The DC Times

A New Way to Look at the Cowboys, NFL, and Fantasy Football

By Jonathan Bales

Jason Witten’s 2010 Red Zone Performance

Jonathan Bales

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

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

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

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

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

By Jonathan Bales

2010 Weak Side Runs: Using Game Theory to Call Plays

Jonathan Bales

Throughout my film study articles, I have chronicled the trends of the Cowboys in specific situations, attempting to isolate the cause of their success or failure.   Some statistics are subjective, such as missed tackles, but I strive to obtain statistics that are objective as possible.

In this study, I will analyze the Cowboys’ weak side runs.  Like prior pieces, there is some “gray area” here.  What is a weak side run?  Is the weak side always opposite the tight end?

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

If a formation has no tight end, the strong side is simply the side with the most skill position players.  Also, a multitude of formations have no strong or weak side, such as “Ace” (below).

The findings I gathered are listed below.   The Cowboys averaged 4.72 yards-per-carry on weak side runs, compared to just 3.67 yards-per-carry on strong side runs, and 4.23 yards-per-rush on runs from balanced formations.

Why did the Cowboys have more success running weak side than strong?   One possibility is that it surprises the defense.  Dallas ran weak side on just 22.8 percent of all run plays (up from 19.5 percent in 2009). Thus, with the defense generally anticipating a strong side run, the success rate of running weak side increases despite a lesser number of blockers.

The lack of blockers to the weak side can also be a good thing because defenses generally line up according to the formation.   Less blockers, then, means less people to block, and less chance for mistake.

If this theory is correct, we might expect the Cowboys percentage of big plays to increase significantly when running weak side.  This is exactly what we saw in 2010 (although not in my 2009 results).  The Cowboys ran for a play of 10+ yards on 13.8 percent of all weak side run plays in 2010, compared to only 6.5 percent on all strong side runs.

Further, the yards-per-carry, big play percentage, and negative play rate of runs from balanced formations (such as “Ace”) all fall between the corresponding numbers for weak and strong side runs.  This is evidence that weak side runs are generally superior to strong side runs because hybrid formations (balanced formations are a sort of “hybrid” of strong and weak ones) create hybrid results.

How should this information affect the Cowboys and Jason Garrett’s play-calling?  Well, as I detailed in my 2009 Witten blocking study, the play-calling should shift until it reaches the “Nash Equilibrium.”   Simply put, this is the point when the overall yards-per-rush will peak.

Note that Garrett cannot simply call all weak side runs because football is a game of opposing minds.   A drastic increase in weak side runs would obviously be met by a large percentage of defensive weak side blitzes.

Instead, game theory suggests Garrett should slowly increase the number of weak side runs until the average yards-per-carry is maximized.

But how will we know when that number is reached?  The answer would be simple if we assumed those people drawing up plays to try to stop the Cowboys offense–the opposing defensive coordinators–were perfectly rational.   In that scenario, the defense would call an increasing number of weak side blitzes until they minimized the overall yards-per-carry.   They would in effect create their own Nash equilibrium.

Of course, defensive coordinators do not always call plays in a rational manner. Their knowledge is not unlimited, and so sometimes they may call too many weak side blitzes or not enough.  Perhaps sometimes the number of weak side blitzes they dial up has no correlation at all with the offenses’s weak side running rates or successes.

Garrett’s job, then, must be to take into account the thoughts and tendencies of defensive coordinators (perhaps easier said than done), and then adjust his play-calling accordingly.   If Team X calls an inordinate amount of weak side blitzes, for example, then the Cowboys own Nash equilibrium will be shifted to include more strong side runs (and vice versa).

Thus, play-calling (or effective play-calling anyway) is not simply about knowing your own players.   It is about successfully predicting the calls of defensive coordinators by knowing their tendencies.   This may sound extremely difficult (and it is from the standpoint of one individual play), but aberrations tend to flatten out over the course of a game in such a way that, despite not knowing individual play calls, a team can assume a “regression to the mean” of sorts where a team’s overall tendencies will always eventually shine through.

For Garrett, this means being one step ahead of the game.  Instead of simply knowing what you want to do, you have to know what your opponent thinks you are going to do, then adjust accordingly.  When playing against a really stealthy coach, you may have to know what he thinks that you think that he thinks about what play you are going to call.

If you are an offensive coordinator and have called three straight weak side runs in a row, for example, your natural inclination may be to deviate from this tendency.  You might do this in an effort to “mix it up.”   But game theory suggests you should take into account the opposition’s thoughts before making a decision.

Perhaps you know that he is thinking that you are thinking that he will call a weak side blitz to combat your recent success. Knowing this, you would assume he may call a strong side blitz (or none at all), and you would be correct.   Thus, despite three straight weak side runs, the best play call is yet another weak side run.

Being “unpredictable” isn’t about changing play calls just for the sake of changing the play, but about adjusting your tendencies according to your opposition’s tendencies to create an environment where potential success will be maximized.

By Jonathan Bales

Dallas Cowboys Times’ Final 2010 Player, Position Rankings

Jonathan Bales

I recently concluded my 2010 “Grading the ‘Boys” Series.  If you’d like to go back to review individual position grades, here ya go: Quarterbacks, defensive lineinside linebackersoutside linebackerssafetiescornerbackstight endswide receiversrunning backs, offensive line.

