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Cowboys vs. Chargers Preseason Film Study Observations

Jonathan Bales

I’ve already posted initial game notes, “DOs and DON’Ts analysis,” and what we learned from the Cowboys/Chargers game.  Now that I’ve finally had a chance to completely break down the film, here are my final observations.

Play-Calling/Formation Notes

  • The Cowboys lined up in Double Tight Left (or Right) Strong Left (or Right) seven times on Saturday night, running a strong side dive all seven times. They gained 22 total yards (3.14 yards-per-carry).  I know it is only preseason, but this is getting a bit ridiculous.  However, all seven of the plays came with the backups in the game–perhaps not a coincidence.  Here is my full analysis of the Cowboys’ play-calling out of the formation.
  • Overall, the Cowboys have run a strong side dive out of the formation on 12 of 14 plays this preseason (85.7 percent).
  • Last season, the Cowboys ran a strong side dive out of both the “Strong” and “I” variations of the “Double Tight Left or Right) formation (below).

  • This preseason, they are running weak side out of the latter variation (I-formation).  The reason is simple: the weak side lead block for the fullback is easier if he lines up behind the center as compared to lining up between the strong side guard and tackle.  On Saturday night, they lined up in Double Tight Right I Right twice, running weak side both times and losing four total yards.
  • The Cowboys have lined up in a new formation this year called “Double Tight Left Twins Right Ace” (or vice versa).  The play-calling out of this formation is by no means as predictable as that from “Double Tight Strong,” but I’ve noticed that Dallas has frequently lined up in “Double Tight Right Ace” and motioned the receiver on the Double Tight side of the formation over into a twins set, running a toss to the two-tight end side.  The play, which I (and not the Cowboys) have titled “Double Tight Right Ace Liz 28 Toss” is shown below.

  • The Chargers said they would blitz the Cowboys, and they did.  San Diego came after the Dallas’ quarterback 17 times after Oakland blitzed the ‘Boys just five times.  The Cowboys gained only 88 yards on these plays (5.18 yards-per-play).  Unfortunately, Romo was just one-for-five against the blitz for six yards and an interception. That won’t be a trend for a quarterback who is one of the league’s best in the face of pressure.
  • It seemed as though Dallas made it a priority for the quarterbacks to get the ball out of their hands quickly.  They allowed only one sack (Sam Young), but only six passes traveled more than 10 yards in the air, and only two more than 15.  An incredible 18 of the passes were five yards or less.


  • I haven’t been impressed with fullback Chris Gronkowski.  I’ve seen multiple 53-man roster projections with him making the team over Deon Anderson.  You won’t find that in my roster projection.  Sure, Gronkowski is probably more athletic and a bigger receiving threat out of the backfield, but with the weapons the Cowboys possess on offense, does that really matter?  They don’t need another pass-catcher.  They need a powerful lead blocker, and right now Gronkowski isn’t showing that ability on film.  I’ve witnessed him lose his balance and dive at defenders on multiple occasions.
  • I still cannot figure out how Lonyae Miller has not jumped over Herb Donaldson on the depth chart.  Donaldson is extremely hesitant when running the ball and a poor receiver.  Miller has shown a knack for catching the ball and, although inconsistent, has at least shown some burst with the ball in his hands.
  • I’ve been impressed with Phil Costa at center.  Starter Andre Gurode is still one of the most important pieces of the offense, but Costa is making a case that he, and not Kyle Kosier, should be the backup center.
  • After watching more film, I am beginning to like safety Barry Church more and more.  He is never going to be a ball-hawk in the secondary, but he sure can tackle.  He has come flying up from the back of the secondary to make a few extraordinary tackles, yet still maintains control.
  • I was wrong on cornerback Cletis Gordon.  He will be the Cowboys’ fourth cornerback.  The one-handed interception and subsequent return he displayed in the fourth quarter in San Diego was a thing of beauty.
  • For more player observations, check my post-game notes. Player grades coming tomorrow.


