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Dallas Cowboys at Houston Texans Final Film Observations, Player Grades

Jonathan Bales

In case you missed it, check out my Cowboys-Texans post-game observations and “What We Learned” about Dallas in the football game.  Here are my more in-depth film study findings. . .

  • The Cowboys ran a variation of the same play four straight times in the fourth quarter.  They motioned into “Strong” formation and ran a strong side dive.  The only thing that changed was the type of motion.
  • I’m starting to notice that Jason Garrett tends to motion a lot in the beginning of the game, with that trend decreasing as the contest progresses.  The Cowboys have motioned 46 times in the first half as opposed to just 31 in the second half, but seven of those second half motions came in the last nine plays on Sunday (when the ‘Boys already wrapped up the game).  The reason is that the team’s first drive or two are scripted plays.  On the Cowboys’ three opening drives this year, they’ve motioned 14 times (4.7 times per drive).  That’s nearly twice the rate of other drives (2.5 motions per drive).
  • The Cowboys had just five red zone plays on Sunday, but they took advantage of their time in the area.  They ran the ball twice for one yard and a touchdown, and also threw three passes for 32 yards and a score.  Give Jason Garrett props for excellent red zone play-calling all year.


Base (TE, 2 WR, RB, FB): Seven plays
2 TE, 2 WR, RB: 18 plays
2 TE, WR, RB, FB: Nine plays
TE, 3 WR, RB: 22 plays
3 TE, RB, FB: One play


25 formations in Week One, 19 in Week Two, and 19 again in Week Three

3 Wide I (4), 3 Wide Strong Left (2), Ace (3), Double Tight I (3), Double Tight Left/Right I (2), Double Tight Left/Right Strong (2), Double Tight Left/Right Twins Left/Right Ace (2), Gun TE Spread (15), Gun TE Trips (4), Gun TE Trips Empty (1), Gun Trips (1), I Formation (1), Power I (1), Strong (9), TE Trips Empty (1), Trips (3), Twins (1), Twins Right Strong Right (1), Weak Left (1)

  • You may have noticed on television how often Romo checked out of plays at the line of scrimmage.  He’s certainly been given a lot of freedom this season, and he utilized it on Sunday.  He audibled nine times, six times to a run (for 38 yards) and three times to a pass for 14 yards.  Four of the six runs were draw plays.  I noted that last season, 77.27 percent of Romo’s run audibles were to draw plays.
  • Think the Cowboys wanted to run the ball up the middle and to the right?  Check out the chart below.

  • As I stated in my article on What We Learned About Dallas in Week Three, the Cowboys decided to return to an old staple of the running game: the draw play.  After running only six combined draws in the first two games, Dallas ran 10 in Houston for 66 total yards.
  • After throwing 16 passes of 10+ yards against Washington and 13 against Chicago, the Cowboys attempted only nine in Houston.  However, they obviously threw far less passes against the Texans, so the ratio is actually about the same.
  • The Cowboys seven playaction passes totaled just 30 yards.  Five of the seven passes came with exactly 10 yards-to-go.  That trend dates back to last year.  Take a look at these numbers.
  • The Cowboys attempted only one screen pass and it fell incomplete.
  • How awesome was Romo?  He threw two passes which I labeled as “off-target” after throwing 12 such passes last week.
  • Of Dallas’ 30 passes, Witten went into a route on 19 of them (63.3 percent).  That’s lower than last year’s rate.  I still think he needs to be in a route more often.

Player Grades

QB Tony Romo: A

Only two off-target passes all day–about one-fourth of his average from ’09

RB Marion Barber: B

Barber’s best game this season; showed some explosion and good field awareness

RB Felix Jones: B+

Still hesitant on some runs, but looks great on draws; appears to be improved in passing game

WR Roy Williams: A

His hands are back, and his releases were tremendous–all about improved quickness

WR Dez Bryant: B+

Hasn’t been asked to do much, but always seems to make a play

TE Jason Witten:  B

Classic Witten–solid in all aspects of the game

LT Doug Free:  A-

Really held his own against Mario Williams without too much aid

LG Kyle Kosier:  C+

Struggled a bit before going down with knee sprain; not as punishing in running game as usual

C Andre Gurode:  B

Cowboys ran behind him often, and he’s seemed to have recovered from Week One pass protection woes

RG Leonard Davis:  B

Two false starts (only one called), but great at point-of-attack

RT Marc Colombo:  B-

Still not as high on him as others, but he brings a nastiness to the line

OLB DeMarcus Ware: A+

Only Troy Polamalu may be a better defensive player

OLB Anthony Spencer: C

Similar start as in 2009; sacks will come with consistent pressure

ILB Bradie James:  B+

Still stout against the run but has really come on in pass coverage

ILB Keith Brooking:  C-

Poor day for Brooking, who looks lost in pass coverage lately; team needs to find a true nickel LB

NT Jay Ratliff:  B+

Hustle on Arian Foster fumble was incredible

S Alan Ball: B+

Gets a good grade due to one thing–no big plays

CB Terence Newman:  B+

Jenkins is a bigger play-maker, but Newman is the better all-around cornerback right now.

CB Mike Jenkins: B-

Great coverage, but his tackling is becoming a problem

K David Buehler:  A-

Want to see same distance on kickoffs as in ’09, but have to be thrilled with two long field goals

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Dallas Cowboys at Houston Texans Week 3: What We Learned About Dallas

Jonathan Bales

Breaking down the film last night and today was, as you might imagine, far more enjoyable than the previous two weeks.  The Cowboys played an all-around great game, able to protect the ball and, for the most part, limit drive-killing penalties.  While it is an awesome sign for the future, it also makes you wonder “Where has this team been?”  Read my initial post-game observations for more.

