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The DC Times
A New Way to Look at the Cowboys, NFL, and Fantasy Football
Before the 2010 season, I wrote an article detailing three ways by which the Cowboys could improve their poor 2009 red zone performance. In addition to targeting Jason Witten and simply getting to the red zone more often, I argued that then-offensive coordinator Jason Garrett should call more first down runs inside the opponent’s 10-yard line and more first down passes between the 10 and 20-yard lines. The reason for this was evidence from Advanced NFL Stats that the expected points of first down passes far outweighs that of first down runs on all areas of the field except inside the opponent’s 10-yard line.
While football minds have labeled the area inside the 20-yard line as the ‘red zone,’ the “real” red zone–the one in which play-calling must change–is actually inside the 10-yard line. Until that point, an offense’s strategy shouldn’t really alter. The graph to the left exemplifies the expected points of running and passing on first down. Notice that running only becomes a superior first down strategy around the opponent’s 10-yard line.
In 2009, Garrett called a first down run on 21 of 32 plays inside the opponent’s 10-yard line (65.6 percent). That number wasn’t horrible, and the Cowboys found the end zone on eight of those runs. Garrett did a nice job of running even more inside the 10-yard line in 2010, doing so on 20 of 27 first downs (74.1 percent). While the yards-per-carry in this area wasn’t tremendous (upside is limited), the Cowboys gained just one total yard on their seven pass attempts in the same vicinity.
I specifically wanted to see Garrett call more pass attempts outside of the 10-yard line in 2010, and he did. In 2009, the ‘Boys threw on just 12 of 29 first downs between the opponent’s 10 and 20-yard lines (41.4 percent). I called for Garrett to increase that rate to around 65 percent. He ended up calling a first down pass in this range on 17 of 26 first down plays–good for 65.4 percent. You’re welcome, coach. You can see in the graph to the right the efficiency on pass plays skyrocketed outside of the opponent’s 10-yard line (on the 13, 14 and 15-yard lines alone, the ‘Boys threw five passes for 50 yards and two touchdowns). Of course this leap is to be expected with more room with which to work, but even in terms of a relative scale, the Cowboys (and all NFL teams) are more efficient on first down passes than first down runs when outside of the opponent’s 10-yard line.
Note that the black line refers to the run/pass ratio and the red and blue lines indicate the yards-per-play. Kudos to Jason Garrett on following the statistics and altering his play-calling. It’s really no wonder that Dallas saw a gigantic leap in red zone efficiency in 2010.
Over the years, defenses have adjusted as to not allow big plays–you see it in Tampa 2 schemes and even Coach Phillips’ defense. Make teams beat you again and again underneath.
If you’ve noticed, more and more teams have transitioned to spread offenses (like the Patriots, Saints, etc.) to combat Cover 2 schemes. The high-percentage passes that are a staple of spread offenses work because of the defenses’ philosophy–don’t give up the big play. Spread offenses are an answer to the Cover 2 scheme.
In recent years, however, I think we’ve started to see defenses adapt. Less and less teams are playing Cover 2, instead emphasizing aggressive play and forcing turnovers. The Saints are again the perfect example, as their scheme is one that will yield the occasional big play, but it creates big play opportunities for their defenders as well.
So, how does all of this relate to how often offenses should throw the ball downfield? I raised the previous points to exemplify that game theory dictates that there is no inherently optimal strategy, simply one that is best at any particular time against your opponent’s specific strategy. Thus, there is no “X” percentage of plays at which it is optimal to go deep, or run the ball, or anything else.
Think of it as a giant game of rock, paper, scissors. When the majority of the league is throwing a rock, it’s pretty obvious that you can take advantage of that by throwing paper. But as the league transitions, so must you. When Cover 2 defenses were in vogue (which is still the case with many teams), the spread offense exposed weaknesses. As more and more teams abandon that scheme, though, offenses must change. The first team to recognize trends and adapt will win. The NFL is really like a huge stock market.
At that point in the season, we saw quarterbacks with a deep ball percentage (defined as throws 15+ yards downfield) of 23+ checking in with 5.17 yards-per-attempt. Of quarterbacks in the 20-23 percent range, the average YPA was slightly lower–5.00. Finally, of quarterbacks with less than one deep throw in every five passes, the YPA plummeted to 4.31.
2010 Quarterback Efficiency by Pass Depth
Of course, there were certainly limitations to this data. First, YPA isn’t the only stat that matters in deciphering a quarterback’s value. We might expect the YPA of quarterbacks with few downfield throws to be slightly lower than other quarterbacks, but those passers also have fewer negative plays. One might hypothesize that the sack rates and interception rates would be greater for quarterbacks who throw it deep more often. Thus, the short-throwing passers might make up for a decrease in YPA by completing more passes and putting their teams in more manageable down-and-distances.
When we analyze the data, however, we see this isn’t the case. The success rate and AYPA (adjusted yards-per-attempt) for quarterbacks with less than 20 percent deep throws is lower than that for passers with 23+ percent deep throws. Note: Success rate is the percentage of throws that lead to an increase in expected points, while AYPA takes into account sacks and interceptions. One of the reasons the AYPA for deep passers is greater than that for quarterbacks who throw short more often is that, as you can see, the short passers actually throw more picks.
So is this data enough to conclude the Cowboys should air it out more frequently? The key, in my view, is personnel. With a starting quarterback who lacks elite “traditional” accuracy (Romo’s completion percentage is tremendous because he’s able to buy time to allow receivers to become wide open, but I wouldn’t describe him as having top-notch accuracy) and receivers who excel at getting deep and attacking the football (Dez Bryant, Miles Austin, and even Roy Williams all possess outstanding body control and ball skills, but none are incredible route-runners), it’s clear to me that a higher percentage of big play opportunities would benefit this team.
