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Dallas Cowboys at Washington Redskins, Week 1: Initial Post-Game Notes



Play-Calling

  • This will sound ridiculous, but other than two or three plays, I loved Jason Garrett’s play-calling.  He actually did a tremendous job of being unpredictable, but it just didn’t work out. . .this time.  If he continues to call plays in this manner, the Cowboys will be successful on offense.  Trust me.
  • The play-calling out of “Double Tight Strong” was tremendous.  Remember how the Cowboys ran a strong side dive out of the formation nearly three-fourths of all plays last year?  Well last night, they ran a toss, a counter, and my personal favorite. . .a strong side dive which turned into a halfback pass.  It didn’t work out, but that was simply because Washington was in the right defense for it.  That sort of innovative play-calling from Garrett is new and will help the Cowboys win an extra game or two this season.
  • The most obvious exception to Garrett’s success, and the primary reason the Cowboys deserved to lose the football game, was the decision to pass the ball with four seconds left before halftime.  Play-calling is all about risk/reward, and the possible reward in that situation was almost nothing.  It is a shame Garrett’s improvements the rest of the night were wiped away by one dumb decision.
  • The Cowboys need to stop throwing so many smoke screens.  Last night, they threw them against what appeared to be man coverage, when the cornerback was too close to the wide receiver for them to be successful.

Offense

  • You have to at least be somewhat excited about Tony Romo’s ability to bring the troops back down the field and in a position to win the game with about a minute to go in the game.  He didn’t play his best last night, but he was at his best when the Cowboys most needed it.
  • Who thought the rookie from Oklahoma State would be the Cowboys’ most-targeted receiver last night?  He did some good things, but he also appeared to miss a few hot reads.  That will come with time.
  • It is great to get Bryant involved, but if it comes at the cost of not throwing to Jason Witten, then the Cowboys might have a problem.  He had some favorable match-ups last night, but the Cowboys went other directions.
  • Can we agree Miles Austin is the real deal?  He is a running back playing receiver–and a Pro Bowl-caliber one at that.
  • It has to be said. . .Alex Barron was awful.  We all know it, so I won’t go into detail until I break down the tape.  If you feel bad right now though, imagine how he feels.
  • Tashard Choice’s first career fumble came at the worst possible time.  Still, I blame the coaches more for that play than Choice, even though he should have known to simply go down.
  • The Cowboys used undrafted rookie fullback Chris Gronkowski quite a lot.  He looked good on his lone carry, but Dallas needs to be careful with the play-calling when he’s in the game.  His presence could tip the defense to either a fullback dive or a pass (otherwise Deon Anderson would be in the game).
  • Other than one play, Andre Gurode had a good game.  He manhandled Albert Haynesworth at times.
  • Mike Jenkins showed why he’s probably the Cowboys’ best cover corner, but he still needs to tackle better.  His form is awful.

Defense

  • I was really shocked with how much playing time Josh Brent got.  He appeared to be in most of the time with the nickel defense and even some other situations.
  • Victor Butler was one of the few Cowboys who didn’t play well against the run.  He held up well during the preseason, but last night he got overpowered at the point-of-attack.
  • Did we all see how important Marcus Spears is to the Dallas’ run defense?
  • DeMarcus Ware was absolutely everywhere last night.  That’s true every game, but he looked particularly amped up for this one.  Let’s hope his injury isn’t serious.

Special Teams

  • I think the Cowboys need to pick a return man and stick with him.  The revolving door of Akwasi Owusu-Ansah, Dez Bryant, and Felix Ogletree doesn’t allow one guy to get in a rhythm.  Akwasi should be the guy, in my opinion.

I am going to start breaking down the film.  I’ll post my findings within the next couple of days.

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Why Is Tony Romo So Successful Passing Over the Middle?

By Jonathan Bales

Recently, I’ve taken a look at the 2009 receiving statistics of some Cowboys pass-catchers (Roy Williams, Miles Austin, Patrick Crayton, and Jason Witten) broken down by location.  Williams, Crayton, and Witten were all significantly better when catching the football over the middle of the field, while Austin’s play stood out when receiving the ball either over the middle or on the left side of the field.

You can see graphs displaying the numbers of each player above.  While one might expect receiving statistics to be somewhat inflated in the middle of the field, the degree of inflation seen (particularly for Williams, Crayton, and Witten) is surprising.

Part of their efficiency was due to quarterback Tony Romo.  The chart above displays his passer rating over different areas of the field.  You can see Romo thrived on passes over the middle between 10 and 20 yards in length.  The sample size of passes in that particular area is huge, as it is over the linebackers and in front of the safeties–a very popular place to throw.

Of course, all NFL quarterbacks generally pass with higher efficiency over the middle of the field. So instead of simply claiming that Romo is a better quarterback when passing over the middle, I am interested in uncovering if his success is greater than the expected statistical inflation.  That is, it is understood he will have better statistics when throwing to the middle of the field, but should they be as good as what is observed?

