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Dallas Cowboys Quarter-Season Grades: Defensive Line/Linebackers

Jonathan Bales

Part I of my Quarter-Season Grades dealt with the offensive line.  Today’s article is in reference to a Cowboys’ front seven which has been allowed to freelance quite a bit more this season than last.  Let’s take a look at how it has worked out thus far. . .

Quarter-Season Review: Defensive Line

  • Jay Ratliff

Last year, Ratliff totaled 26 pressures despite sacking the quarterback just four times.  This season, he is on pace for the same four sacks, but 10 less pressures.  He’s also tallied only six tackles.  Rob Ryan’s scheme shouldn’t hurt Ratliff, so these numbers are a little concerning.

  • Sean Lissemore

In 52 snaps, Lissemore has just two less tackles than Ratliff.  His pressure rate isn’t outstanding (two), but he hasn’t made any critical errors either.  The best sign is that Lissemore is improving.

  • Kenyon Coleman

Coleman’s three pressures already topped the two from Marcus Spears in 2010.  Of course, this is a new year with a new coordinator, and Spears already has four pressures in 2011.  When you combine Coleman’s lack of pass rush with his six tackles, you get a pedestrian start for the veteran.

  • Jason Hatcher

The numbers on Hatcher are a great example of why you cannot always trust your memory when it relates to grading players.  Prior to looking at the statistics, I thought Hatcher was having a super pass-rushing season.  My memory was likely skewed by the 49ers game in which Hatcher recorded two sacks.  In reality, Hatcher has only one pressure to go along with those two sacks.  His seven tackles is solid for a defensive end, though, and he’s played the run quite well.

  • Marcus Spears

Four tackles, four pressures, no sacks.  If Spears isn’t stuffing the run, he isn’t of much use.

Quarter-Season Review: Linebackers

Outside Linebackers

  • DeMarcus Ware

With a league-leading 17 pressures, five sacks, and three quarterback hits, Ware is on pace for one of his biggest seasons to date.  Actually, he is getting a pressure on 12.8% of his rushes–up from 11.0% in 2010.

  • Anthony Spencer

Spencer is proof that sack totals determine perception.  In reality, Spencer is displaying the exact same performance as in 2010–a solid, but not great season in which the majority of analysts crucified him.  Now that Spencer is on pace for 12 sacks, he’s finally “turning the corner,” right?  Not really, since his seven pressures give him a 6.7% pressure rate which is nearly identical to his 6.8% rate from last season.  Spencer is also on pace for 48 tackles–four less than in 2010.

  • Victor Butler

I really thought Butler would see a significant increase in snaps this season, but that doesn’t appear as though it will be the case.  With only 48 snaps thus far, Butler is on pace to play just a handful more than in 2010.  Despite his lack of playing time, Butler has put up a sack and three pressures.  He’s only rushed the passer 34 times, so his three pressures mean he is reaching the quarterback 8.8% of the time.  He doesn’t have any tackles, but he’s also defended the run just seven plays.

Inside Linebackers

  • Sean Lee

We don’t need numbers to tell us that Sean Lee has been the Cowboys’ second-best player on defense (and perhaps the team) this season.  His 26 tackles leads the team by far, and he’s missed just two of them (7.1% missed tackle rate).  Lee even has three pressures, two interceptions, and two passes defended.  If there is an area of his game that must improve, it is actually pass coverage.  At a certain point, though, you have tot throw out his “awkwardness” in coverage because he just keeps making plays.

  • Bradie James

You probably noticed James’ decreased snap count, but did you realize he has played just one more snap than Keith Brooking?  James is a liability in coverage, cannot effectively rush the passer, and has just five tackles.  His days in Dallas are coming to an end.

  • Keith Brooking

One tackle in 93 snaps.


A few notes before looking at my grades:

  • The run defense and pass rush grades are weighted evenly for the defensive linemen,  weighted 3:2 in favor of the pass rush for the outside linebackers, and weighted 3:2 in favor of run defense for the linebackers.
  • Coverage is normally a component of the outside linebacker grades, but there haven’t been enough snaps for the sample size of plays to be great enough to draw conclusions.  DeMarcus Ware has been in coverage on just 25 snaps, for example.