A few notes before reading my 2010 Final Player and Position Grades:

  • This is not a comprehensive list of everyone who played last season, but rather those players who participated in enough plays to gather statistically significant results.
  • It is also not a ranking of the best players or those with the most production, but rather a list of the most efficient players to the team (as I see it) in 2010.
  • Lastly, players listed in blue are those whose grade I expect to improve in 2011.  I anticipate a decline in production from those players listed in red, and neither a vast improvement or deterioration in play from those listed in black.

1. DeMarcus Ware: A (94.0)

Ware had an “average” season by his standards.  He’s one of the best players–at any position–in the NFL.

2.  Jason Witten: A- (91.0)

Witten appeared to be slowing down early in the 2010 campaign but picked it up over the second half of the season.  I think you’ll see him as a “B” or “B+” guy in 2011, if for no other reason than a reduced snap count (under 1,000 is ideal).

3.  Victor Butler: B+ (89.8)

Butler’s improvement will be contingent on playing time.  The good news is new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan has no loyalty to Anthony Spencer and will play the best outside linebacker.  Butler’s team-leading .118 pressures-per-rush should be in there on passing downs.

4.  Martellus Bennett:  B+ (88.0)

If it came down only to Bennett’s ability, I’d have him in the blue.  Until Witten is gone, however, Bennett simply won’t garner the enough opportunities in the passing game to compile big numbers.  By the way, he’s this high because of his blocking ability, which is probably the best on the team.

5.  Gerald Sensabaugh:  B+ (87.0)

Shocked?  Don’t be.  Sensabaugh was outstanding against the pass in 2010 and was one of the few defenders to show maximum effort all year.  He did overperform a bit, however, so this grade will probably slip in 2011.

6. Felix Jones: B (86.3)

Jones is clearly the Cowboys’ best running back.  His 9.38 yards-per-reception in 2010 was incredible.  He can be an “A” player he if improves his pass protection.

7.  Kyle Kosier: B (86.2)

Zero sacks yielded all season.  I know Kosier is a “boring” player, but he’s been the team’s most underrated one for quite some time.

8.  Tony Romo: B (85.0)

In my view, 2010 was about as bad as it can get for Romo.  Even so, he compiled a 94.5 passer rating and a 130.0 rating on throws of 20+ yards.  He will be an “A” player in 2011.

T9.  Anthony Spencer: B (84.6)

Spencer wasn’t as horrible in 2010 as people think, and I can all but guarantee this grade will be higher in 2011.  Expect at least .02 sacks-per-rush next year (he had .012 this season).

T9. Dez Bryant: B (84.6)

It’s pretty clear that Bryant will improve in 2011.  He led the team with a 4.2 percent drop rate (and I’d bet that will be even lower next season), and displayed an incredible overall skill set.

T11. Miles Austin: B- (83.4)

Austin came into the 2010 season with incredible expectations that he didn’t fulfill.  He wasn’t terrible, however.  His 9.09 yards-per-attempt and 6.32 YAC-per-reception numbers are still quite good.

T11.  Orlando Scandrick:  B- (83.4)

Scandrick will always be targeted more than the other cornerbacks because he plays in the slot, but he improved greatly in 2010.  Yielding 0.88 yards-per-snap is good for a nickel cornerback.

13.  Doug Free: B- (83.0)

I don’t know of anyone who would give Free this low of a grade other than me, but he still has some work to do.  The three sacks he yielded is outstanding for a left tackle in the NFC East, but he also recorded a team-high nine penalties and wasn’t close to dominant in the run game.

14.  Sean Lee: B- (82.4)

I was really impressed with Lee’s improvement as the season progressed.  He led the inside linebackers in tackles-per-play, missed tackle rate, and most coverage statistics.

15.  Jon Kitna: B- (82.0)

Some of you thought Kitna deserved a higher grade, but if Romo puts up a 4:3 touchdown-to-interception ratio this season, fans will go nuts.  Still, Kitna is a luxury as a No. 2 quarterback.

16.  Bradie James: B- (81.3)

James was worse in coverage than I thought, yielding an 83.9 percent completion rate and 7.6 yards-per-attempt.  He’s still stout against the run, but I foresee a decline in production in 2011.

17.  Jay Ratliff:  B- (81.0)

Many of you didn’t like that I gave Ratliff an 87.0 percent in 2009, so his 81.0 this year can’t be popular.  His play will improve in 2011, however, because a move to defensive end seems likely.

18. Leonard Davis:  B- (80.6)

Davis is by no means a Pro Bowl-caliber player anymore, but he isn’t as poor as fans believe.  He was abused in the Titans game, but other than that, he allowed only one sack and zero quarterback hits all season.

19. Tashard Choice: C+ (78.9)

Choice is going to improve upon his 2010 production because either 1) Marion Barber will be gone or 2) it will be for another squad.

20.  Andre Gurode: C+ (78.2)

Over the second half of the season, Gurode was excellent in pass protection.  I still think he has value to the ‘Boys, but his run blocking must improve.  When he was at the point-of-attack in 2010, Cowboys running backs averaged only 2.82 yards-per-carry.

21.  Montrae Holland: C+ (77.8)

Holland is a solid backup, but he is not the future at guard for Dallas.

T22.  Terence Newman:  C+ (77.0)

Newman has been one of my favorite players for awhile, but he looked bad in 2010.  He was targeted 98 times and gave up a 65.3 completion rate.  I don’t have him in the red, however, because 1) I think he underperformed and 2) I think a move to free safety could help him.

