Thursday, September 30, 2010

That 63-Yard TD to Roy

I try to read the comments on each of the posts as a matter of routine, because I find I can always learn plenty about this stuff along with you on a game by game basis. I am by no means an expert on this - just someone who really loves learning more about how a game plan can lead to victory or defeat.

But, I still miss plenty. So, On Tuesday's Decoding Garrett piece where we broke down several plays, Ed in California commented that I missed a key situation from the 4th Quarter in Houston:

I would have liked for you to have shown the 63-yard touchdown to Roy W. and contrast that play with the very first play of that same scoring drive so that everyone can appreciate what the defense was trying to react to on the TD play. First play of that drive is a draw play to Barber for a decent gain. Same personnel, same formation, same TE motion. It's interesting to note because Garrett does have a tendency to run the same play multiple times within a single drive. This time the Cowboys use that tendency to their advantage by throwing out of a formation that they had run from just a few plays prior.

Then, when I was listening to Texans' Coach Gary Kubiak on Monday, he peeled back another layer of the onion that fascinated me even further. So, Ed, let's do it - let's go back to Sunday one more time. I think what you are about to see is that the Cowboys have plenty of brains in their offensive brain trust:

Play #1 - 1/10/26 - "12" personnel - Cowboys run a pretty standard Pass/Run Delay Draw option that we see from them as they start a drive with an 11 point 4th Quarter lead. Both teams are thinking the Cowboys are going to try to kill off the clock here and move the chains through power running. Roy Williams is split to the right, Miles Austin to the left. Martellus Bennett is flexed to the left, and Jason Witten motions from the backfield to the left, too. The Texans see all of this as an intent to run left of course. Notice the Texans in presnap. The have 7 in the box, but look at their Strong Safety 31-Pollard as he does not sneak up to stop the run. He actually sits on a slant to Roy Williams before he breaks off and heads for Barber at the handoff. The other safety 26-Wilson is so deep that he is not on the TV screen. Also watch 65-Gurode as he is getting down the field to take on Linebackers at the 2nd level. This is a very standard Cowboys play that you will see every week.

Play #2 - 2/10/43 - "12" personnel - 4 snaps later, the Cowboys have set the bait. And now we see the Texans take the bait. Compare plays #1 and #2. If you are Benny Pollard or Eugene Wilson (the safeties) you just saw this exact formation and motion. You know that the ball is going to Barber again. But here is why this play is extra interesting to me - all of the Cowboys blockers think Barber is going to get the ball, too. Watch Austin, Witten, and Gurode again. They are all run blocking. Gurode is so sure this is a run play that he is way downfield (risking a penalty that could have fairly been given).

This demonstrates how Garrett and Romo design the offense. It is based on Romo's read. He reads the safeties on this play and again we see that the design is based on taking what the Texans concede. After seeing the first play, look how Pollard lines up on the 2nd play. There is an 8th man in the box. The Texans will not allow the draw play to work again. And that is why Romo saw 31 sneak up. He will not be able to jump the slant this time, so Romo and Roy know what they are supposed to do based on film study and practice. To make matters worse for Houston, the corner slips to the ground and the free safety (26-Wilson) looks like he is limping down the field.

It doesn't always work this easily, but this shows how one play sets up another in the NFL.

Watch Play #2 all the way through because I have edited the audio of Kubiak on to the replay about :40 in. He walks you through the entire play from the opposition perspective. Deconstructing NFL games is like treasure hunting sometimes. There is so much to sift through but there are fascinating chess games being played all over the field.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Football Laundromat: Dez Bryant Edition

Have you seen this child?

Aloha, readers. TC Fleming here. During the Cowboys season, I write each week about a wrinkle in the offense of the opposing team. With no opposing team due to the bye week, I'd like to use this space to reveal some research I've done into a topic I've done some thinking on.

The impetus for all this is Johnny Knox. I was born just outside Chicago and am a Bears fan, so I wanted to get a gauge on what Knox's 500-yard rookie season might portend for the rest of his career. How do receivers who go on to quality careers perform in their rookie seasons? How long does it take them to get to the high level of play they maintain for most of their careers?

Of course, Cowboys fans have more stake in these questions than anyone. What is a reasonable expectation of how good Dez Bryant can be this year? What does it mean if Bryant keeps up this pace and finishes around 800 yards? Were he to live up to expectations, what could we expect his career arc to look like?

To start, I made a list of players who made the All-Pro team at wide receiver from 1999 to 2008 (the site I used for this didn't have the 2009 roster, and trying to determine if another site's list matched the definition of "All-Pro" we're rolling with just seemed like a hassle. Sue me.) Here is that list:

Derrick Mason
Randy Moss
Terrell Owens
Rod Smith
David Boston
Troy Brown
Eric Moulds

Fire Zone Blitz

Let's take a look at a huge defensive moment in the game on Sunday. I wish I had more time to dedicate to the defensive X's and O's, but since I focus on the offense - defense gets short-changed quite a bit.

But, as the opportunity presents itself, I think we should occasionally spend some time looking at how Wade Phillips gets pressure.

Since he has an absolute elite pass rusher in DeMarcus Ware, Wade doesn't have to dip into the "exotic" blitzes as often as guys like Gregg Williams in New Orleans or Rex Ryan in New York. It seems that defenses that bring risky pressure regularly do it partly because they don't have a 20-sack guy who can beat you straight up on a routine basis. There is no reason to take chances when you don't have to. And make no mistake - bringing 7 or 8 on a blitz is taking a major chance at this level. If you are good enough to be a starting QB in the NFL then you are good enough to beat a Cover 0 opportunity at least some of the time.

But, here is a look that is an evolution of the zone blitz known as the "fire zone" blitz. With the "fire zone", the objective is to bring pressure from one side and drop the weakside defensive end into a zone coverage on the opposite side. Blitzing 7 is too risky for most, but what if you can make the offense react like you are blitzing more guys than you really are.

See if you can catch that concept as DeMarcus Ware (who has the full attention of the Left Tackle) fakes his pass rush but then drops to the left flat. This idea is great because the chance that Ware rushes is enough to occupy the left tackle even though he doesn't really rush. So, you get the benefit of taking the LT out of the play, but still get Ware to cover a zone in coverage. Meanwhile, Keith Brooking and Bradie James both blitz from outside Anthony Spencer.

Meanwhile, the 3 defensive linemen who are actually pass rushing (93-Spencer, 90-Ratliff, 72-Bowen) all slant away from the blitz side to further stress the Right Tackle side of things.

This play call from Wade is a still calculated risk. In fact, if Arian Foster (#23) picks up Brooking, it sure looks like Schaub should be able to hit 12-Jacoby Jones before Ratliff gets to him. But, Foster runs right past Brooking in a curious fashion, and Brooking is untouched and blows up the play.

Behind the 5 man blitz (James, Brooking, Spencer, Ratliff, and Bowen) the Cowboys try to set up a 3-3 zone. Ware is shallow left, Newman shallow right and Sensabaugh in the middle. With Ball, Jenkins, and Scandrick also in this mix.

What is extra interesting is when Fox shows us the end-zone view. There, we see that the Cowboys are really assuming that the pressure will get there because it looks like way more coverage is at the goal-line than the back of the end-zone. In the back of the end-zone, Walter and Jones both look open if Schaub had a moment to see them. But, because of the protection chaos Houston had, he doesn't have the time.

Drive killed with a great call at the right moment.

Week 3 - Targets and Sacks

Where did Tony Romo go with the ball in Week 3? Anywhere he wanted. He put up an elite QB performance that will win a road game anywhere against anybody. Bottle that performance and put it with his very best in his career. Only 1 throw came close to an interception and his accuracy was flawless. Quite a bounce back from the Chicago game.

As for his targets, Roy Williams had a perfect game. I have been hard on the guy, but when you see that "158.3" QB rating next to his name, you know he made the most of his throws. In case you are not aware, 158.3 is the maximum QB rating at the NFL level. Very nice.

But, it was a day where everyone had impressive numbers in the pass game.