Defensive Line

Jay Ratliff

  • Pass Rush: B-
  • Run Defense: B+

Overall: 85.0 (B)

Sean Lissemore

  • Pass Rush: C-
  • Run Defense: B-

Overall: 75.0 (C)

Kenyon Coleman

  • Pass Rush: D+
  • Run Defense: C+

Overall: 75.0 (C)

Jason Hatcher

  • Pass Rush: C+
  • Run Defense: B+

Overall: 85.0 (B)

Marcus Spears

  • Pass Rush: D+
  • Run Defense: C

Overall: 72.5 (C)

Outside Linebackers

DeMarcus Ware

  • Pass Rush: A
  • Run Defense: B+

Overall: 93.0 (A)

Anthony Spencer

  • Pass Rush: B-
  • Run Defense: B-

Overall: 80.0 (B-)

Victor Butler

  • Pass Rush: B
  • Run Defense: C

Overall: 81.0 (B-)

Inside Linebackers

Sean Lee

  • Run Defense: A
  • Pass Defense: B-

Overall: 89.0 (B+)

Bradie James

  • Run Defense: D+
  • Pass Defense: D

Overall: 68.0 (D)

Keith Brooking

  • Run Defense: F
  • Pass Defense: C+

Overall: 65.0 (D)

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Why the Cowboys Must More Effectively Manage the Play Clock

Jonathan Bales

I alluded to the idea that the Cowboys must more effectively manage the play clock in my review of the Jets game, but I wanted to dedicate a few more words to the topic.  For several seasons (really since Jason Garrett has been calling plays in Dallas), the offense has continually allowed the play clock to dip down to one second before snapping the football.  Even worse, that number sometimes reaches zero and costs the team five valuable yards.  This is a problem that might not seem monumental but really has major consequences on how efficiently the offense can be run.

When Garrett calls plays into Tony Romo, he often provides the quarterback with two plays: the first is the play which is most likely to be run, and the second is a “conditional” play that the offense will run if Romo checks out of the first play.  Each time you hear Romo yell “Kill, Kill, Kill” prior to the snap of the ball, he is “killing” the first play, alerting the offense to run the second play that was dialed up.

If Garrett gives Romo instructions to call an off-tackle power play (first) and a screen to the left (second) in the huddle, for example, the offensive players will line up with the mentality of running the first play.  In the first scenario, Felix Jones will analyze the defense as though he is running off-tackle.  If the defense shows blitz from their left side, however, Romo might check out of the first play using a “Kill” call.  When this happens, the mental assignments of the players shift to the second play.  In this second scenario, Jones is now scanning the defense so as to be prepared to run the screen to the left.  This has a few consequences for the offense and defense:

  • The play clock tends to drop to just one second (or the offense gets a delay of game) because the long play-calls and extra pre-snap mental work required by the offense take time.


  • The offensive players may not be fully mentally prepared to run the second play.  Often times, Romo gives his “Kill” call and then snaps the ball almost immediately due to a dwindling play clock.  I have doubts the players can fully prepare themselves for their blocking assignments, routes, etc. with such little time.  Full comprehension of a defense’s intentions (as it relates to the new second play) may not come until a step or two into the play, and by that time, it is too late.


  • Perhaps most importantly, the defense can jump the snap.  Whether it is a defensive lineman or blitzing linebacker, it is a rather large advantage to “know” when a snap is coming.

Many of you know I track all kinds of information from each play of Cowboys’ games, from the distance of passes to motions to who stayed in to block and more.  I have never taken data on the play clock, however, and it might be a good idea to do so in the future.  If snapping the ball at the last possible second is truly detrimental to Dallas, we would expect it to be represented in the statistics–whether it comes in the form of yards-per-play, sack numbers or whatever.

Of course, allowing the play clock to drain may not even be necessary if the team’s “Kill” calls are not effective.  That is, if the advantage the offense gains from calling two plays in the huddle does not exceed the advantage the defense garners from the low play clock, there is really no reason for the Cowboys to call two plays in the huddle.  Luckily, I have two years of data pertaining to the team’s audibles.

In my 2010 Quarterback Grades, I noted that both Romo and Jon Kitna called audibles that, in terms of statistical significance, were not superior to non-checks.  71 of these 72 checks were “Kill” calls.  We saw a similar thing in the team’s 2009 Audibles , although Romo was slightly better with his checks, gaining 0.39 yards-per-play more on his audibles as compared to regular plays.  75 of the 79 audibles that year were “Kill” calls, meaning we can be fairly certain the statistics of all audibles (150) are representative of the success of “Kill” calls (145 of them).

2010 (72 checks)

  • Romo expected yards: 152
  • Romo actual yards: 143
  • Kitna expected yards: 223
  • Kitna actual yards: 234
  • Overall expected yards: 375
  • Overall actual yards: 377

2009 (79 checks)

  • Expected yards: 459
  • Actual yards: 490

2009-2010 (151 checks)

  • Expected yards: 834
  • Actual Yards: 867
  • Total advantage from 2009-2010 (33 yards on 151 checks–0.22 yards-per-play)

You can see that, as a whole, the Cowboys have “gained” 0.22 yards-per-play on checks over the past two years.  With 150 audibles, this result is significant enough to show us the offense does not acquire a significant advantage from “Kill” calls.  On top of this, the advantage the defense receives from the snaps on which the play clock runs down to one is likely more valuable than that “extra” 0.22 yards-per-play.  Remember, this defensive advantage comes not just on audibles, but on any snap on which the clock has run down due to two plays being called in the huddle.  Most times, the second play is never run, yet the clock still dips to one second.

