The DC Times

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

By Jonathan Bales

Why the Dallas Cowboys (and all NFL teams) should attempt WAY more two-point conversions in 2011

Jonathan Bales

One of my favorite topics on which to write is football theory–why teams make the decisions they do and if they could become more efficient in their choices.  In the past, I’ve completed studies detailing why teams should go for it more often on fourth down, run more on third down, throw more deep passes, run more frequently to the weak side, pass out of ‘running’ formations, be far more aggressive on 2nd and short, and so on.

It is my view that, if a coach was to implement a perfect understanding of advanced statistics and game theory into his in-game decisions, the potential impact would far outweigh that of any single player.  A “perfect” record of fourth down decisions, for example, could be “worth” a handful of points to a team in any individual game.  With all of the statistically inefficient choices NFL head coaches make each and every game, there is an enormous opportunity for less talented teams to outperform superior ones based solely on statistics.  Now is truly a golden age for the NFL in that teams are just beginning to crack the surface of advanced statistics that baseball uncovered years ago.

One such statistical issue about which I feel very strongly is the use of two-point conversions.  I talked about this issue at length during the 2010 season, particularly after the Cowboys’ Week Seven loss to the Giants and their Week 16 loss to the Cardinals.  From the New York post-game review:

Later, the Cowboys did score a touchdown to close within 12 points.  They decided to go for a two-point conversion, and Tirico immediately went off about “awful” the decision was.  I normally like Tirico, but he needs to stick to play-by-play and keep his nose out of matters of football theory.  On this topic, he was again as wrong as could be.

You’ll often hear announcers say it’s “too early to go for two.”  But what does that even mean?  How is it ever “too early?”  The decision to go for a two-point conversion should be based on a variety of factors, including the score, a coach’s confidence in his two-point play, and so on.  Actually, if the probability of Team X converting on a two-point attempt is 50.1 percent, they should almost always go for two.  The expected points of 1.002 is greater than that of an extra point (which can obviously only be as high as 1, even with 100 percent accuracy).

Thus, you’d only want to go for an extra point in non-normal game situations.  Suppose Team X scores a late touchdown to tie the game.  They’d clearly want to attempt the extra point to secure the win.  Going for two points would be quite disadvantageous in that scenario.  If football commentators knew the statistics and theory behind two-point attempts, perhaps they’d be saying “It’s too early to try the extra point.”

There are more reasons that Tirico was unjustified in his stance.  Down 12, the decision of whether or not to attempt a two-point try is indeed a “no-brainer,” but Tirico is on the wrong side of the debate.  If you go for two points and succeed, you’re down 10 points and now know that a touchdown and field goal will tie the game.  If you go for two and fail, you now know that you need two touchdowns to win.  If you kick the extra point, however, you might later kick a field goal that will turn out to be meaningless.

The idea that you want to “keep yourself in the game” by kicking an extra point is preposterous.  You actually want to determine what scores you’ll need as early as possible.  If you kick the extra point, then a field goal, you’re down eight points.  If you then score a touchdown and fail on the two-point attempt, you’re still another score away from winning the game.  The field goal attempt in between touchdowns becomes all but meaningless, and this is due solely to the fact that you didn’t attempt the two-point conversion as early as possible.  Failing the two-point try earlier, as I said above, provides you with the knowledge that you need two touchdowns to win.

Tirico and Jaws used the outcome of the game as justification for their view, but that’s wrong as well.  If you roll a six-sided die and bet even money on a specific number coming up, your bet is a dumb one regardless of the outcome of the roll.  The fact that you will win money one time out of six doesn’t justify the decision ex post facto.  When I listen to the Monday Night Football crew, I feel like I am betting that an even number will come up on my roll of the die–but all the commentators, I mean numbers, are odd.