T22.  Roy Williams: C+ (77.0)

I just don’t think Williams fits in well with what the Cowboys do on offense.  He has a knack for catching touchdowns (13.5 percent touchdown rate) and led the team in yards-per-attempt (9.12), but how much value can he add to a receiver corps with Austin and Bryant ahead of him?

24.  Keith Brooking: C (76.7)

Brooking’s production may not have a chance to decline if he’s out of Dallas in 2011.  He tallied 23 less tackles in 2010 as compared to the prior season despite playing more snaps.

25. Sam Hurd: C (75.8)

I think it’s about time to part ways with Hurd.  He’s tremendous on special teams, but No. 4 receivers should possess the upside to potentially be a future starter.  Hurd doesn’t.

26.  Stephen Bowen: C (75.4)

Will Bowen even be a Cowboy in 2011?  If so, he seems to be the most likely defensive end to improve.  His 4.9 percent pressure rate was outstanding, so the sacks will come.  Rob Ryan reportedly loves Bowen’s game tape as well.

T27.  Jason Hatcher: C (75.0)

I predicted a breakout season for Hatcher, but it never came.  Receiving only 257 snaps will do that, but he did lead the defensive ends in sack and hit rates.  He’s probably in a battle with Bowen for a roster spot.

T27.  Marcus Spears: C (75.0)

Spears was the Cowboys’ only legitimate run-stuffing defensive end this season.  His tackle rate of 6.1 percent was well ahead of runner-up Jason Hatcher.

29. Marion Barber:  C- (71.3)

Barber would be a “D” player if he wasn’t so good in pass protection.  Still, he offers no value to the ‘Boys anymore as a runner or pass-catcher.  He’s actually a poor short-yardage runner now, converting on only 66.7 percent of plays with 1-3 yards-to-go.

30.  Igor Olshansky:  C- (70.2)

Olshansky is supposedly a stud against the run, but I gave him a “C” in run defense.  I’ll be pissed if he’s in Dallas next year.

31.  Josh Brent: D+ (69.0)

Brent wasn’t as good as people believe (due to low expectations), recording zero sacks, one quarterback hit, and three pressures.  I think he has potential to be a solid rotational player in the future, but right now he doesn’t possess starter ability.

32.  Alan Ball: D+ (67.7)

Ball yielded a 63.0 percent completion rate (despite playing deep on almost every play) and seven touchdowns (on only 27 targets).  I’m undecided on if Ball should stay in Dallas, but he damn well shouldn’t be starting at free safety.

33.  Barry Church: D (66.3)

I liked Church in the preseason, but he missed 28.6 percent of tackles and tallied a terrible 239.51 DCT Pass Defense Rating.  He has nowhere to go but up.

34.  Mike Jenkins: D (64.6)

I’d bet all the money I own that Jenkins will improve in 2011.  If he allows 11.17 yards-per-attempt again, I’d be in utter amazement.

35.  Marc Colombo: D- (63.0)

Nine sacks.  11 pressures.  40 quarterback hits.

————————————————

Last season, I handed out nine As, 13 Bs, 11 Cs, and two Ds.  The Cowboys’ lack of 2010 success was depicted in the overall player grades, as the number of As dropped to only two this season, while the number of Ds jumped to five (there were 16 Bs and 12 Cs).

Average Position Grades

T1. Tight Ends: B+ (89.5)
T1.  Outside Linebackers: B+ (89.5)
3.  Quarterbacks: B (83.5)
4.  Wide Receivers: B- (80.2)
5.  Inside Linebackers: B- (80.1)
6.  Running Backs:  C+ (78.8)
7.  Offensive Line: C+ (78.1)
8.  Cornerbacks: C (75.0)
9.  Defensive Line: C (74.3)
10.  Safeties: C- (73.7)

Although this list is a good baseline for talent evaluation, it isn’t actually how I would rate the positions.  This is because 1) the grades above are for the 2010 season only and 2) they are simply the averages of all players at a position (which may not be the best way to do things since the impact of one player isn’t necessarily the same of another. . .Alan Ball vs. Barry Church, for example).

Perhaps a more proper method of assigning overall position grades is to alter the weight each player contributes to his position by factoring in the number of snaps he played.  Thus, Ball’s grade would count 8.29 times as much as that of Church (987 snaps vs. 119).

After factoring in snap counts, here are the revised position grades:

Weighted Position Grades

1. Tight Ends: A- (90.0)
2. Outside Linebackers: B+ (89.3)
3. Quarterbacks: B- (83.0)
4. Wide Receivers: B- (81.0)
5. Running Backs:  B- (80.9)
6. Inside Linebackers: C+ (79.3)
7. Offensive Line: C+ (77.9)
8. Safeties: C (76.4)
9. Defensive Line: C (75.3)
10. Cornerbacks:  C (74.0)

No dramatic differences, but still interesting nonetheless.  The Cowboys’ 2010 decline is also evident in the number of players I labeled as ‘declining’ (in red), jumping from six (in 2009) to 10.  The good news is the number of players who I expect to perform better in 2011 is the same as last season–13.  A lot of that has to do with players like Jenkins, Bowen, and Austin who simply underperformed so much in 2010 that they’re bound to play better next season.

And finally, listed below are the most overrated and underrated players on the Dallas Cowboys (in no particular order).  These choices are based on a combination of the 2010 grades and public perception.  Thus, guys like Colombo and Ball aren’t overrated because everyone knows they are that bad, while players like Ware and Witten aren’t considered underrated because their talent is clear.

