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miles austin slot | The DC Times

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Cowboys at Texans Week Three Game Plan: How Dallas Can Beat Houston



Jonathan Bales

You guys know the backbone of DC Times is film study and stat analysis.  Consequently, I will be posting these weekly “Game Plan” segments which will include tidbits about how I believe the Cowboys can use the same film study and stat analysis which drives this site to win football games.

These will come later in the week after I’ve published the “Game Day Manifesto”–a combination of “What to Watch” and “DOs and DON’Ts” for the Cowboys.  Although still film-driven and stat heavy, I will try to refrain from too much game-planning in the Manifesto to prevent unnecessary overlap.  You can read this week’s Cowboys/Texans Manifesto here.

Let’s get to the game. . .

1. Continue to line up in double-tight end sets in passing situations.

I’ve said it a few times:

In obvious passing downs, though, it might actually be a good idea to go to a more run-oriented formation–double tights.  The reason is that backup tight end Martellus Bennett will be able to help block (insert Pro Bowl pass-rusher here).  No matter what you think about Bennett, he’s a tremendous blocker.

Why not use Jason Witten in pass protection?  Well, I’ve showed in the past that the 22.9 percent rate at which Witten stayed in to block on pass plays last season was already too much.  Dallas is a better team with him in a route (excluding perhaps 3rd and very long).

Plus, stats show the Cowboys should pass out of double-tight formations more in general.  Actually, the formation from which they had the most passing success last year was ‘Ace.’

Lining up in two-tight end sets will also allow the Cowboys to more effectively throw the ball downfield.  Tony Romo has attempted just 10 passes of 20+ yards all season.  With weapons like Miles Austin and Dez Bryant outside, why not take some shots down the field?

2.  Put Miles Austin in the slot a lot more.

The Redskins exposed a weakness in the Cowboys’ offensive line–an inability to effectively block “disguised” blitzes.  When the Cowboys are uncertain from where a blitz may come (including when teams stunt and twist), they have trouble providing ample protection for Romo.

You can bet the Texans are going to duplicate the game plans of Washington and Chicago.  Expect a lot of blitzes, and even a lot of feigned blitzes (showing blitz and backing out, or coming from another angle).

The best way for the ‘Boys to beat this is by “throwing hot”–immediately hitting the uncovered receiver.  Austin spent plenty of time in the slot during the preseason, but we haven’t seen it as much in the regular season.  That needs to return, because Austin is clearly the wide receiver with whom Romo has the most chemistry.  The Cowboys could hit on some big-time plays if they can effectively beat the Texans’ blitzes.

3.  Send overload blitzes to the left side of the Texans’ offensive line.

The Texans will be starting Rashad Butler (who?) at left tackle in place of the suspended Duane Brown.  This is by far their largest weakness on offense and the Cowboys need to exploit it.  I’d really love to see them disguise their blitzes/coverages better, particularly in an effort to take advantage of Butler.  The most effective way the Cowboys can limit the play of Andre Johnson probably starts with Butler–if they can take advantage of him and get to Matt Schaub, AJ can be (slightly) contained.  Remember, no matter how talented the wide receiver, he is still completely dependent on his offensive line and quarterback.

I still don’t think the Cowboys should blitz very often, but being creative with their blitzes when they do send them will be imperative.

4.  Don’t stuff the box unless it is absolutely critical.

Texans running back Arian Foster has been sensational thus far this season (I would know–he’s on most of my fantasy teams), but he’s probably not going to gash the Dallas defense for a huge run.  I’d much rather see the Cowboys keep their safeties deep in an effort to minimize the big-play options Houston possesses on the outside, simultaneously forcing Foster and the Houston offensive line to continually beat the them to move the ball.

5.  Use the playaction pass often, including bootlegs off of it. . .but be less predictable.

Last week, I thought the Cowboys should have all but abandoned the playaction pass.  Instead, they ran it 12 times for an unimpressive 80 yards.

This week, I’d love to see it quite often.  I think the Cowboys can take advantage of a Texans defense that can sometimes to over-aggressive.  Further, if they run playaction passes from run-oriented, double-tight end formations (see No. 1), the line should be able to provide enough time for the Cowboys receivers to beat a very underwhelming Houston secondary.

But stop running playaction passes in such predictable situations!  Jason Garrett loves to run playaction with exactly 10 yards-to-go (either on 1st and 10 or after an incomplete pass on first down).  On Sunday, 10 of the Cowboys’ 12 playaction passes were from this distance.  The trend dates back to last year.  Take a look at these numbers.

Finally, use some rollouts.  Two designed rollouts on the season (and zero last week) isn’t optimal.  Not only do bootlegs and other rollouts allow Romo to improvise a bit (which is when I believe he is at his best), but they can also be an effective tool against the blitz and a struggling offensive line.  If Romo simply drops back to the same spot on the field every pass, Mario Williams will be able to pin his ears back and just rush to that spot.

