Saturday, November 10, 2012

Eagles Preview and Emails

The Cowboys play the Eagles in a desperation game on Sunday and there is no question that both teams are in a real similar spot.  I assume everyone has hashed and rehashed all of the Michael Vick/Andy Reid narratives up against the Jason Garrett/Tony Romo types and have noted how similar the season has been in both cities.

High expectations and low performances bring the two teams together on the field on Sunday afternoon.  Odds are pretty good that both teams are in very bad shape moving forward in an attempt to find the postseason, however, it should be noted that both teams have an extremely manageable schedule heading in.  Part of the reason for that is that they get to play 2 games against each-other in this equation, and if either team can sweep, then they have a real opportunity to rise up at the other's expense.

It has certainly been well documented as to why the Eagles offense is poor.  Like Dallas, their offensive line is in shambles.  However, unlike Dallas, it is due largely to losing good players to injury.  Jason Peters, Jason Kelce, Evan Mathis, and Todd Herremans are all strong offensive linemen.  Peters has played 0 snaps, Kelce was lost in Week 2.  Herremans was just lost for the year in New Orleans on Monday night, leaving Mathis and a bunch of replacements.  And it is going very, very poorly.  The Cowboys disappointing offensive line is actually much more disconcerting in the big picture since the Cowboys offensive line has received relatively strong health outside of the Phil Costa injuries that have been here pretty much all year long.

But, what has really been interesting and disappointing in Philadelphia has been their defense.  They continue to struggle since the passing of the legend Jim Johnson.  There is no question during his reign in Philadelphia that they had one of the more menacing units in the league.  Blitzing, hits, sacks, and takeaways were something they did better than anyone.

But, now, the theme in Philadelphia is that their defense is pretty embarrassing.  In fact, if you read this story, they don't pull many punches.

The Eagles’ defense is a collaboration of soft, overpaid, uninspired sissies who purposely avoid contact and expect to win games solely on reputation.
Those aren’t the rants of a critical beat reporter, a cynical fan or any one person who plays for an NFC East rival. 
It’s the reputation cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie said that he and his teammates have been saddled with around the NFL and it surfaces in not only what he’s hearing but also how opposing teams game plan against them. 
“Everybody looks at us as a pretty defense,” Rodgers-Cromartie said after Thursday’s practice, “[and that] guys don’t want to be physical. We’ve got to go up there and make a name for ourselves.”
What I find most amazing is their very weak pass rush.  From 2008-2011, no organization in football has more sacks than the Eagles and their 181 - they are tied with Pittsburgh - and they consistently bring the pain to the opposing QB.

But, this season, you must scroll down to 46th place in the NFL to find the best Eagles sack man, Jason Babin with just 3.5 sacks after 18 last year.  Trent Cole?  He sits in 120th place in sacks with 1.5 so far.  That is a far cry from his spot in double digits every year.

Those 2 alone give the Cowboys' tackles fits every year.  But, this year, the Eagles to this point sit 31st in a 32 team league for sacks.  With 11, they are in front of only Jacksonville and maybe no statistic in the NFL is more unlikely than that.  The Eagles front of Cole, Babin, Cullen Jenkins, and Fletcher Cox looked about as difficult to deal with in preseason as the Giants' front.  But, the results have been shockingly different.

They have had plenty of coaching chaos, with the firing of defensive coordinator Juan Castillo just a few weeks ago, but the defense has not had quite the ready-made excuses of health to account for their poor performances.  It is impossible to assume that Doug Free and Tyron Smith will continue to make the Eagles sputter, but to this point in the season, Cole and Babin have not been acting like themselves.


Before we get to your emails (that I concede have been stacking up a bit recently), I wanted to draw your attention to one other item that is certainly worth discussing, but it might have to wait to be properly broken down in depth from a Cowboys perspective.

It is a study about which teams are getting plays from their 2012 draft class and which teams are not.  The Cowboys are pleased with Morris Claiborne and that selection, but have received almost no immediate help from any of their other picks.

Offensively, the Cowboys have received 70 snaps from rookies - mostly Cole Beasley and James Hanna.  Defensively, it has been much better with over 550, but 449 of those are from Claiborne, who the Cowboys paid dearly to get.

Other than that, it was about 100 from Tyrone Crawford with no remarkable results, 5 from Kyle Wilber, and that is it.

So what happened to the draft that seemed promising in April, May, and June?  And are we allowed to start wondering if it was a total bust?

It is way too early for that, but the fact that they needed to hit on a few players and found almost no immediate help is not something to be pleased about.

You would think that teams who play rookies a ton are generally teams that aren't very good.  But, New England and Green Bay have played more rookies' snaps on defense this season than anyone.  Of course, they also were putrid defenses in 2011 and wanted to get a lot of players to fix their situations as best they could.