Let’s take a look at my pre-game Cowboys-Texans Manifesto and see how the ‘Boys performed. . .

What to Watch for Dallas vs. Houston

How will the Cowboys attack Matt Schaub?  Will they blitz a lot in an attempt to get sacks and force short throws, or will they sit back in coverage as to not allow you-know-who to beat them deep?

The Cowboys decided to sit back in coverage on most plays, and it worked wonderfully.  They were able to get adequate pressure on Schaub with just four and five rushers, meaning they could always keep a safety over top of Andre Johnson.  Johnson went for just 64 yards.

I’d still love to see the Cowboys disguise their blitzes more effectively, but the rarity of blitzes against the Texans may have contributed to their increased effectiveness.

Will Dallas commit to the run?  Will they attack the middle of the Texans’ defense or try to run outside?

Yesterday’s game is a perfect example of why people tend to overvalue the importance of the running game.  People usually look at statistics ex post facto, noting the correlation between running performance and winning percentage.  The two are certainly correlated, but correlation does not always equate to causation.  In fact, passing performance has been shown to be much, much more indicative of a team’s success than success on the ground.

The reason rushing yards are so closely linked to wins is simple: teams that are already winning run the football.  That says nothing about how that team came to gain a lead, however.

We saw just this yesterday, as the Cowboys actually had much of their success through the air.  Yes, the early efficiency of the running game helped, but it wasn’t until late in the game that Dallas “committed” to the run.  Actually, in the middle of the game (with the game still a one-possession contest), the ‘Boys threw the ball on 21 of 28 plays.  They racked up a lot of their carries and yardage at the end of the contest, as they ran the ball on nine of the final 10 plays.

How will the ‘Boys exploit the absence of the Texans’ starting left tackle Duane Brown?

Simple: put DeMarcus Ware over him and let him do his thing.  Ware racked up three sacks, particularly because the Texans seemed pretty comfortable allowing replacement left tackle Rashad Butler to be on an island.  They even tried to block Ware with Joel Dreessen once, and Ware manhandled him.

Will the Cowboys be able to effectively halt the Texans’ rushing attack, allowing them to force Houston to become one-dimensional?

The Texans actually ran the ball pretty well (22 carries for 124 yards).  Again, you can see that early rushing success doesn’t necessarily equate to wins, as the Cowboys were content in allowing the Texans to record the occasional big run in exchange for not allowing the really big play.  Houston was forced to continually beat Dallas with the running game and underneath routes, and they weren’t able to do it.

Will Jason Garrett dial up more draws?

Running more draws was one of the primary goals in my game plan, and the Cowboys executed that task tremendously.  After calling just six total draws in the first two games, the Cowboys called 10 of them against Houtson for 66 yards.

Will Martellus Bennett continue to see a lot of playing time in an effort to effectively block Mario Williams?

He saw an “average” amount of action: 26 snaps.  Of those plays, however, the Cowboys threw the ball on just 10 of them.  Thus, Dallas obviously thought spreading our the Texans’ defense (likely in an attempt to exploit their weak secondary) was more important than the “extra” protection which Bennett could provide.  Kudos to Jason Garrett.

How will the teams’ preseason match-up affect this contest?

The Texans came out with a game plan which was radically different from that in the preseason.  In that game, Houston blitzed Romo on an incredible two-thirds of his snaps.  This week, they rarely came at all.

I counted just 14 blitzes all game for Houston, and they only “showed” it on half of those.  Further, they didn’t show blitz a single time without actually sending pressure.  Washington and Chicago had success doing just that, so I’m not sure why Houston chose the game plan that they did.

DOs and DON’Ts for Dallas

DO run more counters and misdirection plays in an effort to get the running game back on track.

Dallas ran only two counters all game for five yards.  I thought they could be used effectively against a very aggressive Texans defense, but the ‘Boys obviously didn’t.  Note that the “Fail” below is simply representative of their inability to run a lot of counters, not a judgment on whether or not that was a good idea.

Result: Fail

DON’T continue to have David Buehler perform directional kickoffs.

I’m not sure if Buehler is having trouble maintaining his distance on kickoffs, but directional kicking has obviously become a part of his repertoire.

Result: Fail

DO take advantage of the willingness of the Texans’ safeties to sell out against the run.

I loved Garrett’s decision to implement a lot of playaction passes against the Texans.  The Cowboys ran seven of them for just 30 yards, but a few of Romo’s incompletions appeared to still be good play-calls.  I talked about one such call in my initial post-game notes.  I wrote:

In the second quarter, the Cowboys tried a backside screen to Bennett.  It was incomplete due to Bennett falling, but the play looked to be wide open.  Interestingly, the Cowboys motioned from “3 Wide Strong” to a traditional “Strong” formation on the play–something they had been doing earlier, but running a strong side power play from that look (below).  They faked the power, so it was obviously something they had been trying to set up.  Nice call, even thought it didn’t pan out.

Result: Pass

DON’T allow Mr. Johnson to beat you.

Check.  Johnson’s 64 yards has to be considered a big-time “win” for the Dallas defense.  They did it by limiting their blitzes and giving the cornerbacks a lot of help over the top.  They were determined to not let AJ beat them deep, and they executed perfectly.

