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.
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.