The DC Times

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

By Jonathan Bales

Dallas Cowboys 2011 Draft Trade Scenarios: Your Ultimate Guide

Jonathan Bales

Despite a much earlier draft slot than usual in 2011, the fluidity of this particular draft class and the multitude of needs for Dallas has made predicting their draft choice a difficult task.  The “consensus” seems to be that they will end up with USC offensive tackle Tyron Smith, but that is far from certain.  I actually think there is a solid chance that Smith gets selected before the ‘Boys are on the clock, either by a team currently ahead of them or another looking to move up (Washington, perhaps).

Either way, Smith is far from a sure thing.  I do think he’s the most likely of all the prospects to come to Big D (as evidenced by my last 32-team mock draft and Cowboys-only mock draft), but the abundance of targets and draft scenarios shifts Smith’s potential arrival from ‘likely’ to ‘most likely.’

So what are the Cowboys’ true plans?  I really think it depends on how the top of the draft plays out.  I wouldn’t rule out a trade up, a move down, or remaining at No. 9.  Each situation could present the best value depending on how the prior picks pan out.  Listed below are potential targets for the Cowboys if they do decide to make a move, along with suitable trading partners.

Moving Up

  • Possible Trade Partners

Cleveland Browns No. 6

To move up three spots, the NFL’s draft value chart suggests the Cowboys would need to relinquish their third-round pick.  Is it worth it?  Perhaps for P-Squared.

San Francisco 49ers No. 7

If you have not deciphered it yet, I am writing the team names in their uniform colors.  Why?  I honestly don’t know, but enjoy it while it lasts.

The Cowboys would probably need to relinquish their third-rounder to move up to San Fran’s spot, but they would receive a pick in return (likely a fourth).  Not a bad exchange if the right guy is still on the board.  The problem is that the Niners will likely have interest in the same sort of prospects as Dallas.  Why would they move back if Peterson or Dareus fell, for example?

  • Possible Targets

Patrick Peterson, CB, LSU

The Cowboys are rumored to have Peterson at the top of their board.  I don’t think he will fall, but if he drops to Cleveland, look for Dallas to at least inquire about a trade.  The Browns could very well have interest themselves, but it is highly unlikely the Niners would move back if Peterson drops to them.

Marcell Dareus, DT, Alabama

This is a tough call for me.  I have Dareus rated as the No. 2 overall player on my board, but I don’t think the Cowboys should trade up for him.  My reasoning for this is lengthy, but I previously wrote an in-depth article on why selecting the best player available is a myth.  In short, it deals with position scarcity.  There aren’t any elite offensive tackles likely to be around in the second round, so grabbing one in the first (with such a huge need at right tackle) makes more sense.

Is Dareus’ value too much to overlook?  It depends on how highly the Cowboys have him rated, but I am hearing they like Smith just as much, if not more.  Thus, moving up even two spots for Dareus doesn’t seem that likely to me.

Tyron Smith, OT, USC

No one is talking about this, but I don’t think Smith’s presence when the Cowboys select at No. 9 is a foregone conclusion.  With all of the Smith/Dallas connections floating around, why is it implausible to think a team will look to jump the ‘Boys for the USC tackle?  The most likely candidate to do that, in my mind, is Washington.  They could easily move up two or three spots to secure Smith.  If the ‘Boys catch wind of this and truly covet Smith, they will need to make a move themselves.

Moving Down

  • Possible Trade Partners

Minnesota Vikings No. 12

According to the chart, the Cowboys could swap their current fourth-rounder for Minnesota’s third if they elect to move back in the first round.  The Vikings haven’t been mentioned as a potential trade partner for Dallas, but it could happen if either Cam Newton or Blaine Gabbert shockingly falls.

In my opinion, any move down all but eliminates Smith from contention, so the Cowboys will need a backup plan.

Detroit Lions No. 13

The difference in compensation between Minnesota and Detroit highlights a flaw in the NFL’s draft value system, in my opinion.  Instead of swapping third and fourth-round selections, the Cowboys would simply acquire the Lions’ third-round pick if they alternated first-round selections.  With the Lions possibly interested in Prince Amukamara or even Robert Quinn, they appear to be a more likely trade partner for Dallas than Minny.

St. Louis Rams No. 14

Can you even read the yellow font?  Oh well.  The Rams are known to have interest in Alabama receiver Julio Jones and may want to jump Washington to secure him.  They are the most likely partner for the Cowboys, in my view, and would need to relinquish their third and fifth-round round picks to make the move.

New England Patriots No. 17

Am I even choosing team’s true colors at this point?  In any event, the Patriots are known to stockpile draft picks, but they already have a bunch, including two first-round selections.  To swap first-rounders with Dallas, they would need to yield their second-round pick.  Like St. Louis, a possible target for New England in this scenario is Julio Jones.