Target Distribution: - Week 3 at Houston
NameTargetsCatchesYardsFD/TD/INTQB Rating

3rd Downs were not as gaudy, but I think that is easy to explain. The reason the Cowboys were so impressive Sunday was that they stayed out of a lot of desperate 3rd Down situations. Only that drive in the 2nd Quarter relied on 3rd Down mastery, and Romo was awesome there. Otherwise, most of their damage was on early downs.

3RD/4TH Down Targets - Week 3 at Houston
NameTargetsCatchesYardsFD/TDQB Rating

And now the season numbers. Very early, but the overall totals are looking much better.

Target Distribution - Season To Date
NameTargetsCatchesYardsFD/TD/INTQB Rating

Jason Witten fans, cover your eyes. Through 3 games, the normal 3rd Down idea of Romo to Witten is not working. Yes, that is correct - Tony Romo has a "3" QB rating on throws to Witten on 3rd Down so far. I am going to say that will improve, but the NFL is absolutely sitting on 82 at the sticks on the money down right now. Time to consider other targets, and Romo did that in Houston.

3RD/4TH Down Targets - Season To Date
NameTargetsCatchesYardsFD/TD/INTQB Rating


DB Targets

I keep track of which DB Romo was picking on each week to see if we can learn anything here. The fact is that for now, the Texans have a few desirable targets to pick on given that Kareem Jackson is a rookie and everyone else back there appears to be rather ordinary in their coverage skills.

We do see again that Kareem Jackson is lined up to Romo's right most of the time (front side), so for the 3rd straight week, the right side has the most traffic. I would suggest when throwing to a sideline, 7 out of every 10 of his throws go to the right. Although on Sunday, he hit a few big plays on his backside as well.

Targeted DBTimes
25 - Kareem Jackson8
21 - Brice McCain4
29 - Glover Quin3
28 - Antwaun Molden2




Usually, this is a much more eventful section of our weekly look, but once again, the Cowboys OL kept Tony Romo clean. No sacks allowed against another formidable pass rush. 1 sack in 3 weeks? That will win some football games in the long term. Now, according to my notes, they did use more of Witten on making sure he was giving those tackles help against Mario Williams as the chart below shows:

Jason Witten - Week 3

Pass RoutePass Protect

HTML Tables

But, however they go about their business, we still have only the week 1 sack to show you on our chart below. In the event that they allow a sack in a game, we use video to attempt to figure out who busted on the protection, but we will have to wait until next time to look at another one.

Season To Date Sacks
The Rankings for the season in Sacks Allowed among the OL: Gurode 1

Sack #Down/DistPersonnelSackerBlame

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Decoding Garrett - Week 3 - Houston - Videos

As seen here:

Video Breakdowns:

Every week in this very spot, I like to examine some of the interesting concepts and ideas that the Cowboys put in their game-plan. This piece is best consumed with the raw data that was posted earlier today, so we can see how each play fits in the larger picture of the game.

I want to pick 5 or 6 plays each week, some that had great results and others that did not - to see for ourselves how the Cowboys handled their offensive business.

This week, I have 6 from the big win at Houston, so let's take a look:

Thanks, Brian at DC .

The Play:Play #15 (no play) - long screen to Felix 1/10/20 2Q

What Happened:According to the NFL Play-by-Play, this play doesn't exist because of the penalty on Austin. But, nevertheless, I promise you that the Cowboys coaches and their upcoming opponents are taking note at how close this was to a massive gain. 1st Down, and the Cowboys show "21" personnel, but with Felix instead of Marion. We keep asking, "how can this team use Felix best"? Well, here you see it - get him in space. In pre-snap, the Cowboys show Gronkowski at fullback, but then force the Texans to take a defender out of the box and follow him up to the top sideline. Now, the Cowboys are facing a stacked front that is ready to blow up any run play. The objective on the swing pass is to sucker the OLB on the play side to over pursue towards the QB. If he plays Felix for this route, it won't work - but as you can see, the OLB (lined up over Witten) heads right for Romo. The Cowboys have caught the Texans in the right situation, and if they execute this throw and catch, it could go for 80 yards. At the moment Felix catches you should pause the video. Look at the numbers. There is no reason this play won't work unless your WR is flagged for illegal block. The Cowboys will use this play again - but the defenses around the league will likely be on guard for it. But it is a clear way to use Felix in space.

The Play:Play #28 - S11 - 1/10/36 Felix +12

What Happened: Ok, I talked about this in the earlier post. This is a very simple concept that is based on showing pass and then running against an under-populated box. S11 (3WR) and Witten force you to load up with DBs. You can see in pre-snap that Romo is motioning to his WR what his plan is. That gamesmanship is all over the NFL, and the DBs watch him and try to figure out if he is actually trying to say something or is he simply trying to confuse them. Look at how the LBs of Houston are worried about covering their zones and not expecting a run play with this much pass personnel on the field. Then, watch 70-Leonard Davis pull from RG and get in space and show that he can still do good things by pushing back 54-Zach Diles as Felix runs by and picks up an easy dozen. All based on selling the defense on pass and then running. Great concept on 1st and 10. Doesn't work as well on 3rd and 10.


The Play:Play #37 - S11 1/10/10 - Felix for 15

What Happened: The last 4 plays of this week's videos are all from the same drive in the 3rd Quarter where the offense looked like everything you dreamed it would be. Again, if the Texans are going to go nickel and back way off, the Cowboys are going to look for opportunities with Felix Jones in space. A different blocking idea here with no pulling guard like the play above. But, with Felix in Shotgun, you really play to his strengths. The aren't always going to be 15 yard gains, but this is the classic conflict that you want to cause your opposition - if they dedicate players to stopping Felix, Romo starts passing over the top. But, if they sit on Miles and Dez, then you give it to Felix for easy gains. This is what New England, Indianapolis, and New Orleans do constantly. "11" personnel stresses and stretches a defense to take everything away. They simply cannot do it. So, you take what they give you. Basic stuff, here. And it works best if you do it on early downs and with the score in a good spot.


The Play: Play #41 - 21 1/10/44 - pass to Bryant +30

What Happened: At this point, the Cowboys are carving the Texans up on offense. The Texans now see "21" personnel, with Gronkowski offset right and Witten lined up right. With Barber back there, the idea of a power run right is all too obvious. The Texans have an 8 man front. Single high safety and this is where you count on your QB to get a read as he heads to the center and check out of a run if he has something tasty outside. It appears he audibles, but there is no way to really know. He sees Dez Bryant locked up with 21-Brice McCain and the high safety 26-Eugene Wilson will have to decide where to help (although with Hurd on the other side that should not be a difficult decision). This is an easy concept, but it takes a perfect throw from your QB. And Romo puts it right on his hands for a nice easy gain. There is really no defense for that throw and catch. But again, showing run makes passing so much easier.

The Play:Play #42 - 12 1/10/26 - pass to Martellus +11

What Happened: This is the very next play. Now, the Cowboys run the very rare bootleg that I wish they would do more to utilize Romo's legs and also to take some pressure off the offensive line from time to time. This is "12" personnel, with Witten and Bennett both lined up left (selling run left) and then flooding the right side with receivers. Witten shallow, Bennett intermediate, and Austin and Williams deep of the play action fake rollout. Assuming the LBs bought the Play action, this is a simple numbers game concept. Someone will be open. And we see that Martellus is left to roam the entire middle of the field with nobody near him. Pitch and catch, an easy 1st down because the Texans are respecting the threat of a run. Very simple pick your poison game planning.

The Play:Play #43 - 21 1/10/15 - pass to Roy TD +15

What Happened: And here is the very next play (all on the same drive)! Now, they are in "21" personnel, with Witten flexed into the left slot. Austin on one side, Williams on the other. Honestly, this is the very best this offense has looked and during this drive, Romo is so confident that he almost looks like he is trying to find every receiver on the field on this drive. Sam Hurd, Dez Bryant, and Martellus Bennett have all caught first downs on the last 3 plays, so now it is his choice to find the match-up he likes so he goes to Roy Williams (look at Austin up top who also looks like he is wide open on the slant). Roy had his best game as a Cowboy (nothing comes close) and gets a great release and shows solid hands here. Poor Brice McCain is just being followed around the field right now, and this is what Tony Romo looks like in the zone. When you can put the ball on its target like this, reading the defense becomes less of a priority. This doesn't happen often, but when it does, there is no stopping the Cowboys offense.