Of course, the delay of game penalties over the last couple of years probably “make up for” the 0.22 yards-per-play offensive advantage on their own.  When combined with the ability of the defense to jump the snap, I think it is pretty obvious the Cowboys’ “Kill” calls are, at best, a waste of time. . .and at worst, detrimental to the offense.

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Grading the ‘Boys in 2010, Part IX: Running Backs

Jonathan Bales

Already graded: Defensive lineinside linebackersoutside linebackerssafetiescornerbackstight ends, wide receivers, and offensive line.


In Part VII of my “Grading the ‘Boys” Series, I analyzed the efficiency of six Cowboys’ offensive linemen in both run blocking and pass protection.  In doing so, I attempted to isolate one component of the offense as effectively as possible to determine the worth of individual players.

In reality, of course, offenses are holistic systems.  The productivity of each position indirectly affects the ability of players at each other position to properly perform.  In the running game, the success of linemen is affected greatly by the talent level of the running backs, and vice versa.

Today, I will study the productivity of Marion Barber, Felix Jones, and Tashard Choice.  These three players all contributed in different ways and in distinct situations, so keep that in mind when analyzing the statistics gathered from my film study.


  • In this particular analysis, I will grade each running back on four components:  short-yardage running, overall running, receiving, and pass protection.
  • The four components of the overall grade are not all equal.  They will be weighted 15/45/20/20, respectively.
  • As always, the best stats are circled in blue, the worst in red.


  • Marion Barber

Short-Yardage Running: C-

Barber’s short-yardage running was once again sub-par in 2010.  Other than a 5/5 day against Minnesota (which I think was due more to the Vikings’ defensive scheme than Barber’s ability), Barber proved he simply doesn’t possess the power he once did.  He frequently stumbles before even receiving the handoff and, for whatever reason, dances in the backfield instead of hitting the hole hard.  He converted only 75.0 percent of plays with one yard-to-go.

Overall Running: D-

Barber averaged only 3.7 yards-per-carry in 2010, including just 2.2 YAC-per-rush–down from 2.7 in ’09.  There were very few times when Barber appeared even somewhat explosive.  The numbers are really irrelevant here–anyone who watched Cowboys games this season knows Barber is done.

Receiving: C-

What was once a strength of Barber’s game is now a weakness.  Barber is sure-handed, but he appears extremely hesitant after catching the ball and turning upfield.  Barber should know he’s a power back (or was one) who shouldn’t try to make a ton of moves.  He tries to run like Barry Sanders, but he has the agility of Refrigerator Perry.

Pass Protection:  B+

This is really where Barber can still help the Cowboys.  I attributed zero sacks to him in 2010.  His success stems from a willingness to do the dirty work.  Barber appears to take pride in his blocking, which is admirable.

The problem now is that Barber’s diminished skill set as both a runner and receiver make it difficult to put him on the field on third down.  Sure, he can block, but if he poses no threat out of the backfield, why not put another tight end in the game?

  • Felix Jones

Short-Yardage Running: A-

Some readers were a bit stunned when I provided Jones with the highest sh0rt-yardage running grade last season, but in 2010 it became clear he’s the team’s best option with just a few yards left for a first down.  Jones converted 88.2 percent of runs with 1-3 yards-to-go.  Only 9.2 percent of Jones’ runs came in such situations, however–less than half the rate of Barber–so Jason Garrett would be smart to utilize Jones more on short-yardage plays.

2010 Snap Counts: Barber-292, Jones-571, Choice-220

Many fans, analysts, and coaches argue that you need a humongous running back for short-yardage plays, but I disagree.  Mammoth backs like Brandon Jacobs can sometimes get stuffed in short-yardage situations because they lack the lateral quickness to dodge defenders.  If the primary hole is clogged, it’s difficult for any running back, regardless of size, to power his way through.  Instead, the ability to make one quick cut to elude a defender and then get upfield seems to me to be a more effective method of converting short-yardage plays.

Perhaps that’s why you see Jones with a 13.0 percent broken tackle rate–by far the best on the team.

Overall Running:  B+

Jones’ 4.3 yards-per-carry isn’t stellar, but it’s certainly superior to the 3.7 average from Barber and Choice.  Jones’ big-play ability gives the Cowboys a much-needed explosive dimension on the ground, but I still think Garrett needs to do a better job of utilizing Jones’ skill set.  Jones averaged 10.0 and 7.3 yards-per-carry, respectively, on counters in 2009 and 2010.  The 35 total counters in that sample size is reaching the point where we can say Jones’ 9.0 overall yards-per-carry on counters is statistically significant.

In getting Jones out on the edge more often, I think you’ll see his yards-per-rush increase pretty significantly in 2011.