Later in the season, I criticzed Jason Garrett for his failure to attempt a two-point conversion in the third quarter of a game:

  • Down 21-19 in the third quarter, Garrett decided to kick an extra point. Huge mistake. I’ve talked all season about why teams should try way, way more two-point conversions. Over the course of any given season, kickers make around 98 percent of extra points, while two-point conversions are successful around 48-49 percent of the time. While the expected points of extra points is higher (.98 x 1 is greater than .48 x 2), the difference isn’t great enough that it should overcome all game situations. For example, Garrett never would have kicked the extra point in the fourth quarter, as he doesn’t know if the Cowboys will score again.
  • Further, two-point conversions are only statistically inferior to extra points because coaches tend to call the wrong plays down by the goal line.  Over the last 20 seasons, rushing the ball has yielded a successful two-point conversion over 60 percent of the time.  Even if a team went for two points after nearly every score and rushed the ball each time, I doubt the success rate would jump below 50 percent (the break-even level at which two-point tries are statistically equivalent to extra points, assuming a 100 percent success rate on the latter).  Thus, extra points should actually only be attempted in very specific situations, such as a tied game in the fourth quarter.
  • On top of all of that, let’s not forget Buehler is about as erratic as kickers come.  His extra point success rate is nowhere near 98 percent (probably closer to 94 or so), meaning the Cowboys would only need to convert on 47 percent of two-point tries to yield the same expected points.  And if you’re correctly running the ball, what does it matter if Stephen McGee is at quarterback?
  • I assume Garrett attempted the extra point because he figured Dallas would score again anyway.  That’s faulty logic, however.  Even if we assume two-point conversions yield less expected points than extra points, and we take into account McGee’s presence in the lineup, the difference between a two-point try and extra point is still small enough that, for an extra point to be the right call, we’d have to assume there’s less than a one percent chance the Cowboys wouldn’t score again.  While it’s likely the offense was going to put more points on the board, it certainly wasn’t greater than 99 percent.
  • I updated live from the game last night on Twitter, and a few followers claimed that it was “too early to go for two and the chart says the extra point is the right call.”  While I appreciate everyone who took the time on Christmas to read my thoughts, that reasoning is simply incorrect.  What does it even mean to be “too early to go for two”?  While you certainly have less of an idea of the final score in the first quarter as compared to late in the game, you should always side with statistics.  If the numbers say attempting a two-point conversion is the right call (which they did for the Cowboys in the third quarter–and it wasn’t even close), then kicking an extra point is the risky move.  Further, NFL coaches are just tapping the surface of advanced statistics and game theory, meaning most of their “infallible” charts are dead wrong.  It’s Garrett’s job to give the team the highest probability of victory, and whether a decision seems “risky” or not to the public, it needs to be made.

Later, Garrett issued a statement on his decision to kick the extra point (below).  I responded with this:

According to Jason Garrett, he didn’t go for two points when down 21-19 in the third quarter of Saturday night’s game because “What happens when you start making those decisions is sometimes you get a little hasty and say, ‘OK, if we get two here that will tie us up.’ But typically, what happens when you have another quarter to play, there are a couple more scores and the whole thing kind of plays itself out a little bit.”

Although I’d wager that the majority of NFL coaches agree with Garrett’s assessment, it is the wrong one.  I hate to be so blunt about it (secretly I love it), but he’s just dead wrong.  Garrett points out that there will typically be more points scored after the third quarter, which is correct, but somewhat irrelevant.

First of all, as I’ve already pointed out, two-point conversions may not even yield less expected points than extra points.  If that’s the case (which would be a virtual certainty if teams ran the ball more on two-point attempts), then going for two points should be the status quo, with an extra point only being attempted in specific game situations (such as tied late in the contest).

Even if extra points are generally statistically superior to two-point tries, however, Garrett still made the wrong decision.  While I agree with his notion that more points were likely to be scored, that fact is far from certain.  Actually, for an extra point to be the right decision in that scenario, we would have to assume that the chances of neither team scoring again was small enough that it wouldn’t account for the disparity between the expected points of an extra point (about .98) and a two-point attempt (.96 at worst).

As it turns out, Garrett would have to assume either that the chances of neither team scoring again were below one percent or that the offense’s chances of converting on their two-point try were closer to 25 percent than 50 percent.  Anyone believe either scenario to be the case?

Me neither.

I used a lot of old material here because I feel like actual game situations are the most effective way to state my case.  We can see real-world situations in which forgoing a two-point try has dire consequences for a club.