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Cowboys Draw Plays: Running Them in Tight vs. Spread

By Jonathan Bales

I’m currently stuck at home sick, meaning I have extra time to sort through my Cowboys 2009 stat database.  What, isn’t that what you do when you are sick too?

Note: Two 3rd and Long draws were excluded as "give up" plays.

This morning, I decided to take a closer look at the Cowboys’ 2009 draw plays.  Awhile ago, I completed a broad analysis of the Cowboys’ draws, noting that offensive coordinator Jason Garrett might be dialing up the play a bit too often.  The chart to the left displays the numbers I found.

You can see the Cowboys averaged a full yard less per carry on draw plays as compared to all other runs.  That disparity only changed slightly when discounting draw plays out of “Double Tight Right Strong Right,” a formation of which I have spoken ad nauseam in the past.  Click the link above if you are unfamiliar with Dallas’ play-calling out of the formation.

The point of running draw plays is to fool the defense into thinking you are going to pass the ball.  The play itself is slow-hitting and even perhaps inherently sub-optimal, but it works because the linebackers and secondary see pass and begin to drop into their coverages.

This same idea–running plays based on the defense’s expectations–was the basis of my articles on why the Cowboys should run more out of passing situations and formations (and on the other side of the coin, pass more out of running situations and formations).  Calling a running play on 3rd and 5 might not be intrinsically optimal, for example, but it is statistically equal to passing in terms of efficiency due to the defense’s strategy.

After combining the two notions, I decided to sort the Cowboys’ 2009 draws based on formation.  If my theory is correct, we would expect Dallas to have more success running draws out of passing formations as opposed to running ones.

But what is a “passing formation”?  I defined it as any formation which implements 3+ wide receivers (3 Wide I, Gun Trips, etc).  All of the “running formations,” on the other hand, utilized a fullback (Double Tight I, Full House, etc.).  The chart to the right displays the results.

You can see the Cowboys were much more successful running the ball out of spread (passing) formations in 2009.  The ‘Boys averaged nearly 1.5 times the yards-per-carry when running draws from formations which are generally considered “passing” ones.

A quick side note:  I also thought the Cowboys would be more successful running draws to the left side of the formation, as they are less common and more difficult for a defense to decipher.  Overall, Dallas averaged 4.96 yards-per-carry when running draws to the left, compared to just 4.31 yards-per-carry to the right.  The sample size of plays isn’t tremendous, but there may (or may not) be a relationship there.

As far as running draws out of spread vs. tight formations, there are a variety of reasons the Cowboys may have accrued superior statistics out of spread formations (outside of those formations actually being “better” from which to run draws).

The most logical explanation is that offenses generally line up in spread formations during situations which are more suitable for running the football.  The defense is more likely to allow a seven yard gain on a 3rd and 9 draw play as opposed to the same play on 3rd and 5, for example.

I computed the average down and distance for all draw plays from both spread and tight formations. The average down on spread draws was 1.65 with an average of 9.27 yards-to-go.  For tight formation draw plays, the average down was 1.37 with an average of 7.82 yards-to-go.  Additionally, the Cowboys ran 13 draws with a distance-to-go of 11+ yards, all of which came out of spread formations.

Thus, it is obvious the Cowboys ran draws from spread formations in different situations from when they ran them out of tight formations, but it is difficult to say how influential this disparity was on our results.  It is my opinion, however, that the differential is not enough to account for the vast disparity in yards-per-carry for each formation type.

The primary reason for my opinion is that when we remove the draws which came during plays with 11+ yards to go (13 runs for 95 yards), the draw statistics out of spread formations (50 runs for 246 yards–4.92 yards-per-carry) are still far superior to those out of tight formations.  Even after accounting for “outliers,” the Cowboys averaged 1.24 yards more per carry on spread draws than tight draws.

Ultimately, the Cowboys may want to attempt more running plays out of spread formations and during “passing” situations in 2010, particularly runs of the draw variety.


Dallas Cowboys 16 Best/Worst Running and Passing Formations in 2009

We recently detailed the Cowboys success running and passing out of every formation they ran in 2009.  Today, we will briefly explain why the Cowboys prospered in some formations, yet failed in others.  You can see diagrams of every formation listed below by clicking here.

