip Tanner combined for eight carries, so this was really the Murray show all day. Murray ran for 175 yards on 26 carries. Even if you take out his longest run of 41 yards, Murray still totaled 134 yards on 25 carries—5.36 YPC.

Murray also added three receptions for 28 yards, giving him 16 receptions on the year. If he keeps up his current pace, Murray will total 85 catches this year. It’s unlikely he’ll reach that mark, but 65 receptions isn’t out of the question just because, with defenses playing wide receiver Dez Bryant the way they are, the underneath stuff will be open for Murray out of the backfield.

Grade: A

By Jonathan Bales

Cowboys Analysis: Report Card and Play Breakdowns

At ABC, I broke down two plays from the Cowboys’ Week 2 loss in Kansas City:

A Big Third Down

Although Monte Kiffin had his defense playing well on Sunday, they stumbled out of the gates, digging themselves an early hole by allowing a touchdown on the first drive. The ‘Boys had Kansas City in a difficult spot, facing a third-and-15 at the Cowboys’ 35-yard line.

In that situation, I think Kiffin was more concerned with making sure the Chiefs didn’t advance the ball at all than ensuring they didn’t secure a big play. That’s understandable given the field position; if the Cowboys could force an incompletion or even get a sack, Kansas City would be forced to either attempt a long field goal or punt.

So Kiffin brought the dogs, lining up six defenders at the line with a soft look behind it.

At the snap, Orlando Scandrick rushed off of the edge and Sean Lee dropped into coverage, meaning the ‘Boys had five defenders coming after Smith and six in the back end. The secondary played off, seemingly content to give up any underneath completions.

Smith had time to throw the ball, so he hung onto it instead of taking the sure thing underneath to set up a closer field goal try. The problem for Dallas was that, once the receivers got downfield, the back six were out of position to corral the scrambling Smith. He took off down the sideline, diving for a first down that ultimately led to the first of only three total touchdowns for both teams in the game.

This is the problem with continually playing man coverage against a mobile passer. In such a close game, it’s pretty evident that Dallas would have won had they contained Smith as a runner. Kiffin probably felt as though Smith is accurate enough to consistently pick apart zone coverage if given enough time, but it might have been smarter to utilize zone blitzes if he wanted to send pressure. That way, the Cowboys could have forced Smith out of the pocket, yet still have defenders playing underneath to stop him on the ground.

And at Bleacher Report, I graded each position.

Quarterback

Just as was the case in Week 1, Romo turned in a poor performance from an efficiency standpoint. He averaged 7.1 YPA—up from 5.4 YPA in Week 1—but it seems like Romo is throwing the ball scared right now.

It’s pretty apparent he’s placed an emphasis on minimizing his turnovers, which he’s done really well, but it’s come at the expense of some big plays. In Romo’s defense, he had some passes dropped, including a big one down the sideline to Bryant late in the contest.

Still, Romo didn’t lead the team at the end of the game. I’m as big of a Romo fan as any, but why wasn’t the team in a hurry-up mode for much of the fourth quarter when they were losing?

Down by four points with just a few minutes remaining, the Cowboys showed no urgency. Yeah, they had enough time to score on that drive, but what happens if you don’t score a touchdown right away? The Cowboys didn’t, and they had no time left to come back after kicking off.

Grade: C-

By Jonathan Bales

Cowboys-Giants: Defensive Notes and a Look at the Win Probability Graph

At NBC, I posted my notes on the Cowboys’ defense:

- I thought Barry Church was the MVP for the Cowboys’ defense. He had eight tackles, a forced fumble, and of course the big fumble recovery for a touchdown. He has the potential to be really productive in Monte Kiffin’s defense.

- Opposite Church, Will Allen had a rough game. He had an interception, although that had more to do with Manning than anything else. Allen was targeted four times on the night, allowing three catches for 101 yards and two touchdowns. It’s really a shame that Matt Johnson is down for the year. The Cowboys need to find a way to cover up their weakness there.

At DallasCowboys.com, I broke down the win probability graph from AdvancedNFLStats.com:

Despite an 8-8 record in 2012, the Cowboys held a lead just 22 percent of the time. That’s really an astounding statistic and probably the biggest negative the team had heading into 2013. For at least one game, though, the Cowboys’ luck shifted.

Looking at data on win probability, we can visualize the ebb and flow of the Cowboys’ big opening night victory over the Giants. Using historic game data as a foundation, Advanced NFL Stats publishes visualizations that update in real time to display a team’s probability of winning a game at any point. Down 10-3 and facing a third-and-10 at the opponent’s 25-yard line with 3:20 to play in the second quarter? The win probability graphs can give you an indication of how likely you are to win, and an accurate one at that. I highly recommend monitoring them on game day.