But for Dallas, a team that had a ton of holes to fill, to only get Claiborne to be a big contributor on either side of the ball is certainly not great news.  I was hoping by now that Matt Johnson or Wilber or Danny Coale would have become a big part of this thing.  But, none of them have come close to even getting in the mix yet, and Danny Coale isn't even on the roster.  The Cowboys 5th rounder sits on the practice squad and waits for someone to call.

They need more from this draft class, but many of these guys don't look like they will offer much before 2013.


Let's start the email bag with a few questions about how we keep our numbers for Decoding Garrett and some of our other football studies.

From Ryan O'Conner  on Twitter:

if a TE is lined up wide, is he considered a WR or TE? As in personnel groupings?
Thanks, Ryan.

This is a fine question.  Basically, he is asking how we label a personnel grouping if there is a player who has versatility.  For instance, Rob Gronkowski could line up as a WR, RB, or TE.  He is a Tight End, but perhaps he is not always a tight end.  How do we label him or designate him?

Well, the answer is actually quite interesting.  In game plan meetings, the coaching staff will designate each player a position.  They don't print a roster of the internet.  They actually consider the player and ask the room of coaches, "How are we going to cover this guy?"  This clearly can be tricky, because a player can switch spots in a formation and cause all types of problems.

I am asked frequently why we don't track formations like we do groupings.  Well, there is a good reason - and it is based on real coaching and football strategy.  Personnel Groupings are changes in players between plays that can then be called out and matched by the defense.  You bring on a 2nd tight end?  Well, then we are bringing on another linebacker to handle that change.  But, formations can be altered during the snap count.  They can go in motion and move guys around and there is no amount of personnel changes that can still happen by the defense.  Once the huddle breaks, it is difficult to switch players.  The 11 players are the 11 players.  Deployment is important, but it is not as vital often times as player selection for each play.  Usually, a defense is comfortable with your deployment if they believe they have the proper players on the field.  It is often a matter of just matching up your men like you planned all week.

So, we then look at a player like Jason Witten.  How often does he line up attached to the offensive line?  How often is he flexed out?  How often is he in the backfield?  And if he lines up in the backfield, what does he do?  We would take the last 3-4 games and make a reel of all of his snaps in the backfield.  Does he run routes?  Does he lead block?  Does he set up play action?  If he lead blocks plenty, we might label him a Fullback.  But, if he is always flexed out wide, we might consider him a Wide Receiver.  But, if he bounces to all 3 spots, then we better keep him as a "joker" tight end and choose a personnel grouping that is best for all spots.  Then, we can adjust our coverages of Witten based on where he goes most often.

But, we decide how to handle Witten during the week, not during the game (at least, at first).  Then, when they call "12" or "21" personnel, we already know if we are countering with our base defense or switching to nickel because their tight end is basically a 3rd WR.


This from William Hoke Wallace , also on Twitter:
Just curious. When you decode Garrett, how do account for plays originally called but Tony checks out based on pre-snap read?

Another tricky one.  There is no way for us, who are not in nor ever will be in the meetings, to know how to define the nuances between plays called by Garrett and checks from the QB.  We can try to study the presnap routine, but since there are so many decoy or dummy calls, we would never truly know.

But, do know this:  A big part of the Jason Garrett offense is to depend on the QB to decipher how many defenders are in the box and how this should help him decide between the called play and the alternate run that is part of their run/pass option package.

How many of the poor plays are called by Garrett and how many by Romo would only be known by those inside the process.  And both are quite tight lipped about giving out clues on who is responsible for what.  So, it would be horribly inaccurate for any of us to claim we have any idea where this process breaks down.  All we know is who authored the entire system and therefore, ultimately, the responsibility rests with Jason Garrett to either design a system that works or take total control of all calls back.


Here is an email from Brady:

Bob, thank you as always for the best NFL coverage in the world. You've been providing it since long before the all-22 was available.  
I have a question I think maybe only you can answer! Is it just me, or do the Cowboys end up in way too much zone coverage in passing situations? It seems like every week (at least this season, but I remember a few instances last year, too) there are top-notch NFL receivers running against Carter, Sensabaugh, Church, McCray, Sims, etc.!  
I can't count the number of times I've seen the opponents' top wideout catch a pass against a zone coverage that requires a middle linebacker or a safety to cover him. What's the deal here? Is this a bend-don't-break situation?  
I recall maybe three or four passes completed to White and Jones on Sunday night that came with a corner in coverage. The Boys have so much invested in their corners but seemingly won't let them man up. Please help me understand! 
Again, sorry for the repeat message. I'm a diehard Cowboys fan who's usually even-keeled but my blood pressure went through the roof against Atlanta. 
Brady Hunter

First, let's reprint our link for the study we did on the Cowboys zone coverage for all who haven't read it.  I think that will help show what Brady is talking about.