Tomorrow: Targets and Sacks for Week 3 - including the first perfect 158.3 day for a Cowboys WR

Decoding Garrett - Week 3 - Houston - Data

The important thing to make sure we are doing when we examine a game plan every week is to NOT automatically assume that Jason Garrett and his staff got everything wrong when they lose and that Garrett conversely got everything right when they win. The fact is, I think Garrett has designed many nice opportunities for his offense in the first few weeks (which his offense did not properly execute), but this is surely a result oriented business. His success depends on design AND execution, and this week, we saw plenty of both.

In Week 3 against the Texans, the Cowboys offense made sense. And the specifics matched the ideas that we know the Cowboys have believed in for the last several years with Garrett and Tony Romo running this thing.

People always ask "what is the Cowboys identity?" The extremes on each end of the offensive spectrum are Nebraska's wishbone or Mouse Davis' run and shoot. Well, for me, the Cowboys offensive identity is based on the following objective: Mixing run and pass from a number of formations where the offense can do either and keep the opponent off balance.

What this simply means is to run from formations where the opponent immediately thinks pass. And to pass from run-first formations and groupings. This confuses and frustrates defenses and makes your job much easier. This is a league where there are hardly any pushovers, and it is not like college football where if you are Oklahoma or Texas you can tell your opponent your play and 7 out of 11 games your opponent is not good enough to stop it. In the NFL, deception is a main ingredient for success.

I received an email from my buddy Shawn (who helps me collate this data each week) about developments that we are starting to see in the Cowboys game-plan regarding running from pass looks and passing from run looks.

Running in S11 5-35 yards.

Passing from under center with 12 and 21 Personnel versus the Texans:
12: 7-102, TD, 14.57 yards per attempt
21: 4-53, TD, 13.25 yards per attempt.

Passing from under center with 12 and 21 Personnel for the season:
12: 22-176, 2 TD's, 8.0 yards per attempt
21: 14-152, TD, 10.86 per attempt

Obviously, the reason for this objective is simple: If you try to run from run-first looks, you face 8 and 9 men fronts. Against teams that have talent, this is a very difficult exercise. But, if you run Felix Jones from Shotgun 11 personnel, the defense is almost always in nickel (sometimes dime) and there are only 6 in the box. You do have fewer blockers, but a guy like Felix Jones has a lot more room to use his elusiveness.

Meanwhile, when you line up in "12", "21", or "22" looks, the defense knows they have to respect your running attack or you will ground and pound them on 1st and 2nd Down. Most defenses will automatically walk up a safety and play "single high" with the free safety but commit all other resources to stopping your power-run looks. This is why you need to throw passes out of these looks to back them off. And Sunday, the Cowboys did both as the numbers from Shawn reveal.


We all want balance in our offense, well here is some balance for you to consider:

1st Down Run-Pass14-12
2nd Down Avg Distance to Go7.58
2nd Down Run-Pass9-8
3rd Down Avg Distance to Go6.81
3rd Down Run-Pass3-8
3rd Down Conversions4-11, 44%

HTML Tables

Balance on 1st and 2nd Down is almost too perfect to be an accident. Pat Kirwan was discussing "series starters" recently, about how you can tell the intent of an offense and an offensive coordinator by simply looking at what he does with his very first play of each drive. So, I ran the numbers in the Cowboys first 3 games by just using Play #1 of each drive:

At Washington, Week 1: 10 Drives - 6 Run/4Pass
Chicago, Week 2: 10 Drives - 7 Pass/3 Run
At Houston, Week 3: 8 Drives - 8 Run/0 Pass

That is a commitment to a ground game - and more importantly, a commitment to keeping the opposition honest, and not letting them "pin their ears back" and just rush Romo.

Here is the breakdown by groupings:

Totals by Personnel Groups:
PackagePlays RunYardsRunPass

Table Tutorial

Great data above to ponder. First, let's look at the different groups. Remember when we talk about the Cowboys need to simplify? Pick what you do well and do it more. And let's trim the fat out of the playbook. Well, the Cowboys did. Garrett only used 4 groups for most of the day. He ran "23" at the 1 yard line once - for Barber's TD run, but otherwise they pretty much stayed in 4 groups. That is perfect. Also, look at how awesome "12" can be. Perfect balance and both are productive. Then, notice more runs out of Shotgun - and I mean real runs, not a draw play on 3rd and 20. In the video breakdowns, I will show you the effectiveness out of a 1st and 10 run out of Shotgun. It is quite valuable.

Totals by Personnel Groups on 3rd/4th Down:

Table Tutorial

For a more expanded definition of the Personnel Groups, click here.

Make sure you check use these numbers when you look at the video breakdowns that will be posted later today.

Monday, September 27, 2010

The Morning After: Dallas 27, Houston 13

As Seen Here and here

There are moments in a football game where you get a sinking feeling that bad things are on the way.

For me, Sunday had a major moment like that with 14:24 left to play in the 2nd Quarter. The Texans were driving on their 2nd drive of the day, but because of a few negative plays and a penalty, found themselves in a 3rd and 19 hole. They knew, as every coaching staff knows, that there is no play for 3rd and 19 in the NFL. And, if the circumstances are not dire it is best to call a nice, conservative delay handoff, and punt the ball deep.

But, as you know, that delay draw play to Arian Foster caught the Cowboys. Somehow, on 3rd and 19 when they were attempting to concede, Foster was able to out-flank Bradie James and turn the corner up the left sideline. 17 yards down-field, he leapt Mike Jenkins and was able to get the 1st Down. The stadium went bananas. It was a true "are you kidding me" moment for the defense.

2 plays later, the Texans again attacked the pursuit side of DeMarcus Ware with a WR Screen to Andre Johnson. Johnson and his friends outnumbered Cowboys pursuers and he carried Gerald Sensabaugh for 5 yards down to the 6 yard line. The Texans were rolling.

But another Texans False Start helped the Cowboys to only give up a Field Goal. And despite the sinking feeling that Dallas was in for another long day, the Cowboys only trailed 3-0.

On the ensuing drive, Dallas thought they had their first "explosive" play of the day - a 33 yard screen play to Felix Jones that was designed and executed perfectly - until Miles Austin was called for an illegal block. Suddenly, a 80 yard field becomes a 90 yard field as the team is marched back to the 10 yard line, and 1st and 10 becomes 1st and 20. Back in a hole, and the stadium is growing even louder.

And then, the game turned.

It turned when the Cowboys offense - led by their QB who was coming off a week where he certainly was out-played by Jay Cutler - started stepping up to the task of making a little extra out of each play.

Curiously, in what could be called "the drive that saved the season", the Cowboys did all of their damage on 3rd Down. 47 yards on 3 pass plays - all on 3rd Down for Tony Romo. We mentioned last week that 3rd Down was his poorest against the Bears. Well, that apparently was fixed, because Romo dominated on 3rd Down in the big moments of this game:

Examples from the 2nd Quarter Drive:

* 3rd and 8 at Dallas 22 - Romo buys time as the pocket is collapsing around him, steps up, and finds Roy Williams for 20 yards in the gap behind the corner and in front of the safety that he loves so much. First Down.

* 3rd and 9 at Houston 44 - Sometimes a guy just has to make a play, and on 3rd and 9, Romo hits Dez Bryant at about the 39 yard line (which will be 3-4 yards short if he gets tackled). Brice McCain and Glover Quin have Dez bottled up it appeared, but Bryant spins between them and finds 5 yards after the catch that didn't seem to be there. Strength and elusiveness are two traits that the new #88 seems to have in great supply.