  • Possible Targets

Gabe Carimi, OT, Wisconsin

Carimi is listed first for a reason–if the Cowboys move down, it is Carimi who I think they will target.  I have heard this “rumor” from a number of sources.  I would personally rather have Anthony Castonzo or even Ben Ijalana, but Carimi is no slouch–he’s still No. 14 overall on my latest board.

Anthony Castonzo, OT, Boston College

I find it hard to believe the Cowboys have divulged as much information (about their views on Smith, for example) as they have without a reason behind it.  I have heard very little linking Castonzo to Dallas, however.  Of course this shouldn’t be used as evidence that the ‘Boys are definitely interested in him, but he will certainly be on their radar if they have him rated as I do.

J.J. Watt, DT/DE, Wisconsin

Watt is considered a prototypical 3-4 defensive end, and only one team (Washington) between the Cowboys and Miami at pick No. 15 runs a 3-4 defense.  The ‘Skins have a bunch of holes, so Watt may not be a priority for them.  I don’t personally want Watt in the first round, but if he is the player the ‘Boys covet, I think he will still be around at St. Louis’ 14th overall selection.

Cameron Jordan, DT/DE, Cal

See Watt, J.J.

Conclusions

Overall, I think the Cowboys need to be flexible in their draft plans.  They should have a list of players for whom they would be willing to trade up, a group they would select at their current spot, and a list of prospects to target if they slide back.  Those lists need not be long.

I wouldn’t consider trading up unless one of two scenarios plays out.  The first is if Peterson drops to Cleveland.  If the Browns are willing to deal, I would sacrifice a first and a third for the top player on my board.

More likely, Peterson won’t drop, and the Cowboys will target Smith.  If he is truly the No. 2 rated player on their board, I would actually trade up for him (if possible).  I think the depth of this draft class is solid enough that yielding a third for an early fourth is worth the ability to acquire an elite offensive tackle with the ability to play either side of the line.  Here are four other reasons to target Tyron Smith.

If the Cowboys miss out on Peterson and Smith, I would desperately seek a trade down (assuming Dareus does not fall).  Castonzo would be the player I target, but the ‘Boys will probably seek Carimi.  The largest positive from a trade back is the possibility of moving up into the very top of the second of even the back of the first to acquire another instant impact player, such as Baylor NT Phil Taylor, Temple DT/DE Muhammad Wilkerson or Texas CB/FS Aaron Williams.

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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

Why aren’t the Cowboys running more counters in 2010?

Jonathan Bales

In the preseason, I placed a point of emphasis on running more counters this season.  In many of my game plan articles, I suggested (over and over) that Dallas run more counters.

The reason was the success with which the Cowboys ran counters in 2009.  As you can see below, the ‘Boys averaged a ridiculous 7.9 yards-per-carry on their 36 counters last year.  Felix Jones alone tallied 220 yards on 22 counters.

While the rate of negative runs was a bit higher (as is to be expected with a slower-developing play), the percentage of 10, 20 and 40+ yard runs was all significantly higher on counters as compared to non-counter runs.

This season, the disparity between counters and non-counters is even greater.  The ‘Boys are averaging 8.71 yards-per-rush on their counter attempts in 2010.  That number is even more impressive when you consider the overall failures of the team’s running game this season.  While the Cowboys averaged 5.0 yards-per-carry on non-counters last season, that number has dropped to 3.2 in 2010.

What’s most incredible to me is the similarities in the counter stats from last year to this one.  Compare the chart above with the one below.  The counter average, negative play rate, and big play percentages are all remarkably similar from one year to the next.

Note: Only designed runs were included. Quarterback scrambles and fumbled snaps were disregarded.

Despite the continued success and overall consistency on counters, however, Jason Garrett is not calling them as frequently as he should.  While the team averaged 2.25 counters-per-game in ’09, that number has dropped to just 1.55 this season.

The struggles of the offensive line are certainly a factor in Garrett’s decision.  Counters are generally more “dangerous” than other run plays that take less time to develop and necessitate fewer moving parts.  With the inconsistencies the offensive line has displayed this year, Garrett might be scared to risk a negative run and put the offense in long-yardage situations.

With a negative run rate that is only three percent higher on counters, though, that potential fear appears unjustified.  Certainly the slightly higher risk of a negative run is offset by the gigantic increase in big play probability.  Take this stat for example:  of the Cowboys’ four 20+ yard runs this season, three have come on counters, despite only 7.4 percent of all runs being counters.  75 percent of big runs from 7.4 percent of run plays?  Something isn’t right there.

And with Doug Free replacing Flozell Adams at left tackle, the athleticism of the offensive line is even greater than in 2009–a trait that is suited for counter runs.  At least Garrett recognizes that the left side of the offensive line is the place to run, as 13 of the 17 counters in 2010 have been on the left side behind Free.  The ‘Boys are averaging 9.85 yards-per-rush on those 13 runs.