Note:  To be listed, a formation had to have a sample size of at least 10 runs/passes.

Best Running Formations

1.  I Left/Right (18 runs for 124 yards–6.89 YPC)

The Cowboys had a ton of success out of the standard I-formation (including passing the ball as well).  This could be because the position of the fullback (directly behind center) makes running weakside quite easy.

2.  Wildcat (16 runs for 108 yards–6.75 YPC)

We absolutely love the Wildcat (or Razorback, as the Cowboys call it).  The formation is particularly useful in goal line and other short-yardage situations because its largest weakness, the lack of big-play potential due to the absence of a legitimate pass-thrower, is limited.

3.  Double Tight I (31 runs for 208 yards–6.71 YPC)

The only difference between “Double Tight I” and a standard I-formation is personnel–an extra tight end is substituted for a wide receiver.  This version of Double Tight was much more successful than the Double Tight Strong variety (again likely due to the ease with which the team can run weak side).

4.  Gun Tight End Spread (27 runs for 166 yards–6.15 YPC)

We detailed the effectiveness of Gun TE Spread a few days ago.  The Cowboys do a tremendous job of running out of this “passing” formation–something they don’t do out of Gun Trips.

Worst Running Formations

1.  Weak Left/Right (11 runs for 29 yards–2.64YPC)

We admit 11 carries is not a huge sample size, so we must take this particular statistic with a grain of salt.  In theory, “Weak” should be a useful running formation for Dallas as there is no true “strong side”–and thus the offense can easily run in any direction.

2.  Tight End Trips Left/Right (15 runs for 46 yards–3.07 YPC)

This formation is similar to Gun Tight End Spread, with the exception of an extra wide receiver lined up on the strong side.

3.  Double Tight Left/Right Ace (22 runs for 72 yards–3.27 YPC)

The primary reason for the lack of success running out of this formation, we believe, is the absence of fullback Deon Anderson.  If Anderson is off the field, it might be a good idea for the Cowboys to run out of formations which spread the field to a greater degree than Double Tight.

4.  Strong Left/Right (49 runs for 196 yards–4.00 YPC)

The Cowboys simply had little success running out of any Strong formation, whether it employed two tight ends or not.  We think the reason for this is due to the unbalanced nature of the formation.  With the fullback lined up all the way behind the tackle on the same side as the tight end, it is extremely difficult to run weak side.

To see the best and worst Cowboys passing formations, click page 2 below.


Cowboys Playbook: Gun Trips Left/Right

Play fantasy football? Check out our 2010 Fantasy Football Package.

In our 2009 Dallas Cowboys Formation Breakdown, we listed the statistics for every formation the Cowboys ran last season.  Included in that collection was a formation called “Gun Trips Left/Right” (shown below).

The formation stuck out like a sore thumb, as 63 of the 64 total plays run from it were passes. 63 of 64.  63.  Of.  64.  That is a 98.4 percent clip.

Further, the one run from “Gun Trips Right” came on 3rd and 18–a “give-up play.”

Now, we have seen offensive coordinator Jason Garrett be predictable in his play-calling before.  One such example was play-calling from “Double Tight Right Strong Right”–a formation from which the Cowboys ran the same play (a strong side dive) 71.6 percent of the time, including 85.7 percent of the time when motioning into the formation.

Still, no other formation contains the incredible imbalance between run and pass like “Gun Trips Left/Right.”

Of course, this 63:1 ratio could mean nothing if the Cowboys only lined up in the formation during obvious passing downs. In situations such as 3rd and long when the defense knows you are going to pass anyway, the particular formation can do little to tip them off.

We looked into our database to see exactly when the Cowboys were lining up in the formation, i.e. if they did so on any potential running downs.  For the sake of argument, we will label a play as occurring on a “potential running down” if it came on 1st and 10 or less, 2nd and 10 or less, or 3rd and 5 or less with more than two minutes left in a half.