* 3rd and 10 at Houston 18 - Yet another 3rd and long, but Romo again is comfortable in the pocket and again attacks McCain who this time has Miles Austin to deal with. Austin catches a simple stop route at the sticks and then drives McCain another 5 yards after contact to the 1.

3 throws to 3 different receivers on 3 crucial 3rd Downs. Marion Barber punches it in on the next play, and the Cowboys never turn back. What did they do differently on that drive? If you say run the ball, you would be wrong. If you say, get timely throws and moments where the receivers are determined to move the chains by any means necessary, then I agree. They needed for someone to make a play yesterday, and thankfully for the Cowboys, several Cowboys stood up.

By the way, to pound home the point about Romo being so good on 3rd Down, here is one more 3rd Down moment in the 2nd Quarter that will not go in the stat books as a 3rd Down conversion, but it was a massive play in the game.

* 3rd and 20 at Houston 45 - :07 left in 2Q, no timeouts. The Texans rush only 3 men, dropping 8 into coverage. The Cowboys cannot stop the clock, so Houston has to protect the sideline. And yet, Romo finds Jason Witten at the 31 yard line in a perfect pitch and catch that allows David Buehler to prove he is worthy of his uniform. Another big 3rd Down throw - to a 4th different receiver, and the Cowboys go to the halftime locker-room with great confidence and self-belief.

And let's not limit the credit to that offense, of course. 3rd Downs were big on defense, too:

* 1st Q, Houston faces a 3rd and 3 from the Cowboys 32 - DeMarcus Ware is the beneficiary of some fine Cowboys coverage in the secondary as he is able to work past Rashad Butler and get to Matt Schaub for a large sack back at the 43 - out of field goal range.

* 2nd Q, Houston has 3rd and 7 from their 37 - And this time, because the Cowboys send Keith Brooking on a blitz, the LT slides down to take him. This leaves Joel Dreessen to attempt to block Ware. That is what we would call a mismatch as Ware walks the TE right back to Schaub and kills another drive all by himself.

* 3rd Q, Houston is back in Dallas territory out of halftime, but faces a 3rd and 12 at the Dallas 40. Again, there appears to be great coverage by the Cowboys as Schaub initially has time. But, again, he cannot find an open man and the pocket collapses around him. Ware gets the credit for this sack, too, but he pretty much just had to touch the Texans QB who had already gone to the ground rather than deal with Anthony Spencer's wrath.

* 4th Q, Houston has 3rd and Goal at the Cowboys 3 - A TD here, and we have a game again. Wade Phillips dials up the "fire zone" blitz from the left - bringing Brooking and James from Schaub's front-side, but dropping Ware into coverage on the back-side (so the LT has nobody to block). Because of the confusion, nobody touches Brooking and the play is over before it starts.

8 different plays - 4 from the offense, 4 from the defense - all on 3rd Downs. It seems like each situation had different guys stepping up to make plays. Sure, Romo and Ware had their fingerprints on many of them, but this is the team effort that had many of us believing that this team could go places a month ago.

Did they finally wake up? Or did they only play with urgency and desperation because they really were desperate?

Some other observations from the big win in Houston:

- 2nd guessing "draft day" decisions is a favorite past-time of those of us who love football talk, and there is certainly room for our 2nd guesses most years. But, after watching Dez Bryant play in live NFL games for a few weeks, there is hardly a discussion to be had in my mind about the wisdom of drafting him. No, the Cowboys didn't need another Wide Receiver. Yes, they had larger needs elsewhere (OL, S). But, sometimes a guy falls in your lap that is just too good a football player to pass up. When they say "take the best player available" and "don't draft for need" this is what they mean. If this is how good he is when he lacks polish, I cannot begin to wonder what he will be like when he has 30 games under his belt. He looks really special.

- Now, about that running game: Full marks to the play caller for determining to make it a priority. I wondered how much they were going to try to get the ground game going in this circumstance because I saw the Colts and Redskins fail to run the ball with any success against this Texans' front. But, the Cowboys did a very nice job in 2 particular ways; 1) Jason Garrett and the offense had 8 real drives on Sunday. And all 8 drives started with a run on 1st and 10. 8 runs in 8 plays is not a coincidence no was it lip service. I don't recommend they try that again next game, because Tennessee will have this film and see what the Cowboys did. and 2) they ran effectively out of pass formations, while passing out of run looks. This is key to having a proper balance on your offense. Give those linebackers and safeties headaches. Every pre-snap read they get is counter-intuitive to what they know. It causes uncertainty in the defense and that breeds big play opportunities.

- I wish I knew the rationale in not running David Buehler out to kick a 47 yard FG on the games opening drive. Surely, you cannot afford to start a game with a long drive like that and then simply not score any points. The Cowboys got away with it, and then Buehler hit 2 other Field Goals that will steady everyone's nerves for now, but do they know that their actions speak louder than their words on this issue when they pass up a standard NFL Field Goal distance each week?

- That is the type of game that the Cowboys need from their offensive line. 0 sacks. 100 yards on the ground. Not the most dominant effort ever, but more than enough to hold their own in a match-up against a defensive front that has been very salty. I did not see too many busted blocks yesterday, and the only times the Texans got pressure it was with the blitz.

- I don't think we can understate the job of the defense when it was determined that Owen Daniels did not get into the end-zone early in the 4th Quarter. The ball was spotted about a foot outside the endzone and with Arian Foster with the ball, I was not expecting a stand like that. If you watch that sequence again, you simply must watch Anthony Spencer and his amazing 3 play sequence. On 1st Down, 93 blows up Vonta Leach as the lead blocker and the play is ruined. On 2nd Down, 93 destroys Joel Dreessen and then nearly brings Foster down himself. And on 3rd Down, he is held by Eric Winston as he turns the corner on the pass into the endzone. The next play was Brooking's sack and the Cowboys held. But, Spencer was the hero on this stand.

- I still think the Texans are very good. But, there is something to be said about understanding the mental switch from being the doubted underdog to the favored power in the NFL. I cannot point to a particular moment where I feel that bothered them on Sunday, but with raised expectations for the first time ever, it will be interesting to see if that group of talented players who have never won at this level can put it all together.

- Takeaways! Takeaways! Takeaways! Isn't football easier when the defense takes the ball? I was asked what they did differently to generate them in Houston and I am sure that Wade and Jerry are asking themselves the same thing on the airplane. It is one of the great questions in football, "how can we generate more takeaways?" The answer is never simple, or Dallas would have solved this issue years ago. But, there is no question that the game of football makes much more sense when you are a "+3" rather than a "-3".

- I cannot predict Cowboys games to save my life. I know this, and it helps explain why I have no interest in gambling. The NFL is wonderfully unpredictable and each Sunday we see that the uncertain results are what makes us addicts to the sport. And the worst part is the more data you consider and the more you study the upcoming game, the worse the predictions become. And yes, this is my way to rationalize being 0-3 in predicting Cowboys games this year.

As an emailer pointed out, it is a strange weekend when the heroes of DFW sports are Jorge Cantu and Roy Williams. But, regardless of how the Cowboys saved their season, the fact is that they did - and in emphatic fashion. They did not need a call or a fluke play to beat a good Houston team in their backyard. This could do wonders for a team that seems to have a difficult time getting out of its own way, but when they do we see why they are thought of as a top team.

1-2 at the bye week, with plenty to work on.

But, after all of that, the NFC East has cooperated. The Cowboys sit just 1 game behind 1st place Philadelphia.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Game Plan Friday: Week 3 at Houston

On September 8, 2002, the Houston Texans played their first game in franchise history in front of their home fans and their brand new stadium. The opponent and the result could not have been more perfect for the Houston faithful as they stomped Emmitt Smith and the Dallas Cowboys by a final of 19-10. Most of us remember that game as a whirlwind of momentum in which the Cowboys never really threatened winning. In reality, it was two teams who were going to be really bad in 2002 (they would sport a combined record of 9-23) playing a game that only mattered because of the historic ramifications of having 2 teams back in Texas.