Overrated

Jay Ratliff, Bradie James, Keith Brooking, Marion Barber, Igor Olshansky, Josh Brent, Barry Church, Doug Free

Underrated

Victor Butler, Martellus Bennett, Gerald Sensabaugh, Kyle Kosier, Orlando Scandrick, Sean Lee

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There are bound to be some of you who disagree with these rankings.  Explain why below.

By Jonathan Bales

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.

By Jonathan Bales

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

Jonathan Bales

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

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

No. 1-7:  How to Stop Michael Vick

DON’T let Vick roll out to his left.

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

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

DO blitz from the right side of the defense.

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

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

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

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

DON’T place a spy on Vick.

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

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

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

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

DO zone blitz often.

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

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

DO play nickel more than usual.

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

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

No. 8-14:  How to Beat the Rest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DO throw a lot of screens.

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

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

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

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

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

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

From my Cowboys-Colts post-game article:

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

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

DO increase Tashard Choice’s workload just a bit.

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

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

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

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

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

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By Jonathan Bales

Cowboys vs. Packers Week 9 Post-Film Study Review: What We Learned About Dallas

Jonathan Bales

  • By my count, Packers cornerback Charles Woodson blitzed 11 times–all on the same play.  Like I mentioned in my post-game notes, outside linebacker Clay Matthews would twist way outside, forcing Marc Colombo to follow him.  Woodson would blitz from the slot into the vacated area.  It took until the final drive of the game for Dallas to realize they should throw hot to the slot receiver.  On the majority of offensive formations, the running back should have recognized the blitz and stepped up.  The reason it worked so well for Green Bay was because this guy had his worst game as a pro. . .

  • Felix Jones.  He played absolutely horribly.  He continually missed assignments in pass protection and got his quarterback killed.  I attributed two of the four sacks to him (the others went to Colombo and Doug Free), but he blew his assignment on a bunch of other plays that just didn’t result in sacks.  He was playing so poorly that he needed to come out of the game in the fourth quarter, only to be replaced by. . .
  • Marion Barber. . .not Tashard Choice.  Despite being told he would receive a “heavy workload” this week, Choice didn’t get into the game until midway through the final quarter.  He received only three carries, all coming with the Cowboys down 38 points.  To me, this is one of the worst mistakes the coaches made this season.  If you don’t want to play the guy, then fine, but don’t tell him he’s going to receive significant playing time.  You never lie to your players.  Choice was reportedly nearly in tears after the game, wondering why the Cowboys didn’t implement the gameplan they installed all week.
  • I won’t say too much about this because I think it is clear now, but Wade Phillips must go.  His car isn’t at Valley Ranch this morning (as of 10 a.m.), so there’s a good chance he’s already been canned.  As soon as I find out more I will post it here.
  • The Cowboys ran only 10 plays in Packers territory, and just five until the last drive.
  • 40 of the 48 offensive plays came with the same personnel package: one tight end, three receivers, and one running back.
  • 35 of the 48 offensive plays came out of Shotgun.
  • Sticking to form, the Cowboys motioned early in the game–on 10 of the first 14 plays.  They motioned only twice in the final 34.
  • Jon Kitna hasn’t been afraid to call audibles.  He checked out of six plays on Sunday night–three passes for 20 yards and three runs for 10 yards.  Two of the three runs were draws, helping to prove that the high frequency with which the Cowboys run a draw play following an audible is a result of Jason Garrett, not Tony Romo.  In my 2009 wacky stats article, I noted that 77.3 percent of Romo’s run audibles were draws.
  • Dallas ran 10 total draws for 33 yards, two playaction passes for eight yards, and six screens for 10 yards.
  • Kitna threw the ball 15+ yards on six occasions, and those plays totaled 86 yards (and an unnecessary roughness penalty on Green Bay).  Maybe the Cowboys want to read this article on throwing the ball downfield.
  • The Cowboys again refused to run counters.  They called one on the first drive.  It was unsuccessful, so they didn’t run another all game.  Nice.
  • I counted seven of Kitna’s passes as being off-target.
  • Jason Witten came out of the game late, but he was in for 25 of the Cowboys’ pass plays.  He went into a route on 15 of them (60 percent).  The ‘Boys yielded three of their sacks when he was in a route.
  • The Packers blitzed or showed blitz on 29 plays, even coming after Kitna up until and including the final drive.  It must have been like child’s play for Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers.  The Cowboys gained only 91 yards on Green Bay’s 20 blitzes, but 71 of those came on two plays.  That means that the Cowboys gained an incredible 20 total yards on the Packers’ 18 other blitzes.
  • One the nine plays that Green Bay showed blitz but didn’t come, the Cowboys gained 37 total yards, giving up one sack and throwing one pick.

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By Jonathan Bales

Why stats show Dallas Cowboys will make playoffs

Jonathan Bales

Regular readers know I am a stats-nut and I fully believe math always “wins” in the end–the most likely scenarios, given a sufficient sample size, come to fruition the most frequently.

It’s tough to find anything comforting about a 1-3 start (and an upcoming schedule that includes a road contest against a desperate Vikings team, two crucial games against the New York Giants, and trip to Lambeau Field).  And as difficult as it may be right now, trust me when I tell you the Cowboys, despite all the penalties and mental errors, are a much better team than their record indicates.  In fact, if the Cowboys were to play the exact same games with the exact same quality of play, I’d be confident in saying they’d likely be 2-2 or even 3-1.

