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Jason Witten’s 2010 Red Zone Performance

Jonathan Bales

A couple days ago I posted a study detailing one of the reasons the Cowboys were successful in their 2010 red zone performance.  I argued that Jason Garrett’s first down play-calling more appropriately fit with advanced red zone statistics, namely that teams should run the ball more on first down only when inside their opponent’s 10-yard line.  The analysis was the result of a look back at a 2009 article in which I stated three ways by which the Cowboys could improve their red zone performance in the upcoming season.

In addition to first down play-calling, I also argued that the team needed to find Jason Witten more often while in the red zone.  Witten’s two touchdowns in 2009 were surpassed by a remarkable 21 tight ends that year.  Even though touchdowns can be a fluky stat, there is no reason a player with the talent and size of Witten should ever have just a pair of touchdowns in a season.

At first glance of Witten’s 2010 statistics, you might conclude the ‘Boys did a better job of finding him in the red zone.  Witten caught a career-high nine touchdowns, eight of which came in the red zone (the other one was 22 yards).  On closer inspection, however, we see that Garrett targeted Witten only a bit more in the red zone in 2010 than in 2009, and not more at all as compared to the rest of the field.

Although Witten was out in a route on 77.5% of 2010 red zone plays (up from 69.4% in 2009), that rate is barely higher than the 76.2% of overall passing plays in 2010.  The ‘Boys were slightly more effective in the red zone when Witten was in a route, averaging almost a yard more per play and scoring on 27.2% of dropbacks.

Despite the success, Witten was actually targeted just 14 times in the red zone all season. That equates to just 19.7% of all red zone dropbacks–lower than the 20.9% overall rate at which Witten was targeted.  Witten’s low red zone target numbers means a ridiculous 57.1% of his red zone targets resulted in touchdowns. Incredible efficiency, but not nearly enough looks.  Expect that to change in 2011.


Cowboys vs. Philadelphia Eagles Week 14: DOs and DON’Ts for Dallas and How to Stop Vick

Jonathan Bales

The Cowboys’ win over the Indianapolis Colts was a tremendous boost to the team’s confidence, but this week’s matchup against the Philadelphia Eagles contains almost no similarities to that game.  While the Colts can’t run the ball to save their lives, the Eagles are one of the league’s top rushing squads, thanks in large part to Michael Vick.  While the Colts rarely blitzed Dallas, you can bet Philly will be pinning their ears back to reach Jon Kitna.

It will take another magnificent effort from the ‘Boys to take down a hungry Eagles team.  Here’s how they can do it. . .

No. 1-7:  How to Stop Michael Vick

DON’T let Vick roll out to his left.

I saw a stat a week or two ago noting that Vick has a passer rating of over 122 when he rolls left, but under 60 when he rolls to his right.  That’s quite a difference, so Dallas needs to do everything possible to make sure they contain Vick when he attempts to move to his left.

When he does roll right, the southpaw loves to run the football.  While you never want to force the league’s most talented athlete to run the ball, it’s a better option than having him roll left with a run/pass option.  Dallas will need to be extra cautious about Vick’s legs if they force him right (and his arm if he does escape left).

DO blitz from the right side of the defense.

One way to make sure Vick doesn’t roll left is to blitz him on that side.  If he senses pressure in front of him, he’ll be more likely to spin out the backside–to his right.  Of course, the Cowboys can’t blitz too much, as Vick will kill you–either through the air or on the ground–if you send extra rushers and then whiff.

DO place DeMarcus Ware on the left side of the defense.

If you don’t want Vick to roll left, why place the team’s best player on the opposite side of the field?  Here are five reasons it will work:

  • Anthony Spencer isn’t creating much pressure lately anyway, so why not ask him to employ a “cautious rush” in which he makes certain that Vick doesn’t get outside of him?
  • Ware will be free to utilize his entire repertoire of moves instead of trying to contain Vick.
  • Ware will be matched up on right tackle Winston Justice–a huge mismatch.
  • The Cowboys will be blitzing from the right side of their defense to force Vick right–into the waiting arms of Ware.
  • Ware will be coming from Vick’s blind side.

DON’T place a spy on Vick.

To me, spying Vick is wasting a defender.  If that’s the only method you employ to corral Vick, you’re going to get burnt.  A single defender isn’t going to be able to tackle Vick in the open-field.  The Cowboys need to work as a unit to stop him.

DON’T play nearly as much man coverage as usual.

Imagine this scenario: the Eagles run their usual deep routes–DeSean Jackson on a 20-yard dig, Jeremy Maclin on a skinny post, and Brent Celek up the seam.  The Cowboys play Cover 1–man coverage with a single-high safety.  Dallas fails to reach Vick with the rush and he steps up into a sea of green, all defenders 20+ yards downfield.  Uh oh.

You can’t consistently play man coverage and expect Vick to never successfully run, so Dallas needs to implement a lot of zone coverages–something they’ve been doing more anyway since Paul Pasqualoni took over as defensive coordinator.

DO zone blitz often.

“But Jonathan, you said the Cowboys should blitz from the right side of their defense.  Won’t that put them in a lot of man coverage?”

Not if they zone blitz.  I’ve previously talked about why the Cowboys should zone blitz more in general, but this is a game in which I think you’ll actually see them do it fairly often.  The zone blitz can be confusing to the offensive line and quarterback because, often times, there aren’t any “extra” rushers coming.  The defense simply gives the illusion of a blitz, meaning zone blitzes have great upside without much risk.  At worst, they’ll be a tremendous way to force Vick to roll to his right without giving him an entire field to juke defenders.

DO play nickel more than usual.

While the Eagles are one of the league’s top rushing teams, they don’t have a power running game.  Instead, most of their yards come from a combination of Vick’s scrambles and the “fancy” runs–draws, counters, and so on–from LeSean McCoy.  And make no mistake about it. . .a gigantic portion of the running back’s yardage is a direct result of the “Vick effect.”  Backside defenders can’t crash down on handoffs because they have to honor Vick’s arm/legs in the event of a play-fake.

Thus, I don’t think implementing nickel personnel will hurt Dallas in their effort to contain the Eagles’ running game.  In fact, more speed on the field can only help against Philly’s finesse players.  Who would you rather have chasing down Vick–Keith Brooking or Orlando Scandrick?  Mark my words: Brooking will struggle mightily in this game if he’s given too much playing time.

No. 8-14:  How to Beat the Rest

DO place Terence Newman on DeSean Jackson and jam him early.

Newman has struggled lately, but he’s traditionally played well against Jackson and other small receivers like him.  Last year, he caught only seven passes for 79 yards in the three games he played against the Cowboys.

Jackson will surely want to redeem himself this Sunday, so Newman should get in Jackson’s face early.  If Jackson struggles to start the game, it will affect his effort later in the contest.

I think the Cowboys should play a lot of Cover 2 early in the game as well.  That will put the cornerbacks in a great position to get their hands on Philly’s receivers and disrupt their routes. That’s a must when receivers are attempting to get 20+ yards downfield.

With the two safeties deep, Cover 2 is also a safe enough coverage to limit the Eagles’ big plays early.  Plus, with up to nine defenders underneath, it’s about as good of a coverage as exists for halting Vick on the ground.

DO attack the Eagles with downfield throws–especially double-moves on Asante Samuel (if he plays).

I found more evidence this week that Dallas should throw the ball downfield more often.  It hurts that Dez Bryant is gone for the season, but Miles Austin and Roy Williams (yes, Roy Williams–just look here) are big play threats themselves.  Quick scores can change games in a hurry.

On top of that, the Eagles’ cornerbacks are susceptible to double-moves, particularly Samuel.  If he is active, the Cowboys can surely beat him deep on a hitch-and-go or sluggo route.  The key, as always, will be proper protection, so perhaps the Cowboys should implement max protection from a double-tight set when they plan to attack deep.  That look will be most successful if used on 1st down or 2nd and short, as the Eagles will be anticipating a run.

