The DC Times

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

By Jonathan Bales

5 Matchups to Watch for Dallas vs. Chicago

Just a heads up that I’m a little short on time, so I’ll get to my game picks tomorrow. For tonight, I’m going Houston 23 (-3) Jacksonville 17 (UNDER 44).

I just posted my matchups to watch for Dallas this week. Here are two of those:

DT Jason Hatcher vs. RG Kyle Long

This matchup will just be a fun one to watch. Long is a highly athletic rookie guard who might just have what it takes to hang with defensive tackle Jason Hatcher on the inside.

In terms of generating a pass-rush, though, the Cowboys need Hatcher to come up big. I think that Dallas is going to get surprising pressure on the outside, but if they don’t and Hatcher can’t beat Long & Co. inside, it’s going to be a long night for the pass defense.

Ideally, you’d like to see Dallas get pressure up the middle so that they don’t have to blitz, allowing them to play Cover 2.

CB Orlando Scandrick vs. WR Alshon Jeffery

The primary advantage of Cover 2 against Chicago is that the ‘Boys can put a safety over top of wide receivers Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall. That’s going to be important, even though cornerback Orlando Scandrick has played outstanding football this year.

Those are the top five cornerbacks in the NFL in yards-per-route in 2013. Scandrick is hanging with the big boys. Nonetheless, Jeffery stands 6’3″, 216 pounds and poses a problem for Scandrick from a physical standpoint.

At only 5’10″, 191 pounds, Scandrick could have good coverage on Jeffery and still not be able to work around his big body. That’s especially true in the red zone, where I’m predicting the cornerback struggles this week.

By Jonathan Bales

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.

Duh.

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.

By Jonathan Bales

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.

By Jonathan Bales

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.

By Jonathan Bales

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.

By Jonathan Bales

Philadelphia Eagles By the Numbers

I grew up an hour outside of Philly, so I think I know what the fuck I’m talking about when it comes to the Eagles. At ABC, I flaunted that knowledge (meaning I wrote down what I researched this morning):

61.1: Eagles’ first down run rate in the first quarter

There’s little doubt that the Eagles want to run the ball. They do it a lot early in games, with the rate of first down runs decreasing as contests progress.

Some of that is probably due to game situations, but it’s still noteworthy. It will be interesting to see 1) how the Eagles’ run rate changes with Nick Foles at quarterback and 2) if the offense can be as efficient with Foles, instead of Michael Vick, running variations of the read-option.

8: DeSean Jackson’s red zone targets

Through six games, Jackson is leading the Eagles in red zone targets.

It’s never a good thing when a 5’10”, 175-pound receiver is leading your team in targets inside the 20. There’s an extremely strong correlation between height/weight and red zone efficiency, so it’s no surprise that Jackson has converted just one-fourth of his 2013 red zone targets into touchdowns.

Jackson also has a career red zone touchdown rate of just 12.7 percent, which is horrific. In comparison, Dez Bryant has converted five of his eight 2013 red zone targets into touchdowns and 19 of 45 (42.2 percent) during his career.

If the Eagles want to target Jackson in the red zone, the Cowboys should be more than happy to let that happen. He’s certainly a player to monitor between the 20s, but he should never see a double-team when the field is condensed.

By Jonathan Bales

Week 7 Preview and More on Joseph Randle

At Bleacher Report, I posted a Week 7 preview:

What Must Improve: Pass Protection

So much can change in a week. After the Cowboys’ Week 5 loss at the hands of the Broncos, the offense was coming off of one of the premiere games for any team in NFL history, while the defense allowed 51 points.

Fast-forward seven days, and it’s the ‘Boys’ defense and special teams that got them the victory over Washington on Sunday night. Meanwhile, the Cowboys’ top rusher was Murray with 29 yards and their top receiver was Cole Beasley with 44 yards. Yikes.

To fix the offense in Week 7, the Cowboys desperately need superior pass protection. The line allowed just one sack against the Redskins, but that’s really just because Romo got the ball out quickly and dodged trouble when it was near.

After allowing an average of 7.4 pressures in their first five games, the line yielded eight pressures on Sunday night. That’s a small increase, but let’s not forget Romo also had only 30 attempts. He was averaging 37.6 attempts coming into the game.

That means the pressure rate against Washington (26.7 percent) was higher than in Weeks 1 through 5 (19.7 percent). Here’s a breakdown of the Cowboys’ pressure rate by week.

You can see the Cowboys’ top offensive performances came in the two games—versus St. Louis and Denver—when they allowed the lowest pressure rates. That’s not a coincidence.

Against the Eagles, the Cowboys probably can’t focus on stopping just one player because the Philadelphia rushers are strong across the board. Starting outside linebackers Trent Cole and Connor Barwin have near the same pressure rate as defensive end Vinny Curry, with defensive end Cedric Thornton not far behind.

Surprisingly, though, it’s the Eagles backups who have been the most efficient. Outside linebackers Vinny Curry and Brandon Graham have dominated in limited action. Curry has seven pressures in 47 pass-rush snaps and Graham eight pressures in 69 snaps. Compare that to 11 pressures each for Barwin and Cole in 175 and 190 pass-rush snaps, respectively.

And at Dallas News, I argued that Joseph Randle is going to struggle:

Here’s a visualization of how much the 40 time matters for running backs.