I apologize for failing to post an article yesterday, as I’ve been entrenched in the Cowboys’ 2010 playaction pass numbers. I love studying Jason Garrett’s use of playaction, particularly because of the statistical “anomalies” that arise from season to season (although the consistency of these numbers actually makes them anything but anomalies). The idea that such seemingly unique numbers can develop on such a consistent basis is absolutely fascinating to me.
Of the 109 playaction passes, 14 were thrown 20+ yards downfield (12.8 percent).
2009 Comparison: 4.8 percent
Analysis: Garrett certainly made an effort to get the ball downfield following playaction looks, but this was one of the only areas in which he improved.
Dallas ran screen passes on 53 of their 528 non-playaction passes (10.0 percent). That screen rate nearly doubled on playaction passes to 19.3 percent.
2009 Comparison:22.9 percent screen rate following playaction; 7.1 percent otherwise
Analysis: We see a bit of an improvement here, but that’s probably due to the higher overall screen rate. The Cowboys did average a solid 7.76 yards-per-pass on playaction screens, due in large part to Felix Jones’ average of 15.0 yards-per-catch on those sort of plays.
Of the 100 playaction passes attempted, just 43 were to the right side of the field. **NOTE: There were only 100 playaction passes attempted due to six sacks and three scrambles, i.e. 109 total playaction passes called.
2009 Comparison:I say “just” 43 because 63.9 percent of 2009 playaction passes went to the right side.
Analysis: 2009 seems like an aberration.
The Cowboys still ran just FOUR playaction passes with 1-4 yards-to-go. That is only 2.96 percent of the 135 overall plays in that range.
2009 Comparison:4/132 (3.03 percent)
Analysis: Incredible. These are the kind of numbers that get me excited (I’m a strange individual). Seriously though, the EXACT same number of playaction passes with 1-4 yards-to-go on nearly the exact same number of opportunities.
The idea that Garrett doesn’t utilize playaction in “obvious” running situations is mind-boggling to me. These numbers must change in 2011.
62 of the 109 total playaction passes were with exactly 10 yards-to-go. That’s a rate of 56.9 percent.
2009 Comparison:59.3 percent
Analysis: Wow. The similarity of those percentages alone is nothing short of amazing, but the fact that Garrett utilizes playaction so much in such a specific situation is just as incredible. I’m not necessarily against this tactic, as the majority of these passes came during 1st and 10 situations when most defenses, mistakenly, are playing to stop the run. Still, the rate should be a bit lower if for no other reason than an increase in short-yardage playaction looks.
The Cowboys again ran more playaction passes with 20+ yards-to-go (six) than with 1-4 yards-to-go (four).
2009 Comparison: Five playaction passes with 20+ yards-to-go; four with 1-4 yards-to-go
Analysis: For the life of me, I cannot figure out why Garrett calls playaction passes in such obvious passing situations. It isn’t as if the Cowboys have been successful on them, averaging just 4.5 yards-per-pass. Again, the consistency here is astounding to me.
Only 24 of the 109 total playaction passes came with less than 10 yards-to-go. That’s just 22.0 percent.
2009 Comparison:19.8 percent
Analysis: I feel like I’m stating the obvious in claiming that someone who has watched football for only a week would realize that, perhaps, more than one-fifth of a team’s playaction passes should come with less than 10 yards-to-go.
Spread vs. Tight
The other playaction study I published this offseason broke down the Cowboys’ playaction passes from spread and tight formations. I noticed that, contrary to my prediction, the ‘Boys were far more successful on playaction looks from spread formations, averaging over four more yards-per-attempt in 2010.
I’m still not entirely sure why we see these numbers. It’s possible that a small sample size is at work, although the large discrepancy in passing efficiency seems to make the 53 play sample size a bit more valuable.
My best guess is that the situations in which Garrett calls playaction passes (i.e. very few “obvious” running situations) is the largest contributor here. If the Cowboys ran more short-yardage playaction passes, I presume the efficiency of playaction looks from tight formations would increase due to defensive expectations. Short-yardage + tight formation = expectation of run.
Overall Playaction Efficiency
You can see below that the Cowboys simply aren’t getting the job done on playaction passes. The 6.29 yards-per-play is atrocious, particularly when you consider the situations in which playaction passes are generally run: ones with high upside. With Garrett calling so many playaction passes with 10 yards-to-go (56.9 percent), we know the Cowboys are generally in “normal” down-and-distances–not short-yardage, and not too many 2nd or 3rd and longs.
The sack rate on playaction passes is down from 8.7 percent last year, but the sack rate in general decreased in 2010. You can also see quite a nice completion rate on playaction passes, but looks can be deceiving. . .
Screen Passes Following Playaction
As I mentioned above, Garrett loves to dial up screen passes following playaction looks, doing so 19.3 percent of the time in 2010. That’s about double the screen rate on non-playaction passes (and certainly a major reason for the high completion rate).
One of the reasons Garrett utilizes a playaction look before many of his screens is because, often times, he isn’t running “traditional” screen passes to the running back. Instead, Garrett likes to suck the defense in toward the running back by showing playaction, then throw a quick screen or bubble screen to a receiver. Actually, 71.4 percent of playaction screen passes went to a player other than a running back. That rate dropped to just 40.0 percent on non-playaction screens.
It was relieving to see Garrett take some shots downfield following playaction looks this season, but I’d still like to see more than 12.8 percent of playaction passes travel 20+ yards. The Cowboys could probably maximize their playaction effectiveness by stretching the field on closer to 25 percent of playaction passes. At worst, the increased rate of deep pass attempts would open things up underneath.
It’s also obvious the ‘Boys desperately need more playaction passes in running situations. A less than three percent playaction rate in short-yardage situations (1-4 yards-to-go) is a joke, as is the 22 percent of playaction passes with less than 10-yards-to-go, and the 56.9 percent rate of playaction looks with exactly 10 yards-to-go. These numbers have remained uncannily stable from 2009, proving we’re witnessing something inherent to Garrett’s play-calling rather than an aberration.