Result: Pass

DO disguise blitzes more effectively.

The Cowboys actually started to do this early in the game, but got away from it as the contest progressed.  Teams like the Eagles and Steelers have so much success with their blitzes because of how they disguise them.

Result: Fail

DON’T punt so often in opponent’s territory.

I loved the Cowboys calls to go for it on three fourth down plays in Texans’ territory.  They converted on two of them, including a big 4th and 2 pass to Bryant late in the game to seal the victory.  I think the Cowboys are being more aggressive due to their lack of confidence in David Buehler (as opposed to the reason they should be going for it–the math), but I’ll take it.

Result: Pass

DO get Tashard Choice on the field more.

I think we just need to realize that, barring injury, Choice isn’t going to be taking many of Barber’s snaps this season.  He was on the field for only seven plays on Sunday.

Result: Fail

DON’T worry about external points of view–play for each other!

This was the big one–worth more than all of the other “DOs and DON’Ts” combined.  The Cowboys are loaded with talent, and yesterday they showed they are capable of cashing in on it.  They looked genuinely excited to be playing in Houston, and many of the players even said the game was for Coach Phillips.  He passed his father in career victories in the city in which Mr. Phillips (the elder) obtained the majority of his wins.  If the Cowboys can continue to ignore outside attention and play smart, fundamental football, watch out.

Result: Pass

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Dallas Cowboys vs. Houston Texans Week 3 Initial Post-Game Notes, Reactions

Jonathan Bales

Finally!  The Cowboys took down the Texans 27-13, but the game wasn’t even as close as the score indicates.  At last, Cowboys fans have something over which to rejoice.  The Giants also lost, so it’s a good day.

Random Observations

  • I loved the decisions to go for it on fourth down twice on the first drive.  The Cowboys converted once and failed once, but the statistically correct call (even for the 4th and 2 at the 30-yard line) was to forgo the field goal attempts.
  • Late in the first quarter, the Cowboys had a 3rd and 3 in their own territory.  Martellus Bennett caught a pass right at the sticks, got pushed backward, escaped, but didn’t return past the first down marker.  He should have gone down after the initial contact to gain forward progress (which appeared to be past the chains), but it is possible he was unaware of his position on the field.
  • The 3rd and 19 run for a first down by Arian Foster was ridiculous.  The Cowboys overcame it, but the subsequent field goal Houston kicked could have come back to haunt them.
  • On that play, Mike Jenkins completely whiffed on a tackle attempt.  He missed three on the drive.  He really isn’t progressing in run support, and it is becoming detrimental to the defense.  It really makes you appreciate how well-rounded Terence Newman is as a cornerback.
  • The Cowboys had a big screen pass to Felix Jones called back due to a block in the back by Miles Austin.  The play was a tremendous audible by Romo at the line.
  • I will report back on the official numbers tomorrow, but the Cowboys definitely brought back the draw play this week, as I suggested they should.  It really sparked the running game.
  • In the second quarter, the Cowboys tried a backside screen to Bennett.  It was incomplete due to Bennett falling, but the play looked to be wide open.  Interestingly, the Cowboys motioned from “3 Wide Strong” to a traditional “Strong” formation on the play–something they had been doing earlier, but running a strong side power play from that look (below).  They faked the power, so it was obviously something they had been trying to set up.  Nice call, even thought it didn’t pan out.

  • The pass protection was sensational.  Other than one third down play on which Mario Williams came in unblocked, the offensive line, tight ends, and running backs really did a commendable job on Williams and the other Texans defenders.
  • As a team, the Cowboys show poor clock awareness.  There have been multiple plays this year on which players have either stayed in bounds when they should have gotten out, or vice versa.  Marion Barber is the exception.  He always does an excellent job in late-game situations of getting down on the ground to keep the clock moving.
  • Dez Bryant is adjusting well to the NFL, but he got confused on the illegal touching rule in the pros.  The touchdown he scored in the second quarter got called back because Bryant got forced out of bounds before he caught the pass.  It would have been a touchdown in college (because he got forced out), but not so in the pros.
  • The Cowboys didn’t appear to blitz much at all, and I liked it.  They forced the Texans to beat them again and again, and even though Foster had some big runs, the Texans weren’t consistently able to move the football on Dallas.  It also seemed to make the blitzes more efficient when they did bring them.
  • Roy Williams’ first touchdown was beautiful.  He took a hard jab step outside to get an inside release on rookie Kareem Jackson, allowing Romo room to throw the football.  People might start to jump back on the Roy Williams bandwagon, but I’ve been on the whole time.
  • Igor Olshansky was lined up offsides by about a foot on a play late in the third quarter.  I have no idea what he was thinking.
  • Orlando Scandrick still seems to be a step behind everything.  Part of that is the nature of defending in the slot (a lot of crossing routes on which cornerbacks tend to get in a trailing position).  Still, I thought he would take a big step forward in 2010, and while he isn’t playing terribly, he isn’t lighting it up either.
  • I think Keith Brooking is playing too many defensive snaps.  He appears tired at times, and it showed today in his pass coverage.  Whether it is Sean Lee or Jason Williams, it would really help the Dallas defense if someone can win the nickel linebacker job.

  • I know Jason Garrett likes to call two plays (the second of which is run if Romo checks out of the first at the line), but the plays need to come in a little faster.  Romo is consistently snapping the ball with just one second left on the play clock, and it gives the defense an opportunity to jump the snap.  Perhaps Romo can speed up his pre-snap reads as well, although that’s less likely to happen.
  • David Buehler looked awesome today on his two field goals, both of which were fairly long.  One was also in a somewhat high-pressure situation: from 49 yards right before half.  I can’t help but wonder if this is a good thing for the Cowboys, or whether it will simply delay the inevitable.