9 seasons and 130 games later, the two teams meet again back at the same stadium for a game of much greater stakes. It should be noted that the only other time the two teams have met in the regular season was in 2006 in Dallas, a game that the Cowboys would win easily, and a game that is best known for being the game BEFORE the Tony Romo era began for Dallas.

But this game is significant to the whole league. And for wildly different reasons.

For Houston, the league wants to know if the Texans are finally "playoff worthy". They have been building and rebuilding now for almost a decade, and judging on the quick rise of the Carolina Panthers and Jacksonville Jaguars - who both went to conference championship games in their 2nd year of existence, it is surely time for the Texans to play past week 17. Despite the idea that they are obsessed with all things Cowboys, the true target of their obsession would certainly be AFC South bully, Indianapolis - a team that have beaten only twice in franchise history in 17 attempts. But the 2nd win over the Colts was just 2 weeks ago, and now the sky seems the limit to not only make a playoff push, but perhaps even compete for the divisional crown.

But for Dallas, the league wants to see if this is the end already of a promising campaign. Less than a month ago, it seemed a popular premise to link the Cowboys to Super Bowl 45 and the dream of hosting a Super Bowl on your home turf. Now, 2 weeks later, there is all manner of discussion regarding the well being of this franchise. 0-3 seems to be an unthinkable hole to dig out of, and to call the Cowboys desperate in this difficult road test would be an understatement. We have always known the Cowboys under their current leadership to be poor "front runners", but they do seem to occasionally shock us when their backs are pressed against the wall. It would be foolish to assume they don't have the guts to compete at a very high level against a very talented opponent after what we saw last December in New Orleans against a 13-0 Saints team that very much wished to remain undefeated. The Cowboys were coming off back to back defeats to the Giants and Chargers and were being left for dead all week by the entire football world. But, they certainly made a point that launched them into a month of very high quality football at the most crucial time of their year.

And that is why I am having an extremely difficult time sorting this game out. On one hand, we have a Texans team that certainly is playing in front of a massive crowd in a loud stadium that wants desperately to beat the Cowboys. While the players may see the Colts as their main adversary, the residents of Houston have Cowboys fans as neighbors and co-workers and that seems to generate a great deal of venom we have found. The stadium was electric in pre-season, so it would certainly stand to reason it will be kicked up a notch or two on Sunday. But, on the other hand, we have no idea how the Texans play as favorites. They haven't had very many high stakes games in their life cycle, and to wonder if they will come out and play tight is a fair question it would seem. They are expected by most to beat a talented Dallas Cowboys team, and that is a position that would seem rather foreign to those who comprise this youthful Houston squad.

From a Cowboys standpoint, we have seen them wither way too often in hostile road environments under Wade Phillips and Jason Garrett. In 2008, they had disappointing road performances in St Louis, Arizona, Pittsburgh, New York, and Philadelphia. In 2009, it was Denver, Green Bay, New York, and Minnesota. Many of those places we could surmise the crowd and the momentum started surging in the wrong direction and the Cowboys couldn't stop it (except St Louis - we blame Brad Johnson for that one). The offense, in particular, has not made a great living in places where hearing the snap count and dealing with an aggressive defense are issues. We have detailed how difficult the road schedule is in 2010, and this match-up at Reliant Stadium is no exception.

For all the reasons above and many reasons below, we have a very big game on our hands this weekend.

Let's look at ways for the Cowboys to get a win before the bye week.


The Texans have spent 7 of their last 8 years trying to fortify their defense in the first round of the NFL Draft. That is an extreme way to emphasize your talent distribution, but when you play the Colts twice a year, you understand the logic here. The only way to ever deal with your division is to stop Peyton Manning, and the Texans have invested heavily in their top tier talent:

2004 Dunta Robinson Cornerback South Carolina
2004 Jason Babin Defensive end Western Michigan
2005 Travis Johnson Defensive tackle Florida State
2006 Mario Williams Defensive end North Carolina State
2007 Amobi Okoye Defensive tackle Louisville
2008 Duane Brown Offensive tackle Virginia Tech
2009 Brian Cushing Outside linebacker Southern California
2010 Kareem Jackson Cornerback Alabama

Dunta Robinson has left via free agency, and Babin (Tennessee) and Johnson (San Diego) are long gone, but the core has been built with young high-end talent.

Add to that group DeMeco Ryans, a player taken with the 1st pick of the 2nd round in 2006, and you can see why people now consider their front 7 a very formidable unit to deal with. And if you watched the Cowboys try to run the ball against them in August, you know that it is not an easy task to run on this group. Luckily for Dallas, Brian Cushing (and Duane Brown) will both miss this game as they are serving performance-enhancing drug violations.

To further demonstrate why this might not be the game of the Dallas running resurgence, consider this: Washington attempted to run the ball just 8 times on first down against the Texans last week. They gained a total of 6 yards on those 8 carries.


1) - M-A-R-I-O - The idea of the best DE in football is a purely subjective discussion, and while I don't think I would have quite put Mario Williams in that class in 2009, there is no doubt that he is at the top of my list in 2010. In watching every snap he has taken against the Colts and Redskins, it is clear that he now knows all of the tricks and has all the ability to absolutely demand a double team. If you don't respect him, he will kill a drive and perhaps a game plan all by himself. I expect the Cowboys to give him plenty of attention every time they attempt to pass the ball, but the key here will be to mix play calls enough to keep him honest. If the Cowboys fall behind early and resort to passing the ball out of necessity, then the job will become much more difficult. Julius Peppers was not allowed to cause chaos last week (unlike Brian Orakpo the week before) and they will need to employ plenty of chip blocking again to ensure protection for the QB.

2) - Romo/Garrett Must Be Efficient - When you go on the road in the posture of a team that is not favored to win, I think we can all safely agree that this is where you cannot blow chances. At home, when you are better, you might get away with stalled drives or the occasional giveaway. Not here. Against the Texans, in a game where we believe that Houston will be able to score plenty on their own, the Cowboys game plan must be most efficient. And then the QB play has to improve on what we have seen so far. Here is the list of qualifying QB's that Tony Romo (31st in the league) is ranked above in the category of 3rd Down passer rating: 32. Charlie Batch, 33. Matt Moore, 34. Jason Campbell, 35. Derek Anderson and 36. Trent Edwards. That should certainly make you nervous, despite the very small sample size of 2 games. That has to change very quickly. This is the type of game where your franchise QB has to win a game for you - in a stadium where Peyton Manning tried and failed 14 days prior. We need a big day from Jason Garrett and Tony Romo for the Cowboys to have a crack at this contest.

3) - More Dez/Felix; Less Marion/Roy - The Cowboys have spent 1st Round Picks on skill position players in 2 of the last 3 drafts - yet, neither is on the field enough for my tastes. Now, I want to see more of Felix Jones and Dez Bryant, and I believe the Cowboys do, too. Here are the potential problems for such a move: With Dez, in a hostile, loud road stadium, you run the risk of Tony Romo not knowing how he will react if the Texans throw a coverage look at him he has never seen. Can the Cowboys afford to have him on the field on crucial downs if they are not sure he is 100% sure of where he should be. And, with Felix, aside from not being positive how to use him correctly (Did you see the Saints use Reggie Bush on Monday Night in the red zone against Patrick Willis?), there is the issue of the blitz pick-up and chip blocking. If you watched Sunday, he tried to chip Julius Peppers on a number of occasions, but I am not sure Peppers felt any of them. There is a clear result difference when Barber or Choice chips a DE, than when Felix tries it. All of that being noted, Felix and Dez can both turn a non-descript play into a Touchdown with their explosiveness. The Cowboys will need explosives (20+ yard plays) to win.

4) - Control the Front Lines - Here is the thing about running the ball. We cannot get hung up on the idea that we have to get this ratio back to even. Some weeks, you want to establish the run, but I don't believe that is Houston's weakness - their secondary is where they have been leaking oil. The Cowboys have run the ball fewer times than any team in the NFL (percentage wise: 29.6%, League average is 43.4%) - but the name of the game is to get a win, not to balance the stats. The truth of the matter is that Houston has a very difficult front to run against and rather than making a point with power football this week, the object of the game is to figure out how to get 24-28 points on the board. For this to be possible, the front line is going to have to make sure that Antonio Smith, Amobi Okoye, and Mario are not devastating your offense - regardless of play calls. After a week in which Andre Gurode and Leonard Davis did not look to be worth their "pro bowl" quality, it would be very important that this OL proves it can play to its paper. Whatever the play call, these guys cannot get their rears beat by the man in front of them. Win the block, win the game.