So Coach Garrett. . .please, please call more counters moving forward.  They will surely increase the offense’s rushing efficiency, which will make it easier to do the thing you love most–throw the football.

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. New Orleans Saints Week 12 Thanksgiving Game: DOs and DON’Ts for Dallas

Jonathan Bales

Thanksgiving games always have a different feel to them.  In all honesty, they’re a big advantage for the Cowboys.  Not only do they get an extra day of preparation compared to their opponent (due to travel), but they also get 10 days of preparation for the next game.

I think the Cowboys will play well tomorrow, but here are some DOs and DON’Ts which should allow a win to come easier. . .

DO focus on stopping Reggie Bush–with more than one defender.

Bush will be back for New Orleans, and despite his layoff, he should be the focus of the Cowboys’ defense.  It’s sort of a “Catch 22″ in that placing too much of an emphasis on Bush is what gets defenses in trouble, but not monitoring the former USC star is even more deadly.

There isn’t a single player on the Cowboys who can defend Bush one-on-one, and that includes the cornerbacks.  Instead, the ‘Boys need to use a variety of defenders to stop him.  One way to make that task easier is. . .

DON’T play as much man coverage.

Playing man coverage will make the Saints’ job easy.  They are extremely effective at using motions and shifts to create favorable matchups.  It will be much easier for Sean Payton to do that if the Cowboys are in man coverage.  There’s no easier way for New Orleans to isolate Bush than to recognize man coverage and run defenders off of him.

Another monumental reason the Cowboys need to play a lot more zone coverage than normal is the Saints’ spread offense.  Drew Brees throws short passes (less than 10 yards) more than any quarterback in the NFL.  He’s deadly accurate and will simply pick defenses apart with underneath throws.  There’s no way Dallas can expect to play man coverage the majority of the time and still defend the short crossing routes, rub routes, and so on that the Saints will utilize.  They need to be in a zone, preferably. . .

DO play a lot of Cover 2.

The Cowboys aren’t big on Cover 2, but I think this is the week to run it.  The coverage allows for maximum defenders underneath, but it’s still a safe coverage deep.  There’s no sense in stacking all your defenders near the line-of-scrimmage if you just let Devery Henderson or Lance Moore beat you deep.

The weaknesses of Cover 2 are the deep middle of the field and the area by the sideline between the cornerback and safety.  The best way to cover up these holes is to not let the offense know your coverage before the snap.  The Cowboys have been doing a better job of this lately, but Brees is the master of pre-snap reads.  The Cowboys really need to disguise their coverages if they expect to win.

DON’T think the Saints won’t bring pressure.

For whatever reason, the Giants and Lions haven’t brought much pressure on Jon Kitna.  They’ve sent only five and 12 blitzes, respectfully, over the past two weeks.

That trend won’t continue on Thanksgiving.  The Saints’ primary objective on defense is to force turnovers, and they do that by getting after the quarterback.  The Cowboys must be prepared for a variety of innovative blitz packages, as Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams loves to send the “unexpected.”

DO continue to be exotic with blitz packages.

The Cowboys should try to beat New Orleans at their own game this week.  As I said above, there’s no way Dallas will win if they let Brees decipher their coverages/blitzes before the snap.  They need to hide their intentions, lining up in base formations and then blitzing from weird angles, or showing blitz and then backing out.

DON’T run any “predictable” plays.

From last week’s Cowboys-Lions Manifesto:

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.

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.

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).

Well, the Cowboys ended up running all three plays against Detroit.  The last was simply used in garbage time (and the Cowboys do have other plays from the formation), but the other two were used in meaningful situations.  I was able to predict the play before the snap, and if I can do that, the other team should be able to do the same.

DO attack Tracy Porter, especially with double-moves.

Porter made a name for himself in the playoffs last season, but he’s still far from an elite cornerback.  Gregg Williams’ scheme allows him to gamble a lot.  Kitna will have to be prepared for that, but it also means Jason Garrett can call a few double-moves on him to try to secure a quick score.  Plus, the Saints’ other starting cornerback (Jabari Greer) is one of the most underrated players in the entire NFL.

DO run a lot of “right-handed” formations.

This is simple.  The Cowboys need to protect Kitna and Marc Colombo can’t do it.  He needs help from a tight end.  Plus, Dallas usually finds success when running to the weak side of the formation, which would be away from Colombo if the tight end is next to him.

DON’T leave Orlando Scandrick in the slot if Marques Colston bumps inside.