Ultimately, I believe an NFL team could secure a significant number of “extra” points by attempting two-point conversions after the majority of touchdowns.  As I stated above, NFL teams convert two-point attempts about 60 percent of the time when they run the football.  That number would certainly decline with increased rushing attempts, but the efficiency of two-point pass attempts would subsequently increase.  I see no reason why an NFL team (particularly one with an offense as potent as that of Dallas) wouldn’t be able to convert a minimum of 55 percent of two-point tries if they focused on improving their efforts.

Assuming the Cowboys score three touchdowns per game in 2011 (they scored 43 in 2009 and 46 last season), the “increase” in expected points would be 6.24 (assuming 97 percent accuracy on extra points, which is a stretch if David Buehler is still the kicker).  That might not sound like a lot, but there’s a solid chance those “extra” points would result in another win for the ‘Boys.  Assume a 60 percent conversion rate and that number jumps to 11.04.  Not too shabby for a philosophical decision that would require relatively little practice time.

By Jonathan Bales

Jason Garrett Tipping Plays Via Formation: ‘Double Tight Strong’ Usage in 2010

Jonathan Bales

Note that my results also include "Double Tight I," which is the same as above with the fullback lined up directly behind the quarterback.

In my study on the Cowboys’ 2009 usage of ‘Double Tight Strong’ (left), I noted that the Cowboys ran a strong side dive 71.6 percent of the time they lined up in the formation (83 of 116 plays), including 85.7 percent of the time when they motioned into it (42 of 29 plays).

Defensive coordinators clearly caught on to this trend, as the Cowboys’ yards-per-rush on the strong side dives decreased from 7.8 over the first five weeks of the season to just 4.4 over the rest of the year (including only 3.2 against all teams but the Raiders).  Thus, the opposition was fully aware of this trend of Garrett’s coming into the 2010 season.  The Cowboys’ efficiency on “Double Tight Strong/I” plays is representative of that.

The Cowboys lined up in the formation 81 times in 2010 (35 fewer than 2009, at least), running the ball 82.7 percent of the time.   Of those runs, 52 (77.6 percent) were strong side dives.  The overall strong side dive rate (including passes) was 64.2 percent–down from 71.6 in 2009–but still way, way too high.  Once again, when Dallas motioned into the formation, the rate of strong side dives increased (to 72.7 percent of all plays).

Unlike 2009, however, the Cowboys did not find success on these strong side dives at any point during the season.  The ‘Boys averaged just 2.15 yards-per-carry on the 52 strong side dives in 2010.  On all other runs (almost all to the weak side), the Cowboys averaged 4.87 yards-per-rush.  In 2009, Dallas also found far more success when running weak side out of “Double Tight Strong”–averaging 6.7 yards-per-rush–indicating that defenders truly have been keying in on the strong side dive.

Of course, Garrett loves to use this formation in short-yardage situations, so could this be the culprit for the lack of yardage?  Not really, as the average yards-to-go on “Double Tight Strong” plays was 5.94–lower than the overall rate, but not by an incredibly large margin.  Actually, 37 of the plays from the formation came with exactly 10 yards-to-go.  That’s 45.7 percent.  An additional 15 of the plays came with 5+ yards-to-go, meaning 64.2 percent of the plays came in situations that were clearly not short-yardage.

And it wasn’t as if the Cowboys were thriving on the short-yardage plays either.  Of the 29 plays from “Double Tight Strong” with four or less yards-to-go (and nearly all of them were with exactly one yard-to-go), the Cowboys converted a first down or touchdown just 13 times.  That’s only a 44.8 percent conversion rate on very short-yardage plays. Kind of sick.

One might argue that some predictability can be good if utilized correctly.  The 64.2 percent strong side dive rate might be less detrimental to an offense, for example, if they use playaction passes to take some shots downfield on the other plays.  Thus, an offense could “concede” a strong side dive or two (or 52, apparently) to set up big plays in the passing game.

That sounds great in theory, but Garrett didn’t call many “high-upside” plays out of the formation at all.  Actually, the average distance of the Cowboys’ passes from “Double Tight Strong” was just nine yards.

Ultimately, this formation will continue to haunt Dallas until 1) the strong side dive rate decreases dramatically or 2) Garrett utilizes the predictability from the formation to set up big pass plays.  Garrett has improved in a number of areas as a play-caller over the past few years, but focusing on improving “Double Tight Strong” calls (or scrapping it from the playbook altogether) should be high on his list of priorities.