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Week 3 Preview: Dallas Cowboys at Houston Texans Game Day Manifesto

Jonathan Bales

During the preseason, I formulated two separate articles called “What to Watch” and “DOs and DON’Ts for Dallas” as game previews for the upcoming contests.  During the regular season, I will combine these two features into a single, more all-inclusive article known (solely to me) as a “Game Day Manifesto.”  You’ll be able to find the“Manifesto” category under the “GameDay” tab above.

Also check back later in the week for a new feature called “Game Plan.”  While the weekly “Manifesto” will contain some Xs and Os, the “Game Plan” will feature in-depth game strategy detailing how Dallas can win that week’s game and how they should go about doing it.  There, you’ll find a lot of analysis of formations, personnel, play-calling, and so on.

Now on to this week’s Manifesto. . .

What to Watch for Dallas vs. Houston

How will the Cowboys attack Matt Schaub?  Will they blitz a lot in an attempt to get sacks and force short throws, or will they sit back in coverage as to not allow you-know-who to beat them deep?

This is going to be a really tough match-up for the Cowboys’ defense.  In the first two weeks, Dallas faced teams that, in theory, could have been forced to become one-dimensional.  That’s not the case with Houston.  They’ve shown an ability to effectively run the ball, and we all know how dominating their passing attack can be.

The question for the Cowboys is if they want to attack Schaub and hope for the best, or sit back in safe coverages to make sure they don’t give up easy scores.  As always, the key will be the amount of pressure they can force on Schaub without blitzing.

Will Dallas commit to the run?  Will they attack the middle of the Texans’ defense or try to run outside?

Everyone is clamoring for the Cowboys to commit to the running game, but Houston is only allowing 31 yards rushing per game this season.  On the flip side, they’re yielding 411 yards passing per contest.

So what are the Cowboys to do?  They certainly need to establish the running game, but that brings us back to the chicken-or-egg dilemma: does the running game set up the pass, or is it the other way around?  It’s probably a combination of both, meaning the ‘Boys should simply find what is working and stick with it.  It sure would be a huge boost to the offense if they can dominate the line of scrimmage in the run game.

Another problem for Dallas arises regarding the location of runs: do you pound it up the middle (right at DeMeco Ryans, one of the league’s premiere linebackers), or run outside (perhaps at Mario Williams, a player I labeled as the NFL’s second-best defensive end in my list of the top 105 players).  The ‘Boys may want to think about running away from both players–right at left defensive end Antonio Smith (who will usually be lined up over right tackle Marc Colombo).  Unfortunately, Smith is no slouch against the run either.

How will the ‘Boys exploit the absence of the Texans’ starting left tackle Duane Brown?

Brown was just suspended four games for violating the league’s substance abuse policy.  He wasn’t a premiere left tackle anyway, so the Texans have a serious hole at left tackle with Rashad Butler starting.  Dallas needs to exploit it.

While blitzing too often could backfire in a big way with such dangerous weapons outside for Houston (i.e. Andre Johnson), the Cowboys definitely want to find ways to get pressure on Schaub.  One method is to overload the right side of the defense in an effort to take advantage of the Texans’ weakness on the left side of the line.  Throwing stunts and overload blitzes at Butler will help Dallas.  Further, it could force the Texans to keep tight end Owen Daniels in to block.  Even though he’s banged up, that would be a plus for the ‘Boys.

Last week, the Cowboys lined Anthony Spencer and DeMarcus Ware up on the same side of the line.  They may want to try that again this week.

Will the Cowboys be able to effectively halt the Texans’ rushing attack, allowing them to force Houston to become one-dimensional?

While the Texans’ passing attack is their bread-and-butter, the key for Dallas will actually be their ability to stop the run.  If they can do that without bringing extra defenders into the box, they will have a much, much better chance to contain the Texans’ pass-catchers.

Will Jason Garrett dial up more draws?

The Cowboys have run just six draws all season (after averaging nearly eight per game last year) for a total of 13 yards.  The efficiency of those plays will undoubtedly increase as the season progresses, and draw plays could be an effective tool against Houston this week.  Let’s see if Garrett goes back to an old staple of the offense.

Will Martellus Bennett continue to see a lot of playing time in an effort to effectively block Mario Williams?

Bennett was on the field for 24 of the Cowboys’ first 34 passes last week (all of which came with Jason Witten still in the game).  It worked well.  I gave Bennett an ‘A’ grade for the game.

The situation is complicated because Bennett’s presence usually means Dez Bryant is standing on the sideline, but Bryant’s skills are useless without proper protection.  If the Cowboys protect Romo this week, they can surely take advantage of a weak Houston secondary.

How will the teams’ preseason match-up affect this contest?

The Texans dominated the Cowboys in the preseason, although I think that could be a positive for Dallas.  Hopefully it motivates them.  They can also take solace in knowing the Texans basically threw their entire playbook at the Cowboys in that game (Houston blitzed an absurd 66.7 percent of plays with Romo in the game).

Meanwhile, the Cowboys were incredibly basic in their play-calling (even more so than in other preseason games).  They actually called the play below five times.

DOs and DON’Ts for Dallas

DO run more counters and misdirection plays in an effort to get the running game back on track.

