Football is a game of competing minds. The Dallas Cowboys’ coaches must not only figure out what their players do best, but they need to determine how they can play to their players’ strengths while knowing that the opposing coaches are trying to limit the effectiveness of those strengths. In many situations, that can lead to counterintuitive thinking; the Patriots, for example, do such a great job of taking away an opponent’s best option that, in many situations, it’s optimal to build the game plan around “sub-optimal” players. Quite the paradox.
The study of this sort of decision-making – the type that’s governed by rational minds, often in a zero-sum game (just like football) – is known as game theory. The best way to make sense of the concepts behind game theory is with an example.
The Cowboys have historically had the most success running to the weak side and from spread formations, i.e. where they have the fewest blockers. It’s not inherently advantageous to run where there aren’t any blockers, of course, but since defenses typically have fewer defenders in those areas, the net effect is positive.
So why don’t the Cowboys just run to the weak side all the time? Well, that would obviously be a problem since defenses would catch on quite quickly, negating the advantage the Cowboys once possessed. So NFL offenses need to find some sort of balance, running optimal plays as much as they can before defenses defend them differently. The point that will maximize overall efficiency is known as the Nash equilibrium. In regards to run location, that point is where the efficiency of weak-side runs matches that of strong-side runs. And since NFL teams are still much more successful when running to the weak side, it follows that they should be doing it more often.
NFL coaches obviously don’t need to concern themselves with the specifics of equilibriums and complex decision theory, but they should be doing two things: 1) calling the “unexpected” in an effort to remain one step ahead of the opponent, and 2) determining when it’s best to play to your strengths and when you should be focused on exploiting opponent weaknesses (or, preferably, both).
Expect the Unexpected
Thus far through two preseason games, we’ve already seen a change in the Cowboys’ play-calls. Although they’ve expectedly stayed “vanilla,” the ’Boys have still run the ball way more often to the perimeter and thrown more screen passes than what we saw in 2012. Those play-types suggest that Callahan is at least taking opponents’ actions into account when picking plays – a rudimentary form of game theory.
So without further ado, here are the “unexpected” play-types, the plays that might be sub-optimal in a vacuum but most beneficial in practice, that the Cowboys should consider running more often in 2013.
There’s no single type of play that I’d like to see more in 2013 than the counter. Counters take a long time to develop and there’s a bigger opportunity for negative yardage than on a dive or other quick-hitting run, but there’s also a (much) larger probability of hitting a home run. From 2009 to 2011, Dallas averaged over 7.0 yards per carry (YPC) on counters! They ran only six of them last year, however, likely due to concerns about the offensive line.
And as mentioned, weak-side runs are usually best. The Cowboys have actually increased their rate of weak side runs, which was as low as 19.5 percent, every year since 2009. In 2012, it was nearly double that.
Everyone seems to believe that the Cowboys need to run the ball more often to take pressure off of Tony Romo (which is a form of game theory itself), but why not run more screens? Screens are high-percentage passes that can hold back pass-rushers, generating the same effect you’d want from a handoff (risk minimization), but with higher upside.
Dallas ran only 24 screens in all of 2012, and 16 of those were to receivers. Those aren’t the screen passes I’m talking about (although they can be useful at times). Rather, the Cowboys look like they’re going to run more running back screens under Callahan, which shouldn’t be difficult considering they called an average of one every two games last season. With exceptional pass-catching backs, there’s no reason that we shouldn’t see more screens in 2013.
- Spread Runs and Tight Passes
One of the great things about having versatile tight ends is that you can split them out wide and utilize spread formations with heavy personnel. That allows you to keep your best blockers on the field when you want to run, yet still spread out the defense. And that sort of strategy works.
The Cowboys have always been most successful when calling a play that is “unexpected” based on the formation. Again, it might be best to run from tight formations in theory, but in practice, it’s typically most beneficial to run from spread formations (and pass from tight ones) due to the defense’s preconceptions and actions.
- Play-action passes
Play-action passes are underutilized by just about every NFL team. Of the 27 quarterbacks who took at least half of their team’s snaps in 2012, only five of them had a lower yards per attempt (YPA) on play-action passes than straight dropbacks.
And Tony Romo was one of the league’s best. He completed 66.2 percent of his play-action looks, averaging 8.6 YPA and generating a 109.1 passer rating. He recorded a passer rating of 88.3 on all other passes.
Despite that, the Cowboys had the lowest play-action pass rate in the NFL, by far. Romo attempted a play-action pass on just 10 percent of his dropbacks. The difference between Romo and the second-lowest quarterback, Eli Manning, was larger than the difference between Manning and the next 11 quarterbacks!
And I know it’s popular to argue that you can’t run play-action passes without an effective running game, but that’s just not true. Defenses play situations, not necessarily past rushing efficiency, so defenders typically bite up on play-action passes based on the down-and-distance, not whether you’re averaging 5.0 YPC or 3.5 YPC.