DO throw a lot of screens.

When not taking shots down the field, the Cowboys need to throw a lot of screens.  Last season, Garrett called screens at the perfect times to take advantage of the Eagles’ sometimes overaggressive defense.  Timing is everything, and the Cowboys will gain a big advantage of Garrett can continue to dial up screen passes when Philly decides to blitz (particularly on 3rd down).

So, almost paradoxically, I think the Cowboys can succeed by throwing the ball deep on 1st down or 2nd and short, but throwing short on 3rd and medium to long.

DON’T keep punting/kicking field goals on 4th down.

Last week, the Cowboys made mistakes by punting on 4th and 1 at midfield and  kicking a field goal on 4th and 1 at the Colts’ 12-yard line.  They also decided to kick a field goal on 4th and goal inside the Colts’ two-yard line before the end of regulation, but were bailed out by an Indianapolis penalty.

If Garrett wants to put his team in high-percentage situations, he needs to stop giving the ball away on 4th and short-to-medium.  I know it seems risky to go for it on, say, 4th and 7 at the opponent’s 40-yard line, but the real risky play is punting away the football.

DON’T run a strong side dive from “Double Tight Strong.”

From my Cowboys-Colts post-game article:

Nine strong side dives from the 10 times they lined up in the formation?  Only three of those in short-yardage situations?  Five strong side dives from “Double Tight Left/Right I” on 1st and 10?  A 2.44 yards-per-attempt average on the nine runs?  Gigantic fail.

I’m not sure why this play has returned, but it needs to leave ASAP.

DO increase Tashard Choice’s workload just a bit.

Choice received 29 offensive snaps on Sunday and capitalized big-time on his first significant playing time this season.  The Cowboys need to continue to feed Choice because:

  1. Felix Jones can’t consistently handle nearly 50 snaps a game.
  2. Marion Barber should be gone in 2011.
  3. Choice is superior to Jones in pass protection, which will be vital this week.

DO double-team Eagles defensive end Trent Cole with tight ends and running backs.

In my view, Cole is far and away the Eagles’ top defensive player.  He creates havoc in the opposition’s backfield whether defending the run or the pass.  He’s consistently one of the most underrated players in the NFL.  I place him on par with guys like Dwight Freeney and even Ware (but no, I wouldn’t prefer Cole to Ware).

If the Cowboys leave Doug Free on an island against Cole, he will get abused.  Free has been the Cowboys’ best offensive lineman all season, but I don’t think he’s up for that sort of challenge just yet.  Look for the Cowboys to run the same “Gun 5 Wide Tight” formation they created for last week’s game in Indy to help Free and the always helpless Marc Colombo.

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Why aren’t the Cowboys running more counters in 2010?

Jonathan Bales

In the preseason, I placed a point of emphasis on running more counters this season.  In many of my game plan articles, I suggested (over and over) that Dallas run more counters.

The reason was the success with which the Cowboys ran counters in 2009.  As you can see below, the ‘Boys averaged a ridiculous 7.9 yards-per-carry on their 36 counters last year.  Felix Jones alone tallied 220 yards on 22 counters.

While the rate of negative runs was a bit higher (as is to be expected with a slower-developing play), the percentage of 10, 20 and 40+ yard runs was all significantly higher on counters as compared to non-counter runs.

This season, the disparity between counters and non-counters is even greater.  The ‘Boys are averaging 8.71 yards-per-rush on their counter attempts in 2010.  That number is even more impressive when you consider the overall failures of the team’s running game this season.  While the Cowboys averaged 5.0 yards-per-carry on non-counters last season, that number has dropped to 3.2 in 2010.

What’s most incredible to me is the similarities in the counter stats from last year to this one.  Compare the chart above with the one below.  The counter average, negative play rate, and big play percentages are all remarkably similar from one year to the next.

Note: Only designed runs were included. Quarterback scrambles and fumbled snaps were disregarded.

Despite the continued success and overall consistency on counters, however, Jason Garrett is not calling them as frequently as he should.  While the team averaged 2.25 counters-per-game in ’09, that number has dropped to just 1.55 this season.

The struggles of the offensive line are certainly a factor in Garrett’s decision.  Counters are generally more “dangerous” than other run plays that take less time to develop and necessitate fewer moving parts.  With the inconsistencies the offensive line has displayed this year, Garrett might be scared to risk a negative run and put the offense in long-yardage situations.

With a negative run rate that is only three percent higher on counters, though, that potential fear appears unjustified.  Certainly the slightly higher risk of a negative run is offset by the gigantic increase in big play probability.  Take this stat for example:  of the Cowboys’ four 20+ yard runs this season, three have come on counters, despite only 7.4 percent of all runs being counters.  75 percent of big runs from 7.4 percent of run plays?  Something isn’t right there.

And with Doug Free replacing Flozell Adams at left tackle, the athleticism of the offensive line is even greater than in 2009–a trait that is suited for counter runs.  At least Garrett recognizes that the left side of the offensive line is the place to run, as 13 of the 17 counters in 2010 have been on the left side behind Free.  The ‘Boys are averaging 9.85 yards-per-rush on those 13 runs.

So Coach Garrett. . .please, please call more counters moving forward.  They will surely increase the offense’s rushing efficiency, which will make it easier to do the thing you love most–throw the football.


Cowboys vs. Detroit Lions Week 11 Game Day Manifesto: What to Watch, DOs and DON’Ts for Dallas

Jonathan Bales

Some members of the media have raised the possibility of the Cowboys finishing the season 7-0 and reaching the playoffs–that following a 1-5 mark over the last six games.

Look, I’ll never give up hope on the ‘Boys, but looking ahead is what got this team into trouble in the first place.  They don’t need to be concerned with the playoffs, or even the Saints on Thanksgiving.  They simply need to worry about having a solid Wednesday practice in preparation for the Detroit Lions.  If the Cowboys can continue to focus on the present, they’ll be fine.

What to Watch for Dallas

Will Dez Bryant officially overtake Roy Williams as the No. 2 wide receiver?

Bryant played more snaps than Williams last week already, but the two split duties as the No. 2 guy based on game situations and play-calling.  Let’s see if Bryant’s out-of-this-world performance against the Giants will propel him into becoming a full-time starter, as he should be.

Will we see any more “Pistol” formations?

Just before halftime last week, the Cowboys ran two plays out of the “Pistol”– a formation that places the running back directly behind the quarterback in Shotgun.

I actually hadn’t seen the look make its way up to the NFL at all until Garrett utilized it.  I love the move, as the defense has no pre-snap indication as to the direction of a potential run.  Let’s see if Dallas goes back to it.

Is Tashard Choice ever going to play more under Jason Garrett?

One snap last week, again.  Some DC Times readers still think Marion Barber should be the guy, but his best days are well behind him.  He has zero explosion and actually isn’t a particularly devastating short-yardage runner anymore.  The only thing he does better than Felix Jones and Choice, in my opinion, is block.

I’ll ask it again: with the Cowboys 2-7 and Barber likely to be out of Dallas next season, why isn’t Choice playing at all?

How will the Cowboys’ depleted defensive line perform coming off of a physical game?

Igor Olshansky and Stephen Bowen started at defensive end for the ‘Boys last week, while Jimmy Saddler-McQueen, Jeremy Clark, and Josh Brent all got significant playing time.  All but Olshansky had fresh legs going into that game.  How will they perform after a week of punishment?

Will the Lions bring pressure on Jon Kitna after watching him torch the Giants’ secondary last week?

I counted only five blitzes for the Giants in the entire game on Sunday.  I was shocked at their refusal to bring extra defenders even after Kitna & Co. beat their “safe” coverages repeatedly.