The Cowboys ran just one counter last week.  That isn’t going to get the job done.  Felix Jones averaged 10.0 yards-per-carry alone on counters last season.

Further, misdirection plays are the best way to take advantage of an over-aggressive defense.  Texans linebacker DeMeco Ryans and safety Bernard Pollard in particular are super-aggressive players who could possibly over-pursue on certain Cowboys’ runs.  Dallas may want to run a few counters away from Mario Williams to exploit their tendencies.

DON’T continue to have David Buehler perform directional kickoffs.

It was obvious that special teams coach Joe DeCamillis told David Buehler to kick to the corners on Sunday.  I don’t know if Buehler was having trouble with his power in pre-game warm-ups, but directional kicking seems to make no sense for a kicker with Buehler’s power.  Does it really matter if a kickoff is down the center of the field if it is nine yards deep in the end zone?  The ball should carry well this weekend in Houston, so boom it baby.

DO take advantage of the willingness of the Texans’ safeties to sell out against the run.

As I just mentioned, counters are one way to do this.  Another is playaction passes, but those will only be effective if the Cowboys can establish some semblance of a running game.  Now, should they set up the pass with the run, or vice versa?

DON’T allow Mr. Johnson to beat you.

It is imperative that the ‘Boys not allow any easy scores.  AJ is obviously the Texans’ best bet at getting deep, so the Cowboys need to do everything in their power to limit his impact.  He’s certainly going to make some plays, but the impact of those can be minimized if a safety is kept over top of him at all times.  Force Houston to continually beat you underneath with Arian Foster and the intermediate passing game before you single-cover Johnson.

DO disguise blitzes more effectively.

I truly believe Romo’s struggles thus far this season are due primarily to the nature of the opposition’s pre-snap alignment.  It is clear on film that he is having trouble diagnosing the defense’s rushers before the snap because they are doing such an effective job in feigning blitzes on one side, then coming from another (or not at all).

Dallas needs to do the same.  They have two of the best pass-rushers in the NFL, but it is much easier for an offensive line to block defenders if they know from where they will be coming.  The 3-4 defense naturally makes it more difficult for the offense to call out protections, but it isn’t enough.  If I can usually tell who will be rushing the passer before the snap, you can bet the opposition knows as well.

Perhaps a zone blitz or two is in order. . .

Zone blitzes, such as the one shown above, lower the risk of giving up a big play and can confuse a quarterback, often taking away his ability to "throw hot" against the blitz.

DON’T punt so often in opponent’s territory.

From my Cowboys-Bears initial post-game notes:

Although tough calls, I thought the Cowboys twice should have gone for it on fourth down in Chicago territory–once on 4th and 8 at the Bears’ 37-yard line, and once on 4th and 5 at their 27-yard line.  Not only does the math say go for it in both situations, but David Buehler was struggling.  To me, that makes the calls no-brainers.  The Cowboys ended up punting it into the endzone (gaining 17 net yards) on one and missing a field goal on the other.

DO get Tashard Choice on the field more.

Right now, Barber and Jones are both running tentatively.  They’re dancing behind the line of scrimmage and forcing the offensive linemen to hold their blocks too long.

Detractors of Choice claim there’s “nothing special” about him, but in my opinion, his combination of pass protection, vision, and balance make him very special.  Remember, there wasn’t anything particularly “special” about Emmitt Smith either.

While I’d like to see more Wildcat in short-yardage situations, there are other times Choice can be on the field.  Actually, there aren’t really many situations in which Choice couldn’t be on the field.  At the very least, I think the ferocity with which he hits the hole means he should become the Cowboys’ primary short-yardage back in all situations, effective immediately.

DON’T worry about external points of view–play for each other!

There are eight teams in the NFL who are 0-2.  Ask any football fan to name one of them, and most of the time it will be the Dallas Cowboys.  The increased attention that comes with playing for America’s Team can be a blessing and a curse, and right now it’s the latter.  If you listen to most media outlets, the Cowboys’ locker room is in turmoil and the season is over.

I’m a big believer in winning being a cure-all, though.  Winning football games creates strong team chemistry, not the other way around.  No one was claiming there was locker room turmoil two weeks ago.

For the players, ignoring anyone and everyone outside of the locker room would be prudent.  Teams that draw motivation from such external influences are teams that won’t find much success.  Play for each other, and the rest will take care of itself.

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“Grading the ‘Boys”: Preseason Week Four, Cowboys vs. Chargers

Jonathan Bales

I’ve already posted initial post-game notes, “DOs and DON’Ts analysis,” film study observations, and what we learned from the Cowboys/Texans game.

Today, I will grade the players.  In my first three “Grading the ‘Boys” segments, I explained that it would be impossible for me to study every player as closely as I deem necessary for grading.  Instead, I watch a select group of players in great detail and report back to you on their performance.