We saw Romo have success on play-action without a running game, and the same was true for passers like Matt Ryan, Ryan Tannehill, Ben Roethlisberger, Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck, all of whom ranked in the top 10 in play-action passer rating with rushing offenses ranked 20th or worse in efficiency. Actually, of the 10 most successful play-action passers in 2012, only two, Cam Newton and Robert Griffin III, played on offenses that ranked in the top 10 in rushing efficiency (and that’s really just because of their own rushing prowess).
So the Cowboys’ rate of play-action passes should really increase in 2013, regardless of whether or not the rushing game improves.
Shortly after the 2010 NFL Draft, a couple photos of the Dallas Cowboys’ big board were published (by Jonathan Bales) . The photos have been leaked for quite some time now, but I thought it would be cool to take a look back at the board to judge the Cowboys’ accuracy.
Here are the images (click on images for a larger view):
Since Jerry Jones’ arm is blocking out some of the board, we can’t get a completely comprehensive list of the Cowboys’ 2010 rankings.
For the most part, though, it looked as though the Cowboys’ board was as follows:
- FIRST ROUND
1. Sam Bradford
2. Gerald McCoy
3. Ndamukong Suh
4. Russell Okung
5. Trent Williams
6. Eric Berry
7. Rolando McClain
8. Joe Haden
9. CJ Spiller
10. Mike Iupati
11. Blocked by Jerry’s arm, but likely Earl Thomas or Dez Bryant
12. Blocked by Jerry’s arm, but likely Earl Thomas or Dez Bryant
13. Bryan Bulaga
14. Sean Lee
15. Jared Odrick
16. Jason Pierre-Paul
17. Derrick Morgan
18. Kyle Wilson
19. Maurkice Pouncey
20. Navarro Bowman
21. Jahvid Best
22. Tyson Alualu
23. Jermaine Gresham
A lot has been made about the Cowboys’ switch from the 3-4 defense to Monte Kiffin’s 4-3, and rightfully so. Although a great defense ultimately comes down to talented players executing a well-crafted scheme, it’s not as if elite players can simply line up at any position and succeed. If the chances of success at a particular position are optimized at a certain height, weight and speed, it follows that getting farther from those ideal traits will lower the probability of succeeding.
Kiffin’s defenses have typically emphasized speed over size at most positions, and that’s certainly a plus for a Cowboys defense that seems as if it hasn’t kept up with the NFL’s pass-happy evolution. Still, the truth is that the best defensive coordinators tailor their scheme around their personnel.
Kiffin’s version of the 4-3 in particular, known as a 4-3 Under, could potentially accommodate the Cowboys’ personnel better than most other 4-3 schemes. One reason is the presence of the 1-technique defensive tackle. A 1-technique tackle shades the offensive center, nearly playing heads-up over the top of him like a 3-4 nose tackle. The other defensive tackle, the 3-technique, is typically a smaller player that almost acts as a large defensive end in the interior.
There are certainly areas where the Cowboys might have holes to fill, of course. To figure out just how far away Dallas might be from Kiffin’s “dream” defense, we’ve researched the height and weight of each defensive player for Tampa Bay from 2003 to 2008. Kiffin was the defensive coordinator for the Buccaneers during that stretch, emphasizing specific traits at each position. Below are the averages of each player on the roster at every position.
1-DT: 6’3’’ 304 pounds
As mentioned, the 1-technique tackle is a strong presence in the inside, but he also has to be nimble enough to shoot up field.
Cowboys’ fit: Jay Ratliff (6’4’’ 303 pounds) matches Kiffin’s prototypical player at this position to a tee. The issue is whether or not the Cowboys can afford to continue to pay Ratliff the big bucks. Sean Lissemore (6’3’’ 303 pounds) also fits the bill.
3-DT: 6’2’’ 285 pounds
The 3-technique defensive tackle is much smaller than the 1-technique. Also note that, at an average of just 6’2’’, the 3-technique is shorter than the defensive ends.
Cowboys’ fit: This position in particular is difficult to project for the Cowboys. Jason Hatcher could potentially play any position along the defensive line, although at 6’6’’ 305 pounds, he’s much taller and heavier than the typically short, light tackles Kiffin has used in the past. Tyrone Crawford (6’4’’ 285 pounds) will probably play defensive end, but he also could have some versatility.
DE (Strong): 6’3’’ 279 pounds
Kiffin has typically used a very large, bulky player to man his strong-side defensive end position.
Cowboys’ fit: If there’s evidence that the Cowboys could let Anthony Spencer walk, this might be it. At 250 pounds, Spencer doesn’t come anywhere near matching the profile of Kiffin’s past ends. As mentioned above, Crawford checks in around this size, but his pass-rushing ability is a question.
DE (Weak): 6’3’’ 267 pounds
On the weak side, Kiffin’s defensive ends have been relatively close to the same size as the typical 3-4 outside linebacker.