Scandrick has put together two magnificent games in a row, but he’s been the recipient of favorable matchups.  Scandrick vs. Colston is not a favorable matchup for Dallas.  Colston won’t even need to get open against Scandrick, as he can simply post up and use his far superior size to fend off the cornerback and make the catch.  The Cowboys may want to look at moving Terence Newman inside when Colston does the same.

DO continue to throw the ball out of two and three-tight end sets.

The Cowboys implemented three or more receivers on only 16 offensive plays last week (after doing so on just 14 plays the prior week–a season-low).  In the past, I’ve explained why passing out of running formations is successful.  Combine that with Jason Witten and Martellus Bennett’s superb pass protection ability and the deep threat posed by Miles Austin and Dez Bryant, and you have the makings of a lot of “surprise” deep passes.  Now, if Garrett would just call a few after playaction fakes. . .

DO leave Jason Witten in to block so you can take some shots downfield to “The Rookie.”

Whether in base personnel or a two-tight end set, Dallas should leave Witten in to block more this week.  The Cowboys could really help themselves by scoring quickly a time or two, and the easiest way to do that is No. 88.  Considering the frequency with which I expect the Saints to blitz, it won’t be so easy for the Cowboys to provide Kitna proper protection unless they have more blockers.  Lots of blitzers means true man coverage, though–a dream scenario for the ‘Boys.

DO use a dummy snap count (and allow Kitna the freedom to check out of plays).

Against the Saints, Kitna will see a lot of different looks, many of which New Orleans won’t “show” until he goes into his cadence.  If Kitna can use a dummy snap count to force New Orleans to show their intentions, it will make his job a lot easier.  By the way, a dummy snap count is used when you hear the quarterback yell “Omaha.”  Before that, the entire cadence is meaningless.  ”Omaha” signals to the offense that the snap count is now live.

Once Kitna recognizes the Saints’ defense, he should be allowed the freedom to check into whatever play he chooses.  He’s been outstanding with audibles since the preseason.  Last week, he checked out of three plays, two of which went for touchdowns.

DON’T resort back to Shotgun.

The Cowboys’ lack of three and four receiver-sets of late has resulted in less Shotgun snaps (or perhaps vice versa).  Through Week 10, the Cowboys were in Shotgun on a ridiculous 47.3 percent of all snaps.  Last week, however, Dallas used Shotgun on only 13 of 54 offensive plays (24.1 percent).  This comes just a week after using Shotgun at the same rate in their win over the Giants.  Garrett must have recently realized how much more successful Kitna is under center as opposed to in Shotgun.

DO use the same aggressive mentality that beat the Saints in 2009.

The Cowboys beat the Saints last season because they came out on fire.  They opened up the playbook and played with a sense of urgency.  If they do the same this week, they’ll have a good opportunity to once again take down the defending Super Bowl champs.

That’s all for today.  It may take a day or two for me to analyze this week’s game film due to travel, but it’s a long week anyway, so deal with it.  Happy Thanksgiving to all loyal DC Times readers (I hope the disloyal ones have a really shi**y one).  :)  See ya.

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By Jonathan Bales

Cowboys vs. Detroit Lions Week 11 Post-Film Study Observations: What We Learned About Dallas

Jonathan Bales

I posted a lot of interesting notes on the Cowboys-Lions game last night, and below are some observations and statistics I gathered after reviewing the game film. . .

  • Dallas ran 12 red zone plays: seven runs for 27 yards and five passes for four yards (including a sack for -8 yards) and two touchdowns.  I’ve loved Jason Garrett’s red zone play-calling thus far in 2010.  Awhile back, I suggested that he call more passes between the opponent’s 10 and 20-yard lines, and more runs inside the 10-yard line (particularly on 1st down).  He’s doing just that this season, and it’s working well.