Alan Ball: D

Didn’t look good in any aspect of the game; poor hips and awareness in coverage; got beat deep in Cover 1; missed a plethora of tackles

Alex Barron: C+

Looked over-matched in the run game; did decent in pass protection; better fit at left tackle

Robert Brewster: B-

The “bizarro” Alex Barron; did a solid job at left tackle but skill set better suited for right side

Travis Bright: B-

By far best game of preseason; still getting overpowered, but has shown improvement

Phil Costa: B

Eight Shotgun snaps with no errors; played much better than Gurode

Chris Gronkowski: C+

Gaining momentum from media, but I don’t see what they like; poor lead blocker whose pass-catching ability will make people think he’s better than he is

Andre Gurode: F

Worst game as a pro; two bad snaps; terrible stunt/twist recognition; unbalanced at times and beat with speed

Michael Hamlin: C-

Not making enough plays; looks tentative and afraid to make mistake

Bradie James: C

Good in pass coverage, but over-pursued on a number of occasions and got caught inside on others

Sean Lee: D

Blown backwards on most plays; long way to go as a run defender; not showing instincts

Akwasi Owusu-Ansah: B+

Really promising on returns; great decisiveness and explosion

Tony Romo: C-

Missed a few throws he normally makes; failed to score in three quarters

Orlando Scandrick: C-

Got beat by every receiver he covered; really improved in run support and tackling receivers after catch

Roy Williams: B-

Misread one Romo back-shoulder throw, but otherwise looked solid; appears to finally be playing with confidence


Cowboys vs. Texans Live In-Game Blog, Game Updates

I will be posting live updates on our Twitter account (widget embedded below) during tonight’s game in Houston. These will include specific bits about what I observe regarding play-calls, specific formations, and certain players.

In particular, I will focusing on the 12 things I told you to watch in tonight’s game and the DOs and DON’Ts for Dallas.

The game starts at 7 p.m. Central. Go Cowboys!


Mailbag, 8/27/10: Could Felix put up Chris Johnson-type numbers?

Q:  Do you think if Felix Jones got as many carries as Chris Johnson that he’d put up the same type of numbers?

Blake Scurlock, Houston, TX

A: Without looking at the statistics, I can tell you  the answer is no.  Even though Jones is a bigger running back, his running style and skill set make him more prone to injury.  Johnson is able to handle a rather hefty workload because he rarely takes big hits.  His quickness and elusiveness are his weapons against the big boys.

While Jones is very quick, he isn’t nearly as elusive as Johnson.  In a short area, Jones is much more likely to take hits.  I just don’t think he’d hold up with a workload of more than about 15 touches a game.

Nonetheless, I always look at the statistics.  So let’s check ’em out. . .

Over his two-year NFL career, Johnson has rushed for 3,234 yards on 609 carries (5.31 yards-per-rush).  Over that same period, Jones has rushed for 951 yards on 146 carries (6.51 yards-per-rush).  Obviously Jones’ yards-per-carry is sensational, but the question is whether he could maintain such a high figure after rushing the ball four times as much as he already has.

In my opinion, the answer is no.  Not only is it likely that Jones would break down before reaching the 300 carry-per-season mark, but his efficiency would plummet with the extra work.  Right now, the Cowboys use Jones in situations with high upside–in between the 20-yard lines and on runs such as draws, counters, and tosses.  Actually, Jones averaged 10.0 yards-per-carry on counters last season.

It is truly remarkable that Johnson has been able to maintain a 5.31 yards-per-carry mark over such a large sample size of runs.  Even when LenDale White was in Tennessee, Johnson frequently remained on the field in goal line and other short-yardage situations, particularly last season.

Jones doesn’t stay on the field for Dallas in those scenarios.  One of the most incredible stats I came across this year was that Jones has never carried the football inside the opposition’s five-yard line.  Let that sink in.

So, while Jones is certainly an awesome running back and a very vital cog in the Cowboys’ offensive attack, he isn’t on the same level as Johnson just yet.

Q:  Why do the Cowboys use Robert Brewster at left tackle sometimes?  He isn’t athletic and was meant to play right tackle.

Greg Driscoe

A: Actually, I really don’t know.  Brewster has gotten a lot of reps on the left side during the preseason, and I’m assuming it is because they want to see if he can be their swing tackle of the future (if he doesn’t prove he can start at right tackle).  Alex Barron probably isn’t a long-term solution for the Cowboys, meaning they would probably like Brewster to be the primary backup tackle at both spots by next season.

However, I agree that his skill set is not suited for the left side.  He isn’t exactly agile and his quickness leaves something to be desired.  He played well in the Cowboys’ last preseason game when on the  right side, and I agree that is where he should stay.

Barron is going to get the start at right tackle tomorrow night against the Texans.  His play will be very indicative of Dallas’ future moves at the offensive tackle position.  Brewster is currently running with the second-team at left tackle, but I think you’ll see him move back to the right side (for good) if Barron struggles.

Q:  What kind of play-calling can we expect from Jason Garrett against the Texans since we play them during the regular season? He probably won’t give away much.

Timothy Solt via Twitter

A: Vanilla.  Very, very vanilla.  Garrett has already said as much:

Preseason games are used primarily to evaluate talent and to set your roster.  Also, you don’t want to show too much, particularly in a game like the one upcoming against Houston because we play them in the regular season.  So you certainly hold things back. Things that you want to do. . .you’re almost chomping at the bit to say, “Hey, this play would really work.”  But we can’t use it because we play them during the season, so you become very vanilla, very basic.  You’re still sound, there are still good plays but they’re base plays, they’re common plays that almost everybody has but you’re still using them to evaluate talent.

The stats show that Garrett has indeed been very “simplistic” (not necessarily a bad thing) during the preseason.  The Cowboys have motioned on just 26.8 percent of plays, down from 42.5 percent during the 2009 regular season.  You can expect the number of pre-snap motions and shifts (of which there have been zero) to increase dramatically come September 12.

Dallas has also continued to run the same plays from the same formations, including a strong side dive from “Double Tight Strong” 85.7 percent of the time.

