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Gameday | 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 vs. Saints Analysis and Looking Ahead

At ABC, I gave my take on the Cowboys vs. Saints game:

The Dallas Cowboys have no understanding of probability. You might think that has very little to do with being a quality football team, but a basic comprehension of the numbers has everything to do with playing efficiently.

Consider the old adage that it benefits offenses to “set up manageable third downs.” Even in today’s NFL, many teams still run the ball way too often, particularly on first down, to set up third downs that are easier to convert.

But stats have shown again and again that the best offenses are those that face third down the least—those that don’t try to set up manageable third downs, but rather call plays more efficiently on first and second down to avoid third down altogether. It might be easier to convert a 3rd-and-3 than a 3rd-and-7, but it’s easier to convert a single 3rd-and-7 than four straight 3rd-and-3s. Math. Nice.

One of the ways that you can see that the Cowboys don’t comprehend the numbers is that they don’t throw the football downfield nearly as much as they should. It’s the same idea as “setting up manageable third downs”—why throw downfield and risk an incompletion or interception when you can continually throw underneath and complete 70 percent of your passes?

Well, it’s kind of difficult to do something effectively over and over in the NFL because, you know, the other guys are professionals too. Even if each offensive play has, say, an 80 percent chance of being successful, the probability of running five straight successful plays is just 50 percent. So in many situations, it makes sense to aim for lower-percentage plays with greater rewards.

The Cowboys are a risk-averse team that seeks to maximize the happiness they get from a bunch of moderately successful plays instead of, you know, maximizing points. For them, a low-variance offensive strategy—a Stoic offense, of sorts—is superior to the ups-and-downs that come with a truly efficient unit. Meanwhile, the Saints are one of the teams that has embraced the use of analytics, and it shows in their offense. Let’s take a look.

Check out the game analysis at ABC.

At BR, I took a look ahead to the Cowboys’ bye, but I also broke down what’s wrong with the defense:

What Must Improve: The Pass Rush

One of the most important aspects of defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin’s scheme is the ability to generate pressure with only four rushers. When the Cowboys can do that, they’re effective. When they can’t, they’re not. It’s that simple.

With the missed time from defensive end DeMarcus Ware and defensive tackle Jason Hatcher, the Cowboys just haven’t been able to get to the quarterback. That’s a problem.

Using the pressure totals from Pro Football Focus (subscription required), I charted the Cowboys’ pressure rate in each game this season.

Notice a trend? That 30 percent area is really the threshold the ‘Boys need to hit in order to get over the .500 hump. If they can start to get pressure on around one-third of their defensive snaps, things will start to turn around.

But who’s going to provide that pressure? The Cowboys’ top three pass-rushers have all deteriorated as the season has progressed.

predicted this would happen for Ware because of his age, and the same reasoning applies to Hatcher. Thus, the Cowboys might need to rely on improved play from Selvie, a seventh-round pick in 2010, to turn things around defensively.

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The Sportstradamus: Week 10 NFL Game Picks

I went 9-4 straight up, 7-6 against the spread, and 5-7-1 on totals in Week 9, bringing my record on the year to 91-42 straight up, 65-65-2 against the spread, and 72-60-1 on totals.

Week 10 NFL Game Picks

Washington 23 (-1.5) @Minnesota 20 (UNDER 50)

@Tennessee 28 (-12) Jacksonville 14 (OVER 41)

Philadelphia 28 (+1.5) @Green Bay 24 (OVER 47)

@Pittsburgh 21 Buffalo 20 (+3.5) (UNDER 44)

@NY Giants 24 (-7) Oakland 17 (UNDER 44)

@Indy 31 (-9.5) St. Louis 20 (OVER 43.5)

Seattle 24 (-5.5) @Atlanta 17 (UNDER 45)

Cincinnati 20 (-1) @Baltimore 17 (UNDER 44)

@Chicago 24 (pk) Detroit 20 (UNDER 52.5)

@San Fran 23 Carolina 20 (+6.5) (UNDER 43.5)

@Arizona 24 (-2.5) Houston 20 (OVER 41)

Denver 30 @San Diego 27 (+7) (UNDER 59)

@New Orleans 28 (-6.5) Dallas 20 (UNDER 54.5)

Miami 27 (-2) @Tampa Bay 20 (OVER 40.5)

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

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

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

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

Wow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I also explained why the Cowboys need to keep throwing:

The Numbers on the Run/Pass Balance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First-Down Passing

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

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

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

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

What Must Improve: Pass Protection

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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The Sportstradamus: Week 9 NFL Game Picks

Sorry I’m late on this. I posted my Thursday night pick earlier this week, which was wrong: Cincinnati 28 (-3) @Miami 20 (OVER 42). Going into overtime at 20-20, what was the probability of that game not going over 42? The scientific answer is “low as shit.”