Cowboys’ fit: DeMarcus Ware will play this position, although even he is listed at only 254 pounds. Ware shouldn’t have much of a problem adjusting, however. Alex Albright might need to transition to this position as well at 6’5’’ 260 pounds.
MLB: 6’1’’ 232 pounds
The “Mike” linebacker in Kiffin’s 4-3 defense has to have the ability to turn and run, so it’s no surprise that they’ve averaged only 232 pounds.
Cowboys’ fit: At 6’2’’, 245 pounds, Sean Lee is a bit oversized compared to the average 4-3 middle linebacker. He’ll often be asked to run downfield when tight ends run vertically, but Lee should be up for the challenge.
WLB: 6’1’’ 224 pounds
At only 224 pounds, the average “Will” linebacker in Kiffin’s defense must have the speed to run sideline-to-sideline.
Cowboys’ fit: Like Lee, Carter is “oversized” for the 4-3 at 240 pounds, but it really shouldn’t matter. As one of the fastest linebackers in the NFL, Carter won’t have a problem transitioning to the 4-3. He could potentially play any of the three linebacker spots, giving the Cowboys plenty of flexibility heading into the draft.
SLB: 6’1’’ 235 pounds
As the biggest of Kiffin’s linebackers, the “Sam” is still smaller than all but one linebacker the Cowboys had on the roster in 2012, Ernie Sims.
Cowboys’ fit: Assuming Carter plays the “Will,” the Cowboys may have a hole to fill here (and vice versa if Kiffin uses Carter as the “Sam.” If Dan Connor (6’2’’ 242 pounds) ends up starting for Kiffin, he’ll almost assuredly play this position and Carter will play the weak side.
CB: 6’0’’ 193 pounds
Due to Kiffin’s emphasis on Cover 2, his cornerbacks don’t turn and run in man coverage as much as in other defenses. Playing near the line, they need to be able to press and play the run, meaning they’re typically tall, although perhaps not as heavy as many believe.
Cowboys’ fit: Although there are questions about how Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne can transition to Kiffin’s scheme, I think they’ll be just fine. Carr has great size at 6’0’’ 210 pounds, and it isn’t as if they’ll be in Cover 2 every play. Even at 5’11’’ 185 pounds, Claiborne isn’t that far off from Kiffin’s prototypical cornerbacks over the years.
S: 6’0’’ 207 pounds
Since Kiffin generally plays with two-deep alignments and dares offenses to run, his safeties don’t need to be excessively big, but rangy.
Cowboys’ fit: The Cowboys could have an issue here since starters Gerald Sensabaugh and Barry Church are both at least 212 pounds and don’t necessarily excel in deep coverage. Kiffin has made it work with big safeties like John Lynch in the past, however, but the ’Boys still might need to look for a faster safety of the future in this upcoming draft.
We so often hear that teams need to find “their guys” that fit into their particular schemes, and that’s true; certain players are tailored to play in specific ways. However, the job of any coordinator is to mold their scheme to fit the skill sets of the current personnel. It’s certainly preferable to have a roster full of players built for a particular scheme, but creating that is a whole lot more challenging than slightly altering the scheme to fit the most talented players on the team.
When all is said and done, the success of Kiffin’s tenure in Dallas will be determined by how well he can manage this delicate balancing act, acquiring “his” guys while still being flexible with his scheme to accommodate what he already has.
Miles Austin is a dynamic wide out whose versatility hasn’t been properly recognized over the past few seasons. Even this year, over two-thirds of Austin’s pass snaps have come in the slot. At 6’2’’, 219 pounds, Austin doesn’t have the prototypical build of a slot receiver, but he’s been able to succeed in the middle of the field due to his exceptional combination of size and quickness.
On Thanksgiving, however, a new candidate emerged as the Cowboys’ slot receiver of the future: rookie Cole Beasley. With Austin down, Beasley was targeted 13 times. The rookie made some mistakes; he dropped a pass and appeared to run a poor route on Tony Romo’s second interception. But Beasley also displayed a unique skill set that suggests he could be a long-term solution for the Cowboys in the slot.
Most importantly, Beasley’s emergence has prompted Jason Garrett to, at least temporarily, call different sorts of underneath routes. Specifically, there were more option and crossing routes from the Cowboys on Thursday—something we haven’t seen much over the past few seasons and from which the offense could undoubtedly benefit in the future.
BREAKING IT DOWN …
On a 3rd and 5 early in the second quarter, the Cowboys lined up in Gun Tight End Trips Left with “11” personnel, i.e. three receivers. Beasley was aligned to the field on the Trips side of the formation, about five yards outside of Jason Witten.
On the snap of the ball, Witten ran a simple hitch route to just about three yards—an uncommon route length for the tight end on third down. We’ve all seen Kevin Ogletree and other receivers run their routes a bit short of the sticks on third down, but that doesn’t typically happen with the veteran tight end.