By Jonathan Bales

Cowboys 2010 Pass Rates from Specific Personnel Groupings

Jonathan Bales

Game theory dictates that offensive coordinators should increase (or decrease) the frequency of any particular event (runs, passes, draws, counters, playaction, etc.) until its efficiency and overall production are maximized.  For example, in my analysis of the Cowboys’ 2010 weak side runs, I noted that the Cowboys have been significantly more successful on weak side runs than strong side runs or runs from balanced formations.

Jason Garrett adjusted accordingly in 2010, running to the weak side on 22.8 percent of all runs–up from 19.5 percent the prior season.  Still, the ‘Boys could benefit from an even higher rate of weak side runs, as the 4.72 yards-per-rush number when running to the weak side was significantly greater than that of strong side or balanced runs.  But how does Garrett uncover the “perfect” weak side run ratio?  I addressed that problem in the past:

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.

This same sort of method can be used as the rational behind a plethora of play-calling alterations.  One such change we could potentially see from Garrett is the run/pass ratio from specific personnel groupings.  In the chart below, you can see Garrett’s 2010 pass rates based on personnel, along with the relation to his 2009 rates.

In much the same way that weak side runs can be optimal for an offense, so too can passing the ball out of “untraditional” personnel groupings (or, on the other hand, running the ball from pass-heavy personnel packages).  There’s a reason the ‘Boys have found a ton of success when passing out of “running” formations (and with “running” personnel).

The passing success of the Cowboys out “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.

When analyzing Garrett’s personnel-based play-calls, we see that he is generally improving.  When the Cowboys implement two tight ends, two wide receivers and a running back, they are generally a balanced team, passing the ball 58.6 percent of the time.  This is down from a 71.9 percent pass rate in 2009.

Garrett is also calling more passes from run-oriented personnel packages (such as two tight ends, one receiver and two running backs), and less passes from pass-oriented personnel groupings.  The only exception is the one tight end/four receiver package, which the Cowboys implemented only 25 times all season.

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).  If Garrett finds a way to efficiently run the ball without a fullback on the field and continue to throw the ball well out of two-tight end looks, the Cowboys will take huge strides in becoming a much more unpredictable, and potent, offensive football team.

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By Jonathan Bales

Should the Cowboys Throw More Deep Passes? A Follow-Up Analysis

Jonathan Bales

Around the midway point of the 2010, I published an article detailing why teams that throw deep more often generally find more success in the passing game.  As I pointed out, there was a somewhat strong correlation between deep pass percentage and yards-per-attempt.  I detailed why I think this is the case in that article:

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.

By Jonathan Bales

The Ultimate Dallas Cowboys 2010 Playaction Pass Guide: A Must Read

Jonathan Bales

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.

I’ve already posted a couple of analyses on Garrett’s 2010 playaction use, including one after Week 16 which compared this season’s playaction statistics to those from 2009.  I’ve republished those results below with the Cowboys’ Week 17 game in Philly added into the totals. . .

The Oddities

  • 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.

Conclusions

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.

By Jonathan Bales

Cowboys 2010 Initial Drive Statistics

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 he sometimes struggles with adaptability.  We’ve certainly seen him improve with his abundance of weak side runsplay-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 Cowboys’ 2010 stats on initial and “non-initial” drives.

A few points of interest. . .

  • You can see Garrett improved in his initial drive play-calling, at least statistically.  Overall, the Cowboys averaged 5.42 yards-per-play on all initial drives (both first and second half) in 2009.  That number jumped to 5.78 this season.
  • More importantly, the points-per-drive increased.  In 2009, the points-per-drive on initial drives was significantly lower than the overall points-per-drive rate.  In 2010, however, the Cowboys scored more points-per-drive on both first and second half initial drives (2.13) than on all other drives (1.90).
  • It’s still possible the sample size is too small to draw meaningful conclusions.  This season alone, the ‘Boys had a three-play 75-yard drive, a three-play 71-yard drive, and a two-play 68-yard drive coming out of the half that skewed results.  Overall in 2009 and 2010, Dallas averaged 5.60 yards-per-play on initial drives–lower than the 6.02 yards-per-play on all other drives.