But how is that possible?  Doesn’t the better football team (on any particular day) always come out the victor?  Not at all.  You’ve seen games where one team (usually Dallas) dominates the majority of the game, only to lose in the end due to the unfortunate outcome of just a few plays.  The Cowboys’ season-opener was a perfect example of that.

Even with the Cowboys’ mediocrity thus far in 2010, they are “unlucky” to be 1-3.  Despite the infuriating lackadaisical play, the Cowboys “should be” at least .500.

Need some numbers?  Over at NFL Forecast, they’re still declaring the Cowboys to be the (big-time) favorite to win the NFC East.  According to their numbers, the ‘Boys have a 51 percent chance of winning the division and a 71 percent chance of making the playoffs in general.

NFL Forecast uses efficiency ratings, not just game outcomes, to determine a team’s chances of succeeding in the future.  Remember, good play doesn’t necessarily equate to winning, and there are a ton of statistics that are more representative of a team’s talent than its record.

My buddy Brian Burke at Advanced NFL Stats calculates a team efficiency stat known as “Success Rate”:

SR is only counting up successes and failures, so it excludes the magnitude of play results. The more random types of outcomes, such as turnovers and very long plays are counted only as a single success or failure, no different than a 6 yard gain on first down or a stop on 3rd down. It also considers a successful red zone play no differently than one at midfield.

As I’ve been playing around with SR, I’ve noticed a few things. First, it correlates well with winning. And second, it correlates well with itself, meaning it is relatively stable throughout the season. These are the two attributes we want in a stat for it to be predictive of future outcomes.

A “success” is any play that increased a team’s “expected points,” and a failure is any play that decreases EP.  And according to Burke, the Cowboys have been the NFL’s second-most “successful” team in 2010.  They are increasing their EP on 49.8 percent of offensive plays–third-best in the league, and on 57.6 percent of defensive plays–fifth-best in the NFL.

Success rate and expected points aren’t just some bogus numbers that have no relation to wins.  EP calculations are based on years and years of NFL data collection.  How much is a 4th and 3 conversion at your opponent’s 35-yard line “worth”?  EP will tell you.  Year in and year out, the teams with the highest EPs are among the most successful.

Through only four games, however, the sample size of wins/losses just isn’t large enough to be conclusively indicative of a team’s talent, nor can it be used as a strong barometer for future success.

Think about it.  There seems to be a big difference between a 2-2 team and one that is 3-1 (at least emotionally), but what is that difference in reality?  Maybe a single play in just one game?  A shoestring tackle here, a fingertip catch there.

Still, there are those who will claim that the “should haves” mean nothing–the Cowboys are 1-3, and that’s it.  How could they be anything other than their record?  While I generally disagree with this assessment, it is true in some sense.  The Cowboys’ record may or may not be representative of how they’ll play in the future, but whether it is or not does nothing to alter the fact that they are 1-3.

For that 1-3 record to change for the better, the Cowboys need to disregard the “should haves” and focus on improving today.  If they do that, they should find themselves playing into mid-January (at least).  The stats never lie.

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By Jonathan Bales

Week 5 Preview: Dallas Cowboys vs. Tennessee Titans Game Day Manifesto, Game Plan


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 as a “Game Day Manifesto.”  You’ll be able to find the “Manifesto” category under the “GameDay” tab above.

This week’s Manifesto also contains my Game Plan for how Dallas can beat Tennessee this Sunday.

Now on to this week’s Manifesto. . .

What to Watch for Dallas vs. Tennessee

How will the Cowboys’ defense attack a rather one-dimensional Titans offense?

The Broncos did a fair job in exposing the lack of diversity of the Titans’ offense.  Chris Johnson and Vince Young combine to form the league’s top rushing attack, but that’s all they have.  Young is a sub-par pocket passer and receivers Nate Washington, Justin Gage, and Kenny Britt are, well, bad (relatively speaking, of course).

So how will the Cowboys attack Tennessee?  There’s really two schools of thought here.  They can sit back in safe coverages while still maintaining an aggressive, run-first attitude, or they can blitz early and often, knowing that it will be difficult for Young to beat them with his arm.  Let’s see what Coach Phillips has in store.

Will the Cowboys approach this game as if their backs are against the wall?

It’s quite obvious the Cowboys play their best when they believe they are the “underdog.”  Well, they are going to be favored to win this game.  It will be crucial that they remember they are still just 1-2 and a loss could be debilitating.  If their mindset is that of an underdog, they should be fine.

Will Kyle Kosier, Jason Witten, and Dez Bryant all be ready to roll?

Kosier and Witten both sprained their MCLs last week, while Bryant is suffering from a multitude of ailments.  It looks as though all three will be ready to go for Dallas, though, which would give the team a big boost.

If only one of these players could play for Dallas, however, I would actually take Kosier.  Witten and Bryant are superior players, but there is more depth at both tight end and wide receiver than left guard.  The dropoff from Kosier to Holland is rather large, in my view.

Can DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer dominate what is perhaps the league’s top offensive tackle duo in Michael Roos and David Stewart?

Roos and Stewart are tremendous tackles and really the cornerstones of the Titans’ rushing offense.  It takes a dominant offensive line to run the ball effectively when the other team knows it is coming, and Tennessee has the ability to do just that.  Ware and Spencer will need to maintain a run-first mentality this week, which should be no problem.  If they can do that and force the Titans to throw the football, they should be able to eventually put some pressure on Young.