6.  Be flexible!

I think this is the sort of game in which the Cowboys need to be willing to deviate from their game plane to accommodate game-specific situations.  You could probably say Dallas needs to do a better job of that in every game, but this week it is especially true.

The reason has to do with match-ups.  It is obvious the ‘Boys need to run the ball more effectively, but Houston has been tremendous in run defense this year.  Mario Williams, DeMeco Ryans, Amobi Okoye, Bernard Pollard and so on are all really good run defenders.  The Texans are susceptible to the pass, however, yielding over 400 yards-per-game thus far in 2010.

So what strategy is Dallas to employ?  Should they try to establish the run and set up the passing game off of that, or immediately take advantage of the Texans’ weakness in the secondary?  In my opinion, they should simply find out what is working and stick with it.  If they can run the ball early, then pound it and don’t look back.  If the passing game is on fire, then disregard any pre-game commitment to the run and just air it out.

Recognize the flow of the game, adjust accordingly, and bring home a win!


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Patrick Crayton’s 2009 Reception Breakdown: Why He Should Stay in the Slot

Jonathan Bales

Thus far, I have examined the breakdown of receptions for Roy Williams and Miles Austin.  Graphs detailing the catches of each can be seen in the gallery below.

Notice that Williams was a much better receiver over the middle of the field, while Austin was incredible just about everywhere.  The numbers of Patrick Crayton (shown below), however, are the most overwhelming.

You can see that Crayton was tremendous over the middle of the field.  Even Austin’s gaudy 11.43 yards-per-attempt and 70.0% completion rate are no match for Crayton’s 14.48 average and 74.1% rate between the hash-marks.

In fact, Crayton’s 14.48 yards-per-attempt in the middle of the field is 3.00 times as large as his yards-per-attempt on the left side of the field, and 2.47 times as great as the same statistic on the right side of the field.

Thus, while we have seen all three receivers (Crayton, Williams, and Austin) put up large numbers in the middle of the football field, we can safely conclude that such an overwhelming disparity in Crayton’s statistics must be due to something he is doing correctly in the slot (and probably poorly when on the outside).

Having said that, Crayton still has a role on the Cowboys.  I will release another 53-man roster projection later this week, and I will tell you right now that, barring an unforeseen incident, Crayton will be on that list.

While his return duties have all but disappeared, Crayton is still a very skilled slot receiver.  In a previous article on Crayton’s future in Dallas, I wrote about his value in the slot:

Roy Williams is obviously not a slot receiver. Dez Bryant is an option, but if he ends up overtaking Williams in the starting lineup (which will obviously happen eventually), he will be playing outside as the X or Z receiver.

The Cowboys could also look at Kevin Ogletree, who we believe has the sort of skill set which most resembles that of the prototypical slot receiver (outside of Crayton). Still, Ogletree is an undrafted second-year player with very limited experience. Can he be trusted as a slot receiver just yet? We believe Crayton’s experience in the slot is alone enough to justify his stay in Big D, as he provides a skill set which we cannot be sure would be present following his potential release.

Therefore, Crayton, who can also play special teams without being a return man, should be on the Dallas Cowboys in 2010.  He can work in and out of the slot with other players and be insurance as a returner.  His role is certain to be decreased and his long-term future in Dallas is shaky at best, but, as far as 2010 goes, Patrick Crayton has a place in Big D.

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Miles Austin’s 2009 Reception Breakdown

Jonathan Bales

On Friday, I posted a breakdown of Roy Williams’ 2009 catches, explaining why he was far superior over the middle of the field as compared to the sides.  Today, I’ll do the same for Miles Austin.

Austin was obviously the Cowboys’ best receiver last season, and perhaps the team’s MVP.  Who knows where the Cowboys might have finished the year if Austin hadn’t broken out in Kansas City in Week 5?

Recently, coach Wade Phillips has insinuated that Austin might be the Cowboys’ primary slot receiver in three-receiver sets.  At the very least, he is going to see far more action there than he did in 2009.

I think the move is a good one.  Austin is already a quick cat and he’s lost nearly 10 pounds off of last year’s playing weight.  A quicker Miles Austin?  Uh oh.

Now of course Austin will not be in the slot all the time, even in three-receiver sets.  The best solution, I believe, is to rotate different players into the slot at different times (and that includes Patrick Crayton).  In crucial third downs, for example, it may be best to roll with the reliable Crayton inside, while utilizing Austin’s play-making ability might be the best decision if the offense is seeking the “home run.”

Moving players around the football field through both pre-snap alignment and motion will also make it easier for offensive coordinator Jason Garrett to create mismatches.  Austin or Felix Jones on a linebacker?  Yes, please.

As you can see in the graph to the left, Austin flourished over the middle in 2009.  He averaged a gaudy 11.43 yards-per-attempt and caught 70.0% of balls thrown his way.  Now, as we mentioned in our analysis of Williams’ receptions, impressive numbers over the middle don’t necessarily translate to superb slot play.