The length of Witten’s route suggests it was primarily to allow Beasley to get open on his route. The rookie ran a crossing route right underneath of Witten, giving him the separation he needed to make a big first down grab. Romo’s throw was a bit off the mark, but Beasley hauled it in with one hand to move the chains.
The combination routes we saw from the Cowboys after they got down against the Redskins are something that will probably stay. If Beasley can continue to grow, he should be able to provide the Cowboys with a tremendous presence on third downs while also allowing Dallas to keep Austin on the outside. And if his skill set encourages Garrett to design more combination routes that allow receivers to work off of one another, it will be an added bonus.
QB Tony Romo: B-
It would be easy to overreact to last night’s demolition, but Romo’s actual performance was nowhere near as poor as his stat line. Look, Romo isn’t playing his best ball, averaging only 7.6 yards-per-attempt. But he also isn’t getting any help from his receivers or offensive line.
Jason Garrett might want to think about rolling Romo out to his right a bit more. That could quell some of the pressure he’s facing, and Romo has historically been much better throwing to the right side of the field. In 2012 alone, Romo’s passer rating when throwing to the right is 104.2, compared to only 74.6 over the middle and to the left. Nonetheless, only 16.6 percent of his passes have been thrown to the right side of the field.
RB DeMarco Murray: B
It’s really difficult to grade Murray because, like Romo, his production is so dependent on the offensive line. One might argue that a running back averaging 3.9 yards-per-carry shouldn’t receive a “B” grade, but anyone who has watched the Cowboys knows that Murray must consistently make something out of nothing. Ask yourself this: do you think Felix Jones would have posted as many rushing yards as Murray if given the same type of blocking? Don’t forget that Murray is also on pace for 64 receptions.
FB Lawrence Vickers: D
I really liked the Vickers signing, but it hasn’t paid dividends for Dallas yet. With Vickers in the game, the Cowboys are averaging just over two yards-per-carry. Rushing efficiency will never be eye-popping with Vickers due to an abundance of inside runs, but the ‘Boys need their fullback to pave the way for Murray in short-yardage situations to allow them to extend drives.
LT Tyron Smith: C-
Smith’s transition to the left side has been a struggle thus far. I think he’s athletic and intelligent enough that he’ll get it cleaned up. Smith’s return to form may have started against the Bears, because he actually played quite well. Nonetheless, I’ve counted Smith as yielding 10 pressures on the season.
LG Nate Livings: B+
It’s sad that an interior lineman will receive my highest offensive grade through the season’s first quarter. Livings has played very well for the ‘Boys through four games, allowing just one sack and two pressures.
C Ryan Cook: C-
Due to a solid opening game shortly after being signed, many believe Cook is playing better than what’s actually the case. He’s been okay in pass protection, but absolutely awful in the running game. While Jason Garrett’s predictable strong side dives aren’t doing Cook any favors, the Cowboys are averaging just over one yard on each run with Cook at the point-of-attack.
RG Mackenzy Bernadeau: D-
Bernadeau has been the worst Cowboys interior lineman I’ve graded since I started reviewing film four years ago. Granted, he’s played in only four games, but I don’t think there are many signs that Bernadeau is going to improve. He has allowed twice as much pressure as Livings and Cook combined.
RT Doug Free: D
There have certainly problems on the left side of the ‘Boys offensive line, but it’s the Bernadeau-Free combination on the right side that’s killing them. Only two offensive tackles in the entire NFL have allowed more pressure than what I’ve attributed to Free. We all thought Free would rebound after the switch back to his more natural right tackle position, but Cowboys running backs are averaging a full yard less behind Free as compared to Smith.
WR Miles Austin: B+
Austin has been targeted 28 times in 2012, catching 18 of those throws for 300 yards. Currently on pace for a stat line of 72 receptions, 1200 yards, and 12 touchdowns, Austin has been the only consistent option for Romo in the passing game.
WR Dez Bryant: C-
Bryant’s issue right now, in my opinion, is mental. He isn’t a player like Terrell Owens or Brandon Marshall who will always suffer from drops; he has outstanding hands, but he appears to lack confidence right now. Bryant will get it turned around, so Romo needs to trust his third-year receiver and keep going back to him.
TE Jason Witten: D+
It was great to see Witten rebound against the Bears, but it wasn’t like he was incredibly efficient. His 112 yards came on 14 targets, and that 8.0 YPA is about where he should be all of the time. On the season, Witten has the most targets of any player on offense, but he’s averaging only 5.5 YPA. His catch rate of 61.8 percent will improve, but I’m not confident that his per-catch efficiency will do the same.
Although 11 defensive players get named as “starters” in a given week, the Dallas Cowboys have had 15 defensive players participate in at least 38 percent of the team’s snaps through Week 4. Here are the top 11. . .