Receiving:  A-

Jones’ improvement in the passing game was extremely valuable to the ‘Boys this season.  According to my numbers, Jones caught a ridiculous 48 of the 50 passes intended for him (that’s 96 percent folks).  His 9.38 yards-per-reception average is incredible, particularly when you factor in the predictability of some of Jones’ catches.  Garrett often dialed up the same “flare/screen” from the formation below (Double Tight Left Twins Right Ace), but Jones’ explosiveness made up for it.

Pass Protection:  C-

If I was Jason Garrett, I would have Jones work on pass protection more than any other aspect of his game.  The Cowboys need Jones on the field on as many downs as possible, but Jones’ lack of pass protection makes that difficult.  I credited him with yielding three sacks despite being in pass protection on just 107 snaps.  Jones possesses the ability to be fine in pass protection, so right now it’s about his mindset.

  • Tashard Choice

Short-Yardage Running: B-

Choice’s sample size of 10 short-yardage runs isn’t enough for those stats to mean much, so we have to judge his performance with film.  To me, Choice did just an average job on short-yardage in 2010, but I think he’s a better player than what his numbers indicate (70.0 percent conversion rate).  He doesn’t have incredible explosiveness, but he always seems to be either elusive or strong enough to adequately perform his job.

Still, Choice’s yards-after-contact and broken tackle numbers need to improve.

Overall Running:  C-

Again, I don’t think Choice’s numbers match up with his actual ability.  I think Choice is the type of player who performs well as he becomes accustomed to the flow of the game.  He needs some time to get going.  Is that ideal?  No, but it does appear to be the case.

When Choice has received that extra playing time in the past, he’s done well.  He’ll never be a feature back, but I certainly believe he can be a very productive No. 2 option.  He’s solid in every aspect of running back play, but will Garrett even want him around in 2011?

Receiving:  B-

Choice is a natural pass-catcher.  Again, he’s not flashy and won’t take a screen pass 60 yards to the house, but he will consistently put himself in position to convert first downs.

Pass Protection:  B

I think Choice regressed just a bit in his pass protection this season.  He really struggled in the preseason, but he got it cleaned up (for the most part) during the regular season.  I attributed one sack and three pressures to Choice.

Overall 2010 Running Back Grades

1.  Felix Jones: B (86.3)

  • 2009 Grade: B+ (89.8)

2. Tashard Choice: C+ (78.9)

  • 2009 Grade: B+ (87.3)

3. Marion Barber:  C- (71.3)

  • 2009 Grade: C+(77.2)

In 2009, Barber received 54.3 percent of the regular season rushes, with Jones garnering 29.5 percent and Choice 16.2 percent.  In the offseason, I called for the breakdown to be 50/30/20 for Jones, Choice, and Barber, respectively.

The actual breakdown was remarkably similar (51/31/18), except Barber received the second-most carries.

In 2011, that breakdown is almost certain to change again, as either Barber or Choice will likely be out of Dallas.  Barber’s contract and diminishing ability make him the logical choice to go, but Garrett seems to still like Barber (and dislike Choice).

In my opinion, it will be a tragedy if Barber is still in a Cowboys uniform in 2011.  With Choice more than capable of handling third downs, there’s really no place for Barber anymore.  He’s poor in short-yardage situations and is terrible in the open-field.  To me, the only thing Barber can do better than a mid-round (or even late-round) draft pick is protect the quarterback.

The ‘Boys will obviously need to acquire another running back if either Barber or Choice leave.  Some mid/late-round draft possibilities include Oklahoma’s DeMarco Murray, Cal’s Shane Vereen, Syracuse’s Delone Carter, Clemson’s Jamie Harper, and Wisconsin’s John Clay.


Grading the ‘Boys in 2010, Part I: Tight Ends

Jonathan Bales

Last season, I graded every player on the Cowboys (who got a sufficient number of snaps) on their overall performance.  I called it “Grading the ‘Boys,” and enough of you seemed to like it for it to return this year.  Remember that these grades are based on efficiency, not total production.  We start with the tight ends. . .

Tight end is a rather difficult position to grade due to the varying nature of the positional responsibilities.  The league-wide transition to a spread offense has, on many teams, morphed the tight end position from one of versatility (a combination of strength and finesse) into pure finesse.  Great blocking tight ends are often passed over in favor of athletic pass-catchers.

On the Cowboys, however, versatility is still king among the tight ends.  If you can’t block, you can’t play tight end for the Dallas Cowboys.  I personally am glad the Cowboys seek versatility in their tight ends, as it is the characteristic which makes them so valuable.  A defense can implement their nickel personnel to effectively limit the production of a tight end who cannot block well.  The reason tight ends like Jason Witten are so efficient is that their blocking ability forces defenses to stay in their base personnel, providing the offense with mismatches.