Those are all backs drafted since 2000, measured by approximate value (which takes into account all stats like rushing yards, receiving yards, touchdowns, and so on). It’s kind of a hard chart to ignore.

And the backs that have succeeded despite sub-par long speed (Arian Foster and Alfred Morris today or Emmitt Smith in the 90s, for example), are all built like houses. They’re not lean runners who’ve overcome both a lack of size and a lack of speed. That just doesn’t seem to happen.

Maybe that’s why we’re seeing this sort of efficiency from the backs in 2013:

The sample size is limited, certainly, but this is a trend that we see all across the league: fast running backs excel, slow ones perish.

None of this means that Randle can’t at all succeed on a game-by-game basis. Running back production is highly dependent on the offensive line, and if the ‘Boys open up running lanes for Randle, it’s not like he can’t take what’s there. He even has a favorable matchup this week in Philly.

But if Dunbar is healthy, past running back stats—his own and those across the NFL—say he should be the man to see most of the workload. And if you’re looking to Randle to be an effective long-term option at running back for Dallas, you might want to look again.

By Jonathan Bales

Matchups to Watch for Dallas vs. Washington

At Bleacher Report, I posted some matchups I’ll be watching on Sunday night:

The Dallas Cowboys have moved to become 6.5-point favorites over the Washington Redskins in Week 6. That is initially surprising when you consider these are relatively similar teams to those that faced off in Week 17 of the 2012 season—a game that the Redskins won to take down the NFC East.

So why are the Cowboys favored by so much?

To see why, let’s take a look at the teams’ ranks in four categories: adjusted net yards per attempt (ANYPA), yards per carry (YPC), ANYPA against and YPC against. Since these are league-wide ranks, lower on the chart is better.

ANYPA is the single most predictive stat in all of football.

If we had to predict the outcome of each game and we could only use one stat, the choice should be ANYPA. It’s a passing efficiency metric that incorporates sacks, touchdowns and interceptions.

The Cowboys rank better than the Redskins in both ANYPA and ANYPA against (marked as “ANYPA (D)” on the chart). The ‘Boys have the sixth-most efficient passing game and the 25th-most efficient pass defense. Meanwhile, the ‘Skins rank 15th and 31st, respectively.

So if you’re looking for a single, tangible reason the Cowboys are favored by nearly a touchdown, this is it.

As is customary in most games, the squad that passes most effectively and defends the pass the best will win. Let’s examine five important matchups that will help determine if the ‘Boys will be able to win through the air in order to come out victorious on Sunday night.

LB Sean Lee/S Barry Church vs. TE Jordan Reed

Reed is a rookie tight end out of Florida who has been efficient in his three games played. Reed has caught 13 of his 15 targets for 106 yards and a touchdown. With Fred Davis out, Reed will be the primary weapon for quarterback Robert Griffin III over the middle of the field.

The Cowboys have used a combination of linebackers and safeties to cover tight ends this year, led most notably by Sean Lee and Barry Church.

Church has been decent, allowing 124 yards on the 17 passes thrown his way (7.29 YPA), according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).

Lee has struggled badly, however. Despite a big pick-six against San Diego, Lee has given up a completion on 20 of the 23 passes thrown his way, yielding 233 yards and four touchdowns in the process. That’s a passer rating of 130.3 for opposing quarterbacks.

The Redskins could very well game-plan to get Lee isolated in coverage. Defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin needs to do his best to make sure that Church has way more exposure than Lee in covering Reed.

By Jonathan Bales

Is RGIII the same player in 2013?

At ABC, I broke down Robert Griffin III’s play through four games:

Washington is easing their young quarterback into games by keeping him in the pocket more than ever. That means fewer designed runs, which is reflected in RGIII’s per-game rushing average after each contest.

Whereas RGIII’s 2012 rushing yards eventually leveled out at between 50 and 60 per game in 2012, he has yet to rush for more than 37 in any game this season.

In addition to fewer designed runs, Griffin is also 1) scrambling less and 2) getting rid of the football quicker.

Through four games, RGIII has stayed in the pocket an average of 2.77 seconds—down three-tenths of a second from his rookie year and the exact same number Tony Romo posted in 2012.

Read more.

By Jonathan Bales

Denver’s Offensive Dominance Visualized

At DallasCowboys.com, I posted some visualizations to put Peyton Manning and the Broncos’ dominance in perspective:

Using expected points, we can see if the Broncos have been lucky at all in regards to their league-leading 179 points. Guess what? They haven’t. Here are the nine teams with at least 100 expected points.

With 176.5 expected points, Denver’s output has really been what they’ve deserved given how well they’ve played. Their expectation is nearly 30 percent higher than the league’s second-place offense. It’s really just incredible.

And how about Mr. Manning himself? His level of dominance has been unprecedented.

All of the following charts will rank the top-10 quarterbacks in each category. Manning ranks so far ahead of the other passers that you don’t even need to know the numbers; you can just immediately see the effect. First, let’s look touchdown rate, the percentage of throws resulting in a touchdown.

Passer rating:

And finally, adjusted yards per attempt, a stat that accounts for both touchdowns and interceptions.

It’s truly amazing that a player can stand out so far from his peers in a league comprised of the best of the best. If the Cowboys are going to win on Sunday, they not only need to contain the best quarterback of all-time, but they need to do it at a time when he just might be playing the best football anyone has ever played.