ILB Sean Lee: A
Lee has recorded a tackle on 19.6 percent of his snaps in 2012, which is simply remarkable. In coverage, he has allowed only 5.0 yards-per-attempt.
OLB DeMarcus Ware: A
How high are the standards for Ware that some are arguing he’s having a down year? He’s on pace for 20 sacks. I don’t know about you, but that’s good enough for me.
CB Brandon Carr: A-
Carr got beat by Brandon Marshall on Monday night, but don’t panic. He allowed three catches, albeit a few big ones, but he’s still playing really well. On the season, only 42.9 percent of passes Carr’s way have been completed.
OLB Anthony Spencer: B
We saw Spencer’s value most on Monday night when he wasn’t playing. The player who drops into coverage more often than any 3-4 outside linebacker in the NFL also has a higher pressure rate than Ware this season. As I told you in the preseason, the sacks will come. He’s still on pace for 11.
ILB Bruce Carter: B
Quietly, the Cowboys have one of the better inside linebacker duos in the NFL. Carter’s tackle rate of 12.4 percent isn’t at the level of Lee, but it’s still pretty darn good.
CB Mike Jenkins: B
Jenkins clearly has something to prove this year. You saw Rob Ryan give Jenkins some snaps at safety last week, and that should continue. It’s difficult to quantify Jenkins’ success since he’s been targeted only three times, but his coverage has been the best I’ve ever seen from him.
NT Josh Brent: B-
Brent has been really, really good against the run. You can see the difference in the push from the defensive line with Brent in the game as compared to Jay Ratliff. I love Ratliff’s tenacity and pass rush, but the Cowboys might be better served if they allow him to utilize it from the five-technique to allow Brent to stay at the nose.
S Barry Church: B-
Even though Church is out for the season, I’m putting him on the list because I really liked what I saw in the three games that he played. Opposing quarterbacks tested Church seven times, gaining just 30 total yards. I still think the Cowboys need to find a ball-hawking free safety in the draft, but Church could stick around if he recovers from his Achilles injury.
CB Morris Claiborne: C+
After three games in which he was barely even tested, Claiborne is finally going through some of the growing pains that rookie cornerbacks invariably experience. Claiborne has allowed 9.0 YPA on the 14 passes thrown his way this year, which isn’t a bad mark. He got schooled by Devin Hester on national television, though, so people will naturally believe he’s playing worse than what is actually the case.
DE Jason Hatcher: C+
After starting the season with a boom, Hatcher has cooled down over the past two weeks. He has the third-most pressures on the team behind Ware and Spencer, so I think there’s still a good chance he ends the season with five or more sacks.
DE Tyrone Crawford: C+
Crawford hasn’t been able to get a ton of pressure yet, but his tackle rate of 8.9 percent is good for a five-technique end. In comparison, Hatcher’s tackle rate is 6.5 percent.
Just missed the list: DE Sean Lissemore, S Gerald Sensabaugh, OLB Victor Butler
This might be the last thing Cowboys fans want to hear, but the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are very similar to the Seattle Seahawks. Both squads play a physical brand of football, limiting turnovers and relying on their running game to set up the pass. Despite a disappointing 2011 season, the Bucs’ win over the Carolina Panthers and close loss to the New York Giants show that this team is a different one from a year ago.
24.8: The yards-per-drive posted by the Bucs through two weeks.
Even with their offensive explosion against the Giants on Sunday, the Bucs are still 28th in the NFL in this category. In comparison, the Cowboys have totaled 36.6 yards-per-drive, good for sixth in the league.
33: The Bucs’ average starting field position.
In today’s pass-happy NFL, the Bucs are playing a truly old-school style of football under new head coach Greg Schiano. They run often and protect the football, playing methodically to keep themselves in ballgames. This can limit offensive efficiency, but it also means the Bucs rarely give opponents a short field. Ranked fourth in the NFL in field position, the average Tampa Bay drive has begun 12 yards ahead of the typical Cowboys drive.
88: The percentage of running back carries given to rookie Doug Martin.
Martin is the Bucs’ workhorse running back, so he’ll rarely come out of the game on Sunday. Martin does a little bit of everything – outside running, rushing between the tackles, catching passes, pass protection – and he’ll be the focal point of Tampa Bay’s offense. He’s fourth in the NFL in carries through two weeks.
50/50: The Bucs’ split between runs to the left and right sides of the field.
Left or right, inside or outside, tosses or dives, the Bucs are going to use their running game to hit the Cowboys from all angles on Sunday. They’re particularly efficient behind guard Carl Nicks and center Jeremy Zuttah, so whoever is playing nose tackle for the Cowboys will need to come up big to halt Tampa Bay’s short-yardage efforts.
7.3: Yards-per-attempt for Bucs quarterback Josh Freeman, a career-high thus far.
If there’s a single stat that can tell the story of an offense, it’s usually passing YPA. The Bucs are a run-first team, but they utilize their running game to set up big plays through the air. Freeman has been able to find wide receivers Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams off of play-action passes and other looks that are set up by their running game.