Those of you who know me know I like the Garrett hire and I think he’ll improve considerably as a head coach. He’s certainly shown the ability to adapt in other areas of his coaching, but he’s late to the table on this one. Garrett is young, confident and aggressive, but if he doesn’t show the willingness to aggressively change his playaction calls, it will be difficult to reverse the team’s fortunes in 2011.
Of the 83 playaction passes, only FOUR were attempts of 20 yards or more. That is 4.8 percent of all pass plays attempted. The Cowboys threw the ball downfield 20 yards or more on 46 of the other 467 attempts, or 9.9 percent of all passes.
Dallas ran screen passes on 33 of their 467 non-playaction passes (7.1 percent). That screen rate more than tripled on playaction passes to 22.9 percent (19 of 83 passes).
Of the 83 playaction passes, 53, or 63.9 percent, were to the right side of the field (compared to just 37.0 percent on other passes).
The Cowboys ran only four (FOUR!) playaction passes all season with 1-4 yards-to-go. The number of plays on the season in that range: 132. Thus, Dallas ran playaction on just 3.03 percent of plays in situations with just 1-4 yards to go for a first down (situations with a legitimate threat of a run).
With 10 yards remaining, however, the Cowboys dialed up 54 play-action passes (59.3 percent of all playaction passes came on this ‘distance-to-go’).
The Cowboys actually ran one more playaction pass (five total) with 20+ yards-to-go than with 1, 2, 3 or 4 yards-to-go.
They also ran just 18 play-action passes with less than 10 yards left for a 1st down. Thus, just 19.8 percent of playaction passes came with less than 10 yards-to-go.
So, has Jason Garrett’s use of playaction passes improved in 2010? Kind of, but not enough. Here are some comparable notes from the 2010 season:
Of the 98 playaction passes, 13 have been thrown 20+ yards downfield (13.3 percent). This is certainly better than last year, but it is also one of the only areas in which Garrett has significantly improved.
Dallas has run screen passes on 48 of their 462 non-playaction passes (10.4 percent). That screen rate nearly doubled on playaction passes to 19.4 percent.
Of the 98 playaction passes attempted, just 38 (38.8 percent) were to the right side of the field. I think last year’s rate of 63.9 may have been an aberration.
The Cowboys still ran just FOUR playaction passes with 1-4 yards-to-go. That is only 3.2 percent of the 124 overall plays in that range.
59 of the 103 total playaction passes (five were sacks) have been with exactly 10 yards-to-go. That rate of 56.3 percent is comparable to that in 2009.
The Cowboys again ran more playaction passes with 20+ yards-to-go (five) than with 1-4 yards-to-go (four). Stunning.
Only 22 of the 103 total playaction passes came with less than 10 yards-to-go. That’s just 21.4 percent.
Overall, it’s shocking to me how incredibly similar these stats are from year to year. What are the odds the Cowboys would run the EXACT same number of playaction passes with 1-4 yards-to-go AND 20+ yards to go from 2009 to 2010? The rate of playaction looks from other ranges and the number that result in screen passes are eerily similar as well.
Garrett’s play-calling has certainly improved in a bunch of areas, but in the realm of playaction passes, the man needs an intervention.
After a horrid start to the 2010 campaign, the Cowboys have finally begun to right the ship. Unfortunately, their playoff hopes have sailed. The primary goal is always to win football games, but a close eye should be kept on the 2011 season. Here are 10 changes the Cowboys will look at making in the offseason to ensure that 2011 in no way resembles 2010.
10. Find Terence Newman’s eventual replacement
Newman certainly still has something left in the tank, but signs of his age are apparent. The Cowboys have been really poor at diagnosing potential problems before they become disastrous, i.e. this year’s offensive line. Dallas needs to find Newman’s replacement before he is a liability.
On a side note, I think the Cowboys might want to experiment with Newman at free safety a bit next season. Although tackling is completely different from the safety spot, I think Newman could handle it. At worst, he’d be comparable to Alan Ball. Plus, I think Newman’s ball skills are far superior when he’s in zone coverage as opposed to man-to-man.
9. Move Alan Ball back to cornerback
Ball has improved at free safety as of late, but he still leaves much to be desired. Moving him back to cornerback might be an option if the team finds itself weak at the cornerback spot. Don’t forget the Cowboys have promising rookie Akwasi Owusu-Ansah returning in 2011 and, if Newman can make the jump to free safety, Ball could return to his old spot. His versatility will help the ‘Boys no matter where he plays, but he’s probably better suited as a two-position backup than a starter.
8. Make Dez Bryant a focal point of the offense
It’s really unfortunate that Bryant is out for the season, but the Cowboys saw glimpses of a true playmaker this year. Bryant’s attitude, effort, and talent are undeniable. I love Miles Austin, but Bryant may already be the best receiver on this team. He should be the No. 1 option on offense in 2011, or at least 1A.
7. Cut Marion Barber
If you couldn’t tell Barber is slowing down, Tashard Choice’s game last week lets you know just how poor Barber was playing. The difference between the two players is monumental. The fact that Barber was starting so far into the season is a tragedy, and his presence on the roster in 2011 would be even more of one.
In my view, the Cowboys’ top two running backs are already on the roster. . .they just need to find that third guy.
6. Replace Keith Brooking
I loved Brooking’s addition to the Cowboys last season, but his diminishing skills are overriding his incredible leadership and experience. He’s been just okay against the run this season, but absolutely horrible in coverage. He has poor hips and fails to break down in space. It’s time for Sean Lee.