The Texans are an offensive fan's and a fantasy football owner's dream. They roll up yardage and points with great regularity. They have an offense that seems to live for the explosive. They have silly rankings up and down the board. They are very good.

Much of it comes down to personnel. Andre Johnson is not a well-kept secret anymore, but he is surely not a guy who gets the hype that he would be due if he was a bit more expressive. Kevin Walter is a perfect compliment threat and Owen Daniels can cause issues in your secondary. Their offensive line - which was once made famous for almost getting David Carr killed - has improved to a point where they are solid.

They will play without their LT this week, as 2008 1st Rounder Duane Brown is down with a suspension, but they still are confident in their system - that same offensive system that the Denver Broncos used for 2 Super Bowls in the late 1990's under Mike Shanahan. If you want to know what the Texans do offensively, watch Denver film or even watch the Redskins game a few weeks ago. Rollout passes, Alex-Gibbs' zone running schemes, and a proper diverse mixing of run and pass.

So how do you attempt to frustrate their offense? Good question. But, it all starts with pressure without blitzing - something the Cowboys obviously could not pull off against Jay Cutler last week.

Here is a statistic that you may not be aware of from this year's Football Outsiders Almanac: Do not big blitz Matt Schaub: The Texans’ quarterback averaged a league-best 10.7 yards per pass against big blitzes, which may be why only Indianapolis and Tennessee faced fewer big blitzes than Houston did.


1) - Stop Arian Foster - 1 year ago today, Arian Foster was a member of the Houston practice squad. Today, he is the NFL's leading rusher and he has a 60 yard lead on 2nd place. He makes $395,000 and while you may not know much about him (and if you don't, read this great feature), know that NFL types are wondering how a guy that big and strong fell through the cracks of personnel evaluation. But, he is a real weapon that should not be underestimated or called a fluke. Traditionally, teams don't try to run against the Cowboys front, but after the success they had in demoralizing the Colts in the opener, I believe chances are very good that they will feed him the ball 20 times. Here is the name I want you to know: #44 Vonta Leach. You don't need to know many Fullbacks in the NFL anymore (many teams don't have any) but Leach is awesome in the way he is utilized in their running attack. He takes on your LB at the point of attack and seldom seems to lose.

2) - Schaub Rollout Right - If you want to read up on this vital weapon to the Texans attack, you need to read this comprehensive breakdown from TC Fleming. Here is a taste: While in Denver, they carved out a pretty distinct sort of identity. The idea, if I could simplify way down, is to use their zone blocking system to get Terrell Davis going on the ground. Then with the defense keying on him, have John Elway fake the handoff to Davis and roll to the opposite side where he had the option to either throw to a receiver whose defender had bit on the fake to Davis or run it himself into the areas voided by the over-pursuing defense. That's why Shanahan and Kubiak worked so hard to get Jake Plummer as a free agent and why they traded up to get Jay Cutler in the draft: the general system is predicated on having a quarterback who can throw well on the run, pick up yards himself when needed and just generally execute this style of play-action pass known as the bootleg.
Watch for this play on Sunday - it is a Houston favorite:

3) - Expose an Under Manned OL - I have to stop people who want to tell me that the Cowboys defense is good enough to take the Cowboys on a Super Bowl run because I don't believe it is true right now. They are getting 1 sack a game and 0 takeaways. It is nice to have impressive stats in terms of stopping this and stopping that, but a truly explosive defense (Baltimore, Pittsburgh, New York Jets) can not only stop you, but they can beat you up and take the ball. I was very disappointed in the lack of pressure in the final 3 Quarters against the Bears and the comfortable way the Chicago offense marched down the field with several explosives mixed in on busted coverages or tackles. I need the Cowboys front to show some domination and even after the Bears lost their Left Tackle, the Cowboys couldn't get there with 4. That needs to change this week if the Cowboys are going to have a chance. Now, you play another team without its Left Tackle. This should be a perfect time for 93/94 to show what they can do. But, we haven't seen enough of it yet. And don't be afraid to mix in a takeaway either. Not every QB is so accurate and so sharp that they just don't throw a pick against you. At some point we have to ask why the Cowboys cannot force a pick.

4) - Won't Stop, But Try To Contain - The Cowboys corners think they are pretty good. And so do we. But, are they up for this challenge? In the last five years, how many players have been targeted more than Andre Johnson? None. How many have more yards than Andre Johnson? One, Reggie Wayne. How many have more catches than Andre Johnson? One, Wes Welker. How many have more yards per game than Andre Johnson? None. You are getting the picture here, right? He is awesome and you won't stop him. You just have to make sure he doesn't do what he did last week against Reed Doughty on 4th and 10. I do know that he has an ankle issue right now, and Mike Jenkins is dealing with that knee bruise so I wonder if that match-up will materialize. I do know this - we should have a pretty good idea of the quality of the Cowboys safeties by the end of the game as double teams over the top are expected all day. I still wonder why the Cowboys did not pursue OJ Atogwe this summer when he appeared to be a bargain. I also wondered why they didn't think Nate Allen or Morgan Burnett were worth the picks in the April Draft. Perhaps Ball will silence my skepticism soon enough.


I think the Texans are the real deal this year. I expected this to be a match-up of 2 playoff-bound teams who both should be in the mix to win their respective divisions. The Texans have proven worthy of that praise, and the Cowboys look like a team that is just not all on the same page. 75% of teams that start the year 3-0 make the playoffs. Less than 3% of teams that start 0-3 make the playoffs. I keep referencing the Saints game last year, because the circumstances are quite similar in the idea of jobs being at stake and in that game the Cowboys were so efficient and so precise in their execution in taking down their foe... But, I try not to get caught up in hoping and believing here in this blog entry. The pick at the end is a firm belief of who is actually better, despite the fact that I haven't picked a game right yet (0-2).

Texans 27, Cowboys 21

Thursday, September 23, 2010

EPL Fun Bag #7

I know I pledged to write a strong EPL Fun Bag every week. But, here I am - in the middle of Cowboy season - and I see I have about 30 minutes to write this week's version. So this one is going to be short.

A Few items from last weekend I want to make sure you are up to speed on -

* Manchester United 3, Liverpool 2

This result never surprised me for a second, except for the idea that Liverpool scored 2. Didn't see that coming, but if you saw the match, you saw that those were wonderful gifts. The fact is, the only thing Liverpool has right now that is top notch is its history. Other than that, they are so mid-table it isn't even funny.

Anyway, enough about them. Manchester United, meanwhile, may not have the depth it normally does (thanks to its US owners), but they still have world class talent. Here is Berbatov's beauty - a goal scored by the Bulgarian that may be about as awesome a goal as you will see all season in a "big match". Amazing.

* Clint Dempsey Scored! Nicely done, deuce

* Arsenal drops further behind

A constant theme in the early going is Chelsea demolishing another opponent - they haven't played the big boys yet, but the key to the Prem is getting maximum points from the softies - and seeing Man United, Man City, and Arsenal all lose points on the road with draws when they need 3 points for the win. Arsenal has many injuries and Cesc Fabregas is now out, too. He hurt himself on this amazing goal and since it was their only goal of the day, I guess it was worth it. But wow. A) that you can score like this and B) that you can hurt your hamstring while scoring like this:

Now, here is this weekend's menu - all times are EASTERN!

