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What To Watch/key Matchups | The DC Times - Part 2

The DC Times

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

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Tony Romo’s Conservative Play & What You Need to Know in Week 5

At DallasCowboys.com, I explained why Tony Romo isn’t playing aggressively enough to win:

Tony Romo isn’t throwing enough interceptions. Could that seemingly absurd statement actually have some merit?

Through four games, Romo has compiled a 105.0 passer rating and 72.4 percent completion rate, both the highest marks in his entire career. There’s also this:

With just one pick through the first quarter of the season, Romo’s interception rate (0.7 percent) is at an all-time low. Moreover, that lone Week 1 pick was really the result of a blown route by Terrance Williams.

Romo’s low interception total is good in and of itself, obviously, since interceptions are strongly correlated with losing. But we can’t examine Romo’s interception rate in isolation.

The truth is that, while interceptions aren’t beneficial, the style of play that leads to interceptions can be advantageous. Let me repeat that: The style of play that leads to interceptions can be advantageous. When Romo takes more chances, the Cowboys have the potential to be a more efficient offense. Take a look at his career yards per attempt (YPA).

Resembles the interception graph, huh? As Romo’s interception rate has increased, so has his YPA. The more chances he takes, the greater the probability of 1) enhancing offensive efficiency, and 2) throwing interceptions. One is good and one is bad. So what’s a quarterback to do?

There needs to be some sort of balance, through which Romo (and the offensive play-calling) remains aggressive without unnecessarily increasing risk. The Cowboys need to take their shots downfield while still maintaining a certain level of safety.

It doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing. We don’t have to see either “Romo the Gunslinger” or “Romo the Checkdown Monster.” How about a little bit of both?

And at Bleacher Report, I posted a little Week 5 preview:

Matchup to Watch: Linebackers vs. Tight End Julius Thomas

Julius Thomas has come out of nowhere with 18 receptions for 237 yards and four touchdowns through the Broncos’ first four games. He’s been Manning’s go-to guy at times, especially in the red zone, when defenses are so focused on the outside receivers that they leave the middle of the field open.

As mentioned, the Cowboys have traditionally struggled with tight ends. That was particularly true on Sunday; linebackers Sean Lee and Bruce Carter were horrific in coverage, combining to give up 14 completions on 16 attempts, including an unreal 192 yards and three touchdowns.

In most cases, Lee will be the man on Thomas. Of Antonio Gates’ 11 targets against the Cowboys in Week 4, six of them came on Lee, three on Carter and two on safety Barry Church.

To stop Thomas over the middle, it might be helpful to understand how Denver is utilizing him and how he’s performing in certain situations. So here is Thomas by the numbers…

  • 1: Dropped passes.

Thomas has dropped only one of his 19 catchable targets.

  • 40.7: Percentage of routes run from the slot, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).

Believe it or not, this number is about average for today’s tight ends. Gates is slightly higher at 55.1 percent, and Cowboys tight end Jason Witten checks in at 39.3 percent.

  • 2.10: Yards per route.

Yards per route is one of my favorite stats because it judges receivers on every snap, not just those on which they’re targeted, meaning it penalizes for a failure to get open. At 2.10 yards per route, Thomas has been the fourth-most efficient tight end in the NFL through four weeks. Witten ranks 22nd at 1.37 yards per route.

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3 Numbers to Know for Cowboys vs. Chargers

At NBC, I posted three numbers to know for Dallas this week. Here’s one:

45: Percentage of Chargers’ runs that have increased their chances of scoring on a drive

This stat is also known as “run success rate,” and the Chargers actually rank fifth in the NFL. That’s notable because San Diego has run for only 3.9 YPC, ranking them 18th in the league. Thus, while traditional numbers suggest the Chargers have been pour on the ground, the truth is that they’ve been rather efficient.

YPC is influenced so heavily by game situations that it’s really a useless stat. Teams that run when they should run, especially in short-yardage and goal line situations, typically have low YPC. We shouldn’t penalize a team for gaining two yards on third-and-one, and that’s exactly what YPC does. Run success rate captures true efficiency, rewarding teams for run that increases their probability of scoring.

The fact that San Diego ranks high in run success rate but low in YPC is actually a good thing; it means they’ve used the run in a lot of low-upside situations, such as near the goal line, which is fine. That’s also undoubtedly helped their passing efficiency—one of the “hidden” benefits of using the run as a complementary piece of the offense instead of the core.

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Cowboys vs. Chargers: Key Matchups for Dallas

At Bleacher Report, I posted some of the matchups I’ll be watching in Week 4:

LT Tyron Smith vs. OLB Dwight Freeney

Outside linebacker Dwight Freeney has only 0.5 sacks through three games, but he’s found himself around the quarterback often. He’s pressured the passer on 12.7 percent of his pass-rush snaps. Sacks tend to add up to one-fourth of pressures for most players, meaning Freeney’s most likely sack total through three games is actually three.