5. Overhaul defensive end position
Igor Olshansky. Marcus Spears. Stephen Bowen. Jason Hatcher. Not a single defensive end on the Cowboys is of starting quality, in my opinion. All four players are extremely limited in what they do, and only Hatcher has played up to his potential (at times) this season. The poor play of the defensive ends has been the primary reason for Anthony Spencer’s sub-par season, as offenses know they can block any of the ends with ease.
I think Hatcher will stay in 2011, but the others should go. Look for the Cowboys to address this spot early and often in the draft.
4. Cut Marc Colombo
I haven’t watched every right tackle in the league this year, but I still feel confident in saying Colombo has been one of the worst. He’s been below average in the run game (which is sad), and we all know how much he struggles in pass protection. By my count, he’s given up a team-high five sacks, and that’s with a ton of help from the tight ends and running backs. I have a bad feeling Colombo will open next season as a starter, but the Cowboys would be better off with Sam Young.
2. Give Tashard Choice, Martellus Bennett, Victor Butler, and Sean Lee more playing time
Choice and Lee are obvious, but many people might be surprised to see the other two names on this list. Don’t be. While I love Jason Witten and think he is still one of the better tight ends in the league, it’s clear he has lost a step. Bennett has been solid when called upon as a receiver this season and, once again, one of the team’s best blockers. Actually, I would feel more comfortable with him at right tackle than Colombo. That’s not a joke.
Butler has shown he simply has a knack for getting to the quarterback. He’s explosive off the ball and vastly improved in his run defense. If he continues on this path (and Spencer doesn’t improve), he should compete for a starting job next season.
His 3-1 record as a head coach thus far is impressive, but the intelligence and heart with which the team is playing is an even bigger sign of things to come. Garrett has proven to me that he possesses the smarts, attention to detail, and ability to adapt that will make him a successful coach for the Dallas Cowboys in 2011 and beyond.
Some members of the media have raised the possibility of the Cowboys finishing the season 7-0 and reaching the playoffs–that following a 1-5 mark over the last six games.
Look, I’ll never give up hope on the ‘Boys, but looking ahead is what got this team into trouble in the first place. They don’t need to be concerned with the playoffs, or even the Saints on Thanksgiving. They simply need to worry about having a solid Wednesday practice in preparation for the Detroit Lions. If the Cowboys can continue to focus on the present, they’ll be fine.
What to Watch for Dallas
Will Dez Bryant officially overtake Roy Williams as the No. 2 wide receiver?
Bryant played more snaps than Williams last week already, but the two split duties as the No. 2 guy based on game situations and play-calling. Let’s see if Bryant’s out-of-this-world performance against the Giants will propel him into becoming a full-time starter, as he should be.
Will we see any more “Pistol” formations?
Just before halftime last week, the Cowboys ran two plays out of the “Pistol”– a formation that places the running back directly behind the quarterback in Shotgun.
I actually hadn’t seen the look make its way up to the NFL at all until Garrett utilized it. I love the move, as the defense has no pre-snap indication as to the direction of a potential run. Let’s see if Dallas goes back to it.
Is Tashard Choice ever going to play more under Jason Garrett?
One snap last week, again. Some DC Times readers still think Marion Barber should be the guy, but his best days are well behind him. He has zero explosion and actually isn’t a particularly devastating short-yardage runner anymore. The only thing he does better than Felix Jones and Choice, in my opinion, is block.
I’ll ask it again: with the Cowboys 2-7 and Barber likely to be out of Dallas next season, why isn’t Choice playing at all?
How will the Cowboys’ depleted defensive line perform coming off of a physical game?
Igor Olshansky and Stephen Bowen started at defensive end for the ‘Boys last week, while Jimmy Saddler-McQueen, Jeremy Clark, and Josh Brent all got significant playing time. All but Olshansky had fresh legs going into that game. How will they perform after a week of punishment?
Will the Lions bring pressure on Jon Kitna after watching him torch the Giants’ secondary last week?
I counted only five blitzes for the Giants in the entire game on Sunday. I was shocked at their refusal to bring extra defenders even after Kitna & Co. beat their “safe” coverages repeatedly.
I would expect the Lions to do what has worked for other squads against the Cowboys–disguise blitzes, run twists, and throw a lot of exotic looks at the Dallas offense in an attempt to confuse the O-Line. Andre Gurode and Leonard Davis in particular struggle mightily with stunts and other things which force them to move their feet and be agile.
Will the Cowboys’ offensive line continue to provide proper protection for Kitna and drive defenders off the ball in the running game?
The offensive line was dominant against the Giants–by far their best game as a unit all season. I think part of that was due to the Giants’ lack of aggression, but don’t forget the line also blew defenders off of the ball in the running game.
With Detroit likely to bring more pressure than New York, it will be interesting to see how the ‘Boys respond. Perhaps one outstanding game was all they needed to regain their confidence. Or perhaps they’ll fall back onto poor habits when faced with pressure. As always, it will be the key to their success.
Will the Cowboys run any of their “predictable” plays?
Last week, the Cowboys ran the play below three times. The formation (“Double Tight Left Ace”) was a completely new one. If they line up in it again versus the Lions, they better have a new play-call.
Double Tight Left Ace
The Cowboys did a similar thing in the Vikings game with the play below. This time, the formation is “Double Tight Left Twins Right Ace.” The Cowboys have since added new plays to the formation’s repertoire, but the one pictured below is still a staple.
Double Tight Left Twins Right Ace
And of course we can’t forget about “Double Tight Strong.” Last season, the Cowboys ran a strong side dive from the formation nearly three-fourths of the 100+ times they lined up in it (including 85.7 percent of the time when motioning into it). The play basically disappeared early in the season, but it has reemerged since Kitna has taken over (perhaps in an attempt to simplify the playbook).
Can Orlando Scandrick put together back-to-back impressive games?