  • You may have noticed the Cowboys have run a lot less three-receiver sets of late.  Last week, they implemented only 14, and this week it was only 16.  This decrease is due to a variety of factors, not the least of which is an attempt to provide protection for Jon Kitna.  Martellus Bennett is a tremendous blocker (better than even Marc Colombo, I’d say), and his receiving skills force defenses to honor him in the passing game.
  • Part of the decrease in three (and four) receiver formations is also due to Dez Bryant’s presence in base personnel packages.  He’s earned the right to be on the field for the majority of snaps, and now Garrett isn’t forced to put three receivers on the field to get Bryant involved.  I’m not afraid to admit I have a bit of a man-crush on him.
  • The lack of receivers has also resulted in less Shotgun snaps (or perhaps vice versa).  Through Week 10, the Cowboys were in Shotgun on a ridiculous 47.3 percent of all snaps.  This week, however, Dallas used Shotgun on only 13 of 54 offensive plays (24.1 percent).  This comes just a week after using Shotgun at the same rate in their win over the Giants.  Garrett must have recently realized how much more successful Kitna is under center as opposed to in Shotgun.
  • The Cowboys motioned 16 times, including on 10 of the first 18 plays.  They gained only 85 total yards on the 16 plays (5.31 yards-per-play).
  • Kitna checked out of three plays on Sunday.  All of them were passes and they totaled four yards.  That sounds poor, but two of them were touchdowns (Bryant’s touchdown and Austin’s first touchdown).
  • In my notes from yesterday, I mentioned I liked a play that didn’t work for Dallas.  They had lined Marion Barber up at fullback and motioned Felix Jones to tailback from the slot (in my notes I mistakingly said it was Bryant).  When they’ve done this in the past, they’ve usually handed the ball to Barber on a dive.  When that doesn’t happen, they’ll pitch it out to Jones.  Well, they faked both this week, and may have found themselves another touchdown had Jason Witten and Marc Colombo blocked better.  Both guys whiffed on their defender (the same guy, I might add).
  • Speaking of Colombo–he was absolutely horrible.  I knew he was bad, but after I reviewed the film, I realized he was even worse than I thought.  I credited him with yielding 1.5 sacks, and he also got nailed for a false start and a holding penalty.  I think it is time for Sam Young.
  • Kitna has spread the ball around quite well since becoming the starter (in terms of placement of passes).  Take a look at the distribution below:

  • You can see that the distribution of throws for Kitna has been nearly identical to the left, middle, and right portions of the field.  You can also see that he’s been incredibly accurate over the middle of the field, while the highest percentage of his ‘off-target’ passes have come when throwing to the right side of the field.  Compare these numbers to those of Romo in 2009:

  • Kitna has obviously been more erratic this season than Romo was in 2009, but not bad for a backup.  By the way, Kitna threw a season-low four off-target passes on Sunday against the Lions.
  • The Cowboys ran four draws for 44 yards, but they all came late in the contest.
  • The ‘Boys ran quite a few playaction passes throughout the game (eight), and I’m happy to report they threw the ball downfield following those looks.  Five of the eight passes traveled over 10 yards, and three of them went 15+.
  • It was a big screen game for Dallas as well.  They attempted six of them for 46 yards.  The targets were Jones (three times), Choice (twice), and Bryant (once).
  • Roy Williams got into the action early, hauling in two passes for 20 yards on the first drive.  He wasn’t even targeted the rest of the game, though.  Meanwhile, Chris Gronkowski was targeted three times.
  • Of the 28 times Dallas dropped back to pass, Witten was in a route on 18 of them (64.3 percent).  That’s a good rate.
  • Bryant did a really nice job of blocking on run plays.  He’s a complete player and his effort on each play is phenomenal.
  • On the 4th quarter screen pass to Jones that went for 25 yards, Kyle Kosier got away with a blatant block-in-the-back.  He missed his guy and pushed him in the back right in front of the ball, so I’m not sure how it was overlooked.
  • The naked bootleg 4th down play on which Kitna ran for a 29-yard touchdown was a thing of beauty, but I think Garrett should have saved it.  Clearly no one expects Kitna to keep the ball, particularly from a formation (Double Tight I) in which the Cowboys nearly always hand the ball off to the running back.  Perhaps Garrett didn’t have as much confidence in it at the time, but it sure would be nice to have that play in your back pocket for a crucial 4th down play in the future.
  • I’m not understanding why the last two teams the ‘Boys have played have decided not to blitz them much.  The Giants sat back and let Kitna pick them apart last week, and the Lions did basically the same today.  I counted only 12 blitzes all day from Detroit.  They did disguise them well, showing blitz pre-snap on only three of those 12 plays, but you’d think teams would recognize the Cowboys’ offensive line has trouble against blitzes, stunts, and twists and react accordingly.

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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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By Jonathan Bales

Cowboys vs. Giants Week 10 Film Study Observations

Jonathan Bales

  • In my initial post-game notes, I wrote briefly about a new formation the Cowboys ran against New York.  They called it three times, running the same pass play (below) from it each time.  I’ve named the formation “Double Tight Left Ace.”  It’s actually very similar to “Double Tight Left I,” except there is an extra tight end to the weak side instead of a fullback.