I would expect the Lions to do what has worked for other squads against the Cowboys–disguise blitzes, run twists, and throw a lot of exotic looks at the Dallas offense in an attempt to confuse the O-Line.  Andre Gurode and Leonard Davis in particular struggle mightily with stunts and other things which force them to move their feet and be agile.

Will the Cowboys’ offensive line continue to provide proper protection for Kitna and drive defenders off the ball in the running game?

The offensive line was dominant against the Giants–by far their best game as a unit all season.  I think part of that was due to the Giants’ lack of aggression, but don’t forget the line also blew defenders off of the ball in the running game.

With Detroit likely to bring more pressure than New York, it will be interesting to see how the ‘Boys respond.  Perhaps one outstanding game was all they needed to regain their confidence.  Or perhaps they’ll fall back onto poor habits when faced with pressure.  As always, it will be the key to their success.

Will the Cowboys run any of their “predictable” plays?

Last week, the Cowboys ran the play below three times.  The formation (“Double Tight Left Ace”) was a completely new one.  If they line up in it again versus the Lions, they better have a new play-call.

Double Tight Left Ace

The Cowboys did a similar thing in the Vikings game with the play below.  This time, the formation is “Double Tight Left Twins Right Ace.”  The Cowboys have since added new plays to the formation’s repertoire, but the one pictured below is still a staple.

Double Tight Left Twins Right Ace

And of course we can’t forget about “Double Tight Strong.”  Last season, the Cowboys ran a strong side dive from the formation nearly three-fourths of the 100+ times they lined up in it (including 85.7 percent of the time when motioning into it).  The play basically disappeared early in the season, but it has reemerged since Kitna has taken over (perhaps in an attempt to simplify the playbook).

Can Orlando Scandrick put together back-to-back impressive games?

Scandrick played his best game of the season last week.  He was all over the place in coverage and even flew up to make some hits in run support.  I think he benefited from the absence of Steve Smith and (ironically) the injuries to Mike Jenkins and Terence Newman.  It isn’t brought up much, but I believe Scandrick plays far superior when lined up out wide.

Playing in the slot is completely different than playing outside, and although Scandrick does have speed and quickness, he always appears to be just one step late when playing the nickel.  I raised the question last week of whether it is time to move Newman into the slot in nickel situations.  Now is a better time than ever to experiment with it.

Is it time to leave Jason Witten in to block more often?

Last season, the Cowboys gained nearly two yards more per pass with Witten in a route as compared to when he stayed in to block.  Despite the fact that Witten was out in a route on 77.1 percent of pass plays, I urged for that number to increase in 2010.

Well, I have since changed my tune.  Even though the offensive line was magnificent last week, their overall level of play has diminished considerably from last year.  A lot of times, it seems like leaving Witten in to aid with the opponent’s pass rush is superior to having him in a route.  What good is his skill as a pass-catcher if the quarterback has no time to deliver the football?

Plus (and I know I’ll get a lot of crap for saying this), Witten’s talent has diminished.  He’s still an outstanding tight end and one of the premiere pass-catching/blocking combination players in the league, but his receiving skill set isn’t what it used to be.  He appears slower than ever this year, and with the emergence of Miles Austin and Dez Bryant, there are better options in the passing game.

On top of all of that, the Cowboys have had a lot of success with throwing the ball downfield.  I can honestly say Dez Bryant has already shown me he has some of the best ball skills I’ve ever seen.  Just throw it up to him and let him make a play.  As you can see to the right, Dallas already obtained more big plays last season with Witten blocking.

It seems Garrett has caught on.  This year, Witten is going out into a route a bit less–72.5 percent of pass plays.  Last week, the Cowboys gained an astounding 140 yards on the five pass plays during which Witten blocked.

DOs and DON’Ts

DO run some twists and conceal intentions pre-snap on defense in an effort to get DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer rolling again.

It seems the Cowboys have come out with a few exotic blitzes to start games recently (with much success), but then they stray away from it.  New defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni needs to overhaul the mindset of the defense–from limiting big plays to creating some of their own.  That starts with disguised pressure, zone blitzes, and so on.  Plus, this could aid the Cowboys’ two outside linebackers who are in a bit of a rut.

DON’T place Keith Brooking or Bradie James on Jahvid Best.

This is pretty obvious.  James has been okay in coverage this season, but Brooking has been awful.  I’d prefer to see Gerald Sensabaugh on Best during most plays, or even Barry Church (during nickel situations).  Both matchups will be easier if the Cowboys play this coverage. . .

DO implement the same defensive mentality which worked against the Vikings–Cover 1.

Before the Cowboys-Vikings game,  I wrote:

I personally think the Cowboys should play a lot of “Cover 1.”

Cover 1 is basically man coverage underneath with a free safety deep.  That safety (Alan Ball) should shadow Moss during basically every play.  With Terence Newman or Mike Jenkins underneath and Ball deep, the ‘Boys should be able to limit Moss’ big play potential.

Cover 1 also allows a defense to be very flexible with their pre-snap alignment.  The Cowboys can bring eight guys into the box without much risk while in Cover 1 in an effort to be ready to stop Peterson.  Peterson should be the No. 1 priority, and if Dallas stops him, they can stop Moss as well.

Finally, there’s very little downside to playing man coverage underneath against the Vikings.  Not only are the Cowboys’ cornerbacks suited for man-to-man, but Brett Favre isn’t going to be running anywhere.  The idea of a bunch of defenders with their backs turned to the quarterback isn’t as scary as if, say, Michael Vick was at quarterback.

Well, the Cowboys did play Cover 1 against the Vikings (actually nearly every play), and it worked wonders.  Substitute the Lions’ skill position players (Calvin Johnson, Jahvid Best, and Shaun Hill) in for those in Minnesota, and my thoughts are the same.  Both Johnson and Best are dynamic football players who can break open a game at any moment–don’t let them beat you!

Johnson has incredible ball skills–much better than those of the Dallas cornerbacks.  The Cowboys need to shade him with Ball and be aggressive in the box with eight defenders.  Shut down C.J. and J.B. and take your chances with Nate Burleson or Brandon Pettigrew.

DON’T run too often up the middle.

Ndamukong Suh is only a rookie, but he’s a beast.  Corey Williams, the Lions’ other starting defensive tackle, is also quite underrated.  Even with the mammoths the Cowboys have inside, I think they’ll have trouble moving Suh and Williams.

Instead, the ‘Boys should find success running powers, counters, and tosses.  Detroit’s outside linebackers, Ashlee Palmer and Julian Peterson, aren’t very stout against the run either.  When the Cowboys do run the football, they need to focus on getting Felix Jones to the edge of Detroit’s defense.

DO test the Lions’ secondary.

This goes hand-in-hand with a “DON’T”–DON’T worry about offensive balance as much as running efficiency.  People want to talk about the Cowboys’ offensive balance in their two wins, but that only came as a result of already gaining a lead.  The fact is the Cowboys threw the ball at a slightly higher rate than normal in those two games before running the ball to work the clock.

Against New York, only 12 of the team’s first 33 plays were runs (36.4 percent), while the ‘Boys had a stretch of 21 passes in 28 plays during the middle of the Texans game.  The reason the Cowboys won the two games they did isn’t because of rushing attempts.  Rather, the higher rushing attempts are a result of winning.  Instead, it is rushing efficiency that matters (and really insofar as it draws up the defense to allow for big pass plays).

DO attack cornerback Alphonso Smith with fades.

Smith has been really good since getting traded to Detroit from the Broncos.  He was simply in the wrong scheme in Denver.  However, Smith is only 5’9” and can get abused by bigger receivers.  Well, say hello to Miles Austin, Dez Bryant, and Roy Williams.  All three guys excel on fades.  Throw a lot of ’em, Garrett.

