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Cowboys vs. Chargers Preseason Film Study Observations

Jonathan Bales

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

Play-Calling/Formation Notes

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

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

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


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


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Why Cowboys Should Throw Out of ‘Ace’ (And Other Double-Tight Formations)

By Jonathan Bales

A few weeks back, we published a breakdown of every formation the Cowboys ran in 2009, including run/pass ratios, success rates, and big/negative play percentages.  Included in that article was a double-tight (two tight ends) formation called “Ace”:

The Cowboys ran 29 plays out of “Ace” last season:

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

11.46 yards/attempt

2.00 yards/rush

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

“Ace” was the Cowboys second-most efficient passing formation, and they also had a ton of success passing out of other double-tight formations.  Not exactly the statistics you were expecting from “run-oriented” formations?  Me neither. . .which is exactly why passing out of it was so successful last season.

I hate to harp on it again (actually, secretly I love it), but run/pass selection is controlled in large part by game theory.  In a nutshell, game theory is thinking one step ahead of your opponent.  Why perform a surprise onside kick?  Why run on 3rd and 7?  Because your opponent will never be expecting it.

This latter scenario (running the ball on 3rd and medium to long) is one I’ve already examined.  The graph to the left (from AdvancedNFLStats.com) displays the conversion rates of teams on 3rd down in various situations.  The excerpt below is one I wrote in my article on why teams should attempt a lot more 4th down plays, but it explains the graph.

In 3rd and 1 situations, offenses obtain a 1st down on 70% of runs, compared to just 58% of passes. In fact, running the ball on 3rd down actually yields the most success (in terms of achieving 1st downs) up until 3rd and 5. Surprisingly, passing the ball never becomes significantly advantageous over running the ball in any situation up through 3rd and 10.

The reason behind this has to do with game theory. If defenses were to remain in their base personnel regardless of the down and distance, running the ball in medium-to-long yardage situations would be generally unsuccessful. Since defenses substitute their nickel or dime personnel and dial up a play designed to defend a pass, however, offensive coordinators could increase their 3rd and 4th down conversion rates by calling far more runs in those situations.

Another way to look at it is that the play-calling of other offensive coordinators around the league affects that of Garrett. The two are not independent of one another. Running the ball on 3rd and short-to-medium is the optimum strategy not because of anything inherent in the game of football, but because of the play-calling of other offensive coordinators. If other OCs suddenly started calling a bunch of 3rd and 4th down runs, defenses would adjust, perhaps making passing the ball in those scenarios the optimum strategy.

The passing success of the Cowboys out of “Ace” and other “running” formations is equivalent to the success teams have when running the ball on 3rd down.  There is nothing inherently efficient about running the ball in these situations.  Rather, the success comes from your opponent’s expectations.

Similarly, passing out of “running” formations isn’t an inherently superior strategy to passing with four wide receivers on the field.  Instead, it works because of the defense.

Think of it like this. . .let’s say passing the ball out of a four-receiver set receives a hypothetical score of 80 points (this total is arbitrary and independent of a defense).  Passing the ball out of a double-tight formation, on the other hand, is intrinsically worth just 60 points.

So, why would a team choose the latter scenario–a “sub-optimal” strategy?  Because the strategy is only “sub-optimal” in theory.  In practice, the defense makes substitutions to be able to effectively defend each formation.  To counter the run against the double-tight formation, they knowingly decrease their ability to thwart the pass.

Thus, they may receive a pass defense score of 75 against a four-receiver set, but just 50 against double-tight.  In that case, passing the ball out of double-tight yields a 10 point advantage for the offense, compared to just a five point advantage when throwing the ball out of the “passing” formation.

Play selection is dominated by game theory, meaning the actions of other offensive coordinators around the league really should affect those of Cowboys OC Jason Garrett.  It is for this reason that I would love to see the Cowboys do the “unexpected”–pass more out of tight formations (and run more out of spread ones) in 2010.  The theoretical value may be sub-optimal, but the actual value would be maximized.


Why ‘Gun Tight End Spread’ Is Cowboys’ Most Productive Formation

Play Fantasy Football?  Be sure to check out our 2010 Fantasy Football Package.

Yesterday, we published a breakdown of every formation the Cowboys ran in 2009, including run/pass ratios, yards-per-play, and more.  In the coming days, we will be taking a more in-depth look at these statistics, attempting to explain why the numbers came out as they did.

Today, we will analyze “Gun TE (Tight End) Spread” (shown in Gallery).