11.5: The percentage of Josh Freeman’s passes that have traveled at least 20 yards.
That mark is good for 13th in the NFL. The majority of those deep shots have come off of play-action, so the Cowboys safeties will need to hold their ground when the Bucs show run action. Freeman has completed half of his deep pass attempts for 111 yards, two touchdowns, and no picks.
44.8: The percentage of Freeman’s dropbacks during which he has faced pressure.
That’s the highest mark in the NFL. In comparison, Romo has been pressured on 37 percent of his passes.
130.7: The passer rating Josh Freeman has generated when throwing to Mike Williams.
Vincent Jackson is the obvious big-play threat for Tampa Bay, but Williams is a talented receiver as well. Opposing defensive coordinators have spent so much time focusing on Jackson that Williams has garnered a whole lot of single coverage. He’s parlayed that into two touchdowns in the season’s first two weeks.
95.2: The difference in Freeman’s passer rating when he faces pressure versus when he has a clean pocket.
The difference is far, far more substantial than the average quarterback. In comparison, Romo’s passer rating when pressured has historically been just around 20 points lower than when he’s given a clean pocket. Freeman might not be Drew Brees, but he generally won’t make mistakes unless you can get in his face. His passer rating through two weeks is 122.9 when given a clean pocket.
9.3: The percentage of Doug Martin’s yards that have come on runs of 15-plus yards.
In comparison, 61.6 percent of C.J. Spiller’s yards have come on big plays. Despite posting one of the lowest big-play marks in the league, Martin still possesses breakaway capability. He’s a load to bring down, so the Cowboys will need to gang tackle Martin in an effort to make sure that, unlike Marshawn Lynch last week, he doesn’t turn any would-be short gains into long runs.
19: The difference in points scored for Tampa Bay (50) and Dallas (31).
A lot of this has to do with the fact that the Cowboys have run only 18 drives all season, the lowest mark in the NFL. The average team has run 22 drives though the season’s first two weeks, and the Bucs have started 23 drives. Nonetheless, the ’Boys are only 23rd in the league in points-per-drive (1.72).
6: The numbers of teams, including the Bucs, who have called more runs than passes.
The Bucs’ passing game can be efficient because defenses get accustomed to seeing the run. Tampa Bay has run the ball on 52.7 percent of their snaps, making them one of the few truly balanced offenses remaining in the NFL. The Cowboys could be susceptible to big plays with a banged up secondary, but their ability to stifle Tampa Bay’s passing game is directly related to their ability to stop Martin on the ground. If the ’Boys can bottle up Martin without putting eight men in the box, thus allowing for safety help over top of Jackson, it will dramatically increase their chances of winning on Sunday.
The Dallas Cowboys don’t need mathematicians to take down the Seattle Seahawks tomorrow afternoon, but that doesn’t mean we can’t pretend to be one. Here are six numbers that represent meaningful aspects of Sunday’s Cowboys-Seahawks tilt. . .
4.5: Yards-per-attempt for Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson in his first NFL game—the second-worst mark in the league behind Cleveland Browns rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden
In my game plan for the ‘Boys against Seattle, I suggested the defense sit back in safe coverage. The reason is that, with Wilson struggling early in his NFL career, the Cowboys should force him to beat them again and again instead of opening up the window for a big play.
2.87: The difference in yards-per-attempt given up by Seahawks cornerback Brandon Browner (8.74) and cornerback Richard Sherman (5.87) in 2011
I explained why the Cowboys would be smart to test Browner when I detailed four ways the ‘Boys can beat Seattle.
21: The number of penalties called on Browner and Sherman in 2011
This was the highest for any cornerback duo in the NFL. They’ll likely struggle against both Miles Austin and Dez Bryant, regardless of the Cowboys’ rushing efficiency.
.276: The Cowboys’ winning percentage when they pass the ball on at least 57 percent of their snaps, suggesting they should throw it less frequently
Continue reading for evidence as to why that isn’t really the case.
.636: The Cowboys’ winning percentage when they pass the ball on at least 57 percent of their snaps through the first three quarters, suggesting they throw the ball to get ahead and then run it late to close out games
In my article on Jason Garrett’s play-calling, I showed why the Cowboys aren’t really a balanced team, nor should they be. Like most NFL teams, Dallas thrives through the air and only becomes “balanced” when they run with frequency late in games.
45: The number of pressures from Seahawks defensive end Chris Clemons in 2011—the fourth-best mark in the NFL and one ahead of DeMarcus Ware.
Clemons is one of the most underrated players in the NFL. He lined up on the right side of Seattle’s defense on 76.5 percent of snaps in Week 1, so he’ll be matched up primarily with left tackle Tyron Smith.