Due to the method by which the team employs its tight ends, I will weight the players’ blocking and pass-catching grades equally.  This grading system may not be suitable for a team which uses its tight ends in a different manner, such as the Washington Redskins (yes, that was a knock on Chris Cooley’s blocking ability), but for the Cowboys it is the most accurate way to determine the overall ability of Jason Witten, Martellus Bennett, and John Phillips.  A few of the stats (YAC and pressures/hits yielded) were provided by Pro Football Focus.


  • Jason Witten

Blocking:  B+

Witten struggled a bit in the run game early in the 2010 season, but he picked it up later in the year.  His sub-par blocking and limited production in the passing game makes me wonder if he was playing hurt to begin the 2010 campaign.  Either way, Witten quickly returned to usual form.

He yielded two sacks on the season, but not a single quarterback hit or pressure.  Although it may seem as though Witten is always out in a route on pass plays, that’s actually not the case.  Witten stayed in to block on 23.8 percent of passes in 2010, up slightly from 22.9 percent in 2009.  You can see to the left that the Cowboys were slightly more effective with Witten blocking as opposed to in a route, reversing a trend from last season (when the offense averaged nearly two full yards more when Witten was in a route).

Witten also cut his penalty rate down from 11 (in 2009) to five.

Receiving: A

Last season, I provided Witten with an “A-” receiving grade.  This year, his numbers are nearly identical, but he recorded seven more touchdowns (nine total) and half the drops (only three in 2010).  Witten is still below average after the catch (he averaged only 4.1 YAC/reception this season), but his 76.4 percent reception rate is stellar.

The increase in touchdowns should come as no surprise.  Last season, I wrote this in my “Grading the ‘Boys: Tight Ends” segment:

Expect Witten’s touchdown number to increase quite significantly in 2010.  Touchdowns can sometimes be a fluky statistic, and there is nothing inherent in Witten’s game that should make him unable to score.  With the loss of oft-dominating run-blocker left tackle Flozell Adams and the team likely to provide running back Marion Barber with less goal line touches, Witten should see a spike in scoring opportunities.

  • Martellus Bennett

Blocking: A-

Cowboys fans may be unhappy with Bennett’s production as a receiver, but he was dominant as a blocker again in 2010.  He didn’t allow a single sack and yielded only one hit and two pressures, despite being utilized as a blocker on the majority of his snaps.  I was quoted as saying I would rather put Bennett at right tackle than Marc Colombo, and that is still true.  He’s even better in the run game.

Receiving: B-

Bennett improved upon his 2009 receiving campaign by catching 75.0 percent of balls thrown his way (up from 51.7 percent last season).  That rate is right alongside Witten’s.  His 5.6 YAC/reception is also quite impressive, but his three drops (in 44 attempts) is too many.

The Cowboys may want to look at making Bennett more of a focal point in 2011, as he possesses the skill set to become a tremendous all-around tight end.  Right now, the largest reason he is considered a “bust” by fans is simply because he doesn’t receive many opportunities as a pass-catcher.  With Witten getting older, look for Bennett to receive closer to 70 looks next season.

Overall Tight End Grades

1.  Jason Witten: A- (91.0)

  • 2009 Grade: A- (93.0)

2.  Martellus Bennett:  B+ (88.0)

  • 2009 Grade: B- (80.0)


Dallas Cowboys 2010 Rushing/Passing Efficiency By Down

Jonathan Bales

I’ve talked before about why I believe the Cowboys should throw more often on first down, particularly out of running formations.  Despite the league-wide transition to an emphasis on throwing the football, defenses still tend to primarily defend the run on first down.

Well, I sorted through my 2010 play database today to determine the Cowboys’ efficiency on first down passes.  I quickly realized the numbers were relatively useless without a comparison to statistics on other downs, so I calculated those as well.  Then, I postulated that an even stronger down-to-down comparison of passing statistics would be accomplished by noting the team’s rushing efficiency too.  The result of all of this is below:

Note: I did not count QB spikes or kneel downs, and sacks/QB rushes are counted into the passing totals.

A few notes:

  • The Cowboys’ completion percentage remains relatively steady, regardless of the down.  I was really surprised to see just a 4.4 percent difference between first and second down passing.
  • You might think the Cowboys would run more on second down than first, but that’s actually not the case.  Nearly two-thirds of second down plays have been passes.
  • As expected, third down passing efficiency trumps that on first and second down.  I would speculate this is due to game situations–defenses don’t mind yielding a 10-yard gain on 3rd and 15.  Still, 8.01 yards-per-attempt is tremendous for any down.
  • The low rushing efficiency on third down stems primarily from 3rd and short situations.  Running on 3rd and 4+ is actually quite successful.
  • The greatest disparity between rushing and passing efficiency comes on third down (passing is 2.36 times as efficient), followed by first down (1.80 times as efficient), and then second down (1.56 times as efficient).  You might ask, “Why not just pass the ball every play?”  Well, aside from the fact that defenses would quickly adjust, running the ball also yields a higher percentage of positive plays–there are no incomplete passes.  A 3rd and 1 run is almost always superior to a pass for this reason.