I’ve gotten some emails that some of you are using my picks to make money (or lose it, this year). Now would be a good time to tell you that THESE ARE FOR FUN. I’ve had a good track record in the past and I’ve been profitable every year I’ve done this, but I’m not promising anything for you.*

Week 9 NFL Game Picks

Cincinnati 28 (-3) @Miami 20 (OVER 42)

@Carolina 30 (-7) Atlanta 20 (OVER 45)

@Dallas 31 (-9.5) Minnesota 17 (UNDER 50.5)

New Orleans 28 @NY Jets 24 (+7) (OVER 45)

Tennessee 24 (-3) @St. Louis 20 (OVER 39.5)

Kansas City 20 @Buffalo 17 (+4) (UNDER 41)

San Diego 27 (+1) @Washington 20 (UNDER 52)

Philadelphia 23 (+2.5) @Oakland 20 (UNDER 45.5)

@Seattle 24 (-14.5) Tampa Bay 7 (UNDER 41.5)

@Cleveland 20 (+2.5) Baltimore 17 (UNDER 41.5)

@New England 23 Pittsburgh 20 (+7) (UNDER 44)

Indy 24 (-2) @Houston 17 (UNDER 44.5)

@Green Bay 27 Chicago 17 (+11) (UNDER 51)

*You’ll get rich.

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Cowboys vs. Vikings: Game Plan for Dallas

Just a quick note: I didn’t have time to get to my game picks today, so I just want to submit my pick for tonight’s game right now. Cincinnati 28 (-3) @Miami 20 (OVER 42).

Okay, now onto the game plan for Dallas:

DO attack Josh Robinson.

The Vikings have two cornerbacks playing quality football—Xavier Rhodes and Chris Cook. Cook suffered a hip strain last week, but TwinCities.com is reporting he’s day-to-day. Both Rhodes and Cook have allowed 1.05 yards per route or less, according to PFF, ranking them in the top 30 in the NFL. Rhodes’ 0.81 mark is the eighth best in the league.

Meanwhile, cornerback Josh Robinson isn’t playing so well.

At 2.20 yards allowed per snap, Robinson ranks 74th in the league—the second worst for any cornerback who has played at least half of his team’s snaps.

To give you an idea of how poorly Robinson has played, consider that he’s allowed a completion on 50 of 56 throws his way—89.3 percent. No other cornerback in the NFL has allowed more than 35 receptions!

The Vikings probably won’t place Robinson on wide receiver Dez Bryant too much, so it could be a big day for Terrance Williams.

DO run more play action!

I’ve pretty much made a commitment to posting the Cowboys play-action numbers every week. Take a look at the bottom five quarterback in the NFL in play-action passing rate, per PFF.

That’s Romo with the lowest rate, by far, even when compared to the quarterbacks who attempt the fewest play-action passes in the NFL.

And after generating a 109.1 passer rating on play action in 2012, Romo’s current play-action passer rating this year is 126.5. Increasing the play-action rate might decrease Romo’s efficiency on the look, but the overall efficiency of the offense would be enhanced if the Cowboys substantially increased the number of passes on which they use play-action.

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Cowboys-Vikings Preview Stuff

At ABC, I published some trends on the Vikings. Here’s one:

Blitz. A lot.

We’re not really sure who will start at quarterback for the Vikings—Josh Freeman or Christian Ponder—but both have been horrific against the blitz (five or more rushers). Using data at Pro Football Focus, I charted the passer rating for each quarterback against the blitz in 2013. Freeman’s numbers extend back to his time in Tampa Bay.

Neither Freeman nor Ponder have been able to compile a passer rating above 60.6 when defenses send more than four rushers.

The numbers are even worse when you consider their completion percentages.\

Freeman and Ponder have both completed less than 42 percent of their passes against the blitz. There’s no reason Monte Kiffin shouldn’t send blitzes early and often in Week 9.

And at Bleacher Report, I posted a Week 8 Primer:

What Must Improve: Pass Rush

If you knew the Cowboys would be starting defensive ends Kyle Wilber and George Selvie this year, you probably would have guessed they’d have trouble reaching the passer.