The Cowboys’ win probability graph from Sunday night’s victory paints a picture we rarely saw last season, one with the ’Boys controlling the direction of the contest.

Due to a relatively fast pace from the Cowboys and a lack of rushing from both squads, there were an abundance of plays from scrimmage in this contest. And of those 133 plays, Dallas found themselves as an underdog on just five of them. That’s a sharp contrast from a year ago.

You can see the Cowboys were the favorites to win from about two-thirds of the way through the first quarter until the final second of the game. At its worst point, Dallas still owned a 40 percent chance of winning.

And at Bleacher Report, I took a look at some things to know going into Week 2:

By Jonathan Bales

All of my Cowboys-Giants analysis in one place: Dez Bryant, Position Grades, & More

So what’s up? Anything new going on with you guys? Not sure if you knew, but the Cowboys played last night. Won, too. Here’s some analysis.

I recently joined WFAA.com (ABC Dallas), and my first article takes a look at how the Giants really stifled the Cowboys’ offense.

A Look at Cover 2 Man-Under

Over the past few seasons, the Giants have played Cover 2 and Cover 2 Man-Under on nearly every snap against Dallas. Most are familiar with Cover 2—a true zone coverage—especially now that Monte Kiffin is in town. In Cover 2, the safeties play the deep halves and are responsible for the deepest receiver in their area. The cornerbacks play what’s known as “curl to flat”—a fancy way of saying the underneath zone near the sideline.

In 2 Man-Under, though, everyone other than the safeties is in man coverage. That means when a receiver goes deep, he’s effectively double-teamed. No wonder the Cowboys couldn’t secure any big plays on the night; the Giants made sure they kept everything in front of them, particularly when it came to Mr. Bryant.

One of the interesting tricks the Giants employed was mixing up their looks with the cornerbacks. Even though they played a lot of Cover 2 Man-Under, the Giants didn’t always place their cornerbacks in a press position. Instead, they often played off even when in man coverage, as you can see below.

Bryant, isolated at the top of the screen opposite the Cowboys’ “Trips” formation, was able to get a clean release because the cornerback was playing off. But there were advantages for the Giants in playing with off technique, too.

I’ll be doing a bunch of cool stuff at ABC this year, so definitely check it out.

At NBC, I posted some initial thoughts on the offense:

- I absolutely love that we saw the Pistol from Dallas on Sunday night. Not only that, but we saw it multiple times. The Pistol can allow for Tony Romo to be in Shotgun while also giving the Cowboys the freedom to run any play. DeMarco Murray doesn’t need to delay before taking a handoff, so the Cowboys can have the best of both worlds.

- I need to break down the film, but it was obvious that Dallas didn’t have much play-action success. It was still good to see them using it, though. Last year, Romo compiled a 109.1 passer rating on play-action. It can really be an effective tool in their offensive arsenal, whether the running game is working or not. They’re starting to realize that.



At Bleacher Report, I gave grades for each position:

DeMarco Murray handled 20 of the Cowboys’ 21 carries by running backs, and that’s a great sight to see. At nearly 220 pounds with 4.41 speed and past NFL efficiency, Murray is so much better than Phillip Tanner and Joseph Randle that it’s not even funny.

Murray averaged 4.3 YPC, thanks to a few nice runs in the fourth quarter. He also caught eight passes, showing he’ll be a staple in Bill Callahan’s short passing game.

Grade: C

And at Dallas News, I explained why I think Monte Kiffin’s defense wasn’t that good:

We can and should give the defense some credit for being in the right place at the right time, but we also can’t expect them to force more than a couple of turnovers in each game. And when those disappear, where does that leave this team? Had the Cowboys not gotten some fortuitous bounces against the Giants, this game could have been a blowout.

Again, I’m a fan of Kiffin and I even predicted the Cowboys’ takeaways to increase substantially just before the Giants game. But the ability to force turnovers is about one part skill for every three parts luck. I’ve heard people argue that it doesn’t matter because the Cowboys won the game, and in some ways that’s true, but it does matter if we’re looking to the future. And I don’t know about you, but I’m more concerned with the next 15 games than this single victory.

 

By Jonathan Bales

7 Thoughts on Cowboys vs Raiders

At NBC, I posted some thoughts on the game:

  • Jason Witten was called for an early holding penalty. He’s still a good blocker, but his in-line play has deteriorated over the past few seasons. Martellus Bennett was far superior in the running game when he was here. Last year, defenses sacked Romo on 5.2 percent of his dropbacks, but 7.1 percent of them when Witten stayed in to block.
  • We saw more screens for Dallas, and that’s a welcome sight. Remember, the Cowboys ran eight (yes, eight!) total screens to running backs in 2012. That’s probably the easiest way to take pressure off of the offensive line.
  • After the 2012 season, I published an article called “Cowboys Rarely Ran Outside Tackles in 2012”—pretty self-explanatory. Dallas ran inside the tackles 237 times in 2012, but only 89 of their runs were outside. It’s much different this year with Bill Callahan calling the plays, as it should be. The rate of five, 10, and 20-yard runs has always been much higher for Dallas when they get the ball to the perimeter.