Do you think Garrett has improved in his adjustments and his overall ability as a play-caller?

By Jonathan Bales

A Look at Jason Garrett’s Use of Playaction Passes in 2010

Jonathan Bales

Last season, I conducted an in-depth study of the Cowboys’ 2009 playaction passes.  Here are a few points of interest from that study:

  • 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.

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. New Orleans Saints Film Study Observations: What We Learned About Dallas

Jonathan Bales

If you haven’t read my initial post-game notes/observations, please do.  I uncovered a lot of interesting information after reviewing the Cowboys-Saints film this week, so enjoy. . .

  • Marion Barber is out for at least a week or two.  I never want players to get injured, but this is one of the best things that could happen to the Cowboys.  Barber looked awful again on Thanksgiving, stumbling on an incredible three handoffs before even getting touched.  He tries to run around defenders now instead of through them, but he doesn’t possess the agility to do that effectively.  His only above-average quality is his pass protection ability.
  • Tashard Choice will be the recipient of an increased workload during Barber’s absence.  I can say with full confidence that you’ll observe a noticeable difference between Choice’s explosion, balance, and vision and that of Barber.  Choice may not be “incredible” at anything, but he’s really solid at everything. This is his chance to prove he deserves a larger role in 2011, and I expect him to perform well.
  • The Cowboys lined up with an unbalanced offensive line on three plays against the Saints.

  • As you can see, the “Unbalanced Right Strong Right” formation above employs Martellus Bennett as the left tackle and Doug Free as the tight end.  Bennett is obviously not an eligible receiver on the play, but I still love the look.  For one, Bennett is one of the team’s best blockers, regardless of position.  Any drop in blocking ability from Free to Bennett is made up for by the fact that the look is confusing to the defense.  It can cause alignment problems and just gives a defense more to think about pre-snap.
  • One knock on this formation is that it gives away too much information before the snap.  Bennett must stay in to block, and it’s unlikely the Cowboys would ask him to protect Jon Kitna’s blind side by himself.  Thus, whatever play the ‘Boys call will almost certainly be a run.  Secondly, do you think the team is more likely to run behind Bennett and Kyle Kosier, or Leonard Davis, Marc Colombo, Doug Free, and Jason Witten?
  • So how did the Cowboys overcome these issues?  Jason Garrett did an excellent job of using the first two plays from the formation as “set up plays” early in the game.  On these plays, the Cowboys ran just where you’d think they would–in the “4 hole” behind all of the big boys.  On the third and final play, however, the Cowboys faked the lead to Felix Jones and handed the ball off to Miles Austin on an end-around.  The result?  A 60-yard touchdown run.  Tremendous design and execution.
  • The illegal shift penalty called on Dez Bryant (the one over which he was fuming) was the correct call.  He mistakenly lined up off of the line of scrimmage, leaving the right tackle uncovered.  When he noticed it and moved up, Sam Hurd was already in motion and never came to a stop (if he had, Bryant’s movement would have been a legal shift).
  • The Cowboys ran a season-high 74 offensive plays on Thanksgiving.
  • Dallas had 14 plays in the red zone–five passes for 26 yards and nine runs for 12 yards and two touchdowns.
  • 33 of the Cowboys’ plays came out of Shotgun, although many of those were out of necessity (the team’s final 11 plays were from Shotgun).
  • Garrett obviously tried to confuse the Saints before the snap.  The Cowboys motioned on exactly half (37) of their offensive plays–a rate much higher than the 30.3 percent clip at which they came into the game.  That included 21 of the first 31 plays.
  • Kitna again showed he can recognize a defense’s weaknesses and check into the proper play.  He did so four times–two runs for eight yards and two passes for 27 yards.
  • The Cowboys got lucky with Reggie Bush.  Even though his production was nil, he was open a few times and either didn’t get targeted or dropped the ball.  Perhaps Dallas knew something I didn’t, but placing Sean Lee on Bush never seems like a good idea.
  • Dallas attacked the middle of the Saints’ defense on the ground.  One of the guards (either Kosier or Davis) was at the point-of-attack on 22 of the team’s 26 designed runs (84.6 percent).  It isn’t uncommon for a guard to be at the point-of-attack, but that rate is unusually high.
  • In my pre-game notes, I predicted the Cowboys would run a lot of draws, counters, playaction passes, and screens to take advantage of the aggressiveness of New Orleans’ defense.  They did all four quite often.  They dialed up eight draws for 24 yards and four counters for 67 yards.  Kitna also faked a handoff on an incredible 11 passes (for 90 yards) and threw a screen eight times for 42 yards.  All in all, 29 of the Cowboys’ offensive plays (39.2 percent) were either a draw, counter, playaction pass, or screen.
  • We saw the return of the dreaded “Double Tight Right Strong Right” formation (or a variation of it, such as “Double Tight Left Strong Left” or “Double Tight Right I”).  Garrett called it 12 times, and all but three were strong side dives.  Those nine plays went for 12 total yards.  Meanwhile, the three non-strong side dives from the formation (two passes and a toss) went for 23 total yards.  Unfortunately, the toss play was the early 4th down attempt to Barber that went for no gain.