Scandrick played his best game of the season last week. He was all over the place in coverage and even flew up to make some hits in run support. I think he benefited from the absence of Steve Smith and (ironically) the injuries to Mike Jenkins and Terence Newman. It isn’t brought up much, but I believe Scandrick plays far superior when lined up out wide.
Playing in the slot is completely different than playing outside, and although Scandrick does have speed and quickness, he always appears to be just one step late when playing the nickel. I raised the question last week of whether it is time to move Newman into the slot in nickel situations. Now is a better time than ever to experiment with it.
Is it time to leave Jason Witten in to block more often?
Last season, the Cowboys gained nearly two yards more per pass with Witten in a route as compared to when he stayed in to block. Despite the fact that Witten was out in a route on 77.1 percent of pass plays, I urged for that number to increase in 2010.
Well, I have since changed my tune. Even though the offensive line was magnificent last week, their overall level of play has diminished considerably from last year. A lot of times, it seems like leaving Witten in to aid with the opponent’s pass rush is superior to having him in a route. What good is his skill as a pass-catcher if the quarterback has no time to deliver the football?
Plus (and I know I’ll get a lot of crap for saying this), Witten’s talent has diminished. He’s still an outstanding tight end and one of the premiere pass-catching/blocking combination players in the league, but his receiving skill set isn’t what it used to be. He appears slower than ever this year, and with the emergence of Miles Austin and Dez Bryant, there are better options in the passing game.
On top of all of that, the Cowboys have had a lot of success with throwing the ball downfield. I can honestly say Dez Bryant has already shown me he has some of the best ball skills I’ve ever seen. Just throw it up to him and let him make a play. As you can see to the right, Dallas already obtained more big plays last season with Witten blocking.
It seems Garrett has caught on. This year, Witten is going out into a route a bit less–72.5 percent of pass plays. Last week, the Cowboys gained an astounding 140 yards on the five pass plays during which Witten blocked.
DOs and DON’Ts
DO run some twists and conceal intentions pre-snap on defense in an effort to get DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer rolling again.
It seems the Cowboys have come out with a few exotic blitzes to start games recently (with much success), but then they stray away from it. New defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni needs to overhaul the mindset of the defense–from limiting big plays to creating some of their own. That starts with disguised pressure, zone blitzes, and so on. Plus, this could aid the Cowboys’ two outside linebackers who are in a bit of a rut.
DON’T place Keith Brooking or Bradie James on Jahvid Best.
This is pretty obvious. James has been okay in coverage this season, but Brooking has been awful. I’d prefer to see Gerald Sensabaugh on Best during most plays, or even Barry Church (during nickel situations). Both matchups will be easier if the Cowboys play this coverage. . .
DO implement the same defensive mentality which worked against the Vikings–Cover 1.
Before the Cowboys-Vikings game, I wrote:
I personally think the Cowboys should play a lot of “Cover 1.”
Cover 1 is basically man coverage underneath with a free safety deep. That safety (Alan Ball) should shadow Moss during basically every play. With Terence Newman or Mike Jenkins underneath and Ball deep, the ‘Boys should be able to limit Moss’ big play potential.
Cover 1 also allows a defense to be very flexible with their pre-snap alignment. The Cowboys can bring eight guys into the box without much risk while in Cover 1 in an effort to be ready to stop Peterson. Peterson should be the No. 1 priority, and if Dallas stops him, they can stop Moss as well.
Finally, there’s very little downside to playing man coverage underneath against the Vikings. Not only are the Cowboys’ cornerbacks suited for man-to-man, but Brett Favre isn’t going to be running anywhere. The idea of a bunch of defenders with their backs turned to the quarterback isn’t as scary as if, say, Michael Vick was at quarterback.
Well, the Cowboys did play Cover 1 against the Vikings (actually nearly every play), and it worked wonders. Substitute the Lions’ skill position players (Calvin Johnson, Jahvid Best, and Shaun Hill) in for those in Minnesota, and my thoughts are the same. Both Johnson and Best are dynamic football players who can break open a game at any moment–don’t let them beat you!
Johnson has incredible ball skills–much better than those of the Dallas cornerbacks. The Cowboys need to shade him with Ball and be aggressive in the box with eight defenders. Shut down C.J. and J.B. and take your chances with Nate Burleson or Brandon Pettigrew.
DON’T run too often up the middle.
Ndamukong Suh is only a rookie, but he’s a beast. Corey Williams, the Lions’ other starting defensive tackle, is also quite underrated. Even with the mammoths the Cowboys have inside, I think they’ll have trouble moving Suh and Williams.
Instead, the ‘Boys should find success running powers, counters, and tosses. Detroit’s outside linebackers, Ashlee Palmer and Julian Peterson, aren’t very stout against the run either. When the Cowboys do run the football, they need to focus on getting Felix Jones to the edge of Detroit’s defense.
DO test the Lions’ secondary.
This goes hand-in-hand with a “DON’T”–DON’T worry about offensive balance as much as running efficiency. People want to talk about the Cowboys’ offensive balance in their two wins, but that only came as a result of already gaining a lead. The fact is the Cowboys threw the ball at a slightly higher rate than normal in those two games before running the ball to work the clock.
Against New York, only 12 of the team’s first 33 plays were runs (36.4 percent), while the ‘Boys had a stretch of 21 passes in 28 plays during the middle of the Texans game. The reason the Cowboys won the two games they did isn’t because of rushing attempts. Rather, the higher rushing attempts are a result of winning. Instead, it is rushing efficiency that matters (and really insofar as it draws up the defense to allow for big pass plays).
DO attack cornerback Alphonso Smith with fades.
Smith has been really good since getting traded to Detroit from the Broncos. He was simply in the wrong scheme in Denver. However, Smith is only 5’9” and can get abused by bigger receivers. Well, say hello to Miles Austin, Dez Bryant, and Roy Williams. All three guys excel on fades. Throw a lot of ’em, Garrett.