To determine if Romo’s success is atypical, I looked up the 2009 statistics of each team’s top quarterback (the one who took the most snaps).  It is worth mentioning that these statistics are by no means infallible.  For example, Vince Young, David Garrard, and Mark Sanchez all recorded a higher yards-per-attempt over the middle of the field last season than Peyton Manning.  Enough said.

Nonetheless, they numbers do provide a general baseline for success, as the “top” quarterbacks are (more or less) near the top of the list.

As you can see, Romo’s 8.83 yards-per-attempt checked in as sixth-best in the NFL.  While this is very good, it doesn’t actually confirm my hypothesis. Romo did average less yards in general in 2009 (8.15 per attempt), but so did most other quarterbacks.  On the season, Romo’s 8.15 overall yards-per-attempt ranked him at No. 5 among all signal-callers.

Thus, while Romo and the Cowboys do succeed more often when throwing to the middle of the field, the results do not appear to be anything out of the norm.

It is still interesting that quarterbacks are generally more efficient when throwing to the middle of the field.  Why is this the case? Common sense might tell you a quarterback would succeed most often when throwing to his “arm side,” i.e. right-handed quarterbacks to the right, and vice versa.

One possible explanation is the introduction of pass-catching tight ends. New hybrid players such as Jets tight end Dustin Keller are becoming increasingly talented at receiving the football (and subsequently less talented at blocking).  Just take a look at our Tight End Rankings.  The list is loaded with incredible athletes who stretch the field and take advantage of mismatches on linebackers to make a lot of big plays over the middle.

However, it could be that this tight end rejuvenation is not the direct cause of the inflated passing numbers over the middle of the field, but rather the byproduct of something else.  Perhaps the NFL’s pass coverage rules (specifically ‘illegal contact’) are to blame.

Since instituting the ‘illegal contact’ rule, the NFL has seen an explosion of complicated zone coverage schemes.  Instead of playing man-t0-man, it is safer for defenses to sit back in a zone and minimize the risk of yielding a big play or committing a penalty.  Even blitzes are often performed out of a zone concept, i.e. the terms “zone dog,” “zone blitz,” etc.

The king of zone coverages, of course, is Cover 2 (pictured to the left).  Cover 2 is a very safe coverage, as both safeties are back deep to limit big play opportunities.  Thus, it is extremely difficult for an outside receiver (the X or Z) to beat the defense deep.

As if that wasn’t enough, the cornerbacks play with what is called “outside leverage.”  This means that off of the snap, they do everything possible to force the receiver inside.  Why?  Well, that is where their help is located.  One of the weaknesses of Cover 2 is behind the cornerback and in front of the safety.  If the cornerback can force the receiver inside, the receiver has little chance of exposing this weakness. This is one reason CBs are getting bigger and stronger–they are rarely asked to play man coverage anymore.

Further, new concepts of Cover 2 have the cornerbacks sinking deeper and deeper into their zone (which is called “Curl to Flat”), almost to the point where they are reaching the safety’s territory.  In a nutshell, X and Z receivers have little chance of exploiting Cover 2 for big yardage.

The other weakness of Cover 2 is (yup, you guess it) the middle of the field.  This is due to the safety’s deep half responsibilities.  As they split, just the middle linebacker is left to cover the short-to-intermediate middle.  This is actually what led to the version of Cover 2 called “Tampa 2” in which an athletic “Mike” linebacker runs deep down the middle.

As I stated earlier, highly-athletic tight ends, H-Backs, slot receivers, and even running backs are exploiting this weakness.  Even a talented “Mike” backer, such as Chicago’s Brian Urlacher, is no match for a top-notch slot receiver, such as Reggie Bush (the 2007 NFC Championship game is a testament to that).

Thus, it appears (to me at least) that the recent success of NFL offenses in passing over the middle is indirectly related to the league’s ‘illegal contact’ rule.  It has forced defenses to implement more zone coverages, particularly Cover 2–a defense whose major weakness is the middle of the field.

Fortunately for the Cowboys, they play a few teams in 2010 who run a lot of Cover 2 (Minnesota, Indianapolis, Chicago).  It won’t make headlines, but if Witten, Austin, Crayton & Co. can effectively exploit the weakness of these Cover 2 schemes, the Cowboys may just be able to take all three games and obtain home field advantage in an effort to reach a Super Bowl in which they would acquire, well, home field advantage.

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Is Rotating Running Backs Detrimental to Cowboys’ Offense?

Don’t forget you can now purchase our 2010 Fantasy Football Package.

Article contributed by Vince Grey


You simply can’t have too many good running backs, and having three who could arguably start for a number of NFL teams can’t possibly be bad thing.

So to be perfectly clear, this isn’t about the number of running backs on the roster.

Rather, it’s about the touches those backs receive, and particularly the manner (and time) in which they receive them.

All this sharing and rotating series?

Not a fan.

Indeed, I seriously question if playing Jones, Choice, and Barber in what appears to be a set predetermined rotation is actually harming our offense at times.

But Vince, what about the idea that these days you must rotate two or more running backs to keep them fresh and injury free?

Horse bleep.  NFL copycat drivel.