DO force Shaun Hill to beat you before bringing heavy pressure.

While I expect the Cowboys to be aggressive in their Cover 1 looks, there’s no reason to bring an exorbitant amount of heat until Hill proves he can beat the ‘Boys in their safer zone coverages.  If Dallas can get adequate pressure with just four or five pass-rushers, why send more?

DO continue to throw the ball out of two and three-tight end sets.

The Cowboys implemented three or more receivers on only 14 offensive plays last week.  That’s a season-low.  In the past, I’ve explained why passing out of running formations is successful.  Combine that with Witten and Martellus Bennett’s superb pass protection ability and the deep threat posed by Austin and Bryant, and you have the makings of a lot of “surprise” deep passes.  Now, if Garrett would just call a few after playaction fakes. . .

DON’T look ahead to the Saints.

As I stated in the opening to this article, the Cowboys get in trouble when they look too far into the future.  They need to focus on the task at hand, which is playing a disciplined, dominant game against the Lions.  To me, this is the perfect game on which to judge Garrett as a head coach.  The ‘Boys probably would lose this game under Wade Phillips.  A more detail-oriented coach shouldn’t let that happen.  Let’s see if Garrett can get this team to win the games they should win.

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Cowboys vs. Giants Week 10 Film Study Observations

Jonathan Bales

  • In my initial post-game notes, I wrote briefly about a new formation the Cowboys ran against New York.  They called it three times, running the same pass play (below) from it each time.  I’ve named the formation “Double Tight Left Ace.”  It’s actually very similar to “Double Tight Left I,” except there is an extra tight end to the weak side instead of a fullback.

Double Tight Left Ace

  • The first time the Cowboys ran the play, it appeared as though Felix Jones was the primary read on the pass.  The Giants were in man coverage, which meant their linebackers ran with the three tight ends who flooded the left side of the field.  Jones stepped up into the vacated area and Kitna quickly hit him for a 12-yard gain.
  • The other two times the Cowboys ran the play, however, the Giants were in a zone.  Instead of running to the middle of the field, Jones headed out into the flat.  The other players’ routes were the same, meaning Jones probably had an option route on the play.  If New York was in man coverage, he ran the route above.  If they were in zone, he headed out into the flat.
  • After reviewing the film, the Cowboys’ clock management prior to halftime was even worse than I thought.  They had a 2nd and 1 at their own 46-yard line with well over a minute to play and two timeouts.  Instead of using a timeout or going into a hurry-up offense, they huddled.  The decision cost them the opportunity to move into field goal range for David Buehler.
  • I didn’t see too many differences between Paul Pasqualoni’s play-calling and that of Wade Phillips.  Pasqualoni dialed up an exotic zone blitz early in the game, dropping both DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer into coverage and sending Alan Ball after the quarterback.  The play worked well, but the Cowboys didn’t come back to it.  I think Pasqualoni is too similar to Phillips for my liking.
  • I’m not sure what sort of effect the Cowboys’ full pads practices had on the outcome of the game, but Dallas did appear much, much more physical on defense.  They looked genuinely excited to be playing football for the first time since Week Three.  I was particularly impressed with the physicality of players in the secondary, especially Mike Jenkins and Orlando Scandrick.
  • Scandrick had a really good game overall.  He was a step ahead of his normal position on most plays, causing Eli Manning to make difficult throws on a number of occasions.  On Alan Ball’s late interception, Manning had to lead the receiver too far because of Scandrick’s tight coverage.  Now he needs to show consistency.
  • Once again, proponents of the run will claim the Cowboys won because they were more balanced offensively, but that’s simply not the case.  Only 12 of the first 33 plays were actually runs (36.4 percent).  The correlation between rushing attempts and winning is generally due to teams running after they’ve already obtained a lead.  As was the case Sunday, that lead usually comes via big plays through the air.  The Cowboys didn’t win because they ran the ball often–they won because they ran it effectively, allowing for big passing plays downfield to Dez Bryant and Miles Austin.
  • Garrett must simply not like Tashard Choice.  Choice again played just one snap–the 3rd and 22 pass to Roy Williams that went for 27 yards.  It was ALL because of Choice.  Well, not really, but why is Marion Barber still getting so many reps ahead of him?
  • Besides “Double Tight Left Ace,” the Cowboys lined up in another unique formation.  You’ve probably all seen the “Pistol” offense run by college teams like Nevada and Indiana.  If not, see below. . .

  • The trademark of the “Pistol” offense is the running back lined up behind the quarterback in a Shotgun formation.  Generally, the running back is to the left or right of the quarterback.  The reason I love the “Pistol” so much is that it doesn’t allow the defense to obtain a pre-snap key as to the play-call.  When a team is in a regular Shotgun formation, running plays are generally designed to the side of the formation opposite the running back.  In “Pistol,” a running play could go either direction.
  • The Cowboys used a variation of the “Pistol” which I have termed “Trips Right Pistol,” running the ball up the middle for a combined 12 yards the two times they called it.  I drew up the formation below. . .

Trips Right Pistol

  • I didn’t see a significant change in Garrett’s play-calling, but the Cowboys did motion a lot more than usual later in the game.  Generally, Dallas has motioned the majority of the time in the first 20 or so plays of games–the scripted plays.  On Sunday, Dallas motioned 11 times in the second half alone, including five of the first six plays to start the half.
  • Of those five plays, four were passes and they totaled 117 yards (29.3 yards-per-pass).  Let’s see if this trend continues into next week.
  • Dallas lined up in a lot more two and three-tight ends sets, even before securing a large lead.  Of their 49 offensive plays (minus two quarterback kneels), the ‘Boys implemented three or more wide receivers only 14 times.  It may have seemed like more because Bryant was targeted so much, but you’ll be happy to know that he’s effectively replaced Roy Williams as the No. 2 receiver.
  • Jon Kitna checked out of a play four times–two runs for five yards and two passes for 13 yards and a touchdown.
  • After running the ball to the outside of formations quite often to start the season, the Cowboys went back to pounding it up the middle against the Giants (as they did in 2009).  15 of their 24 runs were in either the “1” or “2” hole–right up the center’s butt.
  • I thought the Cowboys would run more draws than they did (three).  Those runs went for 24 total yards, so the few times they dialed up a draw it was effective.
  • The Cowboys didn’t run a single counter all game.
  • The Cowboys ran four playaction passes.  Only one was completed, but it went for 27 yards.
  • Garrett also dialed up four screen passes and they were extremely successful, thanks to Felix Jones (71 yard screen for a touchdown) and Dez Bryant (46 yard screen).
  • It may have seemed like the Cowboys threw the ball downfield much more often than usual, but that simply wasn’t the case.  Only eight passes traveled over 10 yards.  Kitna & Co. were simply effective when they did take their shots.
  • I counted only four passes as being off-target for Kitna.  He had quite the night.  Imagine what Romo could have done with this sort of protection.
  • Garrett made the offensive line’s job easier by calling three designed rollouts–the most in a single game all season.
  • I was shocked with the lack of pressure the Giants brought.  I counted only five blitzes all game, and the Cowboys totaled only eight yards on those plays.  After the initial success the Cowboys had on offense, I thought the Giants would become more aggressive on defense, but it just never happened.

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Dallas Cowboys vs. Giants Week 10: What to Watch, Jason Garrett Edition

Jonathan Bales

General Questions

Will Jason Garrett call plays differently now that he’s the head coach?

I don’t think this will be the case, but it is possible that Garrett’s increase in power could result in a shift in play-calling philosophy.  The offensive and defensive coordinators are generally supposed to call plays with the grander overall team philosophy in mind.  A team’s offensive philosophy is intricately linked to its defensive philosophy, and vice versa.  With Wade Phillips out, Garrett is completely free to call plays in whichever manner he deems most suitable.