Double Tight Left Ace

  • The first time the Cowboys ran the play, it appeared as though Felix Jones was the primary read on the pass.  The Giants were in man coverage, which meant their linebackers ran with the three tight ends who flooded the left side of the field.  Jones stepped up into the vacated area and Kitna quickly hit him for a 12-yard gain.
  • The other two times the Cowboys ran the play, however, the Giants were in a zone.  Instead of running to the middle of the field, Jones headed out into the flat.  The other players’ routes were the same, meaning Jones probably had an option route on the play.  If New York was in man coverage, he ran the route above.  If they were in zone, he headed out into the flat.
  • After reviewing the film, the Cowboys’ clock management prior to halftime was even worse than I thought.  They had a 2nd and 1 at their own 46-yard line with well over a minute to play and two timeouts.  Instead of using a timeout or going into a hurry-up offense, they huddled.  The decision cost them the opportunity to move into field goal range for David Buehler.
  • I didn’t see too many differences between Paul Pasqualoni’s play-calling and that of Wade Phillips.  Pasqualoni dialed up an exotic zone blitz early in the game, dropping both DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer into coverage and sending Alan Ball after the quarterback.  The play worked well, but the Cowboys didn’t come back to it.  I think Pasqualoni is too similar to Phillips for my liking.
  • I’m not sure what sort of effect the Cowboys’ full pads practices had on the outcome of the game, but Dallas did appear much, much more physical on defense.  They looked genuinely excited to be playing football for the first time since Week Three.  I was particularly impressed with the physicality of players in the secondary, especially Mike Jenkins and Orlando Scandrick.
  • Scandrick had a really good game overall.  He was a step ahead of his normal position on most plays, causing Eli Manning to make difficult throws on a number of occasions.  On Alan Ball’s late interception, Manning had to lead the receiver too far because of Scandrick’s tight coverage.  Now he needs to show consistency.
  • Once again, proponents of the run will claim the Cowboys won because they were more balanced offensively, but that’s simply not the case.  Only 12 of the first 33 plays were actually runs (36.4 percent).  The correlation between rushing attempts and winning is generally due to teams running after they’ve already obtained a lead.  As was the case Sunday, that lead usually comes via big plays through the air.  The Cowboys didn’t win because they ran the ball often–they won because they ran it effectively, allowing for big passing plays downfield to Dez Bryant and Miles Austin.
  • Garrett must simply not like Tashard Choice.  Choice again played just one snap–the 3rd and 22 pass to Roy Williams that went for 27 yards.  It was ALL because of Choice.  Well, not really, but why is Marion Barber still getting so many reps ahead of him?
  • Besides “Double Tight Left Ace,” the Cowboys lined up in another unique formation.  You’ve probably all seen the “Pistol” offense run by college teams like Nevada and Indiana.  If not, see below. . .

  • The trademark of the “Pistol” offense is the running back lined up behind the quarterback in a Shotgun formation.  Generally, the running back is to the left or right of the quarterback.  The reason I love the “Pistol” so much is that it doesn’t allow the defense to obtain a pre-snap key as to the play-call.  When a team is in a regular Shotgun formation, running plays are generally designed to the side of the formation opposite the running back.  In “Pistol,” a running play could go either direction.
  • The Cowboys used a variation of the “Pistol” which I have termed “Trips Right Pistol,” running the ball up the middle for a combined 12 yards the two times they called it.  I drew up the formation below. . .

Trips Right Pistol

  • I didn’t see a significant change in Garrett’s play-calling, but the Cowboys did motion a lot more than usual later in the game.  Generally, Dallas has motioned the majority of the time in the first 20 or so plays of games–the scripted plays.  On Sunday, Dallas motioned 11 times in the second half alone, including five of the first six plays to start the half.
  • Of those five plays, four were passes and they totaled 117 yards (29.3 yards-per-pass).  Let’s see if this trend continues into next week.
  • Dallas lined up in a lot more two and three-tight ends sets, even before securing a large lead.  Of their 49 offensive plays (minus two quarterback kneels), the ‘Boys implemented three or more wide receivers only 14 times.  It may have seemed like more because Bryant was targeted so much, but you’ll be happy to know that he’s effectively replaced Roy Williams as the No. 2 receiver.
  • Jon Kitna checked out of a play four times–two runs for five yards and two passes for 13 yards and a touchdown.
  • After running the ball to the outside of formations quite often to start the season, the Cowboys went back to pounding it up the middle against the Giants (as they did in 2009).  15 of their 24 runs were in either the “1″ or “2″ hole–right up the center’s butt.
  • I thought the Cowboys would run more draws than they did (three).  Those runs went for 24 total yards, so the few times they dialed up a draw it was effective.
  • The Cowboys didn’t run a single counter all game.
  • The Cowboys ran four playaction passes.  Only one was completed, but it went for 27 yards.
  • Garrett also dialed up four screen passes and they were extremely successful, thanks to Felix Jones (71 yard screen for a touchdown) and Dez Bryant (46 yard screen).
  • It may have seemed like the Cowboys threw the ball downfield much more often than usual, but that simply wasn’t the case.  Only eight passes traveled over 10 yards.  Kitna & Co. were simply effective when they did take their shots.
  • I counted only four passes as being off-target for Kitna.  He had quite the night.  Imagine what Romo could have done with this sort of protection.
  • Garrett made the offensive line’s job easier by calling three designed rollouts–the most in a single game all season.
  • I was shocked with the lack of pressure the Giants brought.  I counted only five blitzes all game, and the Cowboys totaled only eight yards on those plays.  After the initial success the Cowboys had on offense, I thought the Giants would become more aggressive on defense, but it just never happened.