Will Dallas spy Vince Young?

The Cowboys may opt to designate a player (such as safety Gerald Sensabaugh, for example) as a “spy” on Young.  That player would simply shadow Young’s movements and make sure he doesn’t get far on the ground, allowing the defense to play man coverage without worrying about the cornerbacks running all the way downfield.

I personally don’t like using a spy.  It really limits the defense’s flexibility and many times the spy isn’t even as athletic as the player he’s trying to shadow.  Instead, the Cowboys would be better off playing sound, yet aggressive defense.

DOs and DON’Ts vs. Tennessee

DO blitz up the middle.

As I stated above, Roos and Stewart are two of the NFL’s best offensive tackles.  Tennessee is still strong in the middle of their offensive line, but there is definitely a dropoff.  The Cowboys may be able to exploit it by running some innovative blitz packages right at the Titans’ guards at center.  Plus, Ware and Spencer are usually capable of holding down the fort outside.

DON’T worry about anyone other than Chris Johnson and Vince Young (running).

The Cowboys’ defensive philosophy will be insanely simple: stop the Titans’ rushing game.  That’s it.  Of course, that’s easier said than done.  While I do think the Cowboys should blitz up the middle when they bring extra defenders, I also believe the team would benefit from limiting their blitzes in general.  They can still put extra defenders in the box to stop Johnson and Young, and playing a little more zone coverage than usual will make it easier for the defense to diagnose Young’s scrambles.

DO run quite a few playaction passes.

Tennessee’s run defense is stout–they’ve allowed just 92.0 yards-per-game despite playing run-oriented teams like the Steelers and Jets.  I’ve watched two of their games on film, and while their secondary is certainly talented, the mindset of the defense seems to be to stop the run first, particularly early in the game.

The Cowboys may be able to take advantage of that by running some playaction passes.  As always, early success on the ground will aid in effectively completing that task.

I also think the Cowboys should take some shots down the field following playaction looks.  Jason Garrett seems to be trying that more often this year, as 25 percent of the team’s 24 playaction passes have been thrown 15+ yards.

Want to know how radically different the Cowboys’ playaction approach is from last season?  Check out these numbers.  Through three games, Dallas has attempted one less pass of 20+ yards off of a playaction look as all of last season!

DON’T run the ball inside often–get it outside with tosses, counters, and powers.

The middle of the Titans’ defense is really talented.  Tony Brown and Jason Jones are really underrated defensive tackles, while Stephen Tulloch is a force against the run at linebacker.

The Cowboys have already shown they are going to run the ball outside far more often than in 2009, and they should maintain that strategy this week.  I would particularly like to see more counters, of which Dallas has run just FOUR all season.  Felix Jones alone averaged 10.0 yards-per-carry on a ridiculous 22 counters last season.  Check out my in-depth counter stats here.

DO disguise blitzes more effectively.

I love Coach Phillips as a defensive coordinator, but his blitzes are painfully obvious.  Teams such as the Packers employ innovative “Psycho” packages that implement just one linemen and a bunch talented edge rushers who move around chaotically pre-snap.  The defense works wonders in passing situations, as the offense has no idea who will be rushing.

I understand the Cowboys want to maintain their gap responsibilities, but I think situations such as 3rd and medium to long are times to get more creative.  Even showing blitz five or 10 times throughout a game can keep an offense off-balance.  It’s worked for the Cowboys’ opposition thus far, anyway.

DON’T attack Cortland Finnegan as much as Ryan Mouton and Alterraun Verner.

Finnegan is an All-Pro cornerback who is as stout against the run as he is versus the pass.  He has tremendous ball skills and an incredible ability to make things happen once the ball is in his hands.

The usual starter opposite Finnegan, rookie Jason McCourty, is out with a broken arm.  The Cowboys should use unique motions and shifts to make sure the receiver who is the first read on any particular play is covered by either Mouton or Verner (whoever starts) as much as possible.  Plus, whichever player doesn’t start will still be on the field for most of Dallas’ three-receiver sets.

DO run a lot of three-receiver sets until the Titans prove they can put heavy pressure on Tony Romo.

I’ve called for the Cowboys to use a lot of two-tight end sets the last few weeks to aid the offensive tackles in pass protection.  It has actually worked really well, particularly against Houston.

This week, however, the Cowboys don’t face a pass-rusher the caliber of Julius Peppers or Mario Williams.  Instead, they have Jason Babin and David Ball.  Until those two prove they can beat Doug Free and Marc Colombo, the Cowboys should line up in a lot of three-receiver looks to spread out the Tennessee defense.  It would also force the Titans to bring cornerbacks Alterraun Verner and Ryan Mouton on the field.  Advantage Dallas.

DON’T overdo it on draw plays.

In the preseason, I called for Dallas to limit their draw plays.  I asked for them to bring it back in a big way in Houston, and they did (with much success).

This week, I think they should attack Tennessee with other types of runs.  The reason is that the Tennessee defense possesses both discipline and a run-first attitude.  They aren’t going to go flying into their pass drops the moment they see Romo drop back into a short pass set.

Game Plan

Throw the kitchen sink at Tennessee immediately.

The Cowboys have been notoriously slow starters on offense in recent years.  I just did a study on their early performance this season, and while they’ve improved coming out of halftime (as compared to ’09), the team could really benefit from putting up a few points early in ballgames.