Riding the high of a monumental win over the defending Super Bowl champs in their own home, the Dallas Cowboys must now prepare for a road tilt with the Seattle Seahawks. By all accounts, this is a “trap” game for Dallas. The ’Boys will be on the road for the second straight week, visiting a Seahawks team that went down against a lackluster Arizona Cardinals squad.
On paper, the Cowboys will be the favorites. In reality, they’re entering a hostile environment – CenturyLink Field is known for being one of the loudest stadiums in the NFL – to face a motivated ball club. The game won’t be a piece of cake for Dallas, and Jason Garrett will make sure his players understand that.
One of the things the Cowboys have on their side is time. After playing in a rare Wednesday night contest, Dallas will have 10 days off to prepare for the Seahawks. In addition to allowing some bodies to heal, the extra rest provides the coaches with a whole lot of time to break down Seattle – their offensive tendencies, their blitzes, and their young, mobile rookie quarterback. 96 extra hours, to be exact.
I’m a big believer in the value of game preparation. Ever watch a college bowl game and notice how prepared the teams look to face one another? Gadget plays, exotic blitzes, perfectly-timed calls. Some of these teams have a month to get themselves ready for their bowl game – a month in which they can uncover just about every possible opponent weakness – and it shows.
And the stats prove that extra time off is of great value in the NFL, too. Although teams were only 16-16 coming out of their bye weeks last year, 2011 was really just an aberration. Since 1990, teams coming off of their bye have compiled a .542 winning percentage. Since the overall winning percentage is obviously an even .500, that’s a pretty substantial jump in 704 total games.
And the Cowboys have been one of the league’s most successful teams following a bye. While the ’Boys have won 55.8 percent of their regular season games since 1990, they’ve notched a victory 69.6 percent of the time following their bye.
Of course, the Cowboys don’t have a full two-week hiatus this time around, but it probably won’t matter. See, Dallas is also quite successful after Thanksgiving Day games, a period when they generally have nine days of rest prior to their next outing.
In the entire history of the organization, the Cowboys have posted a .574 winning percentage. In the week following Thanksgiving, however, they’ve managed a .628 winning percentage, suggesting they’ve benefited from the added rest.
In his short career as the Cowboys’ head coach, Garrett is just 1-2 when given nine or more days off between contests. Three games is hardly a substantial sample size, though, and the Cowboys actually played extremely well in their post-bye 20-16 loss to the New England Patriots last year.
Stats aside, the Cowboys know what’s on the line against the Seahawks: A chance to start the season 2-0 for the first time since 2008. With that as their focus, you know the ’Boys will be prepared to play this Sunday in Seattle.
Every week during the regular season, I will roll out a list of “DOs and DON’Ts” for the Cowboys. I’ve done this for the past few years, using a combination of film study and stat analysis to create a game plan of sorts.
Seeing as how the third week of the preseason tends to resemble a regular season game in most ways, I figured I’d give my “DOs and DON’Ts” an early start this year. I’ll approach this list as though the Dallas Cowboys’ Saturday night matchup with the St. Louis Rams were the real thing, showing how I’d attack St. Louis (and giving you a preview of my game plans for the regular season). Let’s dive right in. . .
DO run a lot of double-tight sets.
Through two preseason games, the Cowboys’ first-team offense has run just six double-tight end sets, representing only 29.0 percent of their plays. It will be interesting to see if the loss of Martellus Bennett equates to fewer two-tight end formations during the regular season.
On Saturday night, however, I’d place both John Phillips and rookie James Hanna on the field at the same time on numerous occasions. I know those guys aren’t Jason Witten, but the Cowboys’ offensive tackles are going to have their hands full with perhaps the league’s most underrated defensive end duo. That tandem is led by Chris Long, who pressured the quarterback more often than any player in the NFL last year.
Plus, double-tight sets with max protection could allow the ‘Boys to take some shots downfield—something they should be doing more often anyway.
DO run right outside.
As stellar as Chris Long has been while rushing the passer in recent years, he hasn’t held up against the run. He notched a tackle on just 2.1 percent of his snaps last season. The Rams’ other defensive end, Robert Quinn, wasn’t much better with a 2.2 percent tackle rate. In comparison, Cowboys outside linebacker Anthony Spencer recorded a tackle on 5.5 percent of snaps.
I watched three of the Rams’ games from 2011, and the pass-rushing ability of their ends is immediately apparent. The problem is that they rush up the field right after the snap of the ball, leaving gaping holes for opposing running backs.
In particular, the Cowboys might be able to make use of their patented draw play. By showing a pass look, Long and Quinn will likely get up the field after Tony Romo, providing DeMarco Murray with plenty of room to scamper outside.
DON’T blitz too often.
Look, the Rams aren’t a good football team, and quarterback Sam Bradford hasn’t progressed as St. Louis fans hoped. There are two schools of thought when playing a struggling quarterback: blitz him to force turnovers, or sit back in coverage so as to not allow a big play.
