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What We Learned (Game Recap) | The DC Times - Part 2

The DC Times

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


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.



Notes for Cowboys in 12-7 Loss to Cardinals

At NBC, I posted a few thoughts on the Cowboys’ loss:

– I like watching Barry Church play in the box. He doesn’t have elite measurables outside of the 4.17 short shuttle he ran, but that’s really quick at his size. You can see that quickness when he’s playing in short areas, where I think he belongs as a safety.

– I can’t tell you how bullish I am on DeMarco Murray this year. I’ve talked about why I usually don’t buy into the ‘injury prone’ label, and I’ve raised his projection twice already in the offseason.

– Orlando Scandrick has been the best player on defense this year, including both practices and games. I actually gave him my highest grade in 2012 because he had an extremely underrated season, allowing just a 51.3 percent completion rate, 5.72 YPA, and no touchdowns.

– I hope Lance Dunbar’s fumble doesn’t hurt him in becoming the No. 2 running back. He’s so much better than Joseph Randle it isn’t even funny.

– After George Selvie’s breakout against the Dolphins, I wrote an article explaining why I think he’s the real deal. One of the reasons is that he has massive 34.5-inch arms, which is really important for pass-rushers. He looked excellent again against Arizona, recording a sack and numerous pressures.

Here are some more.


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.


Running the Numbers: Cowboys-Redskins Film Study

At DallasCowboys.com, I broke down the Cowboys’ 28-18 loss to the Redskins.

Deep Attack

The rate of deep passes (traveling 20-plus yards) to Dez Bryant increased dramatically over the second half of the season. It’s probably not a coincidence that there’s a positive correlation between Bryant’s deep targets and his success.

In the Cowboys’ last two games, both losses, Bryant saw only three deep targets, including only one against Washington. He caught all three passes for 122 yards and a touchdown. In 2013, the Cowboys will need to continue to get the ball deep to one of the league’s premiere play-making wideouts.

Gun Trips

On a second-and-10 play in the third quarter, the Cowboys ran a unique direct snap to Murray that gained seven yards. The play will probably be forgotten by most, but it was actually extremely unique in that it was the Cowboys’ first run from “Shotgun Trips” all year. That’s pretty remarkable when you consider that Dallas ran 131 plays from the bunch formation in 2012.

Many of the plays from “Gun Trips” were in pass-only situations (such as third-and-long or in hurry-up scenarios), but some were not. Actually, 39 of the snaps from “Gun Trips” (29.8 percent) came on first down. It’s difficult to tell if the strategy has backfired, but it’s one Garrett has employed for years; the Murray run was only the second out of hundreds of plays from the formation since 2009.

Go to the team site for the full article.


Cowboys vs Redskins: Initial Film Study

At NBC, I posted a few notes from my initial Cowboys-Redskins film study.

Playing in Opponent Territory

Despite scoring just 18 points, the ‘Boys actually played in Washington territory quite a bit, running 47.5 percent of their offensive plays on the Redskins’ side of the field. That’s substantially larger than the 39.6 percent of plays Dallas ran in opponent territory on the year. Romo’s first two interceptions came in Washington territory, explaining much of the low scoring.

Going Deep

Romo threw 37 passes on the night, but only three—8.1 percent—traveled over 20 yards. One was the interception intended for Austin, another fell incomplete, and the final was a 23-yard completion to Dez Bryant.

Check out the whole post.


Cowboys vs Steelers: Film Study Observations

At DallasCowboys.com, I posted my film study observations from the Cowboys’ Week 15 overtime victory.