If we look at Freeney’s production over the past few years, we see an obvious decline in efficiency up until this year. He’s really playing well right now, so it’s imperative for Dallas to limit his effectiveness.

The Chargers’ outside linebacker lines up primarily on the right side of the defense and almost never drops into coverage, meaning he’ll see a heavy dose of left tackle Tyron Smith. The third-year pro hasn’t been outstanding in pass protection thus far in 2013, but he’s performed better than last year—his pressure rate has decreased by 50 percent—and he’s been great in the running game. The ‘Boys could probably find success by running right at Freeney on third downs.

WR Dez Bryant vs. CB Johnny Patrick

It’s looking like cornerback Shareece Wright won’t be able to suit up, leaving Johnny Patrick to start. The Cowboys should attack Patrick because he’s a small cornerback at 5’11’’, 191 pounds, and he’s already given up 12.5 YPA on 11 targets in 2013.

The Cowboys can really take advantage of Patrick if he’s ever lined up on Bryant. San Diego might use starting cornerback Derek Cox—who stands 6’1’’—to shadow Bryant, but we don’t know if that’s the case just yet. If Patrick is indeed on Bryant, particularly in the red zone, the receiver should be able to physically outmatch the cornerback.

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Assessing DeMarco Murray in Week 3, Beyond

At Dallas News, I examined DeMarco Murray’s future, starting in Week 3 vs. the Rams:

Using Murray’s comps as a guide, we can estimate the likelihood of him hitting certain milestones this week. First, the touchdowns:

You can see there’s around a 64 percent chance that Murray doesn’t score in this game and an 84 percent chance that he scores no more than one time. His projected yards tells a different story:

Of the five different subsets of total yards, the single most likely is 121 or more. Actually, based on his comps, Murray has right around a one-in-three shot of breaking out for at least 121 yards on Sunday.

And some of those players went for way more; there were two performances of at least 220 yards and seven with at least 160. That means that of the eight players who went for at least 121 total yards, seven of them actually totaled at least 160 yards.

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Cowboys vs. Rams Preview, Week 3

At ABC, I posted a statistical preview of the Cowboys-Rams game:

Trend No. 2: 54 percent of Romo’s passes have been over the short middle portion of the field

I break up all Romo’s throws into one of nine segments of the field. Every throw is categorized by whether it was to the left, middle, or right portion of the field, and whether it was short (under 10 yards), intermediate (10 to 19 yards), or deep (20-plus yards).

As mentioned, Romo has thrown only five deep passes this year. But he’s also thrown just 12 intermediate passes, meaning every other pass has traveled nine yards or fewer. Moreover, the majority of Romo’s throws have been over the middle. Check it out.

Again, part of these numbers are due to the Giants’ game plan, but this still a pretty obvious tendency that defenses can exploit.

Let me be clear that it’s okay—preferable, even—to use the short passing game in favor of the run. That’s especially true for Dallas. But the benefits of that strategy disappear if you never attack downfield and defenses can just load up guys underneath.

Sam Bradford Comparison: 43.4 percent

Bradford and Romo have pretty similar numbers this year in regards to pass distance and direction. Bradford has tossed 43.4 percent of his passes over the short middle. In comparison, a quarterback like Andrew Luck attacks downfield way more often. Only 24.2 percent of his passes have come over the short middle and he’s thrown 18 passes between 10 and 19 yards.

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Cowboys vs. Chiefs: Matchups to Watch for Dallas

I posted a couple articles on some matchups I’ll be watching this week, one at NBC and the other at Bleacher Report. Here’s one matchup from each article. At NBC:

CB Brandon Carr vs WR Dwayne Bowe
Who on the Chiefs’ offense can repeatedly beat the Cowboys? It isn’t going to be Donnie Avery or Anthony Fasano, and Dexter McCluster shouldn’t scare you unless they start giving points for catches behind the line-of-scrimmage and yards run horizontally across the field. The two Chiefs who can beat Dallas are running back Jamaal Charles and wide receiver Dwayne Bowe.

Luckily, I don’t think the Cowboys need to bring an extra safety into the box to stop Charles; he thrives on long runs, so you actually want to keep defenders back. That could help Carr and Morris Claiborne in the event that they can’t handle Bowe alone. Either way, Carr on Bowe is a matchup I’m excited to watch.

And at Bleacher Report:

Cowboys RT Doug Free vs. Chiefs OLB Justin Houston

I’ve talked about this matchup on numerous occasions this week, but that’s because I think it’s the most important one for Dallas.

They’ve absolutely got to figure out how they’re going to stop Justin Houston. He’s a truly dominant pass-rusher with age (24), explosiveness (10’5″ broad jump), arm length (34.5 inches), and production (three sacks last week and 10 in 2012) on his side.

Houston rushed from the right side of the Chiefs’ defense on just 6.3 percent of snaps last season, so he’s usually going to be lined up over Free. I think Houston can give Free trouble because he can use his long arms to control Free and his athleticism to beat him around the edge.