I find myself in the latter camp. When playing as a favorite, the best way to maximize win probability is to make the opponent beat you again and again. Can the Rams continually move the ball up the field against Dallas without beating themselves? I don’t think so.
DO give Bruce Carter the majority of defensive snaps inside.
Carter is emerging as the probable starter next to Sean Lee at inside linebacker. Many of his teammates describe Carter as the most athletic player on the team, and that’s exactly what the Cowboys need in order to halt the versatility of Steven Jackson. The Rams’ star running back is getting old, but he’s not totally over the hill just yet. Let’s see how two of the league’s premiere height-weight-speed combos match up.
DO run double-moves at Janoris Jenkins.
In a scouting report on Jenkins that I wrote prior to the 2012 NFL Draft, I had this to say about the young cornerback:
Jenkins’ willingness to jump routes makes him an all-or-nothing type of cornerback. He makes a ton of big plays, but he gets beat a lot as well. We frequently throw around comparisons between prospects and NFL players to make assessing them easier, but I have never seen a college player resemble a pro player more than Jenkins to Asante Samuel.
Jenkins is a play-maker, and you really need to be careful when throwing his way. If the ‘Boys’ can find a way to provide Romo with ample protection, though, they can beat Jenkins outside on a double-move.
Jonathan Bales is a special contributor. He’s the founder of The DC Times and writes for DallasCowboys.com and the New York Times.
One of the primary areas of concern for the Cowboys’ offense in 2012 is effectively replacing wide receiver Laurent Robinson. Robinson was sensational in Dallas last season; his ability to stretch the field vertically helped the Cowboys move the ball in Miles Austin’s absence. Actually, Robinson caught 58.8 percent of his targets that were thrown 20 yards or longer—good for the third-best mark in the NFL.
Of course, Robinson wasn’t the only receiver to whom Tony Romo succeeded throwing the ball deep. Over his career, Romo has been remarkably adept at throwing the ball downfield. A big reason for that is his ability to buy time in the pocket, allowing receivers to get open even if they were initially covered.
I detailed Romo’s superb deep passing ability in my projection of his 2012 season, arguing the ‘Boys need to throw downfield way more often than their 6.6 deep ball rate from 2011. Here is more evidence why. . .
I’ve tracked all of Romo’s throws from the past three years by location and distance. Above, you can see the passer rating he has generated throughout nine areas of the field. The peak is on throws of 20-plus yards to the right side of the field. Although those throws represent just 4.0 percent of his passes, Romo has amazingly racked up 17.1 percent of his touchdowns in this area.
Overall, Romo’s passer rating on deep passes is 114.3 since 2009—superior than the 103.6 rating on intermediate throws and the 97.0 rating on short throws.
While Romo has thrived on deep throws, you can see he has done the same when throwing to the right side of the field. His passer rating of 114.2 to the right trumps the 92.0 and 101.3 numbers he has posted on the left side of the field and between the hashes, respectively. Despite throwing fewer than one-third of his passes to the right side of the field, he has parlayed those throws into 45.7 percent of his touchdowns.
While the graph above is certainly interesting, I don’t think it tells the whole story. Passer rating is an imperfect measure, artificially inflated by an abundance of completions. It’s also affected heavily by a quarterback’s touchdown-to-interception ratio. In reality, passing efficiency in terms of yards-per-attempt is probably a superior measure of a quarterback’s success.
Below, I’ve broken down Romo’s attempts, charting how they compare to what we should expect from Romo on each throw. That is, taking into account Romo’s overall yards-per-attempt over the past three years, how does his efficiency in each area of the field compare to what we should expect?
You can see that, when breaking down Romo’s throws like this, there’s really no comparison; he is far superior on deep passes than short ones. When throwing short, Romo is most effective over the middle (likely due to the presence of Jason Witten), but even in that area, his yards-per-attempt is 17.3 percent worse than what we’d expect.
In terms of pure efficiency, Romo has been at his best when throwing deep down the middle of the field. He’s had a few fluky interceptions in that range (which is what has thrown off his passer rating), but the quarterback has somehow managed to average an incredible 20.0 yards-per-attempt on his 34 deep passes between the hashes over the last three seasons. That’s 144.2 percent above expectations.
Overall, it seems pretty clear that Romo and the ‘Boys should air it out more in 2012. There could be a bit of a selection bias at work, meaning the deep passing numbers are inflated because Romo doesn’t generally force passes downfield unless something is open, but the stats are so skewed that a dramatic increase in deep passes seems likely.
Thus far in the preseason, Romo has already attempted a throw of 20-plus yards on 15.7 percent of his passes. It’s a small sample size, but with his career success throwing the deep ball, I expect that rate to remain pretty steady during the regular season.
Jonathan Bales is a special contributor. He’s the founder of The DC Times and writes for DallasCowboys.com and the New York Times. He’s also the author of Fantasy Football for Smart People.