To do that, the Cowboys should save nothing this week.  Whatever “money” plays Garrett has concocted for Tennessee should be called in the first few drives.  Early scores will force Tennessee to do what they don’t want to do: throw the football.

Keep running it to the weak side.

Less than one-in-five Cowboys running plays in 2009 was to the weak side of the formation.  This year, the Cowboys have nearly doubled that rate and they are still seeing more success on those runs.  I have drawn up what I consider a “perfect” run play for Dallas this week (below).

There are a few reasons I love this play (which the Cowboys certainly don’t label as I do). . .

  • It is a weak side run (see above).
  • There is a pre-snap motion opposite the play-side into TE Trips Left–an overloaded formation.
  • As I stated earlier, the Cowboys need to run more counters.  They’ve run only four all year despite a ton of success on them last season.  Expect about that many on Sunday alone.
  • The key block on this play would be right tackle Marc Colombo on Titans OLB Jamie Winborn.  Yes please.
  • Running out of “passing” formations tends to be quite effective.
  • And lastly, the Cowboys need to mix up their play-calling with certain personnel on the field.  More on that below. . .

Mix up personnel-based play-calling.

In a recent study on the Cowboys’ play-calling with certain personnel packages, I noted that Garrett has displayed a run/pass imbalance in a variety of personnel packages.  While we would expect the numbers to be skewed due to game situations (the Cowboys certainly won’t run much in 3rd and long or pass much in 3rd and short) and matchups (you usually want to bring Dez Bryant on the field to throw the football), the percentages could still be a bit more comparable.

Plus, game theory dictates the Cowboys should run more out of spread formations, and pass out of tight ones.  Remember, for everything the Cowboys do, the defense will counter.  That’s why versatile players, such as well-rounded tight ends, are so valuable.

By the way, Bob Sturm has a good bit about the Cowboys’ use of Felix Jones over at his blog.

Press the Titans’ wide receivers.

I think the Cowboys’ cornerbacks should press more often in general.  Against the Titans, I think the duo of Nate Washington and Justin Gage are too small (Washington) and slow (Gage) to get off of press coverage.  Note that Gage will be questionable with a hamstring injury, in which case Kenny Britt would get the start.

The Cowboys don’t press much in zone coverage, but I think this week is a good one to do so.  The primary reason is the next component of my Game Plan.

Don’t blitz too often, but try to zone blitz when possible.

I’ve already stated I think the Cowboys should blitz primarily up the middle against the Titans.  Not only can they take advantage of the weakest component of the Tennessee offensive line, but it will also get linebacker Keith Brooking out of coverage (where he has struggled).

Nonetheless, I don’t think Dallas should bring heat too often.  First, blitzing to the “wrong” side and missing Chris Johnson could spell disaster for the ‘Boys.  They need to do everything possible to limit the big play.  That play would almost certainly come from CJ2K.

Second, blitzes generally force defenses to play man coverage.  With a quarterback as mobile as Young, defenders with their back turned to the passer can be big trouble for a defense.

There is a way to blitz and still be in a fairly safe coverage: the zone blitz.  Here is an example of a zone blitz the Cowboys used against Houston.

Plus, if the Cowboys combine this idea with the previous one (pressing the Titans’ receivers), they could potentially confuse Young as to their coverage.

Be really creative with motions and shifts to create favorable matchups on offense.

The Titans’ defense is strong, but it isn’t without its weaknesses.  If the Cowboys can find ways to get Miles Austin on Alterraun Verner or Jason Witten on Jamie Winborn, they could do some damage.

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By Jonathan Bales

Dallas Cowboys Initial Drive Stats Thus Far in 2010


Jonathan Bales

In a previous post, I detailed why a major problem with the ’09 Cowboys was their inability to come out of the gates on fire (whether it was to start the game or the second half).  The Cowboys averaged significantly less yards-per-play and points-per-drive to start the game and second half than on “non-initial” drives.

I believe initial drives are a tremendous indicator of the strength of an offensive coordinator.  It is during these drives that he has more control and influence over the game than any others.  On the opening drive, his plays are scripted, meaning he had all week to determine which ones were most suitable to attack the defense.  The opening drive in the second half is the first during which an offense can implement its halftime adjustments.

Jason Garrett does a lot of things well, but I think adaptability is his biggest weakness.  We’ve certainly seen him improve with his abundance of weak side runs, play-calling alterations with particular personnel, and 3rd down runs this season.  However, I’ve always felt he has such confidence in himself and his players that he believes the 11 men on offense will always execute.  But being an offensive coordinator is about maximizing the likelihood of success for an offense, not stubbornly calling the same plays until they work.

Below are the results of the Cowboys’ initial drives this season.  Note that, at only three games into the season, the sample size is far from ideal.  It’s small enough that one big play could throw off the results, so we need to take these particular statistics in with a grain of salt.  Still, the Cowboys had a bye. . .what else are we going to talk about?

As you can see, the Cowboys aren’t really finding much success on initial drives (at least in terms of points).  They’re averaging 0.5 points-per-drive on the drives to start the game and second half–significantly down from last year’s rates.  Dallas is also managing just 4.22 yards-per-play to open the game.

However, despite managing just a field goal on the three drives to open the second half, the offense is tallying 7.33 yards-per-play.  The yards-per-play number is more significant than the points at this time because it is less susceptible to fluctuations.  For example, if David Buehler made an extra field goal on one initial second half drive, the points-per-drive would double.  Thus, yards-per-play is a better indicator of the team’s success.