There are a lot of other conclusions that can be drawn here.  I’d love to hear what some of the DC Times regulars think about this data.


Cowboys vs. Detroit Lions Week 11 Initial Post-Game Notes, Observations

Jonathan Bales

These post-game reviews are always so much more fun after the ‘Boys win.  Although they came out of the gate slowly today, Dallas was able to secure enough big plays in the second half to allow fans to breathe easy late in the fourth quarter.  Here are some points of interest I wrote during the contest:

  • It may be getting old, but I don’t understand why Marion Barber is still starting.  Jason Garrett dismissed talk of Barber breaking the team’s new dress code last week, but his absence from the starting lineup then and presence now leads me to believe the former was punishment and not a shakeup of the lineup.
  • I counted three or four times when the Cowboys ran weak side out of ‘Double Tight I’ (below).  As I’ve mentioned before, they tend to do this after motioning Jason Witten across the formation (they start in ‘Double Tight Left/Right I’).  Witten’s motion is probably a decoy because they run to the spot he just vacated.  This run would clearly work best when the Cowboys are anticipating man coverage (as the linebacker/safety assigned to Witten would likely follow him).

  • On the first drive, the Cowboys ran a playaction pass on 2nd and Goal from the one-yard line.  I really didn’t like the call, as running the ball from that position on the field is generally better than passing (see chart below).  After the play was unsuccessful, Jon Kitna checked into a fade to Dez Bryant on 3rd and Goal for a touchdown.  I generally loathe fades by the goal line, but Bryant’s ball skills are forcing me to alter my views a bit.  I’ll have to do a study on the effectiveness of such play-calls.

Courtesy of AdvancedNFLStats.com

  • If I was the coach (which probably only has, like, a five percent chance of happening), David Buehler would be cut.  With his game-changing kick power gone, are we really supposed to believe there isn’t a free agent kicker who couldn’t be as effective as him?
  • Orlando Scandrick is playing really well of late, and the difference in his game is confidence.  It is the top trait a cornerback must possess and his body language alone is a strong indicator that he’s regained his swagger.
  • I loved the Cowboys’ defensive looks in the first half.  They gave the Lions a lot of exotic looks, including a bunch of fake blitzes, which never happened under Wade Phillips.  They also blitzed the “unexpected” guys like Scandrick.  When they do that, good things tends to happen.  Blitzing a nickel cornerback isn’t inherently optimum, of course, but it works because offenses really don’t prepare their protections for it.
  • Jason Hatcher had perhaps his best game as a Cowboy.  He recorded a sack, but more than that his energy and disruption allowed some other guys to make plays.  This was what I was expecting when I made a prognosis about Hatcher in my 2010 Dallas Cowboys bold predictions.
  • You probably noticed that the Cowboys used Anthony Spencer much more often in a traditional 4-3 linebacker spot (as opposed to the usual 3-4 edge position for an outside linebacker).  Spencer (and even Ware a couple times) lined up over the center quite a bit.  You can bet the offense notices this and likely doesn’t prepare much for it during the week.  How would you like to be a center and look up to see Jay Ratliff and Spencer lined up over you?  This unique defensive alignment is something we didn’t see much under Phillips.
  • Late in the first quarter, Spencer sacked Shaun Hill and the Lions were called for holding.  The Cowboys accepted the penalty instead of taking the sack, which looked to be about a five-yard loss.  I have no idea what Garrett was thinking.
  • Any fans still want to talk smack on Kitna?  We can all thank Brad Johnson’s presence a few years ago for Kitna’s now, as the Cowboys put a priority on securing a high-quality backup after witnessing Johnson’s play.
  • Wow, the Cowboys are lucky to still have Bryan McCann.  He followed up his 101-yard pick-six last week with a 98-yard punt return touchdown this week.  I know you’ve all seen the play, and I was most impressed with McCann’s intelligence on it.  The rookie knew that after a Lion touched the ball, nothing bad could happen.  I mean that literally, as even if he fumbled the ball and lost it, the ‘Boys would still retain possession at the spot at which it was initially touched by Detroit.  The kid simply looks like a playmaker. . .but what’s with getting tackled by the kicker in the open-field?
  • I love Bryant’s effort after making catches, but there are times when he simply needs to go down.  The upside of his run-after-catch ability is limited when there are three guys surrounding him.  Once he’s wrapped up and there are other defenders around, he should end the play.  It isn’t giving up–it is playing intelligently.  He could risk injury, a fumble, or lose forward progress (which has already happened a handful of times).  Again, love the effort and attitude, as long as it is implemented in an intelligent manner.
  • The Cowboys weren’t faced with any crucial 4th down plays, but the Lions were, and they did Dallas a favor.  With a 4th and 1 in Cowboys territory, Detroit punted.  I’m not sure of their exact position, but no matter where it was, the decision was a poor one (for Detroit).  See the chart below.