The reason I don’t see major changes on the horizon is that I think Garrett was already free to call plays as he chose.  Even when Phillips was in town, it always seemed like the Cowboys had two head coaches–one for the offense and one for the defense.  Phillips rarely contributed to the offensive game plans, so I don’t think much will change.

This could still be a perfect opportunity for Garrett to alter his play-calling a bit, though.  Even if he did have free reign over the offense prior to Phillips’ dismissal, he can use the firing as a sort of “excuse” for a shift in philosophy.  Specifically, I’d love to see the offense be much more aggressive with deep throws, fourth down attempts, and so on.

How will Garrett perform with in-game tasks such as challenges, timeouts, and so on?

It will be interesting to see what sort of game manager the Cowboys have in Garrett.  I have a feeling he’s going to be far superior to Phillips, whose in-game decisions left much to be desired.  Garrett is far more detail-oriented than Phillips, meaning I expect better clock management skills and use of timeouts/challenges.

Will we see any lineup changes?

One of the major critiques of the Wade Phillips era was his inability to properly hold players accountable for sub-par play.  In my opinion, this is a valid criticism.  There is no reason on Earth that Marion Barber should still be starting (or Roy Williams, Igor Olshansky, Keith Brooking, etc.).

Garrett now has the power the do as he wants with the Cowboys’ starting lineup, but will he exercise that power?  I have my doubts.  As I argued above, Garrett was basically already the head coach of the offense.  If he wanted Barber out, it would have happened.  I am very eager to not only see if the Cowboys have any surprise lineup changes on Sunday, but also if Garrett yanks players who under-perform during the game.

The season isn’t over, but any hopes of making the playoffs have been squashed.  An alteration in goals should accompany this change in expectations.  Winning is always the top priority, but the Cowboys need to shift the emphasis of when they are trying to win–namely making 2011 the main focus.

That means the Cowboys need to find out what they have in certain players–Sean Lee, Barry Church, Danny McCray, Sam Young, Phil Costa, and so on.  The first step in improving a roster is accurately assessing current talent.  Dallas has yet to do that.

What sort of schematic alterations will we see on defense?  Will the Cowboys be more aggressive?  How about more deceptive in their intentions before the snap?

The largest changes to the Cowboys following Phillips’ departure could come on defense.  I’m interested to see what sort of mindset is employed by interim defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni.  Will he shake up the lineup?  Will he disguise blitzes more effectively than Phillips?  Will he allow the defensive backs to play more aggressively?

The second half of the season is basically a long interview for Pasqualoni, meaning we should see some changes in philosophy.  The starters and scheme the Cowboys used under Phillips weren’t working.  Pasqualoni needs to make changes to survive.

Will the Cowboys regain a sense of pride in their play now that they may feel guilt over Wade Phillips’ departure?

A lot of players, particularly on defense, feel awful about their role in getting their coach fired. . .as they should.  They basically gave up on a guy they all claimed to love.  Their effort was a slap in the face to Phillips.

Now that Phillips is gone, I expect the players to up their level of play.  It shouldn’t take a guy losing his job to spark a sense of pride in the players’ effort, but with how low Dallas has fallen, perhaps Phillips’ leave is a necessary evil.

Will Dallas possess a more aggressive overall philosophy under the “new school” Garrett?

I would be willing to bet that Garrett won’t punt the ball on 4th and 3 at the opposition’s 39-yard line.  He seems to have a rather “new school,” stat-oriented approach to coaching, which is great.  Now it is my job to make sure he’s getting the right stats. . .

Will we see more disciplined play under Garrett?

I think we will, but I don’t know how much of it will be truly caused by Garrett.  Yes, Garrett seems to be more precise than Phillips, but he was already in control of the entire offense in the first half of the season.  They weren’t disciplined under him then, so why now?

The reason the Cowboys will at least appear more disciplined is (once again) regression to the mean.  The Cowboys committed so many dumb penalties under Phillips, how much worse could it get?  They’re likely to improve regardless of Garrett’s tactics.

Of course, refraining from committing penalties isn’t the only manner in which a team can be disciplined.  I fully expect Garrett to employ much more up-tempo practices than Phillips.  That started with yesterday’s full pads practice.

My high school football coach had a saying that I think fits perfectly with the 2010 Dallas Cowboys. . .

Practice doesn’t make perfect.  Perfect practice makes perfect.

The Cowboys aren’t losing games on Sundays.  They’re losing them in the offseason, preseason, and during the practice week.  If Garrett can change the culture of Cowboys’ practices, he’ll reverse their fortunes on Sundays.

Giants-Specific Questions

Will the Cowboys run the ball more frequently in an effort to shorten the game?

The Cowboys are the largest underdogs in the league this week.  When was the last time that happened?  Garrett knows his team is an underdog, so let’s see if he runs the ball more (even if it isn’t effective) to force both teams to call less plays.  Less plays generally means less scoring, i.e. a smaller probability of the Giants pulling out to a big lead.

Using statistics in coaching doesn’t always need to be incredibly complicated.  Shorten the game, and you have a better chance of winning as an underdog.

How physical will the Cowboys be after practicing in full pads this week for the first time since training camp?

As I said above, the ‘Boys were in full pads for the first time since camp.  That’s a tone-setter and I love the move.  It isn’t like an injury is going to be devastating to the team’s playoff hopes.

So will we see a “hungrier” Cowboys defense?  I’m looking at you, Mike Jenkins. . .

Will Terence Newman move into the slot at time to cover Steve Smith (who has continually torched Orlando Scandrick)?

I don’t think this will happen, but I do wish it would.  Scandrick has been abused by receivers all year, and Smith in particular has had his number basically every game they’ve ever been matched up.  Newman has lots of experience playing in the slot, so why not make the move?

Of course, the major problem would be placing either Jenkins or Scandrick outside on Hakeem Nicks.  Scandrick is the better tackler and should probably man up on Nicks if he isn’t in the slot, but both guys are undersized.  Still, I’ll take my chances with Nicks on screen passes over Smith beating Scandrick deep over the middle all game.

Will Dallas place Gerald Sensabaugh on Ahmad Bradshaw at times as they did in the teams’ first matchup?

Lost in the hoopla of the Cowboys-Giants Week Seven contest was the fact that Sensabaugh did a fairly good job covering Bradshaw (when the two were matched up).  Although Bradshaw killed the Cowboys on the ground with 128 yards rushing, he caught only two passes for 12 yards.

None of the Cowboys’ linebackers can hang with Bradshaw.  Sensabaugh is the defense’s best option.

Can the Cowboys’ thinning defense stop the Giants’ running game?

This is going to be a major key to the game.  If the Giants can run the ball as effectively as they did a few weeks ago, their playaction passing game will destroy the Cowboys’ secondary.  The Cowboys simply don’t have the talent or numbers on the defensive line to properly respect run and get to the quarterback on playaction fakes.   Eli Manning could have all day to pass.  No cornerback can cover a guy for more than three or four seconds.

Actually, I think the Cowboys’ pass rush (or lack thereof) has been totally overlooked as a major contributor to the struggles in the secondary.  The first way to make your cornerbacks look good is to get to the passer.

Will Garrett trust the offensive line enough to allow for the occasional deep playaction pass?

The Cowboys will probably need a big play or two.  They aren’t going to get it on screen passes.  The offensive line is probably going to struggle, but from time to time, Garrett just needs to trust them and take some shots downfield.  If it doesn’t work then so be it, but the Cowboys probably won’t be able to consistently move the ball down the field without opening up the offense a bit.

As always, passing out of two-tight end formations can help.  Not only is the defense already in base personnel and anticipating run, but don’t underestimate Martellus Bennett’s blocking ability.  He’s been far superior to Jason Witten in that department all season.

How many draws will the Cowboys run?