So while the Cowboys could certainly benefit from coming out firing to start the football game, it does appear as though Garrett may have found a way to become a bit more adaptable this season.  Further evidence of that comes in the Cowboys’ second drive of each second half this season.  Halftime adjustments aren’t applied to just the first drive of the second half, so those second drive numbers can be of help to us as well.

On the second drive of the second half this season, the Cowboys are averaging a robust 7.65 yards-per-play and have scored two touchdowns.  When combined with the aforementioned second half initial drive statistics, Dallas is averaging an incredible 7.52 yards-per-play (on 38 plays) on the two drives coming out of halftime. Quite an improvement from last season.  The 17 total points scored also represents an impressive 2.83 points-per-drive.

Thus, I feel confident in saying Garrett is improving in his halftime adjustments.  If he and the offense can find a way to start the game in the same manner in which they begin the second half, the Cowboys should find a much easier time winning football games in the future.



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By Jonathan Bales

Analyzing Pre-Game DOs and DON’Ts for Cowboys vs. Chargers



Jonathan Bales

Before the Cowboys’ third preseason game in San Diego, I published a list of DOs and DON’Ts for Dallas.  Let’s see how they performed:

DO keep tight ends in to help right tackle Robert Brewster in pass protection.

In my original post-game notes, I remarked that it seemed as though the Cowboys actually let Brewster out on an island at right tackle quite a bit.  I was wrong.

The Cowboys threw 11 passes with Brewster at right tackle, and tight end Jason Witten stayed in to block on five of them (45.5 percent).  In my study on why Witten should go out in a route more often in the future, I noted that he did so on 77.1 percent of pass plays in 2009.

Thus, as I suggested, Dallas did leave him in to block more often than usual.

Result: Pass

DON’T play Tony Romo for more than a few series OR use him on playaction when he’s in the game.

Romo did stay in the game for nearly the entire first half, but due to the Cowboys’ offensive woes, that ended up being just 17 plays (and four series).  Good job, Wade.

I suggested that Dallas not run any playaction passes with Romo in the game so that he would never have his back turned to the defense.  They ended up running just two playaction passes the entire game, and only one came with Romo at the helm.  That play involved a rather weak fake during which Romo never turned his head to the defense, so there was no added risk of injury.

Result: Pass

DO attempt a long field goal instead of punting.

The Cowboys never really got the chance to do this.  Buehler didn’t attempt a field goal all night.

Result: N/A

DON’T overdo it with rookies Sean Lee and Akwasi Owusu-Ansah.

I was surprised at the amount of reps the Cowboys gave to both rookies.  Now, Lee was forced into the game early due to a minor injury to Keith Brooking, but he stayed in until the end.  He did some great things and some poor ones, but the most important thing was that he looked, and stayed, healthy.

AOA got a lot of chances to return.  He looked a bit hesitant on kick returns and needs to secure the ball, but he flashed his skills on a 45-yard punt return that got called back.  As is usually the case with Dallas’ free safeties, he wasn’t “in” on a lot of plays–but he also didn’t yield any big ones either.

Result: Fail

DO give Alex Barron some time at both left and right tackle.

This may have been an option. . .had Barron played.  We will likely see him next weekend against Houston.

Result: N/A

DON’T feel pressured to (necessarily) run the ball in the red zone.

The Cowboys ran four plays in the red zone all night–three with Romo from the eight-yard line, and one with Kitna from the 19-yard line.

I’ve showed why passing the ball in the red zone can still be statistically superior to running the ball (when outside of the 10-yard line and on first down in particular).

Three of the Cowboys’ four red zone plays were passes, and all four were the right call, statistically, for the situation.  The Cowboys ran the ball (unsuccessfully) on 1st and Goal from the eight-yard line, then threw the ball twice following that (the third down play going for a touchdown).

The 1st and 10 play from the 19-yard line should have been a pass, and it was–a touchdown from Jon Kitna to Martellus Bennett.  I give Jason Garrett a lot of crap, but maybe he’s improving.

Result: Pass

DO give Phil Costa a lot of time at center.

Costa did get a bunch of reps at center and he made the most of his opportunity.  There were no muffed snaps and he did a solid job blocking.  In my opinion, he will secure a roster spot (probably at Travis Bright’s expense), barring a total meltdown.

Result: Pass

DON’T give center Andre Gurode a ton of playing time.

Gurode stayed in the game for the first half, but it was just 18 plays.

Result: Pass

DON’T allow Mat McBriar to do much directional punting.

It’s impossible to know whether it was intentional, but McBriar did boom some punts to give the Cowboys’ coverage unit some opportunities to make plays.  Overall, they covered them pretty well.

Result: Pass

DO give Jon Kitna more time with the first-team offense.

Kitna got some time with the first-teamers, but not exactly as much as I was hoping: one play (a strong side dive) before the end of the first half.

Result: Fail

DO run some dive plays behind Montrae Holland.

It looked like the Cowboys made a conscious effort to run behind Holland.  Of the seven first half runs by Dallas, Holland was at the point-of-attack on four of them.  The Cowboys gained only eight total yards on those plays, although Holland didn’t appear to do an awful job on his blocks.  He also performed well in pass protection.

Result: Pass

Conclusions

Seven ‘passes,’ two ‘fails,’ and two ‘N/As.’  Overall, the Cowboys did a solid job of using this game to accomplish the task which I believe to be the most important in the preseason: analyze your unknown commodities.

——————————-

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