The predictability of Garrett’s preseason play-calling really means nothing since teams aren’t game-planning particularly hard for the Cowboys during this time of the year.  Garrett wants to see the fringe players simply react and play football instead of worrying about assignments.  Thus, the basic plays are dialed up again and again.

The Cowboys’ last game against the Chargers is a perfect example of this.  Although the Cowboys ran the aforementioned strong side dive seven times in that ballgame, it was not called once with the starters in the game (the first 18 plays).  And what was play number 19–the first play for the second-teamers?  You guessed it. . .a strong side dive out of “Double Tight Strong.”

Against Houston, you can expect a lot of the same from Dallas.  Strong side dives, little motion or shifts, and whole lot of ‘base’ personnel.


DOs and DON’Ts for Cowboys vs. Houston Texans

Jonathan Bales

Even though Saturday’s game “doesn’t count,” there are still a lot of things both coaches and fans would like to see from the players.   A variety of training camp battles have yet to reach a conclusion and a handful of injuries will force would-be backups into the starting lineup.

Here is what Dallas should and should not do Saturday versus Houston:

DO give Alex Barron plenty of reps at right tackle.

This appears as though it will be the case, since Barron is probably going to start.  He would have started at right tackle last week had he been healthy.  Robert Brewster, who started at right tackle against the Chargers and did a fine job, will become the swing tackle.

It will be important for Dallas to see how Barron plays on the right side.  Like Doug Free, he is a bit of a “finesse” offensive tackle, meaning his game is probably better suited for the left side.  If he plays well at right tackle, it will give the Cowboys a lot more confidence in their situation at the position.  He better hope Mario Williams doesn’t line up on his side too often.

DON’T take Marion Barber out of the game too early.

Barber, who lost some weight in the offseason, is supposedly quicker and more explosive this year.  I haven’t seen it.  He still looks a bit sluggish and that “barbarian” mentality we saw a few years ago still hasn’t returned.  I’d love to see Barber get a bunch of touches to prove that he’s truly back.

DO implement “max protection” so the quarterbacks can throw the ball downfield.

The Cowboys threw just six passes over 10 yards against the Chargers, and only two traveled 15+ yards.  An incredible 18 of the passes were five yards or less.

A lot of that was due to the losses of Kyle Kosier and Marc Colombo, but there are still ways to get the ball downfield without having total confidence in your line.  One is max protection (eight or even nine blockers), and I would expect the Cowboys to use it a few times against Houston so their quarterbacks can have an opportunity to practice throwing the deep ball.

DON’T throw the ball to tight end Martellus Bennett in the red zone.

This might seem like a strange request, but the last thing the Cowboys want is for Bennett to acquire a sense of entitlement.  With John Phillips out for the year, he knows he’s the surefire No. 2 tight end.  I’m not saying scoring more touchdowns would go to his head, but. . .who knows sometimes with this guy?  Bennett’s primary responsibility is as a blocker, and he needs to remember that.

DO run a lot of Shotgun with Phil Costa at center.

I’ve been extremely impressed with Costa’s play this preseason, but I’d like to see him snap a few more balls out of Shotgun.  The Cowboys figure to use a lot of it this season, and if anything happens to starter Andre Gurode, the ‘Boys should know if they can feel comfortable with Costa providing the snaps.

DON’T take safety Michael Hamlin out of the ballgame too quickly.

Starting strong safety Gerald Sensabaugh is playing on a one-year deal.  The Cowboys may or may not sign him to a long-term contract, but that definitely won’t be the case if they feel Hamlin is ready to become a starter.

Hamlin will start this week and, although the Cowboys will want to see more of rookies Barry Church and Danny McCray, they have the entire fifth preseason game for that.  Saturday night is about Hamlin and determining if he’s the future at safety.

DO give Dez Bryant plenty of reps.

Not.  Just seeing if you’re still reading!

DON’T put safety Barry Church solely “in the box.”

Church has shown to be an excellent tackler and I think he’ll make the Cowboys’ 53-man roster.  However, he needs to show he can become a complete player, and that starts with being rangy in coverage.

The Texans have an excellent backup tight end named James Casey who figures to test Church.  Let’s see how he holds up.

DO throw a back-shoulder fade or two to Roy Williams.

The back-shoulder throw has been an obvious point of emphasis for Tony Romo this offseason and he’s already utilized it on completions to Miles Austin and Patrick Crayton in the preseason.  On paper, Roy Williams is the perfect receiver for back-shoulder throws, as he is a big target with (like it or not) excellent body control and hands.

I can’t for the life of me figure out why Romo and Williams still seem disconnected, but it doesn’t appear to happen with Romo and the other receivers.  If they can somehow get it going, the back-shoulder fade can be a big, big weapon in Dallas’ offensive attack, particularly around the goal line.

DON’T keep Bradie James in for nickel plays.

Apart from the fact that James is a veteran and doesn’t need the added playing time, I’d love to see Sean Lee and Jason Williams on the field together.  Williams isn’t guaranteed a roster spot and needs every opportunity to prove he is of worth to the Cowboys.

I’ve been impressed with his run defense this preseason, but he’s made a few mistakes in coverage.  That can’t happen for a nickel linebacker.  Let’s see how the youngsters perform in nickel duties if they are on the field at the same time.  If they can give starters Bradie James and Keith Brooking a breather during the regular season, that could be a huge asset to Dallas.