By Jonathan Bales

Notes on Cowboys vs Dolphins

I posted two post-game articles today. The first, at NBC, has four post-game notes on the Cowboys.

Lance Dunbar appears to be the clear No. 2 running back.

Dunbar barely got any playing time, but he started the game ahead of Phillip Tanner and Joseph Randle. That’s probably a sign that the Cowboys are comfortable with Dunbar as their backup running back. At 191 lbs, Dunbar is undersized, but he’s the right choice for the job. There’s no single metric more strongly correlated with running back success than 40-yard dash time, and Dunbar’s sub-4.50 speed trumps both Tanner and Randle. I think we could actually see all three backs make the roster.

The second, at Dallas News, offers eight more observations.

7. DeVonte Holloman can fly.

His interception might have been a little fluky, but the speed Holloman showed in returning it for a touchdown was not. I’m not sure if he’ll earn a starting job this year, but a linebacker corps of Holloman, Sean Lee, and Bruce Carter might be the best coverage trio in the NFL.

8. Matt Johnson might really be injury-prone.

Most of you know that I think a lot of what people perceive as injury-proneness is an illusion. We’d certainly expect some players to be more susceptible to injuries than others, but since injuries are so random, it’s really difficult to determine if a player is truly injury-prone or just unlucky. Lots of players are labeled as injury-prone and then go on to lead healthy careers. It just takes a lot of injuries to say that a guy is really injury-prone and not the victim of bad luck.

Having said that, we have to start to question if Johnson is truly injury-prone. There have been a handful of injuries in a short period of time, and while it looks like he’ll bounce back from this one, it’s not a good sign that he’s again banged up for a Cowboys defense that was counting on him to provide significant contributions.

By Jonathan Bales

Cowboys-Saints Film Study

At DallasCowboys.com, I posted my thoughts from the Cowboys’ Week 16 loss to the Saints.

  • It’s easy to look at the Cowboys’ 45-to-11 pass-to-run ratio and say that head coach Jason Garrett should have dialed up more runs, but I’m not sure that’s the case. It’s so tempting to criticize such a ratio because the Cowboys lost, but they were a weird bounce of the ball away from us praising Garrett for “sticking with what was working.” Tony Romo was on fire for most of the game, averaging 9.67 yards per attempt (YPA) over 43 attempts. As much as Drew Brees diced up the Cowboys’ defense, even he totaled only 8.42 YPA. Meanwhile, DeMarco Murrayran for just 3.63 yards per carry (YPC) on the ground. Remember, the Cowboys have historically won around 50 percent more often when they pass the ball very frequently in the first three quarters of games.
  • If you recall, Garrett called 45 passes and only 19 rushes (two of which were Romo kneel-downs) last week. That game against the Steelers was very similar to this one, except a remarkableBrandon Carr interception altered how we perceive the two games. In both contests, Garrett was extremely pass-heavy; with the way Romo has been throwing the ball lately, that’s a good thing. If we aren’t going to criticize Garrett’s play-calling in a victory last week (which we shouldn’t), then we can’t do it this week.

Read the whole article

I also did the same at NBC.

Prior to the game, I suggested that Garrett continue to increase the rate of play-action passes and downfield throws. We saw four play-action passes and five deep looks (thrown at least 20 yards past the line-of-scrimmage) from Dallas. Romo completed two of the play-action passes for 74 yards and a touchdown. He was even better on deep passes, connecting on three of the five for 118 yards and two scores. Against the Redskins’ porous 30th-ranked pass defense, it would probably benefit the ‘Boys to give Bryant a handful of extra deep targets on which he can win in jump ball situations, regardless of the coverage.

Check out the whole post here.

By Jonathan Bales

Cowboys vs Steelers: Initial Post-Game Notes

At NBC, I published a few thoughts from the Cowboys’ 27-24 overtime victory in Week 15.

Running Rampant

Okay, so the Cowboys didn’t exactly run rampant on Pittsburgh, but their rushing efficiency certainly helped the offense. I predicted that the ‘Boys would be able to run on Pittsburgh prior to the game despite the Steelers’ fourth-ranked run defense. The reason was that the Steelers had faced more short-yardage situations than normal, increasing their efficiency in terms of YPC allowed to improperly reflect their true ability as a run defense.

Read it all at NBC.