Saturday, September 25:
7:45am: Manchester City v Chelsea, ESPN2
10am: Arsenal v West Brom, Fox Soccer Channel
10am: Liverpool v Sunderland, Fox Soccer Plus and
10am: Fulham v Everton, (also shown on delay on Fox Soccer Plus at 4pm)
10am: Blackpool v Blackburn,
10am: West Ham v Spurs, (also shown on delay on Fox Soccer Channel at Noon)
10am: Birmingham v Wigan, (also shown on delay on Fox Soccer Channel at 5pm)

Sunday, September 26:
7am: Bolton v Manchester United, Fox Soccer Plus and
9:05am: Wolves v Aston Villa, Fox Soccer Plus and
11:10am: Newcastle United v Stoke City, Fox Soccer Channel

No question the big match is up in Manchester as City attempts to show Chelsea they are for real. ESPN 2 first thing Saturday Morning - so brew the coffee, this is going to be a strong match-

Sorry, next week, I will answer Emails and rant about Tom Hicks again -

The Football Laundromat: Houston Texans Edition

Salutations, readers. TC Fleming here. This is the second in a series of articles published each Thursday concerning a specific strategic wrinkle in the offense of the Cowboy's upcoming opponent.

This week that opponent is Houston whose coach, Gary Kubiak, comes to the team after ten full years spent with Mike Shanahan as Shanahan's offensive coordinator when he was in Denver. While in Denver, they carved out a pretty distinct sort of identity. The idea, if I could simplify way down, is to use their zone blocking system to get Terrell Davis going on the ground. Then with the defense keying on him, have John Elway fake the handoff to Davis and roll to the opposite side where he had the option to either throw to a receiver whose defender had bit on the fake to Davis or run it himself into the areas voided by the over-pursuing defense. That's why Shanahan and Kubiak worked so hard to get Jake Plummer as a free agent and why they traded up to get Jay Cutler in the draft: the general system is predicated on having a quarterback who can throw well on the run, pick up yards himself when needed and just generally execute this style of play-action pass known as the bootleg.

After determining in his first year as the Houston head coach that David Carr did, in fact, suck, Kubiak acquired Matt Schaub to be the player to run his offense with, among other things, its bootleg passes. While I went into watching his two games this season without a real idea of what I wanted to write about, it quickly became apparent that his execution on those bootleg passes demanded attention. While he is not the threat to run that Elway, Plummer and Cutler are, Schaub is as good as anyone at running the bootleg. He shows the patience allowed for the longer routes that these passes feature to open up, but he rarely forced it when those routes weren't there. When he needed to go to one of the secondary options, he showed great chemistry with his receivers and communicated well with them to make surprising completions.

Cowboys Casserole

Thursday is turning a bit into some sort of Cowboys casserole, where I can fit a few things that I did not have a place for the rest of the week, and answer some of your very solid football questions, too.

So, I'll get to the questions in a bit, but first these items:

1) The Punt Return for TD - There is not much in the game of football I understand less than special teams, and I thought we could try our best to learn together this season what they are trying to accomplish there. Certainly not to the same extent as "Decoding Garrett", but let's at least examine any substantial special teams play and find out what went right or wrong.

And a good place to start is who is playing and where are they playing on special teams. Last week, I charted every player on the 4 major "special teams" for the Washington game, and I will try to do that periodically as we go.

So, here is the play:

And with a little help from TC, here is a good look at how the Cowboys set up Sunday for that Punt Return:

The 11 Cowboys on the field: 88-Dez Bryant, 27-Akwasi Owusu-Ansah, 17-Sam Hurd, 32-Orlando Scandrick, 42-Barry Church, 36-Michael Hamlin, 52-Leon Williams, 58-Jason Williams, 23-Tashard Choice, 40-Danny McCray, and 20-Alan Ball.

I find it interesting what kind of player you want on the field for punt return, and then where they are aligned. I think Special Teams Coach Joe DeCamillis is a real find and a potential head coach candidate at some point for some team. Remember, John Harbaugh, the coach of the Ravens, went straight from being the special teams coach of the Philadelphia Eagles right to that job.

Anyway, they do not double team the gunners on the edge like you see sometimes, and they also have a return man and more shallow "protector" in Owusu-Ansah back to help set up the return. Then Sam Hurd is right over center and it looks like he has to sprint back and help set the edge for which ever direction they called for the return. 52 and 58, Leon and Jason Williams are the only players with any size on the field, and they are just linebackers, so you can understand now why some teams think they can snap the ball and run for a few yards on a fake - because there is no Jay Ratliff or Marcus Spears on a punt return team to drop anchor in the line. It is all speed, speed, speed. And if Dez can make one guy miss, he can be off to the races.

Last time the Cowboys returned a punt for a TD was last year against Seattle when Patrick Crayton broke it , and just to show you what DeCamillis (and all Special Teams coaches in the NFL) has to deal with when the realities of a 45-man game day roster hit home, here are the 11 who were on the field for that return just 10 months ago:
84 Crayton, 89 Phillips, 53 Octavien, 17 Hurd, 34 Anderson, 25 Watkins, 32 Scandrick, 20 Ball, 57 Butler, 85 Ogletree, and 18 Buehler.

3! Just 3 of the same players from a successful punt return last November. Heck, Leon Williams and Barry Church were playing their first game ever with the Cowboys on Sunday and they were key members of this return. Impressive.

2) Inactives: Speaking of Leon Williams and Barry Church, they were activated because of Deon Anderson and Sean Lee being hurt in week 2 (and beyond for Deon) so here is the updated inactive chart of who doesn't play when the Cowboys drop from 53 to 45 on gameday:

Cowboys Inactives

Week12345678 (3rd QB)
Wk 1 @ WashB WilliamsL WilliamsB ChurchS YoungK KosierM ColomboS LissemoreS McGee
Wk 2 vs ChiB WilliamsS LeeD AndersonS YoungR BrewsterP CostaS LissemoreS McGee

HTML Tables

3) RB Snap Count: This is something that many of you have asked me about - how are they carving up the snaps between their 3 WRs. I will try to keep this (as accurately as possible) for a while. Here is week 2:



HTML Tables

It looks like the idea is to continue to split the work load and bring Choice in only for specialty situations and 3rd Down. Barber is getting the 1st drive, Jones the 2nd, and they seem to go back and forth with Barber getting short yardage and Felix getting more and more time out of the "S11" offense - which means more playing time, but not more carries usually.

And now, your questions:


Every since Romo became quarterback (maybe even before) the cowboys have been a big play offense. Their problem now is that they can't make big plays or that they don't try big plays anymore. If look at the time T.O. and Terry Glenn were here all of their plays were down the field. This covered up a bad O-Line and ok running backs because everyone was looking for the big play. The reason they cut T.O. was that he couldn't make the big play catches anymore and he would drop the intermediate ones. I think if they can get Miles or Dez to go a little vertical or deep posts you can see the offense we've been waiting for. Just hope we can protect Romo long enough.


Thanks, Josh. I think that we are looking at the first 2 games and especially in the Bears case with that deep Cover 2 that they play, it is really difficult to get downfield with verticals. However, Romo was passing for yardage so he did get to 370+ somehow. I do think there will be big plays this season (and Houston is a candidate given their secondary issues) but it is obvious the book on playing the Cowboys is to try and make them drive 15 plays - because the Cowboys have a hard time going 15 plays without self-inflicted drive killers. I suppose it is hard to argue with that point right now. Almost every drive, you can point to a penalty, a drop, a turnover, or another "drive killer" that puts the Cowboys in a spot where they do not get what they have worked for.

Sloppy undisciplined play = loss almost every time…. In both games, the Cowboys had at least TWICE as many penalties as their opponent. In both games, if they played crisper, with ½ has many mistakes (penalties) they would’ve won; end of story.

Until they get rid of wade, and bring in a coach who insists on disciplined play, the nonsense will continue. Even then, it may not help, because, at the end of the day, everyone knows that the head coach is not the one with the final say… and even when Bill Parcels was there, that was the case…..


I get this email plenty, and while I do not totally disagree, I do want to make one crucial point about pre-snap penalties. I think too often we think those are inexcusable issues where a player doesn't know the snap count or isn't concentrating. Yes, that does happen, and when it is clear Andre Gurode is just snapping the ball when he feels like it, that should turn everyone's stomach. But, let's visit about those False Starts that seem to happen 3 times a game. While the end result is the same and you would hope you could cut them out completely, I do think we should understand WHY false starts happen.

