It is the concept of "winning 1st Down". It simply means that as an offense, the play that is valued least by the general public is so important to the minds that call plays. If you win 1st Down, then you set up a variety of options for 2nd and 3rd Down. However, if you lose 1st Down, as the Cowboys did on a regular basis, you eliminate most of your creative options and simply fall into a "we need yardage badly" posture which results in the invitation of blitzes, mixed up coverages, and the advantage swings heavily to the defense.
In a way, the Cowboys are losing the fundamental struggles in football in these last two weeks in completely different ways. In Seattle, it was falling behind and allowing the undermanned offensively Seahawks to dictate the style and pace of most of the contest. In this game, the score was never a major issue, but every 1st and 10 situation for the offense led to 3rd and a mile.
Since Jason Garrett has been coach, no single game made a bigger mess out of 1st Down than Sunday. In fact, only 3 times under Garrett has the offense not been under 9 yards in the "Average yards to go on 2nd Down" category. Those 3 games were, at Philadelphia last year (9.88), the home game against Washington in 2011 (9.76), and the game at San Francisco (9.04). Otherwise, in all of the other games, the Cowboys were inside 9, and most of the time even inside 8 yards to go. The best work ever under Garrett was Thanksgiving of 2010 when they only had 6.04 yards to go on 2nd Down.
But, Sunday, they went backwards on 1st Down. Then, they had penalties. By the time they actually snapped the ball on 2nd Down, they were at a shocking 11.3 yards to go on 2nd Down. 11.3! Not only is it the worst under Garrett, it is the worst by a healthy margin of a yard and a half. Shocking. Long 2nd Downs usually lead to long 3rd Downs and in this case an average of 9.5 yards to go on 3rd Down. Not the recipe for a win, but because of some field position generosity where the Cowboys were beneficiaries of some short fields and the ineptness of the Bucs' offense, the Cowboys still won.
In short, the offense on Sunday couldn't get out of its own way. And every new set of downs led to yet another scenario in which the Cowboys shot themselves in the foot. Later in the week, with the help of the coach's film, we will examine why the running game was such a mess and who was at fault, but for now, let's just look at what the results were.
The Cowboys ran the ball 12 times on 1st and 10 in this game and totaled from those 12 different attempts 8 yards. 12 carries for 8 yards!
Now, many are using this as proof that the Cowboys should not try to run the football at all, because they are not successful when they do it. That, of course, is backwards thinking and only serves to make passing the football more impossible because they see they have no reason to respect the running game and thus pin their ears back and attack your QB (See Seattle's relentless assault on Aaron Rodgers in the 1st Half of Monday Night Football). I would counter that any play-call that you ever consider assumes that the play must be run well. No pass call works that results in a sack or interception, but you don't stop calling passes simply because you are not executing them well. That falls into the category of performance. No selected play will ever work when your players are getting whipped. But, don't blame the play or the concept in most cases. Blame the most fundamental test in football: Can my guy handle their guy in this 3 second match-up. If he can't, then there is no offensive game plan that can hide that for long.
The bottom line right now seems rather simple. The offense is still experiencing major issues at the line of scrimmage. It is one thing to be penalty prone, but it is yet another to be losing battles too frequently. The Tampa front is not thought of as terribly fearsome, and yet they reduced the Cowboys OL to rubble. The Bears front is feared and they also lead the NFL in sacks.
If this offensive line doesn't start winning battles, the offensive efficiency will be hard pressed to improve. There are no plays that can be called when your big boys up front are being whipped.
Data from Week 3 vs Tampa Bay
|Starting Field Position||D 37|
|1st Down Run-Pass||12-13|
|2nd Down Avg Distance to Go||11.3|
|2nd Down Run-Pass||6-15|
|3rd Down Avg Distance to Go||9.5|
|3rd Down Run-Pass||2-13|
|3rd Down Conversions||5-16, 31%|
Here are the passing charts to see what was being accomplished on Sunday.
Blue is a completion. Red is incomplete. Yellow is a touchdown, and Black is an interception. The passes are lines from where Romo released the pass to where the pass was caught. This shows you his release point and where he likes to throw when he slides in the pocket.
Clearly in the 1st Half, there was nothing accomplished down the field in the passing attack. In fact, you may simply examine it based on throws over 8 yards and under 8 yards to see a startling difference in what was being done. Tampa Bay was resisting anything behind the linebackers with great effectiveness in the 1st Half in particular.
The 2nd half shows much more blue with completions a higher percentage of the throws. This is particularly noteworthy as protection was breaking down much worse in the 2nd half it seemed as the over-matched offensive line of the Cowboys was making things quite difficult on their passing game.
Intern Tim, who does a fine job on these charts, made one especially on passes to Dez Bryant this week. Here are all of the passes to Dez, which again shows that it is difficult to get him the football down the field right now. Much like the entire offensive attack, they are having a hard time getting much done here right now through 3 weeks.