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By Jonathan Bales

Dallas Cowboys vs. Giants Week 10: What to Watch, Jason Garrett Edition

Jonathan Bales

General Questions

Will Jason Garrett call plays differently now that he’s the head coach?

I don’t think this will be the case, but it is possible that Garrett’s increase in power could result in a shift in play-calling philosophy.  The offensive and defensive coordinators are generally supposed to call plays with the grander overall team philosophy in mind.  A team’s offensive philosophy is intricately linked to its defensive philosophy, and vice versa.  With Wade Phillips out, Garrett is completely free to call plays in whichever manner he deems most suitable.

The reason I don’t see major changes on the horizon is that I think Garrett was already free to call plays as he chose.  Even when Phillips was in town, it always seemed like the Cowboys had two head coaches–one for the offense and one for the defense.  Phillips rarely contributed to the offensive game plans, so I don’t think much will change.

This could still be a perfect opportunity for Garrett to alter his play-calling a bit, though.  Even if he did have free reign over the offense prior to Phillips’ dismissal, he can use the firing as a sort of “excuse” for a shift in philosophy.  Specifically, I’d love to see the offense be much more aggressive with deep throws, fourth down attempts, and so on.

How will Garrett perform with in-game tasks such as challenges, timeouts, and so on?

It will be interesting to see what sort of game manager the Cowboys have in Garrett.  I have a feeling he’s going to be far superior to Phillips, whose in-game decisions left much to be desired.  Garrett is far more detail-oriented than Phillips, meaning I expect better clock management skills and use of timeouts/challenges.

Will we see any lineup changes?

One of the major critiques of the Wade Phillips era was his inability to properly hold players accountable for sub-par play.  In my opinion, this is a valid criticism.  There is no reason on Earth that Marion Barber should still be starting (or Roy Williams, Igor Olshansky, Keith Brooking, etc.).

Garrett now has the power the do as he wants with the Cowboys’ starting lineup, but will he exercise that power?  I have my doubts.  As I argued above, Garrett was basically already the head coach of the offense.  If he wanted Barber out, it would have happened.  I am very eager to not only see if the Cowboys have any surprise lineup changes on Sunday, but also if Garrett yanks players who under-perform during the game.

The season isn’t over, but any hopes of making the playoffs have been squashed.  An alteration in goals should accompany this change in expectations.  Winning is always the top priority, but the Cowboys need to shift the emphasis of when they are trying to win–namely making 2011 the main focus.

That means the Cowboys need to find out what they have in certain players–Sean Lee, Barry Church, Danny McCray, Sam Young, Phil Costa, and so on.  The first step in improving a roster is accurately assessing current talent.  Dallas has yet to do that.

What sort of schematic alterations will we see on defense?  Will the Cowboys be more aggressive?  How about more deceptive in their intentions before the snap?

The largest changes to the Cowboys following Phillips’ departure could come on defense.  I’m interested to see what sort of mindset is employed by interim defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni.  Will he shake up the lineup?  Will he disguise blitzes more effectively than Phillips?  Will he allow the defensive backs to play more aggressively?

The second half of the season is basically a long interview for Pasqualoni, meaning we should see some changes in philosophy.  The starters and scheme the Cowboys used under Phillips weren’t working.  Pasqualoni needs to make changes to survive.

Will the Cowboys regain a sense of pride in their play now that they may feel guilt over Wade Phillips’ departure?

A lot of players, particularly on defense, feel awful about their role in getting their coach fired. . .as they should.  They basically gave up on a guy they all claimed to love.  Their effort was a slap in the face to Phillips.

Now that Phillips is gone, I expect the players to up their level of play.  It shouldn’t take a guy losing his job to spark a sense of pride in the players’ effort, but with how low Dallas has fallen, perhaps Phillips’ leave is a necessary evil.

Will Dallas possess a more aggressive overall philosophy under the “new school” Garrett?

I would be willing to bet that Garrett won’t punt the ball on 4th and 3 at the opposition’s 39-yard line.  He seems to have a rather “new school,” stat-oriented approach to coaching, which is great.  Now it is my job to make sure he’s getting the right stats. . .

Will we see more disciplined play under Garrett?

I think we will, but I don’t know how much of it will be truly caused by Garrett.  Yes, Garrett seems to be more precise than Phillips, but he was already in control of the entire offense in the first half of the season.  They weren’t disciplined under him then, so why now?

The reason the Cowboys will at least appear more disciplined is (once again) regression to the mean.  The Cowboys committed so many dumb penalties under Phillips, how much worse could it get?  They’re likely to improve regardless of Garrett’s tactics.