DO force Shaun Hill to beat you before bringing heavy pressure.
While I expect the Cowboys to be aggressive in their Cover 1 looks, there’s no reason to bring an exorbitant amount of heat until Hill proves he can beat the ‘Boys in their safer zone coverages. If Dallas can get adequate pressure with just four or five pass-rushers, why send more?
DO continue to throw the ball out of two and three-tight end sets.
The Cowboys implemented three or more receivers on only 14 offensive plays last week. That’s a season-low. In the past, I’ve explained why passing out of running formations is successful. Combine that with Witten and Martellus Bennett’s superb pass protection ability and the deep threat posed by Austin and Bryant, and you have the makings of a lot of “surprise” deep passes. Now, if Garrett would just call a few after playaction fakes. . .
DON’T look ahead to the Saints.
As I stated in the opening to this article, the Cowboys get in trouble when they look too far into the future. They need to focus on the task at hand, which is playing a disciplined, dominant game against the Lions. To me, this is the perfect game on which to judge Garrett as a head coach. The ‘Boys probably would lose this game under Wade Phillips. A more detail-oriented coach shouldn’t let that happen. Let’s see if Garrett can get this team to win the games they should win.
We are just five games into the 2010 season, but already offensive coordinator Jason Garrett has displayed much improvement in a number of areas. The casual fan will look at the Cowboys’ mediocre 20.4 points-per-game (16th in the NFL) and conclude that Garrett is having a horrible season. With all of the weapons Dallas possesses on offense, shouldn’t they be averaging, like, 28 points-per-game?
As I analyzed my database of Cowboys’ 2010 plays this morning, I realized perhaps Garrett’s largest improvement has come in the way of play-calling on 2nd down. You may remember I conducted a study on Garrett’s 2009 play-calling trends on 2nd down awhile back, noting the Cowboys’ run/pass selection was highly correlated with their previous play-call (even after adjusting for specific situations). This is from that article:
On 2nd and 3 to 7, for example, Garrett dialed up a run on only 23 of the 78 (29.5 percent) plays that followed a 1st down run. After 1st down passes, though, the Cowboys ran on 2nd down on 26 of 34 plays (76.5 percent). Thus, Dallas was 2.95 times more likely to run on 2nd and 3 to 7 after a 1st down pass than after a 1st down run.
On 3rd and 8 to 10, that trend, surprisingly, did not get much better. The team ran on only 10 of 50 plays (20.0 percent) in these scenarios following a 1st down run. After passes, Garrett called a run on 32 of 58 2nd down plays (55.2 percent), meaning the team was 2.76 times more likely to run on 2nd and 8 to 10 after a pass than a run.
On 2nd and 11 or more, the team was still 2.33 times more likely to run after a 1st down pass than after a run. Obviously Garrett did some things right in the past few years, but this sort of predictability is unacceptable.
I’ve posted a graph to the left detailing the information above. Note that I am not criticizing the overall rate of runs/passes. Garrett could pass 95 percent of the time, but if his current play-call is dependent on the previous one, there will be a problem. Again, the issue is not with the overall run/pass ratio, but rather the fact that it gets skewed based on previous calls.
For a play-caller to maximize his effectiveness, we’d want the run/pass ratio to be equal in comparable situations following a particular call. Note that I am not advocating a 50/50 balance. I am simply stating that it is in an offensive coordinator’s best interest to retain his particular run/pass ratio in specific down-and-distances regardless of the previous call. If he passes 90 percent of the time on 2nd and 3-7 following a 1st down pass, he should pass 90 percent of the time in the same situation following a run. Don’t let previous calls affect current ones.
As far as the graph above, we’d want to see the red and blue lines be as close together as possible. The specific run/pass ratio is irrelevant–what’s important is that the lines match up, wherever that may be.
As I analyzed the Cowboys’ 2nd down plays in 2010, it is very obvious Garrett has made a conscious effort to clean up the mess from last season. Check out the graph below.
Note how much closer the lines are to converging as compared to 2009. On 2nd and 3-7–plays on which Garrett “mixed it up” last year in an attempt to be random (only to, ironically, become very predictable)–his run/pass ratio is nearly identical, regardless of his call on 1st down. That’s as much as any fan could ask from an offensive coordinator.
There are still some issues, which is to be expected (it is unreasonable to think an offensive coordinator, in the heat of a game, can perfectly equalize all ratios). Although the run ratio on 2nd and 8-10 looks about equal, the Cowboys have actually been nearly 3.5 times as likely to run after a 1st down pass as compared to following a 1st down run. In fairness to Garrett, the offense has only run nine plays on 2nd and 8-10 that followed a run (just one was another run).
There also appears to be a large gap between 2nd and 1-2 run ratios, but note that the Cowboys have had just six total plays in that down-and-distance. Hardly a significant sample size.
Overall, Garrett’s improvements in his 2nd down play-calling are remarkable. Looks like someone has been visiting DC Times. . .
The largest flaw in Jason Garrett’s play-calling, in my opinion, is his tendency to call a specific play (run or pass) based on the personnel on the field. For example, take a look at the Cowboys’ 2009 pass rates with specific personnel.
Note that, no matter the personnel grouping, the Cowboys passed or ran the ball nearly three-fourths of the time out of all two-tight end, three-receiver, and four-receiver sets. We’d of course expect certain personnel groupings and formations to be either run or pass-oriented, but Garrett could probably find more success by calling the “unexpected” a bit more often. That idea is something I talked about a few months ago in my article on why the Cowboys should throw out of more double-tight end sets:
The Cowboys ran 29 plays out of “Ace” last season:
24 passes (82.8 percent)/5 runs (17.2 percent)
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.
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.
So, what are the numbers telling us thus far in 2010? While they are far from optimal, it seems clear Garrett is altering his play-calling to becomes less predictable. Check out the chart below.