Selvie has been pretty good, but the Cowboys absolutely need to find a way to stop opposing quarterbacks. The Cowboys are one of only three teams to have allowed 2,200 yards passing this year, and they’ve actually given up 2,523! That’s the worst number in the NFL.

Using data from Pro Football Focus (subscription required), I charted the Cowboys’ pressure rate in every game this year.

You can see that, with 11 pressures against Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford, Week 8 was the Cowboys’ second-worst outing of the year.

And how about this stat: In the games in which the Cowboys have generated a pressure on at least 30 percent of their pass-rushing snaps, they’re 3-1 and have allowed an average of 259.5 yards passing. In the games in which they’ve failed to reach the 30 percent pressure threshold, however, the ‘Boys are 1-3 and have yielded an unfathomable 371.3 yards passing per game.

Key Matchup vs. Vikings: RT Doug Free vs. DE Brian Robison

Vikings defensive end Brian Robison is perhaps the unluckiest player in the NFL through Week 8. See, Robison has just one sack on the year, suggesting he hasn’t gotten to the passer all that much. In reality, the defensive end has quietly been one of the league’s most efficient pass-rushers.

Through Week 8, Pro Football Focus has tracked only one defensive end as racking up more than 26 pressures. It’s Robison, and he has 32 of them. Of the other six defensive ends with at least 22 pressures (a group that includes Cowboys defensive end George Selvie), the average sack total is 3.67.

I’ve found that a defensive end’s sacks tend to add up to around one-quarter of his pressures. With 32 pressures, Robison’s most likely sack total at this point in the season is closer to eight than it is to one.

Robison has rushed from the left side of the Vikings defense on 99.2 percent of his snaps in 2013, per PFF. That means he’ll be matched up exclusively on right tackle Doug Free.

Although it might be tempting to double-team veteran defensive end Jared Allen, the numbers suggest the Cowboys need to worry about Robison just as much.

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A Look at the Cowboys’ Poor Decisions vs. Lions

At ABC, I examined the Cowboys’ poor decisions against the Lions:

Fourth-and-Two

The Cowboys’ handling of the end game is consistently among the worst of any team in the league, and we saw that again in Week 8. I’ll get to that in a minute, but they might not have even been in that situation had they more appropriately managed earlier choices.

The worst of the bunch was a second quarter field goal try on a fourth-and-two at the Lions’ 35-yard line. Using the Fourth Down Calculator, we can establish some baseline stats for the situation. Again, these are based on how offenses have performed in the same situation in the past.

In attempting the field goal, the Cowboys lost 0.98 expected points. Another way of thinking about that is if the Cowboys were to play out that situation 1,000 times, they would score right around a full point more, on average, by going for it over kicking a field goal. The ‘Boys lost a decent chance to score a touchdown on that drive instead of coming away with three points—points that ultimately decided the game.

You might argue that kicker Dan Bailey made the field goal, justifying Garrett’s decision to kick it. I have a feeling many people within the Cowboys’ organization would propose that rationale, but it’s just wrong. It’s that sort of “ex post facto” thinking that has resulted in mediocrity in Big D.

Further, the numbers might be even more in favor of going for it when we factor in the specifics for Dallas. Bailey is 9-for-14 in his career on 50-plus yard field goals. This one was from 53 yards out, and we wouldn’t expect Bailey’s expected conversion rate to be much higher than the 50 percent used in the calculator. But even if we bump Bailey’s expected conversion rate to, say, 70 percent, the Cowboys should still have gone for it.

That’s especially true when you consider that the Cowboys have an above-average offense. They might have been playing poorly at that time, but it’s hard to think their chances of converting a fourth-and-two were worse than that for the typical NFL offense.

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Cowboys vs. Lions: 5 Matchups to Watch for Dallas

At Bleacher Report, I published some matchups to watch today. Here’s one:

WR Terrance Williams vs. CB Chris Houston

No wide receiver in the NFL has generated a higher passer rating for his quarterback than Williams. When throwing to Williams, Romo has completed an amazing 24 of 28 passes for 380 yards, three touchdowns and one pick.

You can see how Williams’ efficiency has increased throughout the year.

His top three games in terms of yards per target have been over the past three weeks. During that time, he’s averaged an unreal 19.2 yards per target.

Williams will likely be matched up primarily on Houston because, with Houston struggling, the Lions likely won’t want him on wide receiver Dez Bryant.

Houston ranks near the bottom in the NFL in yards allowed per route. If he’s on Williams, look for the rookie wide receiver to have a big day.

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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)

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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.