I’m saying double-digits, which wouldn’t be a horrible idea.  Draws will allow Dallas to keep the clocking moving and take advantage of the league’s most aggressive defensive ends.

Will Tashard Choice finally get some work?

I sure hope so.  After being told he’d get significant playing time last week, Choice received all of three carries while the Cowboys were down 38 points.  Marion Barber probably won’t be in Dallas next season.  With playoff hopes shot, why is he still starting?  Give Choice at least 10 touches.

Will Dez Bryant continue to get more reps, including in base personnel packages?

Last week was the first time I saw Bryant on the field in a non-three-receiver package.  That’s good news.  You can expect more of the same this week for the rookie who, in my view, is the team’s MVP over the last five weeks or so.  His effort has been noticeably better than the majority of veterans, which is sad.  He deserves more looks.

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Analyzing Jason Garrett’s 2nd Down Play-Calling in 2010

Jonathan Bales

We are just five games into the 2010 season, but already offensive coordinator Jason Garrett has displayed much improvement in a number of areas.  The casual fan will look at the Cowboys’ mediocre 20.4 points-per-game (16th in the NFL) and conclude that Garrett is having a horrible season.  With all of the weapons Dallas possesses on offense, shouldn’t they be averaging, like, 28 points-per-game?

Yes, they should.  But a five game sample size is hardly enough to convince me that Garrett isn’t superior in his play-calling from a year ago.  I’ve told you all season that Garrett has been much, much less predictable with his play-calling.  He’s dialing up more weak side runs (see study on weak side runs here), more 3rd down runs (see study on 3rd down runs here), and less predictable play-calling based on personnel (see personnel-based play-calling stats here).

As I analyzed my database of Cowboys’ 2010 plays this morning, I realized perhaps Garrett’s largest improvement has come in the way of play-calling on 2nd down.  You may remember I conducted a study on Garrett’s 2009 play-calling trends on 2nd down awhile back, noting the Cowboys’ run/pass selection was highly correlated with their previous play-call (even after adjusting for specific situations).  This is from that article:

On 2nd and 3 to 7, for example, Garrett dialed up a run on only 23 of the 78 (29.5 percent) plays that followed a 1st down run. After 1st down passes, though, the Cowboys ran on 2nd down on 26 of 34 plays (76.5 percent). Thus, Dallas was 2.95 times more likely to run on 2nd and 3 to 7 after a 1st down pass than after a 1st down run.

On 3rd and 8 to 10, that trend, surprisingly, did not get much better. The team ran on only 10 of 50 plays (20.0 percent) in these scenarios following a 1st down run. After passes, Garrett called a run on 32 of 58 2nd down plays (55.2 percent), meaning the team was 2.76 times more likely to run on 2nd and 8 to 10 after a pass than a run.

On 2nd and 11 or more, the team was still 2.33 times more likely to run after a 1st down pass than after a run. Obviously Garrett did some things right in the past few years, but this sort of predictability is unacceptable.

I’ve posted a graph to the left detailing the information above.  Note that I am not criticizing the overall rate of runs/passes.  Garrett could pass 95 percent of the time, but if his current play-call is dependent on the previous one, there will be a problem.  Again, the issue is not with the overall run/pass ratio, but rather the fact that it gets skewed based on previous calls.

For a play-caller to maximize his effectiveness, we’d want the run/pass ratio to be equal in comparable situations following a particular call.  Note that I am not advocating a 50/50 balance.  I am simply stating that it is in an offensive coordinator’s best interest to retain his particular run/pass ratio in specific down-and-distances regardless of the previous call.  If he passes 90 percent of the time on 2nd and 3-7 following a 1st down pass, he should pass 90 percent of the time in the same situation following a run.  Don’t let previous calls affect current ones.

As far as the graph above, we’d want to see the red and blue lines be as close together as possible.  The specific run/pass ratio is irrelevant–what’s important is that the lines match up, wherever that may be.

As I analyzed the Cowboys’ 2nd down plays in 2010, it is very obvious Garrett has made a conscious effort to clean up the mess from last season.  Check out the graph below.

Note how much closer the lines are to converging as compared to 2009.  On 2nd and 3-7–plays on which Garrett “mixed it up” last year in an attempt to be random (only to, ironically, become very predictable)–his run/pass ratio is nearly identical, regardless of his call on 1st down.  That’s as much as any fan could ask from an offensive coordinator.

There are still some issues, which is to be expected (it is unreasonable to think an offensive coordinator, in the heat of a game, can perfectly equalize all ratios).  Although the run ratio on 2nd and 8-10 looks about equal, the Cowboys have actually been nearly 3.5 times as likely to run after a 1st down pass as compared to following a 1st down run.  In fairness to Garrett, the offense has only run nine plays on 2nd and 8-10 that followed a run (just one was another run).

There also appears to be a large gap between 2nd and 1-2 run ratios, but note that the Cowboys have had just six total plays in that down-and-distance.  Hardly a significant sample size.

Overall, Garrett’s improvements in his 2nd down play-calling are remarkable.  Looks like someone has been visiting DC Times. . .

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Dallas Cowboys vs. New York Giants Week 7 Manifesto: 18 DOs and DON’Ts for Dallas

Jonathan Bales

From last week’s Manifesto:

I’m not one to erroneously label a game as a “must win” unless, mathematically, a team actually must win it to stay alive.

Mathematically, this game is not a “must win” for Dallas.  Emotionally, however, it might be just that.  Can this team truly come back from a 1-4 start to make the playoffs (and not just make the post-season, but win there)?  Of course it’s possible, but realistically, this week’s game in Minnesota is about as close to “must win” as it gets in Week Six.

This week, the Cowboys will have the opportunity to begin to prove me wrong.  While I don’t think the hole they’ve dug themselves is insurmountable, I do think that will be the case if they continue to play as they have thus far.  Can the Cowboys really flip the switch and begin playing disciplined, selfless football?  Monday can’t get here soon enough.

This week’s Manifesto consists of all “DOs” and “DON’Ts” for Dallas.  Hey, there’s a lot that needs to change. . .

DOs and DON’Ts

DO blitz a little more this week–but disguise them PLEASE!

This is more of a wish than anything else.  I know Phillips’ defense isn’t going to change overnight into one that invokes all sorts of pre-snap alignments to confuse the defense as to which defenders might be rushing, but I WISH it could be that.

At the very least, I think the ‘Boys can blitz more often this week.  Terence Newman has been shutting down whoever is on him and Alan Ball can help over top of Jenkins.  The key, as it was last week, will be Orlando Scandrick.  If he can handle Steve Smith in the slot, the Cowboys should be able to play the same sort of Cover 1 defense they played against the Vikings:

DON’T worry about Brandon Jacobs–focus on stopping Ahmad Bradshaw.

I wholeheartedly believe Jacobs is one of the worst running backs in the NFL.  He isn’t quick.  He isn’t shifty.  He’s not even a good short-yardage runner, which is sad for a man his size.  Ask any defender who they’d rather tackle in the open field, Jacobs or Bradshaw, and I’d bet nearly every one would choose Jacobs.  Tackling him might hurt more, but it would certainly be easier to accomplish.

Bradshaw is the sort of player with which the Cowboys have traditionally struggled.  He’s extremely shifty and can do a lot of things out of the backfield.  The Cowboys’ oversized linebackers need to be careful to not let Bradshaw get into the open-field.  If he does, it’s lights out for Dallas.  Here’s one way they might be able to contain the little guy. . .

DO place Gerald Sensabaugh, not a linebacker, on Bradshaw.

Let’s face it: Keith Brooking is now a detriment to the defense when he’s in coverage.  I love his attitude and work ethic, but he has terrible hips and is really poor in space.  He has been coming off of the field more and more in nickel situations, which is a good thing.