Pretty clear which side of the field Dez does most of his damage....
Drive Starters - The 1st play of each drive can often reveal the intent of a coach to establish his game plan. How committed is he to the run or pass when the team comes off the sideline? We track it each week here:
Wk 1-At New York: 9 Drives - 5 Run/4 Pass
Wk 2-At Seattle: 9 Drives - 3 Run/6 Pass
Wk 3-Tampa Bay: 13 Drives - 7 Run/6 Pass
Season: 31 Drives 15 Run/16 Pass - 48% Run
2011 Total: 181 Drives - 79 Run/102 Pass 44% Run
Shotgun snaps are fine on 3rd Down and in the 2 minute drill. But, we track this stat from week to week to make sure the Cowboys aren't getting too lazy in using it. They are not efficient enough to run it as their base, and with a 15%/85% run/pass split across the league, there is no way the defense respects your running game. When shotgun totals are high, the Cowboys are generally behind, scared of their offensive line, or frustrated. High Shotgun numbers are not this team's calling card for success.
As you can see, the situation in the game dictates the use of shotgun. The Cowboys use "Shotgun 11" as their "catch-up" mode and the more they run it, usually the worse the game is going and the more trouble they are having running the ball like against the Bucs.
Wk 1 - NYG: 15/54 27.7%
Wk 2 - Sea: 29/56 52%
Wk 3 - TB: 34/63 54%
2012 Season Total: 78/173 45%
2011 Total - 445/1012 43.9%
Here is the breakdown by groupings:
Before you study the data below, I would recommend that if the numbers for the groupings are unfamiliar, that you spend some time reading a more expanded definition of the Personnel Groupings here.
A few things of note here, including another week of not being able to handle your business in the all-important under-center running game. All non-shotgun runs were pretty useless aside from DeMarco's TD run. Beyond that, the Cowboys ran into wall after wall and gained a total of 24 yards of 16 different under center running plays (Including the touchdown!).
That means that in the last 2 weeks, the Cowboys have called the under-center runs 30 different times for just 73 yards. That is not play-calling that is hurting this team right now, it is the inability to get your running back a shred of space.
Meanwhile, the Shotgun 11 group is as inefficient as they have been in a long time. 30 plays to get 144 yards out of shotgun where yards are often easily conceded underneath is just as depressing. Less than 5 yards a play from Shotgun? Historical lows in all categories.
As for wrinkles, we wrote this last week:
22 personnel has had 11 snaps this season and 11 runs. That is telling us that they are 100% run out of a grouping that never is 80/20 run usually. They have some pass out of 22 up their sleeve for down the road. Look for that.
Well, just as we expected, they were trying to tell their opponents that they only run out of "22", but we know that isn't true. On Sunday against Tampa, they rolled "22" out on 6 occasions and threw plenty of play action passes. This is their way of getting Dez Bryant cooking, as he is the lone WR in "22" on a pretty regular basis. They put both TE's to one side and then run him in a route on the weak side - usually his bread and butter, the 15 yard "Dig" route. They hit on this route twice for his 2 biggest gainers of the day and this is a wonderful mess to put the defense in, because they want to double team Dez. But, if they do so when the Cowboys are in "22", then the defense is a bit weak to stop the run to the strong side.
Nice adjustment by the coaching staff, and one I expect they will use frequently this season as teams try to figure out how to slow that down now that it is on film.
Totals by Personnel Groups:
One of the easier ways to decipher 3rd Down numbers is to see how your success rate is affected by the yards to go. This Tampa game is quite revealing as they had 3rd Down and 7 or less on 7 different occasions and they converted 5 of them. Then, they had 3rd Down and 8 or more on 9 more occasions and converted none of them - throwing an interception in the process on 3rd and 15. League wide, 3rd Down and 10 or more to go is historically horrendous (19% conversion rate in 2011), so this should not surprise us. Dallas actually converted 25% of 3rd and longs in 2011 which ranked 4th in the league behind New Orleans, Pittsburgh, and Carolina. But, it is no way to make a living when 25% is actually really good.
Totals by Personnel Groups on 3rd/4th Down:
Precision and high point totals are important and the ultimate goal for the offense. But, sometimes, they take a back seat to simply trying to keep your Quarterback off the injured list.
It is clear that offensive line problems are not just being felt locally. Of the NFC contenders, it appears Atlanta and San Francisco are ok, but Philadelphia, Green Bay, Chicago, New York, Detroit, and even New Orleans are having trouble protecting their passer as well.
But, their problems are of small consolation when you see your QB being tossed around as if he was in a car accident between Gerald McCoy and Adrian Clayborn. The running game is non-existent despite having a significant weapon at running back for the first time since Emmitt Smith.
Chicago will present another fantastic test for an offense that just hopes to break the 300-yard barrier again before it sets its goals back to the 400 yards it is used to rolling up under normal circumstances.