Yes, defenders are stronger and faster than ever.  So?  Everyone is stronger and faster than ever.  Even if you want to accept the idea that defensive players are now superior physical specimens to runners (which I don’t), that’s more than offset by these factors:

  • Defenses, generally, don’t tackle as well as in prior eras.
  • There are now new rules protecting ball-carriers from most of the savage hits that used to be legal (or at least rarely called).

I won’t even go into all the spread offensive formations.  In any case, it seems a wash to me, at worst, as to whether running backs have it tougher than they did years ago.

Yet, over the past couple of seasons, I’ve seen more than a few Cowboys games where one running backs or the other appears to be in the zone, ripping the opposing defense apart, only to be pulled and benched to allow the others their turn. When one back is dominating a defense, I see it as a detriment to take him out for an entire series or three because of a pre-meditated script.

Yes, it is a luxury to have three talented running backs.  The more the merrier.  I want as many as we can carry on the 53-man roster.

Having them available is one thing.  Having some prearranged schedule where all three play this series or that, then sit, regardless of how the game is playing out, is quite another.

As an example, let’s say Felix starts the game, and he’s playing, oh, just okay–not poorly, but nothing special.  Same with Barber.  The offense is struggling to move the ball, much less score.

Then, Choice comes in and immediately starts rocking.  Four yards.  Nine yards.  Five yards.  12 yards.  Picking up significant ground. Running hard, picking up blitzes, catching passes, and moving those chains.

The next offensive series, Felix/Barber are in and Choice is back on the bench–not to be seen for another few series other than perhaps third down.

Why?

BIITS.

Because It’s In The Script.

I think that’s patently ridiculous.

If one runner is having a dominant performance, why not let him play as much as he can?  So what if Choice has 30 touches that particular game, and the other two share 10-15 touches, or less?  The next game, Barber might decide to become “The Barbarian” again and run for 150 and 3 TDs on 25 carries, or Felix might go for 200+ on 20.

The beauty of this plan is that, over the course of the season, the overall optimal ratio will be restored.  So, if the coaches hope to implement a 40/30/30 ratio with Jones, Barber, and Choice, for example, that ratio can still be reached by season’s end without approaching it in every game.  In this way, statistics wins out–the large sample size of 16 games makes sure the best running back will receiver the most touches.

Further, not only will the ratio be reached, but it will automatically be the optimal distribution.  Perhaps what is best for the Cowboys isn’t a 40/30/30 split, but a 50/30/20 ratio.  Well, instead of pigeon-holing yourself into one particular distribution, riding the hot hand will, almost magically, automatically optimize this split.

Look, you’re going to have games where the entire group is playing well, and you’re going to have games when they’re all struggling. In those cases, rotating is fine, but when one running back appears to be head-and-shoulders above the others, throw that rotation script aside and ride that horse until his tongue is hanging out.

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Cowboys Film Study: Tony Romo’s Off-Target Passes

Tony Romo is far more of a “pocket passer” than outsiders tend to believe.  Yes, he is rather athletic and does scramble from time to time, but the majority of his movement is completed behind the line of scrimmage.  He moves to allow receivers to get open rather than to find running room of his own.

As this variety of “pocket passer,” it is imperative that Romo is accurate.  Every quarterback must be accurate, of course, but it is even more crucial for quarterbacks who do not use their legs to gain massive chunks of yardage for their teams.  Interestingly, it is Romo’s behind-the-line movement (as opposes to scrambling for positive yards) that allows receivers to gain separation, making his throws easier.

We dove into our film database to uncover not only Romo’s accuracy in 2009, but also the vicinities of the football field in which his throws were best.  To do this, we tracked each play that Romo threw an off-target pass.

What is an ‘off-target pass’?  Certainly it is a subjective statistic, but we considered a pass to be ‘off-target’ if:

1.  Romo missed a receiver who was relatively open

2.  Romo was giving his best effort to acquire a completion.

Thus, spikes, throw-aways, and passes that were on-target but knocked away by a defender did not constitute ‘off-target passes.’

The graph to the left shows that Romo’s accuracy was quite consistent in 2009.  He never had less than five off-target passes in a game, and never more than 10.

The graph below displays Romo’s accuracy on passes in different areas of the field.  As you can see, Romo was again incredibly consistent, whether throwing to the left, middle, or right parts of the field.

There are really no surprises in these numbers, perhaps outside of the fact that Romo was least accurate on throws to the right side of the field.  He was ‘off-target’ on 23.3 percent of passes to the right side of the field, compared to just 21.5 percent on the left side.

However, this statistic could be affected more by who was receiving Romo’s passes on the right side rather than where the throws were going, i.e. Miles Austin frequently lined up on the left side of the formation.

The 18.2 percent of off-target passes over the middle represents Romo’s best area of the field. This is to be expected, however, as passes over the middle tend to be shorter (and thus easier to complete).  A large percentage of these throws also went to Jason Witten, whose presence generally caused matchup problems from the defense.

In 2010, Romo’s accuracy will undoubtedly have an enormous impact on the success of the team.  If he can retain his current consistent play while still limiting turnovers, the Cowboys will once again be very difficult to beat.