  • I don’t have specific evidence of this, but it seems like Kitna uses a hard count more often than Romo.  He drew the Lions offsides a couple of times today in pretty crucial situations.
  • Felix Jones’ fumble just before halftime was a killer.  That cannot happen in that situation, as the upside of the drive is very limited inside your own 10-yard line with less than a minute remaining.  It’s a shame it took that and an injury to Jones for Tashard Choice to receive snaps.  I thought Choice displayed good vision, quickness, and balance when he did get in.
  • At this point, Marc Colombo is a huge detriment to the Cowboys.  He must be one of the league’s worst starting offensive tackles.  He’s slow-footed, horrible in pass protection, and not particularly devastating in the run game.  Dallas will need to move on from him in 2011.
  • Sean Lee played pretty well today.  He took nice angles to the ball, using “inside-out” leverage in the open-field to not allow runners to cut back.  He also forced a big fumble in the third quarter.
  • Despite his late interception, Terence Newman had his worst game of the season.  He displayed poor hips on a bunch of plays and once again missed a potential interception just before halftime (which ended up being a touchdown to Nate Burleson).  He even took poor angles and didn’t break down when trying to tackle.
  • The Cowboys gave up a sack on a play in which Barber lined up at fullback, Bryant motioned to tailback, and they faked the ball to both players (a dive to Barer and a toss to Bryant).  I loved the play-call, even though it didn’t work.  The ‘Boys have handed the ball to Barber basically every play he’s lined up at fullback this season, so I think they can come back to the look at a later time.  They used a similar play last year against the Giants and it went for a touchdown.
  • Keith Brooking really isn’t a starting-quality linebacker anymore.  He’s been awful all season in coverage.  It’s Sean Lee time, in my opinion.
  • We saw the Ratliff of old today.  He was incredibly disruptive, utilizing his quickness to terrorize the Lions’ interior linemen.  Perhaps some of his success came from Spencer’s presence behind him on a plethora of snaps.
  • What are the chances of Kitna running for a 29-yard touchdown?  10,000 to 1?  That was awesome.


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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Cowboys vs. Packers Game Day Manifesto: DOs and DON’Ts for Dallas

Jonathan Bales

DON’T blitz Aaron Rodgers too often, but send exotic blitz looks when you do bring extra pressure.

Rodgers is one of the top quarterbacks in the league against the blitz.  His mobility is what makes him so dangerous–it’s such a difficult task to bring him down one-on-one, and if you bring extra defenders and miss, Rodgers will kill you with his arm.  I watched four of the Packers games so far this week, and Rodgers has made some of the best throws I’ve seen in my life.

Of course, Dallas can’t simply sit back in zone coverage on every single play.  If Rodgers always knows what is coming, he’ll pick the ‘Boys apart.  Instead, I think Dallas should fake a lot of blitzes and bring some pressure when they don’t show it pre-snap.  They’ve been incredibly obvious in their blitzes this season and confusing Rodgers will be imperative this week.

DO play a lot of Cover 2.

I think the Cowboys’ base defense this week should be Cover 2.  Cover 2 is safe, but it still allows for the cornerbacks to make plays by squatting on certain routes.  It will also limit the responsibilities of both Alan Ball and Gerald Sensabaugh.  Instead of letting Ball roam free in Cover 1 (in which he’s made very few plays), he’ll only have half of the field to worry about in Cover 2.

Another reason Cover 2 will work against the Packers is due to Donald Driver’s absence.  He frequently works the middle of the field–the major weakness of Cover 2 (particularly when you have inside linebackers like Keith Brooking in coverage).  Add that to Jermichael Finley’s injury, and you might expect the Packers to try to test the edges of the Cowboys’ defense a bit more to accommodate their own strengths.

A final reason to play Cover 2 is the Packers’ lack of a running game.  The Cowboys haven’t been able to stop anyone on the ground this season, but Green Bay’s passing attack is far more potent than their ground game.  I have doubts that the Packers can stick with the run all game, even if it is working.  Plus, at a certain point, the guys on defense just need to step up.

DO give Tashard Choice at least 20 snaps.

Choice finally got some playing time last week, but it was still just nine snaps.  Detractors point out that Choice isn’t great at anything.  But he is really good at a lot of things and can provide a nice change-of-pace from Felix Jones.  If Jones is going to continue to receive the bulk of the reps, they need to come from Marion Barber’s total, not Choice’s.

And let’s not forget Barber may not even be in Dallas next season.  Barring a trade, Choice will.  See if he is ready for a larger role in 2011.  And if you want me to save you the suspense. . .he is.

