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Film Study- To Block or Not to Block?: Jason Witten in Route vs. Blocking on Pass Plays

Cowboys at Broncos, October 4, 2009. There are just seconds left on the clock with Dallas at Denver’s two-yard line, down seven. The Cowboys have two plays left to score and are sure to try to get the ball to their top playmakers. Right?

Right, if you think the Cowboys best option is Sam Hurd. The Cowboys force two slants to Hurd on 3rd and 4th and Goal and lose the game. Don’t get us wrong–Hurd is a great bench player and has improved vastly, but, with Roy Williams out of the game, the Cowboys needed to target their Pro Bowl tight end. Surely he had to be open on just one of the two plays.

The yards-per-pass average was significantly higher with Witten in a route.

But Witten couldn’t be open, because he was left in to block on both the 3rd and 4th down plays. These two plays in particular got us to thinking: how effective are the Cowboys on pass plays when Jason Witten is out in a route versus when he stays in to block? We tracked every play of the 2009 season, and the results are to the right.

Witten was in the lineup for 485 pass plays (this includes sacks and Romo scrambles). Of these plays, he was out in a pass route 374 plays, or 77.1% 0f the time. Intuitively, it seems as though Witten must be out in a route more than about 3 out of 4 pass plays, but this was not the case.

As you can see, the Cowboys were more successful by leaps and bounds when Witten went into a route. They averaged a stout 9.3 yards-per-attempt during these situations, compared to just 7.4 yards-per-attempt on the 111 pass plays where Witten blocked.

But why is this the case? Is it purely due to Witten’s supreme receiving skills, or could there be another reason? If Witten was out in a route more often during pass-friendly situations, such as when an opposing defense is playing a prevent, for example, then these numbers might be a bit inflated.

This was not the case, however. Often times the Cowboys would be in a formation called “Gun 3 Wide Pro” (pictured left) during these situations, where Witten lined up next to Romo in the shotgun. He would frequently stay in to block, and only sneak out into a route if the protection was sound. Thus, this does not seem to be a reason for the higher passing average when Witten was a receiving option.

Another possible reason for a decrease in average is that the Cowboys frequently would keep Witten in to block when trying to go for the big play. Opposing defenses often key the tight end to decipher run or pass, and when linebackers and safeties see Witten staying in to block, they tend to sneak up toward the line of scrimmage. Dallas loves to run one and two-man routes during these times, attempting to sneak a receiver behind an over-aggressive defense.

So why would this cause a lower yards-per-pass average with Witten blocking? Perhaps attempting a big play gives the Cowboys a shot at a quick score, yet ultimately lowers the average because of the low chance of hitting on such a play.

If this is the case, though, we would expect the percentage of big plays to be significantly higher when Witten remains in to block versus when he is in a route. Again, we dove into the film, and here are the numbers:

The Cowboys had slightly more big plays when Witten was not in a route.

The percentage of 15+ yard plays in the two scenarios is virtually even, while the percentage of 30+ yard plays is slightly higher when Witten remains in to block. These are the sorts of number that might be expected, but not a significant enough difference to explain nearly a two-yard difference in yards-per-play average (9.3 vs. 7.4).

Yet another possible explanation for the difference is that, when Witten stays in to block, there is a good chance the Cowboys are expecting blitz. Blitzes could force bad decisions and lower the average. The problem with this idea, however, is that Romo is one of the most effective quarterbacks in league history against the blitz. If opposing defenses blitz and the Cowboys have proper protection, which would most likely be the case when they leave a tight end in to block, Romo would generally pick them apart (meaning this cannot be a correct explanation for the decrease in average).

One last potential explanation of the greater success displayed with Jason Witten in a pass route is that these situations are just generally safer than when Witten remains in to block. The Cowboys are more likely to not be blitzed during these times, and if they are, Romo has his favorite option available for a hot route. The numbers, though, do not seem to support this theory either.

When Witten did not go in a route, the Cowboys gave up eight sacks (7.2% of plays), but Romo threw zero interceptions. When the Cowboys’ top tight end did not stay in to block, however, the Cowboys yielded 25 sacks (6.7% of plays) and Romo threw all nine of his INT’s. This .5% difference in sacks is not statistically significant enough to conclude that there is any real difference, while the eye-popping difference in interceptions proves that putting Witten out in a route is not necessarily a safer option.

Once the yards-per-pass with Witten blocking vs. in a route reaches the Nash equilibrium, perhaps 85 or 90%, Dallas will maximize their overall yards-per-pass.

Thus, we must conclude that the 9.3 yards-per-attempt during pass plays in which Witten was in a route is actually due to his ability to get open and make plays.

So, how do all these numbers affect the Cowboys’ future playcalling? The greatest success rate would arise through a steady increase in the percentage of plays that Witten is in a route that only stops once the “Nash equilibrium” is reached. While we will not bore you by going into great detail about this term, know that it is basically when the average yards-per-play for both scenarios (Witten staying in and going out) is equal. At this point, the Cowboys will attain the greatest overall yards-per-pass average.

Thus, the best solution for next season’s playcalling would be for Jason Garrett to increase the “Witten-in-route” percentage until the Nash equilibrium is reached, reminding Romo to continue to limit turnovers, particularly when Witten is not in to help secure protection.

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Poll: Is Jason Garrett's playcalling too predictable?

We recently discussed the predictability of Jason Garrett’s playcalling. What do you think?

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Double Tight Strong and Tipping Plays Via Formation

By Jonathan Bales

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

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

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

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

Further evidence Dallas was tipping their plays via the formation

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

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

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

Final Double Tight Right Strong Right (and variations) statistics

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

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

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

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2009 Regular Season Film Study Concluded!

After weeks and weeks of arduous, monotonous film study and database stat entry, I have finally performed a complete analysis on every offensive play the Cowboys had in the 2009 regular season. I will be posting numerous articles in the coming weeks detailing a variety of unique statistics and trends I found on film, so be sure to check back daily. A preview of a few of the things to come:

An updated and complete version of the Double Tight Right Strong Right study
Jason Garrett’s playcalling trends
Effectiveness of John Phillips at fullback versus Deon Anderson
Statistics when Cowboys motion
Romo’s run/pass audible percentage and subsequent effectiveness
Field position stats
Coaches’ ability to adjust at halftime
Romo’s passing stats in different areas of field
Linemen run/pass stats
Yards per rush on draws/counters (Jones v. Barber)
Wildcat numbers
Playaction/screen stats
Effectiveness of Witten staying in to block

This is just the tip of the iceberg, but if you have any suggestions or unique statistics you want analyzed, just post a comment in the Mailbag.