Read my full analysis on the formation here.

  • With the abundance of screens and playaction passes came few downfield throws.  Remember, the Cowboys rarely throw the ball downfield following a play-fake–of their 83 playaction passes last year, only FOUR were thrown 20+ yards.  Of Kitna’s 42 passes against the Saints, only FIVE traveled 10+ yards, and only one went 20+ yards.  Meanwhile, 26 of the passes traveled five yards or less.  I’m by no means an expert on NFL offenses, but I think the Cowboys should probably throw the ball 10+ yards more than 11.9 percent of their passes (and 6.8 percent of all plays).
  • Kitna really had an up-and-down game.  He only had 12 incompletions, but nine of those were the result of off-target passes.  Nine off-target passes is way too many when you’re asked to throw the ball downfield only five times all game.  He also failed to throw a touchdown.
  • Of the team’s 47 called passes, Witten was in a route on 34 of them (72.3 percent), which is about average for him.  Dallas gained only 53 total yards on the 13 plays he stayed in to block, and 24 of those yards came on one play.
  • Garrett obviously made a conscious effort to “protect” struggling right tackle Marc Colombo.  Of the 66 plays with a tight end lined up next to one of the offensive tackles, 44 of them (66.7 percent) were “right-handed,” i.e. the tight end(s) was next to Colombo.  I realize Dallas is a right-handed team, but it’s clear an effort is being made to “hide” Colombo.
  • A reader pointed out that, after the game, Drew Brees stated he was able to beat Terence Newman deep because the Cowboys played the same coverage a bunch of times in a row and he knew it was coming.  His claim seems truthful since the Saints had the courage to throw the ball deep on a crucial 3rd and 1 play.  Although Paul Pasqualoni has done a nice job of employing some unique looks and more zone coverage to help the secondary, I thought his play-calling on Thursday was unoriginal and predictable.  The Saints obviously agree.
  • I was shocked that the Saints didn’t blitz Dallas early in the game.  Of the Cowboys’ first 64 offensive plays, New Orleans blitzed only eight times.  I was even more stunned by their strategy late in the game, as they blitzed on the final 10 plays.  They weren’t just simple A-gap blitzes either, but unique, exotic blitzes in which defenders came from unexpected places.  I’m positive the Saints had a “two-minute defense” installed for this game that was radically different from their approach in the first 58 minutes of the game, as they weren’t running the same play, even as Dallas was in a no-huddle offense.  What an incredibly innovative and unexpected move.
  • Despite the blitzes, I thought Garrett’s play-calling on the final three plays was horrible.  Bryant was targeted on all three passes despite not recording a reception all game.  Further, the Cowboys had just burned the Saints over and over by slipping Witten into the flat.  With the offense needing only five yards or so to give David Buehler a realistic field goal look, why not go to Witten again?  I watched Buehler’s missed field goal again and again, and I think it would have been good if it was from 54 yards instead of 59.

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By Jonathan Bales

Cowboys vs. Detroit Lions Week 11 Game Day Manifesto: What to Watch, DOs and DON’Ts for Dallas

Jonathan Bales

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.

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