On 1st and 2nd down, though, the Cowboys should place Sensabaugh on Bradshaw (whenever possible).  In the Cover 1 example above, it’s quite easy to shift the responsibility of Bradie James (or Brooking) and Sensy.  Plus, I don’t find Kevin Boss to be that much of a threat as a pass-catcher.  In my opinion, James should be able to shut him down.  If Sensabaugh can do the same to Bradshaw, Brooking will only be responsible for a fullback or second tight end.

DON’T keep shooting yourselves in the foot with senseless penalties.

I really don’t mind some penalties–sometimes fouls such as illegal contact and offsides are simply the result of an aggressive style of play.  It is the mental mistakes–illegal formations, illegal substitutions, false starts, and celebration penalties–that are so aggravating.

Yes, the excessive celebration penalty called against Marc Colombo because he fell to the ground was garbage, but last week’s celebration penalty on Sam Hurd was needless.  The rule is dumb, but Hurd is a professional football player.  Professionals need to know the rules.

In all four of the Cowboys’ losses this year, they’ve done something so dumb that it alone basically cost them the game.  Playing intelligently (while still maintaining aggression) should be the team’s number one focus for the rest of the season.

Let’s set a goal of five penalties.  More than that and they’ll have a difficult time winning this football game.

DO implement max protection a few times to take shots downfield.

Last week, the Cowboys threw the ball 10 yards or more downfield just THREE times all game.  They threw an incredible 18 passes behind the line of scrimmage.

The Cowboys’ offensive line hasn’t been awful in pass protection this year except against the Titans.  Romo makes it look better than it is, but there’s certainly been enough time for the ‘Boys to take some shots down the field.

This week, the Cowboys’ pass protection duties don’t get any easier.  They’ll have to deal with Osi Umenyiora, Justin Tuck, Jason Pierre-Paul, and Chris Canty all night long.  If three-receiver sets aren’t working, Dallas needs to implement one or two-man routes to create big plays.  Either way, the ball has to get down the field.

DON’T screw up on kick coverage.

There’s a chance the Cowboys could have two more wins if their kickoff coverage was even average.  The coverage units seemed much improved last year when their faults were simply covered up by David Buehler’s big leg.  Buehler’s power has diminished in 2010 and the coverage units are once again costing the Cowboys football games.

Special teams are more about maintaining responsibility and hustling than talent.  The fact that Dallas’ coverage units have struggled is related to the abundance of penalties: both are due to a lack of discipline.

DO stop the run early so the Giants can’t utilize the playaction pass.

The Giants find success against Dallas when they’re playaction game gets going.  Eli Manning no longer has the luxury of having Plaxico Burress to catch his mistakes, but Nicks, Manningham, and Smith are a formidable trio.  Nicks and Manningham in particular have big-play potential that is often the result of running efficiency–when the Giants are moving the ball on the ground, their playaction passing game can be lethal.

The best way to stop the Giants’ playaction success is to limit their running game early.  If the Giants have no confidence that a play-fake will draw in the defense, they won’t run them.

DON’T blitz up the middle.

The Giants are incredibly strong up the middle with Shaun O’Hara at center and Chris Snee and Rich Seubert at guard.  Brooking and even James will be no match for them.  Plus, the Cowboys just haven’t found much success this season when rushing their inside linebackers.

Instead, the Cowboys should make sure DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer are rarely in coverage and even send Sensabaugh after Eli Manning.  If they do choose to play a lot of Cover 1 and put Sensy on Bradshaw, it will be easier for Sensabaugh to blitz (particularly if Bradshaw stays in to pass protect).

DO call some designed rollouts OR throw some back-shoulder fades.

The abundance of screens and other short passes this year is evidence that Jason Garrett doesn’t have full confidence in the pass protection-ability of this offensive line.  There are other ways to get the ball downfield without relying so heavily on pass protection, though.

One is getting Romo on the move on designed rollouts, of which the Cowboys have run three all season.  Another are back-shoulder fades which Romo and the receivers practiced diligently in preseason practices and games.  The fades haven’t made their way into the regular season, but perhaps they should.  The Cowboys don’t need a ton of time to throw a back-shoulder fade (or quick fade, or stop route, or whatever you’d like to call it).  Roy Williams’ skill set–tremendous body control and hands– is built perfectly for the route.

DO run right at Osi Umenyiora and Jason Pierre-Paul, especially with counters and draws.

Both Umenyiora and Pierre-Paul have a pass-first mentality.  They fly upfield in search of sacks before fulfilling their gap responsibilities.  I think Dallas can take advantage of that by not only running right at them, but doing it with with counters and draws.  Felix Jones averaged 10.0 yards-per-carry on 22 counters last year.

This year, the Cowboys aren’t running many counters.  They ran only one last week despite totaling 66 yards on five counters in the prior game.

Dallas has also limited their draws this season after running over eight per game in 2009.  The fact that they are limiting them is a good thing, but they should run more this week against a Giants defense that will disregard gap responsibility in search of sacks.  Third down draws will be particularly efficient because both Umenyiora and Pierre-Paul will be in the game.  Look for the Cowboys to run the ball multiple times on 3rd and 2 to 6.

DON’T be afraid to use the short passing game as an extension of the running game this week.

Screen passes in particular could be of use to the Cowboys this week for the same reason draws might work (the eagerness of the Giants’ defensive line to get to the passer).  The Cowboys aren’t a very good screen team, but I think a few traditional screen passes will work this week.

And no, the play below (which the Cowboys ran eight times last week) is not a screen. . .

DON’T keep running the same plays from the same formations.

Last year it was “Double Tight Strong.” When in that formation, the ‘Boys ran a strong side dive on 71.6 percent of all plays.  This year, Garrett has done a much better job of mixing up his play-calling from particular formations.

Last week, however, Dallas ran the same play eight times from a formation called “Twins Right Strong Left”:

This is what I wrote about the play after the game:

Jones was the target on four of the eight passes, but he wasn’t actually the primary read on this play.  I believe the Cowboys saw something on film that made them want to clear out the two receivers on the “Twins” side to hit Jason Witten across the middle.  Witten was actually the intended target on three of the eight plays (and the final one was a scramble).  If that wasn’t open, Romo would dump it down to Jones.

The play was working early.  Two of Witten’s long receptions–one for 30 yards and another for 17–came on this play.  Like I said in my pre-game Manifesto, the Vikings’ linebackers couldn’t hang with Witten or Martellus Bennett.

So how did the Cowboys run this play one time too many?  Well, remember Romo’s second crippling interception that was picked off by E.J. Henderson?  It came on the eighth and final time the Cowboys ran the play.

It appeared as though Henderson was faking a blitz and at the last moment backed into coverage, confusing Romo.  Well, I actually think Henderson was truly blitzing on the play.  When he didn’t get a great jump and subsequently realized what play was coming, he dropped back and made the pick.

Don’t make the same mistake twice.  You can bet the Giants know this play could be coming when they see the formation.  Either don’t line up in “Twins Right Strong Left” at all, or run a different play from it.

DON’T worry about offensive balance–simply stick with what is working.

I personally think the Cowboys can pound the rock early this week, while also mixing in some screens.  They should be able to run the ball effectively to the edges of the Giants’ defense.  That can then set up the playaction pass later in the game.  The Cowboys’ game plan on offense is pretty much the same as what they are trying to halt on defense.  Which team will execute better?

DON’T be afraid to run the ball more often out of “passing personnel.”

It is a good rule of thumb in any football game to pass when the defense expects run, and vice versa.  If the Giants sense pass, they’ll be head-hunting for Romo.  This week is a particularly good one to run out of three-receiver sets (which the ‘Boys haven’t been doing of late) and pass out of double-tight, run-oriented formations.

DO give Tashard Choice some work.