  • It’s tough to sell a negative play being a good call, but Garrett’s decision to call a naked bootleg on third-and-1 at midfield wasn’t necessarily a poor one. It isn’t like the Cowboys call that play often; it was just the second naked bootleg for Romo all year, and the other one was a 1-yard touchdown. The play was there to be had, but the ’Boys simply didn’t execute one block. Nonetheless, if the job of an offensive coordinator is to maximize his team’s chances of succeeding, Garrett did his job with that call. The fact that it didn’t work out shouldn’t be used to retroactively grade the decision.
  • So how can you judge the merits of a particular call if you can’t use the result? That’s one reason it’s beneficial to understand advanced stats. Sure, a punt on fourth-and-1 at the opponent’s 35-yard line might work out in favor of the punting team from time to time, but historic game data tells us that punting is generally a poor choice in that situation no matter how it turns out. Over large sample sizes, the percentages always win out. Sure, stats can be misleading, but that’s really an error on the part of how we interpret them, not something inherent to the numbers. The ultimate goal of any stat is to be predictive, and some stats are more predictive of future success than others. That’s why I often cite numbers like net-YPA and run success rate; they’re highly predictive and thus far more useful than things like bulk stats. It’s also why I told you before the game that the Cowboys were going to be able to run on the Steelers; Pittsburgh was ranked fourth in the NFL in YPC allowed, but 22nd in run success rate, a stat that accounts for game situations and is thus far more reflective of a defense’s true ability to stop the run than YPC. The Cowboys’ running backs ended up averaging 5.35 YPC.

Check it out at the team site.

At Dallas News, I broke down how Jason Garrett’s passing offense has changed over the last few weeks, especially against the Steelers.

Thanks to the Cowboys’ 27-24 overtime win against the Steelers in Week 15, the team may very well be the favorite to win the NFC East. I broke down the Cowboys’ playoff scenarios yesterday—an article that may not have been written had Brandon Carr not picked off Ben Roethlisberger in overtime. While the Dallas pass defense came up big down the stretch, it was a few of Jason Garrett’s alterations to the passing offense that really sealed the win for the Cowboys.

Playing Around

The Cowboys came into Week 15 with the lowest play-action pass rate in the NFL (by far), averaging only four play-action passes per game. Play-action passes are more efficient than straight dropbacks on a league-wide basis; of the 28 quarterbacks who have taken at least half of their team’s offensive snaps, 23 have posted higher YPA on play-action passes than all other pass types.

A few weeks ago, I explained how Garrett has begun using some of his past predictability to his advantage, especially in regards to play-action looks. Garrett utilized play-action passes in a big way against the Steelers, calling 10 on the day. Romo got off eight passes from those calls (one resulted in a sack and the other was the failed bootleg attempt), connecting on seven (87.5 percent) for 121 yards and two touchdowns.

Protect Yourself

Last week, I argued that the Cowboys could benefit from using tight end Jason Witten in pass protectionmore often. Prior to the Steelers game, Witten had been used as a blocker on only 10.6 percent of the Cowboys’ passes, including only seven times in the previous three weeks. Well, Garrett used Witten in pass protection early and often on Sunday; actually, Witten blocked on the Cowboys’ very first play and 11 total passes throughout the day. One of them resulted in a sack, but Romo completed seven of the other 10 for 122 yards and a score. Again, it’s not inherently optimal to use Witten as a blocker, but it’s necessary from time to time in order to give Romo time to get the ball downfield and so that defenses can’t use Witten’s whereabouts as a conclusive key to the Cowboys’ play-calls.

Read it all at DMN.


Cowboys’ Four Biggest Plays vs Eagles

At Dallas News, I took a look at the four biggest plays for the Cowboys on Sunday night. . .

Not every play is created equally. In any game, there are a handful of plays that dictate the outcome of the contest. The Cowboys were on the right side of a few game-changing plays in their first matchup with the Eagles. Using a win probability graph, I showed how those plays changed the Cowboys’ fortunes in Week 10.

Well, the Cowboys were again able to secure the big plays they needed to take down the Eagles on Sunday night—something they’ve been unable to accomplish in most of their other contests. Let’s take a look at four plays that shaped the landscape of the Cowboys’ five-point Week 13 victory. . .

1: 23-Yard Touchdown to Dez Bryant

On a crucial 3rd and 2 at the Eagles’ 23-yard line, Tony Romo bought time to find Bryant across the field, allowing the receiver to dodge defenders on his way to a score. The play tied the game at 17 and increased the Cowboys’ chances of winning from 35 percent to 49 percent.