You can see that, outside of four-receiver sets, the Cowboys are at least slightly more balanced in each grouping. Note that Dallas has implemented four receivers just nine times all season, so you can expect that percentage to change as well.
I’d still love to see the Cowboys run the ball more in three-receiver sets and pass more out of 2 TE, WR, 2 RB (one of those “2 RB” is usually a fullback, by the way). Garrett is doing a fine job throwing out of two-tight end sets (55.3% of all plays with two tight ends on the field are passes), but the Cowboys are doing the throwing out of a specific type of two-tight end sets, i.e. with two receivers on the field.
With the receiving ability of fullback Chris Gronkowski, you can expect the Cowboys to throw the ball more with a fullback on the field in the coming weeks. If Garrett finds a way to efficiently run the ball without a fullback on the field as well, the Cowboys will take huge strides in becoming a much more unpredictable, and potent, offensive football team.
Last week, I posted the Cowboys’ five biggest strengths heading into the 2010 season. Those are the primary reasons that Dallas is favored by many to win the NFC. Here is what could potentially bring them down. . . 5. The schedule
Playing in the NFC East, the Cowboys’ schedule is always difficult. Road trips to Philadelphia, New York, and Washington are intense no matter the teams’ records. This year, two of those games (at Washington and at Philly) bookend the schedule.
Further, November and December, as always, are going to be chaotic. Check out this string of games: @GB, @NYG, DET, NO, @IND, PHI, WSH, @ARZ, @PHI. Holy crap. Only one “sure” win in the bunch.
Rebuttal: Each NFC East team plays 12 of the same teams. They each play each other twice, so only two games really separate each team’s schedule.
Also, the start of the Cowboys’ schedule is relatively easy. The opener will be difficult, but games against Chicago, Houston, and Tennessee are all very winnable, meaning Dallas has the potential to start off well.
4. Immeasurable pressure
The expectations this season are through the roof. The last time this happened, Dallas stumbled to a 9-7 finish and missed the playoffs. As if the regular pressures of playing for the Dallas Cowboys aren’t enough, there’s also the home Super Bowl. Anything short of a championship is a failure. . .can any other team really say that?
Rebuttal: Every team and every player has pressure on them to perform. These are professional athletes. For the majority of them, the most pressure they feel is internal.
Perhaps additional external pressure isn’t a bad thing either. Extra pressure to practice hard. Extra pressure to play hard.
3. Field goals
Making field goals is important. Very important. The distribution of talent among NFL teams is more spread out now than ever before, meaning doing the “little things” adds up to big-time success.
The Cowboys would like Buehler to win the job (against himself), but even if they bring in a veteran, that is no guarantee of accuracy on field goals.
Rebuttal: David Buehler has looked very good in the preseason. He is six-of-seven on field goals and is still driving the ball through the back of the end zone on kickoffs. More importantly, he’s got the right mindset to succeed. His confidence may be unparalleled for a kicker, and that mentality will help him rebound from poor kicks.
2. Predictability on offense
This is a controversial subject. Many of you believe that predictability doesn’t matter, or at least not that much. What counts is execution.
While I don’t discredit the importance of players’ ability and efficient execution, intelligent, innovative play-calling, in my opinion, is just as imperative. Yes, players could theoretically execute each play to perfection, but that isn’t going to happen.
Instead, each play has a certain chance of working. It is the offensive coordinator’s responsibility to dial up plays that have the highest success rate in certain circumstances. It is illogical to blame players for failing to execute on a play with a potential success rate of only 10 percent when another play with a 70 percent potential success rate could have been called.
I’ve previously detailed why Jason Garrett is anything but unpredictable in his play-calling, from his use of draws and playaction passes to his play variation from certain formations to his second down play-calling. You can’t tell me it isn’t an advantage for a defensive coordinator to know that the Cowboys run a strong side dive 85.7 percent of the time they motion into “Double Tight Strong” or pass the ball a ridiculous 98.4 percent of the time from “Gun Trips.”
Rebuttal: The players must execute, no matter the play-call. It doesn’t matter if a defense knows what play is coming if they can’t stop it.
Note: I obviously don’t agree with this rebuttal and place an extreme emphasis on the importance of play-calling. It is very rare for an NFL team to not be able to stop a play if they know it is coming.
1. Offensive line depth (and age)
In my opinion, the offensive line is the key to the Cowboys’ success this season. Nearly everything else is in place: the defense is stacked and the skill position players are the NFL’s best.
The age of the Dallas linemen may be showing itself, as right tackle Marc Colombo and left guard Kyle Kosier are already out. Kosier will miss at least the first two regular season games as well.
While the starting linemen aren’t awful (despite what others might say, they are still at least adequate), the team will run into a lot of trouble if any of the starters get injured for an extended period of time.
Alex Barron is a solid backup left tackle, but who knows if he has the skill set to man the right side of the line as well. If not, the Cowboys will have to rely on the unproven Robert Brewster in the event of another Colombo injury (or setback).
In the interior line, the Cowboys are even thinner. Montrae Holland is decent at guard, but behind him the Cowboys are incredibly weak. Backup guard/center Phil Costa has played well in the preseason, but that is against second-team defenses. Do we really want to see him starting at a position as critical as center during the regular season?
Rebuttal: Perhaps we are getting greedy by expecting the Dallas backups to be starting-quality players. The talent on this roster is so great that, just maybe, we’ve come to develop unrealistic expectations with the second and third-teamers.
Nonetheless, the Cowboys could be in trouble if multiple linemen go down this season.
**Note: This is a combination of two previous studies I have conducted on the Cowboys’ 2009 playaction passes.
As a team whose offensive core is a power running attack, the Cowboys should and do incorporate the playaction pass into their offensive repertoire. Teams generally have success running when the defense anticipates pass, and vice versa, and the playaction pass is one of the most successful tools a team can utilize in exploiting a defense which incorrectly guesses the play-call.