His question is essentially why aren't the Cowboys matching up corners with wide receivers and playing more man coverage.

Great question, because in the offseason, we sure thought that this was going to be the plan.  Spend all your resources on corners who can man up.

But, we haven't seen that. The Cowboys seem to run fewer plays in man coverage and more plays in a 7-man zone than we expected.  Any claim that elite corners were going to solve coverage issues are rendered a bit silly if you can get away from Claiborne and Carr by simply running away from their zones.

Why is this?  Well, as we stated Thursday, this has plenty to do with Sean Lee and Barry Church being lost for the year.  However, that should not make anyone believe that they were planning a season of press coverage this year.

It is honestly a bit of a mystery to me.  Why invest $50 million and a 1st and 2nd rounder to get players that allow you to cover your issues, then put them on the edges of your zones?  It seems if your plan was to play tons of zone coverage, then you invest in pass rushers or offensive linemen.  I am happy to hear someone explain this logic to me, but on the surface, I am confounded by this one.  Of course, this is not the first or last time that the Cowboys' front office issues a mystery.


I count it almost a tradition now to include some weekend fun-facts from Mark Lane on the next Cowboys contest:


 In 14 seasons with the Eagles, Andy Reid has faced the Dallas Cowboys 27 times (including one playoff encounter), which is second behind Joe Gibbs’ record number 32 times (including one playoff game).  
Andy Reid holds a 17-10 record over Dallas, which is the best any division coach has had against Dallas. By comparison, Joe Gibbs had a 16-16 record.  
 Andy Reid is currently the longest tenured coach in the NFL (1999). The second longest tenured NFL coach is Bill Belichick (2000). Among current head coaches, Andy Reid has the second most conference title game appearances with 5 behind Bill Belichick's 6. Tom Coughlin has third most with 4. 
Andy Reid is one of 6 head coaches who has facial hair. The others are Chuck Pagano, Romeo Crennel, Ken Wisenhunt, Mike Tomlin, and Jeff Fisher.  
Among active coaches, Andy Reid has the most assistants in head coaching jobs: Ron Rivera, Leslie Frazier, Pat Shurmur, and John Harbaugh.

In 2009 when the Cowboys beat the Eagles in the NFC Wild Card, Andy Reid joined Mike Holmgren, Ray Rhodes, Rich Kotite, Mike Ditka, Rich McKay, Dick Nolan, Jack Pardee, Leeman Bennett, Bart Starr, Marv Levy, Bill Cowher, Red Miller, and Don Shula as the only head coaches to never defeat the Dallas Cowboys in the postseason.  
3-5 FACTS 
The last time the Dallas Cowboys were 3-5 was 2004. After falling to 3-5, they faced the Philadelphia Eagles on Monday Night Football at home and were soundly defeated 49-21. 
This is the first time the Cowboys and Eagles are both 3-5 and will be facing one another.

The Cowboys have never made the playoffs with a 3-5 record. They have only been 3-5 only five times in their history ('65, '90, '00, '02, '04). 
On average, if the Cowboys are 3-5, they finish the season with 6 wins. The only time the Cowboys have played the Eagles series after falling to 3-5 was in 2004. The Eagles swept the series.  
The Philadelphia Eagles have the league’s longest streak of having an African American quarterback on their active roster. (Randall Cunningham: 1985-1995; Rodney Peete: 1995-1998; Donovan McNabb: 1999-2009; Michael Vick: 2009-present) Meanwhile, the Dallas Cowboys have only had four African American quarterbacks in their history, two of which were Rodney Peete (1994) and Randall Cunningham (2000).  
The Eagles forced the Cowboys to wear their "cursed blues" in the 1980 NFC Championship game in Philadelphia, where the Eagles trumped the Cowboys 20-7. Ever since then, the Eagles have occasionally forced the Cowboys to wear their "cursed blues" However, the Eagles have not done so since 2007, when the Cowboys throttled the Eagles 38-17 in their "cursed blues."  
Cowboys offensive coordinator Bill Callahan and Eagles offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg both coached at Northern Arizona University in 1988. Callahan coached the offensive line while Mornhinweg coached the runningbacks.  
Bill Callahan once coached the Eagles offensive line from 1995-97. Similarly, Eagles defensive coordinator Todd Bowles once coached the Cowboys secondary from 2005-07. 

 Brilliant work, Mark. I think this is stuff that is right up my alley. Enjoy the game, everyone.

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