Read the entire analysis at DMN.


Running the Numbers: Cowboys-Eagles Film Study

At DallasCowboys.com, I broke down my Cowboys-Eagles film study.

  • Head coach Jason Garrett called four play-action passes on the night, two of which went for touchdowns: the 23-yard scramble pass to Dez Bryant and the 28-yard strike to Miles Austin. The first was really all Tony Romo, but the latter play-action touchdown was set up beautifully by Garrett. Just before that play, the Cowboys had run the ball on five straight occasions. Four of those runs came from a Double Tight I/Strong formation, the same formation Garrett called on the play-action score to Austin. Dallas gained only nine yards on those four carries, but they showed the same look multiple times. The last of the runs from the formation was on first-and-10, suggesting Garrett knew he wanted to take a shot off of the look a few plays before it even happened.
  • Another way Garrett set up the play-action pass to Austin was keeping Witten in to block. Witten stayed in to block on only two other passes all night, both of which were screens. The Eagles surely understood that Witten has been in a route on more passes than ever this year, so when they saw him stay in to block, it really confirmed what the formation suggested – that a run was on the way. But, they were wrong.
  • Overall, Romo was 3-for-4 for 51 yards and two touchdowns on his play-action passes, good for a passer rating of 156.3. Romo owns a 99.9 rating on play-action this year.
  • The Cowboys were really able to gash the middle of the Eagles’ defense through the air. I track the location of every pass, and 54.1 percent of Romo’s passing yards actually came on throws between the hashes. That included a 28-yarder to Witten down the seam, a 36-yarder to the tight end on a post, and of course, the 28-yard Austin touchdown.

Check out the rest at the team site.


Running the Numbers: Cowboys-Redskins Film Study

I took another look at the Cowboys’ big Thanksgiving loss in my Running the Numbers column.

If you recall, Garrett has shied away from calling play-action passes this year in a big way, and the most obvious reason for that is the lack of a rushing game. It certainly seems like play-action passes would be useless without some rushing efficiency, but I’m not sure that’s the case. Of the 10 worst rushing teams in the NFL in terms of yards per carry (YPC), only one has a lower yards per attempt (YPA) on play-action passes as compared to straight dropbacks. The Dolphins have totaled 3.6 YPC, only 0.1 more than Dallas, but Ryan Tannehill has passed for nearly five full yards more on play-action passes as compared to all other attempts. The Jets have averaged only 3.8 YPC, but Mark Sanchez has 2.1 more YPA on play-action passes, and the list goes on. While it sure seems like you’d need an effective running game to “set up” play-action, the numbers don’t bear it out. The Cowboys can and should run play-action in normal game situations moving forward, regardless of how well they’re running the ball. Of course, the majority of the loss to the Redskins was far from normal situations, so the lack of play-action looks yesterday isn’t a concern.

Read the rest at DallasCowboys.com.


Cowboys vs Browns: Cowboys Lucky to Be 5-5

At DallasCowboys.com, I broke down the Cowboys-Browns film in more depth.

  • The Cowboys didn’t cross the Browns’ 40-yard line in the entire first half. Interestingly, the Browns rarely blitzed Romo through the first two quarters, sending five or more rushers on just four of the Cowboys’ 28 offensive plays (14.3 percent). For whatever reason, Cleveland changed their strategy at halftime and sent far more pressure in the second half and overtime, blitzing on 27 of the Cowboys final 49 plays (55.1 percent). Such a high-variance strategy, as you might expect, led to big plays for both teams. Cleveland was able to sack Romo four times, but they also allowed completions of 30 and 28 yards to Bryant, the second of which went for a score.
  • Romo attempted five deep throws of 20-plus yards on the day. Two of them, the aforementioned completions to Bryant, were successful, while the other three fell incomplete. Of course, the deep passing game paid big dividends late in the fourth quarter when Romo looked deep forDwayne Harris and the Cowboys were able to draw a pass interference penalty. That doesn’t show up in the box score, but it was a smart move by Romo to get the ball deep against man coverage when the offense needed a big play.

Read the entire article.