One might think, then, that the Cowboys would try to take advantage of an over-aggressive defense by running effectively and then taking shots deep using playaction passes. As I studied the 2009 game film, however, this did not seem to be the case.
The Cowboys had no more success on playaction passes than on straight dropbacks. As the graph to the left shows, Romo averaged 8.3 yards-per-pass on playaction passes throughout the season, compared to 8.1 yards-per-attempt on all other pass plays.
This difference is not statistically significant, particularly when we take into account two factors. First, the Cowboys gave up eight sacks on the 91 playaction passes, or 8.7 percent of all playaction pass plays, compared to 26 sacks yielded on the other 467 pass attempts (5.6 percent). Thus, the .2 yard difference in average between playaction and non-playaction passes is negated by the increased sack rate.
The reason for the increased sack rate seems apparent enough. With his back turned to the defense, Tony Romo is less likely to be able to elude defenders who may sneak through the protection. Further, offensive linemen frequently fire off the ball during playaction passes as to resemble their blocking on run plays, and this difference in pass protection technique could be a factor in the increased sack percentage.
The second reason one might assume the yards-per-pass difference is not significant is because the playaction average should be higher (and by more so than just .2 yards) since the Cowboys are more likely to use these plays in situations where a big play can be had. Playaction passes are utilized to draw linebackers and safeties up toward the line of scrimmage, opening holes behind them in which to throw.
But did the Cowboys really utilize playaction to take shots down the field? Not at all. In fact, of the 83 playaction passes, only four, FOUR, were attempts of 20 yards or more. That is 4.8 percent of all pass plays. In comparison, the Cowboys threw the ball downfield 20 yards or more on 46 of the other 467 attempts, or 9.9 percent of all passes.
It is quite apparent that Dallas did not take enough shots downfield on playaction passes, doing so at less than half the rate of regular dropbacks. This surely had an impact on the sub-par yards-per-play playaction average.
The most shocking statistic of all, however, is the dramatic increase of screen passes used during plays when the Cowboys showed playaction. According to my film study (stats shown below), Dallas ran screen passes on 33 of their 467 non-playaction passes (7.1 percent). That screen rate more than tripled on playaction passes to 22.9 percent (19 of 83 passes).
Dallas threw an inordinate amount of screens and passes to the right when showing playaction.
While the increased rate of screen attempts during playaction passes may or may not contribute to the relatively low overall playaction pass average, it surely did nothing to reverse the perception of Jason Garrett as a predictable play-caller.
This ‘predictable’ label is perpetuated by the high percentage of playaction passes which were thrown to the same area of the field. Of the 83 passes, 53, or 63.9 percent, were to the right side of the field (compared to just 37.0 percent on other passes).
While Jason Garrett is certainly not always completely responsible for where the ball gets thrown, Romo’s reads are premeditated. This stat shows that Romo’s first read, as called by Garrett, is generally to the right side of the field on playaction passes. The massive differential between throws to the left and throws to the right is large enough for it to be statistically significant.
Ultimately, whether or not Garrett’s playcalling is indeed predictable, the fact that Dallas did not utilize the playaction pass to garner big plays appears indisputable.
The Cowboys ran only four (FOUR!) playaction passes all season with 1-4 yards-to-go.
The number of plays on the season in that range: 132. Thus, Dallas ran playaction on just 3.03 percent of plays in situations with just 1-4 yards to go for a first down (situations with a legitimate threat of a run). I wouldn’t call myself an offensive mastermind, but that just doesn’t seem efficient.
With 10 yards remaining, however, the Cowboys dialed up 54 play-action passes (59.3 percent of all playaction passes came on this ‘distance-to-go’), making it the most frequent ‘distance-to-go’ for all playaction passes (relative to the number of overall plays from that distance).
The Cowboys ran so few playaction passes in short yardage situations that they actually ran one more playaction pass (five total) with 20+ yards-to-go than with 1, 2, 3 or 4 yards-to-go. Like I mentioned above, the offense ran a playaction pass on just four of 132 plays (3.03 percent) with 1-4 yards-to-go. The Cowboys were in situations with 20+ yards-to-go 100 less times–32 total–yet still ran one more playaction pass (the 15.6 percent playaction pass rate in this range is five times that in the 1-4 yard range).
I could be wrong, but defenses seem a bit more likely to jump up on playaction when there is a legitimate threat of run (as opposed to 20+ yards-to-go).
Not only did the offense run only four playaction passes with 1-4 yards to go, but they also ran just 18 play-action passes with less than 10 yards left for a 1st down. Thus, just 19.8 percent of playaction passes came with less than 10 yards-to-go.
As I pointed out in a previous study on playaction passes (which I highly recommend), the Cowboys were not particularly successful (or terrible) with their play-action passes last season. They averaged just 0.2 more yards-per-attempt on them as compared to regular passes, but they also yielded more sacks. The situations in which the Cowboys ran playaction passes are likely a major factor in their mediocre numbers.
Ultimately, I would rate the Cowboys’ 2009 playaction attack as average. One would expect a higher yards-per-attempt on playaction passes (due to the situations in which they are generally run), but the Cowboys averaged just 0.2 yards more per pass on playaction passes as compared to all other pass attempts.
However, the Cowboys threw the ball downfield (20 yards or more) just four times on playaction passes. Meanwhile, they attempted screen passes following a playaction look at over three times the normal rate. These factors surely contributed to the relatively low playaction pass average.
Of the 29 total plays out of “Ace” formation, 18 (62.1 percent) were playaction passes. This may be a bit high, but Dallas did average 10.3 yards-per-attempt on the plays. Of course, everything seemed to work out of “Ace”–the Cowboys averaged 14.3 yards-per-attempt on non-playaction passes out of the formation.