DO place Mike Jenkins on Greg Jennings for much of the game.

I originally contemplated doing just the opposite: Terence Newman (like it or not) has been the Cowboys’ best defensive back all season, so he should cover Green Bay’s top receiver, right?

Well, Driver is going to be out with an injury.  That means James Jones is going to start, and I actually don’t see a tremendous difference in talent between Jennings and Jones.

The primary reason the Cowboys might want Newman on Jones is smoke screens.  The Packers love to throw wide receiver screens, and there’s no way in the world the Cowboys can expect Jenkins to tackle the 6’1”, 218 pound Jones.  Jenkins would probably whiff on Martin Gramatica in the open-field, and Jones is 20 pounds heavier than Jennings.  Plus, at some point, Dallas must expect Jenkins to rebound from his poor start to the season.

DO throw the ball in the red zone, and stop running draws there.

You can see the Cowboys have found a lot more success through the air in the red zone than on the ground.  Of their five passes inside the five-yard line, four have gone for touchdowns.  They’re also averaging nearly six-yards-per-pass and have scored three touchdowns when passing between the opponent’s 10 and 20-yard line.  Those numbers aren’t extraordinary, but remember the upside of all plays is severely limited in the red zone.

Meanwhile, Dallas is averaging just over two yards-per-carry on red zone runs.  They’ve punched it into the end zone just twice on runs, both from the one-yard line.

Some of the Cowboys’ struggles in red zone running may be coming from the fact that they continue to run draws, even inside the five-yard line.  Part of the reason you run draws is to get the linebackers to drop into their coverage responsibilities.  But down by the goal line, everything is squashed together.  The linebackers are basically already in their drops.  Where are they really going to go?  Running draws in the red zone, particularly inside the five-yard line, forces the linemen to hold their blocks longer and makes it more difficult for the running back to gain momentum.

DO run a ton of double-tight sets to help the offensive tackles block Clay Matthews.

Martellus Bennett was frustrated with his lack of playing time last week.  According to my numbers, the Cowboys used two tight ends (or more) on just 19 plays against Jacksonville.

This week, they are going to need as many people as possible blocking Matthews.  He’s an absolute beast and a tremendous challenge for Bennett.  Bennett won’t have huge numbers this game, but this is the matchup during which he’ll earn more reps in the future.

DON’T try to throw too often out of obvious passing formations.

This is a good rule in general, but the Cowboys will have big-time problems providing protection with 3+ wide receivers on the field.  Clay Matthews singled up + Jon Kitna at quarterback= Trouble for Dallas.

Instead, I think the ‘Boys should pass from a bunch from double-tight formations and use three-receiver sets primarily for plays like screens, draws, and so on.

DO run more screens than normal.

The Packers employ a lot of innovative blitz packages, including their “Psycho” look which implements just one down-linemen and a bunch of linebackers flying around pre-snap.  The Cowboys already struggle with stunts, so this package could create a lot of problems for them.  The Packers normally utilize it on 3rd down, so expect that to be the time you see a lot of Cowboys screens.

DON’T run to the weak side as often.

I normally support a lot of weak side runs.  Early in the season, Jason Garrett was listening, dialing them up at nearly twice the rate as in 2009.  That number has since decreased quite a bit, but it’s still higher than last season.

This week, however, the Cowboys would be running right into the heart of the Packers’ defense if they went weak side.  Matthews is just as solid against the run as the pass, and 340-pound mammoth defensive end Ryan Pickett also provides a challenge for the Cowboys’ offensive line.  If you want to run weak side, get the defenders out of position with counters.

DO attempt a double-move on Charles Woodson.

Woodson is such an incredible playmaker, but he does gamble a lot.  He’ll jump routes to make plays, meaning the Cowboys can certainly beat him deep on a double-move.  The problem will be providing adequate protection.  Perhaps a single-man route from a run-oriented formation would allow the ‘Boys to protect Jon Kitna long enough for one of the receivers to take advantage of Woodson’s aggressiveness.

DO put Dez Bryant on the field more often–ahead of Roy Williams.

Williams started off hot this year and certainly appears to have regained his confidence, but Bryant is the future for the Cowboys.  He needs to start soon, but at the very least, he must get on the field in some base personnel looks.  Right now, he’s nothing more than the No. 3.  His talent is so glaringly obvious that any failure to get him on the field is completely unjustified.

DON’T keep letting the same players make the same mistakes.

Marc Colombo gets beat by Clay Matthews for a sack.  Alan Ball misses a tackle in the secondary.  Brandon Jackson beats Keith Brooking in the open-field and runs for a touchdown.  Marion Barber tackled for a loss.

These sort of mistake cannot continue, at least not from the same old faces.  Give the inexperienced players a chance to show the future is bright in Big D.  Yes, that might mean hurting some feelings, Wade.

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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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