Of the 64 plays out of “Gun Trips Left/Right,” an incredible 38 of them met these requirements (including 14 on 1st and 10 and 10 on 2nd and 7 or less).  Thus, 58.5 percent of the plays the Cowboys ran out of the formation came during a situation in which the team could have easily run the ball.

You think opposing defensive coordinators didn’t catch on to this trend by season’s end?  While we are almost positive this was the case, we try not to make grandiose statements without backing them up, so here you go. . .

The Cowboys managed a pedestrian 7.48 yards-per-attempt out of the formation. To determine if defenses truly recognized the Cowboys’ rather unimaginative play-calling out of the formation, however, we must examine the seasonal progression of the yards-per-attempt, as opposed to an overall mean.

According to our statistics, the offense’s success out of “Gun Trips Left/Right” dropped dramatically as the season progressed.  As you can see in the graph to the right, Dallas averaged an impressive 14.00 yards-per-attempt out of the formation during the first quarter of the season.  That number dropped considerably in games 4-8, settling all the way down at just 4.95 yards-per-attempt during the final quarter of the season.

Of course, there could be (and probably are) other factors at play, but such a tremendous decline in production is quite likely with a 63:1 pass/run ratio.


Cowboys Film Study: 2009 Formation Breakdown

Like our film study and stat analysis?  You can buy our entire Cowboys 2009 play database.

Thus far this offseason, we have analyzed a few of the Cowboys’ tendencies when running plays from certain formations and with specific personnel packages.  For example, we noticed the Cowboys average nearly three yards less per play in “Empty Set” formations (as compared to all other formations), are much more successful with tight end Jason Witten in a route, and run a strong side dive play out of “Double Tight Right Strong Right” 71.6 percent of the time, including 85.7 percent when motioning into it.

Today, we are going to analyze the run/pass ratios and success rates of every formation the Cowboys ran in 2009.  If you don’t know the difference between “Gun 3 Wide Pro” and “Double Tight Left Weak Right,” don’t worry–we have diagrams of each formation to help you along.

Below each diagram, you will find stats on run/pass ratio, average yards per run/pass, and analysis of big/negative plays.  We have explained in the past why averages can often be misleading, so understanding the effect of outliers (big and negative plays) can aid you in interpreting the results.

Formations with 20+ play sample size

  • 3 Wide I

12 passes (60 percent)/8 runs (40 percent)

5.25 yards/attempt

3.63 yards/rush

3 sacks (25 percent), five passes 10+ yards (41.7 percent), 1 pass 20+ (8.3 percent)

  • Ace

24 passes (82.8 percent)/5 runs (17.2 percent)

11.46 yards/attempt

2.00 yards/rush

12 passes 10+ (50 percent), five passes 20+ (20.8 percent), two negative runs (40 percent)

  • Double Tight I

10 passes (24.4 percent)/31 runs (75.6 percent)

6.30 yards/attempt

6.71 yards/rush

One sack (10 percent), two passes 10+ (20 percent), one pass 20+ (10 percent), four negative runs (12.9 percent), eight runs 10+ (25.81 percent), one run 20+ (56 yards)–3.2 percent

  • Double Tight Left/Right Ace

14 passes (38.9 percent)/22 runs (61.1 percent)

6.0 yards/attempt

3.27 yards/rush

One sack (7.1 percent), three passes 10+ (21.4 percent),  two passes 20+ (14.3 percent), three runs 10+ (13.6 percent),  five negative runs (22.7 percent)

  • Double Tight Left/Right I

3 passes (4.7 percent)/61 runs (95.3 percent)

10.33 yards/attempt

4.93 yards/rush

One pass 10+ (33.3 percent), one pass 20+ (33.3 percent), six runs 10+ (10.4 percent), two runs 20+ (46, 32 yards)–3.5 percent

  • Double Tight Left/Right Strong Left/Right

9 passes (17.3 percent)/43 runs (82.7 percent)

1.22 yards/attempt

5.58 yards/rush

One sack (11.1 percent), one pass 10+ (11.1 percent), five runs 10+ (11.6 percent), three runs 20+ (36, 33 yards)–3.5 percent, one negative run (1.2 percent)

    Click below to go on to page 2.