One snap in the last two weeks isn’t going to cut it.  I do think Jones’ increased snaps are a good thing and should continue, but Choice needs to be on the field from time to time.  Barber did an excellent job in short-yardage work last week, but I’m not sure why he’s stolen all of Choice’s reps on third down.

DON’T motion so often unless you are trying to exploit a mismatch.

Motions need to have a significant purpose.  It seems the only purpose motions have in the Cowboys’ offense is to either shift the strong side of the formation or determine if the defense is in man coverage.  We can argue all day about whether those two results are worth the trouble of motions, but what we can’t argue about is the fact that Dallas has traditionally found more success when they don’t motion.

I don’t think the ‘Boys should scrap motions.  Rather, I believe they need to use them more uniquely–much like the Saints.  New Orleans implements shifts and quick motions to gain favorable matchups.  It seems as though Garrett is content in saying “here is what we are going to do, now stop it.”  Instead, he needs to maximize the probability of success by implementing a more significant purpose for each pre-snap movement.

DO target Dez Bryant at least five times.

Bryant was targeted twice last week and not once in the first 51 plays.  With the other playmakers on offense, Bryant sees a lot of single coverage, so take advantage of it.

DO play incredibly aggressively.

What is there to lose?  Blitz often, throw it deep, go for it on fourth down, and just have some fun.

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Four Ways to Get Felix Jones Rolling for the Cowboys

Jonathan Bales

With the Cowboys’ matchup with the Tennessee Titans looming, it is hard to not imagine what Dallas might look like on offense if Chris Johnson was their starting running back.  Remember, the Cowboys bypassed Johnson (and Rashard Mendenhall) for Felix Jones in the 2008 Draft.  Now, Johnson is widely considered one of the top players in the entire NFL, while Jones has failed to live up to expectations.

Jones does enough to thrill Cowboys fans and keep them wanting more–a big run here, a nice block there.  But overall, Jones hasn’t shown the adequate health or durability (even when healthy) to handle the sort of load for which many fans yearn.

Some claim that Jones isn’t built for a heavy workload, but why not?  Is it due solely to his injury history?  Because his build is that of a workhorse back, not a 10-15 touch player.  Plus, let’s not forget that Johnson–the league’s leading rusher last year–weighs just 191 pounds.

In 2010, Jones has been supremely disappointing.  But all is not lost.  Jones’ talent and unique skill set make it imperative that the ‘Boys find a way to get him on a roll.  Here’s how they can do that. . .

1.  Run more counters and tosses.

I don’t want to make it seem as though I think Jones is only an outside runner, because I don’t.  I do think he’s capable of running between the tackles with great effectiveness (I actually think his one-cut style would make him a great fit for a zone blocking scheme).

The numbers, however, say that Jones needs to run more counters.  Last year, Jones averaged 10.0 yards-per-carry on 22 counters.  Take a look at my in-depth study on Cowboys counters.

In 2010, Dallas has run just four counters (only three to Jones).  For a team that averaged 7.9 yards-per-carry on all counters last year, that needs to change.  Counters have the potential to become big plays, and we all know who the Cowboys’ home run hitter is in the backfield.

The same can be said of toss plays, which the Cowboys run infrequently.  Yes, counters and tosses are “risky” run plays that can sometimes go for losses, but the potential reward is worth the risk in most situations.  A 1st and 10 counter or toss is quite different than the same play on 3rd and 1.

And if you need visual proof of Jones’ effectiveness on counters and tosses, watch the first two plays below. . .

2.  Forget using Jones as a wide receiver.

Analysts claim the Cowboys need to use Jones out wide or in the slot to find ways to get the ball in his hands.  Maybe I’m missing something, but Jones’ is not a polished receiver.  He runs poor routes, doesn’t have particularly soft hands, and isn’t an upgrade over any of the Cowboys’ receivers.

Why replace Dez Bryant, or even Kevin Ogletree, with Jones?  Contrary to popular belief, Jones has never been a Reggie Bush-type player.  There is a way to get the ball in Jones’ hands through the air, however. . .

3.  Design more traditional screen passes for Jones.

The Cowboys don’t run a ton of screens, which is actually reason alone to run more: defenses aren’t generally anticipating them.

This season, the Cowboys have run 11 screens, but only six of those were to running backs.  Further, the ‘Boys have run only three total screens in the past two games.

Jones has been targeted on just three screens (one of which was a quick screen with Jones lined up as the ‘X’ receiver).  Of the two traditional screens, the Cowboys have gained 24 yards.  By the way, Jones was targeted on only eight screen passes all of last year.

Even though Jones isn’t a natural receiver, running screen passes is a totally different skill than lining up out wide.  There’s no real route-running involved, and he doesn’t need to have strong, receiver-like hands: he just needs to catch the ball and use his vision and speed to get downfield.  Actually, you saw the big-play potential of a screen to Jones in Houston when he scampered down the field for a huge gain (which was called back due to a needless block in the back).

4.  Add a new wrinkle to the Wildcat.

I know many readers of DCT don’t like the Wildcat (or “Razorback,” if you prefer), but I love it.  Even with the inherent predictability of the formation, it was the second-most efficient running formation for Dallas in 2009 (in terms of yards-per-carry).  That’s quite impressive considering 31.3 percent of all Wildcat plays came inside the opponent’s 10-yard line.  Here is a detailed article on why the ‘Boys should run more Wildcat this year.

The Wildcat can be even more effective if Jones is a legitimate option to receive the ball.  With him sweeping across the field pre-snap (which the Cowboys worked on in training camp), Tashard Choice will have the option to either hand it off to Jones or keep it for himself.  Even if the call is designated before the snap, the defense will have to stay honest.  Not only is the Wildcat a great opportunity for Jones to take one to the house, but his presence will also open up more running lanes for Choice.

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Dallas Cowboys 2010 Weak Side Runs

Jonathan Bales

In the preseason, I made it clear that I thought the Cowboys should run more to the weak side of the formation.  There are less blockers there of course, but also (generally) less defenders to block.  The Cowboys also had a lot of success in 2009 when running to the weak side.  Although the big play (10+ yards) and negative play rates remained steady (as compared to strong side runs), the Cowboys averaged 5.2 yards-per-carry on weak side runs last year–half a yard more than strong side runs.  In a previous article on weak side runs, I explained how Jason Garrett should use game theory to increase the number of weak side runs until he reaches the Nash equilibrium.

So how is Garrett performing this year?  Before getting into the numbers, let me define what I mean as the “weak side.”  In a previous article, I wrote:

I have designated the weak side of the formation as that which is opposite the tight end and has less than three skill position players. Thus, in “Twins Left,” the right side is the strong side. In “Twins Left, Weak Left” (below), however, the left side is strong.

If a formation has no tight end, the strong side is simply the side with the most skill position players.  Also, a multitude of formations have no strong or weak side, such as “Ace” (below).   These formations were not counted toward my results.

As you can see to the left, the Cowboys are again finding more success running to the weak side as compared to the strong side.  Dallas has called 17 weak side runs for for 75 yards (4.41 yards-per-carry).  The Cowboys have had only one “big play” so far on a weak side run (a 12-yarder), so that average is not skewed by an outlier.  There have also been zero negative plays.

The Cowboys have called 27 strong side for 112 yards (4.15 yards-per-carry).  They have had three “big plays” on strong side runs, but also one negative play.  As we saw from last year’s weak side run statistics, we can expect the number of big plays for the two variations of runs to level out, meaning the difference in yards-per-carry could become even more drastic than it is already.

The 38.6 percent rate at which Garrett is calling weak wide runs is far superior to last year’s 19.5 percent rate.  Although I personally would like to see that percentage climb even higher, it is certainly manageable.   No matter which side of the formation the ‘Boys choose to run, however, they need to become more efficient if they want to continue the success they had last week in Houston.