Of course, refraining from committing penalties isn’t the only manner in which a team can be disciplined.  I fully expect Garrett to employ much more up-tempo practices than Phillips.  That started with yesterday’s full pads practice.

My high school football coach had a saying that I think fits perfectly with the 2010 Dallas Cowboys. . .

Practice doesn’t make perfect.  Perfect practice makes perfect.

The Cowboys aren’t losing games on Sundays.  They’re losing them in the offseason, preseason, and during the practice week.  If Garrett can change the culture of Cowboys’ practices, he’ll reverse their fortunes on Sundays.

Giants-Specific Questions

Will the Cowboys run the ball more frequently in an effort to shorten the game?

The Cowboys are the largest underdogs in the league this week.  When was the last time that happened?  Garrett knows his team is an underdog, so let’s see if he runs the ball more (even if it isn’t effective) to force both teams to call less plays.  Less plays generally means less scoring, i.e. a smaller probability of the Giants pulling out to a big lead.

Using statistics in coaching doesn’t always need to be incredibly complicated.  Shorten the game, and you have a better chance of winning as an underdog.

How physical will the Cowboys be after practicing in full pads this week for the first time since training camp?

As I said above, the ‘Boys were in full pads for the first time since camp.  That’s a tone-setter and I love the move.  It isn’t like an injury is going to be devastating to the team’s playoff hopes.

So will we see a “hungrier” Cowboys defense?  I’m looking at you, Mike Jenkins. . .

Will Terence Newman move into the slot at time to cover Steve Smith (who has continually torched Orlando Scandrick)?

I don’t think this will happen, but I do wish it would.  Scandrick has been abused by receivers all year, and Smith in particular has had his number basically every game they’ve ever been matched up.  Newman has lots of experience playing in the slot, so why not make the move?

Of course, the major problem would be placing either Jenkins or Scandrick outside on Hakeem Nicks.  Scandrick is the better tackler and should probably man up on Nicks if he isn’t in the slot, but both guys are undersized.  Still, I’ll take my chances with Nicks on screen passes over Smith beating Scandrick deep over the middle all game.

Will Dallas place Gerald Sensabaugh on Ahmad Bradshaw at times as they did in the teams’ first matchup?

Lost in the hoopla of the Cowboys-Giants Week Seven contest was the fact that Sensabaugh did a fairly good job covering Bradshaw (when the two were matched up).  Although Bradshaw killed the Cowboys on the ground with 128 yards rushing, he caught only two passes for 12 yards.

None of the Cowboys’ linebackers can hang with Bradshaw.  Sensabaugh is the defense’s best option.

Can the Cowboys’ thinning defense stop the Giants’ running game?

This is going to be a major key to the game.  If the Giants can run the ball as effectively as they did a few weeks ago, their playaction passing game will destroy the Cowboys’ secondary.  The Cowboys simply don’t have the talent or numbers on the defensive line to properly respect run and get to the quarterback on playaction fakes.   Eli Manning could have all day to pass.  No cornerback can cover a guy for more than three or four seconds.

Actually, I think the Cowboys’ pass rush (or lack thereof) has been totally overlooked as a major contributor to the struggles in the secondary.  The first way to make your cornerbacks look good is to get to the passer.

Will Garrett trust the offensive line enough to allow for the occasional deep playaction pass?

The Cowboys will probably need a big play or two.  They aren’t going to get it on screen passes.  The offensive line is probably going to struggle, but from time to time, Garrett just needs to trust them and take some shots downfield.  If it doesn’t work then so be it, but the Cowboys probably won’t be able to consistently move the ball down the field without opening up the offense a bit.

As always, passing out of two-tight end formations can help.  Not only is the defense already in base personnel and anticipating run, but don’t underestimate Martellus Bennett’s blocking ability.  He’s been far superior to Jason Witten in that department all season.

How many draws will the Cowboys run?

I’m saying double-digits, which wouldn’t be a horrible idea.  Draws will allow Dallas to keep the clocking moving and take advantage of the league’s most aggressive defensive ends.

Will Tashard Choice finally get some work?

I sure hope so.  After being told he’d get significant playing time last week, Choice received all of three carries while the Cowboys were down 38 points.  Marion Barber probably won’t be in Dallas next season.  With playoff hopes shot, why is he still starting?  Give Choice at least 10 touches.

Will Dez Bryant continue to get more reps, including in base personnel packages?

Last week was the first time I saw Bryant on the field in a non-three-receiver package.  That’s good news.  You can expect more of the same this week for the rookie who, in my view, is the team’s MVP over the last five weeks or so.  His effort has been noticeably better than the majority of veterans, which is sad.  He deserves more looks.

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By Jonathan Bales

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

Jonathan Bales

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

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

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