The formation was a favorite of offensive coordinator Jason Garrett, as the offense lined up in it an incredible 168 times–by far the most of any single formation.  The run/pass balance was rather skewed, as the team attempted 141 passes (83.9 percent) to just 27 runs (16.1 percent).
Nonetheless, the Cowboys found success on both types of plays, averaging 8.84 yards-per-pass and 6.15 yards-per-rush. The sample size (particularly for passes) is large enough that we can conclude there is something about the formation itself which leads to success for Dallas.
It is possible the Cowboys’ yards-per-play was inflated due to the times at which they lined up in the formation. Calling plays out of ‘Gun TE Spread’ on 3rd and long or when the defense is in a prevent, for example, might make the formation seem more successful than it should.
The stats do seem to support this theory, but not to the degree you might expect. 51 (30.4 percent) of the Cowboys’ plays out of the formation came on 3rd down, while just 20.4 percent of the all Cowboys’ 2009 plays came on 3rd down. That difference is not as large as we might expect from a Shotgun formation (offenses are more likely to pass out of Shotgun, and thus use the formation on 3rd down).
The Cowboys also ran 63 (37.5 percent) of the “Gun TE Spread” plays in in the 4th quarter–a time when defenses are more likely to be in a prevent (and thus allow some intermediate completions).
However, teams employ a prevent defense to limit big plays. The Cowboys acquired a ton of big plays out of “Gun TE Spread.” In fact, 45 (31.9 percent) of the team’s passes from the formation went for 10+ yards, while 16 (11.4 percent) of them went for 20+ yards (including passes of 30, 32, 32, 34, 37, 42, 42, 49, 59, 60, and 64 yards).
Further, over one-in-five runs from the formation went for 10+ yards–a significantly higher than the 13.1 percent clip of 10+ yard runs using all other formations.
Lastly, the sack rate of just 3.6 percent using “Gun TE Spread” was also superior to the overall 5.6 percent mark.
The story is not over, however, as the Cowboys also found great success using the formation with Tony Romo under center.  This is simply called “TE Spread.” The Cowboys ran 25 plays out of this version of the formation–17 passes and eight runs.  They averaged an incredible 14.06 yards-per-pass (including a gaudy 58.8 percent rate of 10+ yard plays), and 6.38 yards-per-rush.  They also allowed no sacks.
So, while we pick on Jason Garrett from time to time (okay, from day to day), we must show him respect for recognizing the efficiency of the two verions of “Tight End Spread” and utilizing it often.  193 times, to be exact–19.4 percent of all meaningful plays.


Double Tight Strong and Tipping Plays Via Formation

By Jonathan Bales

In my original study on the Cowboys’ Double Tight Right Strong Right formation (and other versions of it, shown to the right), I found that the Cowboys ran a strong side dive out of the formation 73.3 percent of the time through the first 14 weeks of the season.  As the season progressed, opposing defenses clearly noticed this trend on film, as the average yards-per-rush on the play decreased from 7.8 in the first five games to 5.0 yards per carry over the next eight games (including just 3.2 YPC against all non-Oakland-based squads).

Further, the Cowboys play-calling was even more predictable when they motioned into the formation, as they ran dive 34 out of 40 times (85 percent) when using motion.

I expected the Cowboys’ play-calling out of this formation to become less predictable as the season progressed, but unfortunately this was not the case. Over the final three weeks, the team lined up in the formation 26 times, running a strong side dive 17 of these plays.  The results were even worse than in Weeks 6-14, as the team averaged only 3.1 yards-per-carry. With those kind of numbers and the success Dallas had on other running plays, teams clearly were clued in on what the team was trying to do.

Over these final three weeks, the teams also motioned into the formation nine times, and ran the same strong side dive on all but one of these plays (88.9 percent, as compared to 85 percent in the first 14 weeks).

Further evidence Dallas was tipping their plays via the formation

Offensive Coordinator Jason Garrett is, at times, much too predictable in his play-calling.

If teams truly were noticing these tendencies on film and stacking against one particular play, we would expect the Cowboys to have success running plays other than the strong side dive out of the formation.  In fact, this is just what we see over the final three weeks. Though they averaged just 3.1 YPC on the strong side dive out of Double Tight Right Strong Right during this time, they averaged over twice that number, 6.7 yards per tote, when running weak side out of the formation.

It is quite clear that the Cowboys were, at least at times, too predictable in their play-calling.  If I was able to spot this trend on film, then you can bet the Cowboys’ opponents (other than the Raiders) noticed it as well. The numbers don’t lie.

Final Double Tight Right Strong Right (and variations) statistics

Weeks 1-5 (Dallas ran the formation just five times per game over the first four weeks, so defenses likely had yet to recognize it as a trend): 7.8 yards-per-carry

Weeks 6-17: 4.4 yards-per-carry, including just 3.2 YPC against all teams but Oakland

Weeks 1-17: Ran strong side dive out of the formation 83/116 times (71.6 percent), including an incredible 42/49 times (85.7 percent) when motioning into it