At the very least, we know Austin isn’t afraid to go inside and take a shot from the big boys.  As long as he is able to maintain his strength and toughness despite losing some weight, he should be excellent in the slot for the Cowboys this season.

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Mailbag: 6/10/10 (Slot WR, Second-Year Players, and RB Touches)


Q:  Who will be starting at defensive end for the Cowboys in 2010?  It seems Jason Hatcher or Stephen Bowen might be able to step into the starting lineup.

Martin Young, Ft. Worth, TX

A:  Hatcher and Bowen played fairly well in 2009, but expect Spears to start again this season.  Despite being labeled a “semi-bust” by fans and much of the Dallas media, Spears is an above-average run defender.  He recorded zero penalties and a tackle on 4.11 percent of plays–second only to Igor Olshansky.

As a 3-4 defensive end, Spears came into Dallas with unrealistic expectations.  No matter how well he plays, the numbers he can put up from that spot will never be “good enough.”

We have suggested the Cowboys continue to start Spears and Olshansky, replacing them with Hatcher and Bowen on passing downs.  Since Spears is unlikely to be a Cowboy next year, the team could slowly transition either Hatcher or Bowen.  Despite also being restricted free agents, both of those players are more likely than Spears to sign a long-term deal with the Cowboys, so you could see both acquire more reps as the season progresses.

For comparison’s sake, we provided Spears, Hatcher, and Bowen with nearly identical grades for their 2009 play.

 

Q:  Miles Austin has been lining up in the slot during Cowboys OTAs.  Do you think that is a legitimate spot for him?  Is Patrick Crayton already out of three-receiver sets?

Damon Hill, Cleveland, OH

A:  Don’t forget that Austin was lining up in the slot when Crayton was absent from OTAs.  Now, the Cowboys have Hurd in the slot, as rookie Dez Bryant is sidelined with a minor hamstring injury.  Crayton is running with the two’s.

Of course Crayton is not going to be below Hurd on the depth-chart, so his current demotion is due to his previous absence.  You can probably expect Crayton to regain his position in the slot once training camp begins.  Whether he retains that spot throughout camp, though, is a mystery.

As far as Austin is concerned, he certainly has the ability to be moved around the field.  He lost about 10 pounds this offseason, so perhaps his improved quickness would make him a good fit for some slot duties. 

Offensive coordinator Jason Garrett might be well-served to try a variety of players in different positions.  The only player that really doesn’t have the skill set to play in the slot is Roy Williams.  Other than that, you’d think that either Austin, Bryant, or Kevin Ogletree could pick up the nuances of lining up inside.  Crayton has the edge in experience, but not in numbers.

Nonetheless, you’ll most likely see Crayton as the team’s opening day starter in the slot (assuming he isn’t traded or released).

Q:  You published a poll asking us which Cowboys second-year player would have the biggest impact.  Who do you think it will be?

Sharon Taylor, Eden Prarie, MN

A:  Personally, I think Brandon Williams has the best shot to contribute in 2010.  The reason is the nature of his skill set and the need for a reliable outside linebacker to relieve starters DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer of some early down work.

According to our stats, Ware and Spencer played 1093 and 1112 snaps in 2009, respectively.  That is way too many for both players.  If coach Wade Phillips decides to give either player a breather, however, it is unlikely to come on passing downs.

Thus, Williams has the edge over fellow second-year player Victor Butler, who is more of a pass-rush specialist.  I think you’ll see Butler’s snaps remain steady (or even slightly decrease), while Williams’ should approach 200.

My selection of Williams is also related to limited opportunities for other “redshirt” players.  Safety Michael Hamlin will compete for the free safety job, but that is Alan Ball’s to lose.  Inside linebacker Jason Williams has a great shot at contributing in 2010, but he has to fight off second-rounder Sean Lee.  John Phillips showed flashes last season, but with the addition of Dez Bryant, how many opportunities can we truly expect him to receive?

Q:  Who is going to win Game 4 of the NBA Finals?

Marcus Gregario via Twitter

A:  Lakers, of course.

Q:  Marion Barber played almost all of last season with a torn quad.  Does this, along with the great shape he is currently in, change how the coaches might plan to use him?

Adam Natal, Odessa, TX

A:  I don’t think so.  You will probably still see Felix Jones start and receive the most touches.  However, I think the overall split could be closer to even than most people think. 

We have suggested the Cowboys provide Jones, Choice, and Barber with 50, 30, and 20 percent of the touches, respectively.  We’d love to see Jones start and receive two touches for every one of Choice’s, with Choice handling short-yardage duties and Barber taking third downs and the fourth quarter.

Of course, the touch distribution should be flexible.  The “hot” player should receive the bulk of the touches in any particular game.  If that results in a 33/33/33 split, then so be it.  More likely, however, is that this method would optimize the ratio by season’s end, with the “best” running back earning the most touches.