If you talk to any offensive line player, they will usually admit that it is there goal to try to cheat the snap count by a millisecond so that they can get a head start on their battle with the man in front of them. Take Marc Colombo - he is just back from knee surgery, and sees Julius Peppers across from him and knows that on this play he is not getting any help. He knows that he cannot be responsible for ending this drive so he has to hold #90 off even though that is much easier said then done. So, he knows Romo's snap cadence and knows the count so if he can get out of his stance and in position before Peppers gets out of his, he has a much better chance of keeping the edge. I am not saying it is right, I am saying it is how it is. And, the truth is that a guy like Colombo may be jumping the snap count every play, but only getting caught once or twice. I am not saying this will change your mind about the penalty, but I just don't like people saying that it is lack of focus. Colombo or Leonard Davis are not daydreaming about what they are going to do on Tuesday during the snap-count and forgetting when to start the play. In reality, all they are doing is focusing on the beast in front of him and trying to figure out how to do their job this play. By the way, if you see a guard false start, it is often because he is pulling on a run play, and knows that he is going to have a hard time getting to his destination before the RB gets there. So he is cheating, too.

Bob, do you still think the Texans will "rue the day" for taking a DE over a QB? Jim

Jim, Thank you for properly pointing out that I owe Charley Casserly a big apology.

On draft day 2006, the Houston Texans had the 1st pick of the draft. There were 2 obvious "people's choice" options - Reggie Bush of USC or Vince Young of Texas. The Vince Young idea was one that I believed in because A) David Carr was going nowhere B) Vince Young appeared to be an even more dangerous version of Michael Vick, C) Young was from Houston and the symmetry of it all seemed too perfect, and D) if they don't take Young, then their division rival and former Houston franchise, Tennessee will certainly snap him up!

Boy was I demonstrative that the very flashy Young is the right choice and way better than this silly idea of a DE from NC State. Mario Williams? I had watched football every Saturday and hardly recall one mention of NC State or Mario Williams.

Well, it has been 5 seasons now since that day that Casserly made the selection and then pretty much was shown the door immediately after the decision was made - and wow, did he make the right call.

Watch Williams on tape and you will be amazed. He is a perfect DE destroyer and as dominant a pass rusher as there is. Since the day he was picked, just 2 players in the NFL have more sacks than Mario - DeMarcus Ware and Jared Allen. That is your entire list! More than Julius Peppers, Trent Cole, Elvis Dumervil, Dwight Freeney, James Harrison, and the entire field.

Vince Young has been up and down and in and out for Tennessee. Reggie Bush is an important part of the Super Bowl Champions and a true weapon - although in his 4 seasons his production has dropped each year ('06 - 1,307 total yards, '07 - 998, '08 - 844, '09 - 725). But there is Mario, week after week, making the Texans into a formidable defense.

Casserly drafted Williams, DeMeco Ryans, and Andre Johnson - and yet he was classified as a failure in Houston by many. Tough crowd. But, I readily admit an apology is due from me - I got that decision way wrong - and Charley did not.

Tomorrow: We Game Plan for Houston.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Week 2 - Targets and Sacks

This summary of all targets and sacks for the offense is a companion piece each week to the Tuesday study . Hopefully, a little more information will assist us in evaluating what appears to be a pretty non-explosive offense as they head down to Houson:

The first thing we want to examine is where Tony Romo is throwing the ball. We do that by charting the target distribution. And for the 2nd week in a row, there is no question who the premier pass catcher on this team is - and he wears #19:

Target Distribution: - Week 2 vs Chicago
NameTargetsCatchesYardsFD/TD/INTQB Rating

A couple interesting numbers to ponder from above; Austin was 10 of 15, but of course had a very bad drop and also was to blame for the 1st interception when he was body rocked. The INT will really hit the QB Rating hard. Dez Bryant was thrown the ball 10 fewer times than he was in Week 1. Like I mentioned already this week, that may be more an issue of fewer snaps, but I do not have the exact numbers. It just seems that his development is being managed as teams around the league may try to take advantage of him if he doesn't have a firm grasp. For instance, if I am game-planning against a player who doesn't always know his "hot route" responsibility, then I am more likely to blitz from him - making him the QB's first read. I would force Tony to connect with Dez to beat my blitz. This league is very smart, and I would imagine that is what the Cowboys are trying to sort out posthaste.

Partly because of Witten's concussion and partly because the game worked out that way, Martellus Bennett was thrown the ball on 8 different occasions - surely his career high as a Cowboy. However, it should be noted that all 8 were of the short, "dump off" variety and none of them went for a 1st Down. Again, for "12" or "S12" personnel to be powerful, they will have to prove to the opponent that Marty is a downfield threat on occasion. Brad Johnson hit him down the seam in the closing minutes of the debacle in St Louis 2 seasons ago. Beyond that, it really just hasn't happened.

We detailed in Monday's write up that Tony Romo - despite normally being great on 3rd Down - did not play well on the "money" down against the Bears. Here is the proof:

3RD/4TH Down Targets - Week 2 vs Chicago
NameTargetsCatchesYardsFD/TDQB Rating

What is odd about those numbers on 3rd Down is that the 3 conversions they did have were all beautiful deep passes to Roy Williams and Dez Bryant. So, it wasn't all bad, but you can tell the Bears were sitting on the Witten hook pattern with Briggs and Urlacher on several occasions.

Now, the numbers through 2 weeks:

Target Distribution - Season To Date
NameTargetsCatchesYardsFD/TD/INTQB Rating

If you had Jason Witten predicted as the "least productive" receiver so far, you are a prophet. He is generally at or near the top of this list. It is early, but so far, very little production from the familiar connection.

3RD/4TH Down Targets - Season To Date
NameTargetsCatchesYardsFD/TDQB Rating

Bottom line on all of this, if Romo's 3rd and 4th Down passer rating is going to be in the 50's, this team won't win 6 games. The good news is that we are almost assured that he will bounce back to his usual self soon enough. But how good has that been? In 2009, Romo had a passer rating of 81.4 on 3rd Down. That was only 20th best in the NFL - way behind the Top 5: 1) Rodgers, GB, 133.5 2) E Manning, NY, 112.6, 3) P Manning, IND, 110.2, 4) T Brady, NE, 103.5, and 5) D Brees, NO, 101.9.


DB Targets

Keeping track of which Bears' defenders Romo was throwing at did not tell us too much - they play such a blanket zone that sometimes it is difficult for a QB to isolate on one defender and attempt to attack him.

This is extremely unofficial and experimental. Obviously, there are a number of occasions where a defense is in a loose zone or passes off a receiver from one defender to the next. So, I note on each particular play which DB is appearing to be in coverage, and if there is not one - this happens plenty - then I do not mark down on any man's ledger.

Targeted DBTimes
35 - Zack Bowman11
33 - Charles Tillman8
30 - DJ Moore5
54 - Brian Urlacher5
55 - Lance Briggs3

The more we do this study, the more we are starting to see that Romo is a predominant "throw right" passer. It doesn't appear to be an issue of who is out there, it appears to be an issue of most QBs favoring the "front side" of the play. I would imagine that Zach Bowman and DeAngelo Hall last week see tons more work every week because they are LCB (lined up on a QB's right).



The Cowboys Offensive Line gave up 0 sacks on Sunday against the Bears. Therefore, there is no need to break down any sacks this week. I am, however, trying to keep another stat from week to week, and that is the number of times Jason Witten must "stay in" to help pass protect versus times where he can release into a pass route. This is very important to understand when you are dealing with a new LT - Doug Free and other hurdles with the front line. Again, at first, we have nothing to compare these numbers to, but you would think they would have Witten helping out a fair amount against Julius Peppers.

Jason Witten - Week 2

Pass RoutePass Protect

HTML Tables

Season To Date Sacks
The Rankings for the season in Sacks Allowed among the OL: Gurode 1

Sack #Down/DistPersonnelSackerBlame