So what are the Cowboys to do? One option is to just double-team Houston with a tight end. That can be effective, but Dallas will probably need to use “12” personnel—one running back, two tight ends, and two receivers—since they’ll want Jason Witten to be a big part of the passing game.

Another option—the one I suggested last week against the Giants—is to spread the field so Romo can throw quickly, getting the ball out before Houston can be a factor. Dallas did indeed employ that tactic last week, as No. 3 receiver Terrance Williams played 37 snaps and Romo got the ball out in an average of 2.49 seconds—a number that would have been the second-lowest in the NFL last year.

However, the Chiefs aren’t the Giants. With Brandon Flowers, Sean Smith, and Dunta Robinson, Kansas City is much stronger than New York is at the cornerback position. Whereas the net effect was positive when Dallas brought Williams on the field against the Giants, I’m not sure that will be the case this week. Therefore, I think using two-tight sets to double Houston is probably the way to go for Dallas.

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Some stat trends for Cowboys, Chiefs

My second post over at ABC Dallas takes a look at some interesting numbers on the Cowboys and Chiefs:

Cowboys vs. Chiefs Statistical Trends
I track every play in Cowboys games, so I have a substantial database of data dating back to 2009. Some of the stuff I’ll write about this year is proprietary, but most of it is very much public.
And one of the best public resources I know is Pro Football Reference’s Game Play Finder. You can sort through box scores to uncover anything you’d like in seconds. Want to know how frequently NFL teams run the ball on first down inside the opponent’s five-yard line? Easy. Prior to games, I spend a lot of time just sifting through that data to see what I can find. Here’s some of it.
  • Trend #1: The Cowboys passed on 54.5 percent of their first downs through the first three quarters last year.

    I like to analyze stats through three quarters because it does a decent job of eliminating unusual circumstances. We want to analyze stats when games are point-maximization contests for both teams, not when one is running the ball all the time and the other passing on every play because of the score.

    It might seem like this 54.5 percent pass rate is low, but the league average was just 46.8 percent. And guess what? The Cowboys’ first down pass rate should increase substantially. Defenses still usually play to stop the run on first down, so offenses see much, much greater efficiency through the air. It’s popular to say that running the ball on early downs can set up manageable third downs, but you know what’s even better than third-and-short? Not even facing third down because you didn’t blindly run the ball on first and second down.

  • Chiefs Comparison: 33.8%

    This is really a remarkably low number, and one that is going to rise with Andy Reid in town. Reid likes to use the passing game as an extension of the run, and he has a quarterback who can work the underneath passing game in Alex Smith. For what it’s worth, Phlly’s first down pass rate through three quarters was 53.2 percent in 2012.

Check it out.

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5 Cowboys to Watch vs Texans

At NBC, I posted a quick game preview for tonight:

RB Joseph Randle
Randle has averaged just 3.7 YPC through four preseason games. Some people on the Cowboys rave about the rookie, but I think he’s going to have a difficult time in the NFL. If he’s going to make it, Randle will need to become a dominant receiver and improve in pass protection. That’s really where he can make his mark, so let’s keep an eye out for Randle in the passing game.

DE George Selvie
Selvie has racked up three sacks this preseason, but he’s also been inconsistent at times. I think the defensive end with the 34.5-inch arms has a really good shot to stick, but he has to show more durability in the running game.


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3 Things to Watch for Cowboys Tonight

At NBC, I posted three things to keep an eye on tonight against the Bengals. Here’s one:

How will Doug Free stack up against the Cincinnati rushers?
I’ll have my eye on Free for the majority of the first half because I want to see if he’s truly a different player. The Bengals have two of the leagues most underrated pass-rushers in Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap. The latter defensive end lined up on the left side of the Bengals’ line on 92.4 percent of his snaps last year, so he’ll be the one that Free sees most. I think Free is going to struggle in a major way with the 6-6, 277-pound Dunlap, so it will be a great sign if he can hold up.


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Dallas Cowboys 2013 Schedule Analysis and Predictions

I’m going to be working for Bleacher Report again this year, and my first article went up today. I posted a game-by-game breakdown of the Cowboys’ 2013 schedule. Here’s Week 1:

Jason Garrett was praised for “maintaining balance” in the Cowboys’ Week 1 win over the Giants in 2012, but the truth is, the offense gained a lead by passing the football often. They ran the ball well late, racking up yards to create the illusion of offensive balance.

In 2013, the Cowboys are going to beat the Giants by continuing to do what they do best: throwing the football. Dallas has massive advantages at the skill positions, particularly when Dez Bryant is covered by Corey Webster. The most overrated cornerback in the NFL allowed eight touchdowns and over 10 yards per attempt last year! If Webster is ever on an island against Bryant, he’s going to lose, and in a bad way.

PREDICTION: Cowboys 28, Giants 24 (1-0)

This is actually the first time I’m revealing my projected record for the Cowboys, so check it out at BR.