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Preseason Week Three, Cowboys vs. Texans: 12 Things to Watch

Jonathan Bales

As the fourth game on their five-game preseason schedule, Saturday night’s match-up against Houston will be the closest to a “real game” that Dallas will encounter until September 12 in Washington.  The starters will get significant playing time and will be able to go into the game with nearly the same mentality as that of a regular season game.  In addition to watching if the team comes out with that same regular season-type fire, here are 12 other things to watch. . .

1.  Can Tony Romo get back on track?  Will he be able to play better against the blitz?

By my count, Romo has been off-target on 10 of 28 passes this preseason.  That rate of 35.7 percent is nearly double that of last season, as you can see in my 2009 breakdown of Romo’s off-target passes.

He’s also just three-for-nine against the blitz, with only 36 yards passing and an interception.  That’s a passer rating of 6.9.

Romo is one of the top quarterbacks in the league when facing pressure, though, so these numbers are simply the result of a small sample size.  Romo will be fine, starting this weekend against the Texans.

2.  Will any of the Cowboys’ quarterbacks throw the ball downfield?

With Robert Brewster and Montrae Holland starting on the offensive line against San Diego, it seemed as though the Cowboys made it a priority for the quarterbacks to unleash the ball quickly.  They threw just six passes over 10 yards all game, and only two traveled 15+ yards.  An incredible 18 of the passes were five yards or less.

With added confidence in both Brewster and Holland, the Cowboys may feel more comfortable taking some shots down the field.  That’s especially true against a weak Houston secondary.

3.  Who will start at right tackle, Robert Brewster or Alex Barron?  How will each player perform?

Barron took some reps at right tackle in practice this week and reportedly looked pretty shaky.  Brewster played well against San Diego and will probably get the nod to start.  Still, expect Barron to get some reps at right tackle.  The Cowboys want to see if he will be their swing tackle (once Marc Colombo returns) or just a backup left tackle.

4.  Will left tackle Doug Free hold his own against Mario Williams?

Doug Free has exceeded expectations thus far this preseason.  He played tremendously against the Bengals and Chargers and, although he yielded a sack, decently against the Raiders.

He hasn’t faced a pass-rusher of the quality of Mario Williams, though.  Williams will test Free like nobody he’s faced (outside of DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer in practice).  Let’s see if Free is up to the challenge.

5.  As always, will the offense keep running strong side dives out of “Double Tight Strong”?

Seven times lining up in the formation against San Diego, and seven strong side dives.  That raises the rate of strong side dives from “Double Tight Strong” to 85.7 percent–even more than that which I found in my analysis of the Cowboys’ 2009 usage of the formation.

It is only preseason, of course, so let’s hope Jason Garrett is simply setting up teams for the regular season.

6.  Will the offense continue to run weak side out of “Double Tight I”?

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.

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.

7.  How about a toss to the two-tight end side of “Double Tight Left Twins Right Ace?”

As I explained in my final film observations from the Chargers game, 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 to the left.

8.  Will newly-acquired tight end Martin Rucker get playing time, and can he make a case for a roster spot over the under-performing Chris Gronkowski and Scott Sicko?

Rucker is behind the curve mentally, so he will have to show he’s picked up the offense.  If he can do that, he’ll have a chance to make the 53-man roster, as his competition, Gronkowski and Sicko, haven’t been stellar.

Gronkowski is a fullback but, because I can’t see Dallas cutting starter Deon Anderson, he’ll probably have to take the spot of a tight end to make the roster.  I can’t see that happening, as he’s been absolutely awful as a blocker.

Sicko played well in the Hall of Fame game but, like Gronkowski, needs to improve his blocking.

9.  Will center/guard Phil Costa continue to outperform guard Travis Bright?

Costa holds a big-time advantage over Bright right now because, not only has he been superior on the football field, but he is also more versatile.  Costa will likely be Dallas’ backup center this season (even once Kyle Kosier returns), while Bright, unless he steps up in a hurry, will probably be relegated to the practice squad once again.

10.  Will rookie Sean Lee show why the Cowboys traded up to draft him in his first NFL start?

This may be the most interesting aspect of Saturday night’s game.  Lee had an up-and-down night last week, but showed that he is capable of learning (quickly) from his mistakes.  That’s an important characteristic for any football player.

With starter Keith Brooking nursing a sprained AC joint, Lee will have an opportunity to prove he’s the future for the Cowboys at inside linebacker.  Watch to see how Lee performs in coverage, in particular, as he will almost certainly be Dallas’ nickel linebacker this season.

11.  How will the Cowboys’ secondary match up against one of the league’s premiere passing attacks?

The starters will get significant playing time, so let’s see how Terence Newman and Mike Jenkins take on the challenge of the No. 1 WR on my 2010 All-Pro offense, Andre Johnson.  Jenkins got beat a few times last week, losing his leverage and failing to press receivers, while Newman played superbly.

As always, the success of the cornerbacks will be dependent on that of their teammates–a strong pass rush will allow the ‘Boys to provide safety help over the top, making Jenkins’ and Newman’s jobs much easier.

12.  Safeties Barry Church and Danny McCray may be fighting for the same roster spot.  Who will step up?

I’ve been really impressed with Church.  He’s been okay in coverage, but outstanding in run support.  I think he has the leg up on McCray and Pat Watkins for the final safety spot on the roster.

McCray’s saving grace has been his special teams play, but I don’t think it’s been enough so far.  He blew a coverage last week and hasn’t performed nearly as well on defense as Church to this point.

The battle is still up in the air, though, so a couple of strong performances from McCray in the final two preseason games could win him the job.

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