Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Decoding Callahan - Week 8 - At Detroit

There has been significant talk out of the Detroit game about the utilization of the Cowboys most important offensive weapon, Dez Bryant, after he tied his season low for targets in a game with just 6 at Ford Field.  It sure seemed that Detroit entered the game with a very logical defensive premise that the Cowboys should be getting used to by now.  Double team Bryant with a press corner in his face who takes away any quick throws and then falls back into inside leverage that takes away Bryant's deep-in (Dig) and always with a safety over the top.

Why certain teams do not employ this strategy is beyond me, as single-teaming Bryant, even with someone like Brandon Flowers or DeAngelo Hall seems like it will eventually burn you badly.  But, you have to ask yourself that if you were playing the Cowboys, what would be your #1 priority?  

Would it be to bring a safety up to stop the vaunted Cowboys rushing attack or would it be to stop Bryant by dedicating any resources to him on most plays - and especially all of the vital ones?  Of course, it would be to do what you can against 88, which is easier in the field of play and more complicated in the redzone, as Bryant demonstrates each week.

When the opponent can do this and supplement it with strong pressure up front, the Cowboys then have to make the opponent pay with others.  This leads us to the constant pounding of the ball in the direction of Terrance Williams, but with only 2 receptions on 10 targets, the Cowboys were playing right into the hands of Detroit.  It was properly mitigated with the slant that went for 60-yards in the 4th Quarter, but for the most part, Romo to Williams was not working out - and the pressure from Detroit's front was forcing Romo to get the ball out quick or to face Nick Fairley from very close quarters on the turf.  

Regardless, a check of the targets by game still ensure those who are angry that the "Cowboys don't use Bryant enough" or that they "aren't creative enough in getting him the ball" are reacting to a very small sample size.  Look at the numbers through 8 games and see that not only is he always getting the ball, but the difference between Bryant's targets and the rest of the offense is growing by the week:

Bryant 8 13 6 9 10 8 16 6 76
Witten 9 8 6 10 10 5 6 2 56
Williams 4 3 0 8 4 2 7 10 38
Austin 12 4 5 DNP DNP 4 3 DNP 28
Beasley DNP DNP 1 3 4 5 7 3 23
Others 16 14 6 7 7 5 7 9 71

This isn't to suggest that there aren't a few spots where Romo needs to trust the protection and get the ball downfield to his playmaker more, but this idea that the team isn't aware of the weapon they have seems a bit crazy to me.  They are designing as sound a strategy as they can, but with no running game to bring up a safety, this gets tricky and the defense is simply taking away your best option to beat them.

The questions become whether or not there is a point where you can use a player enough without being guilty of forcing the ball into coverage.  I would say that overall, the Cowboys have been very good about using him a ton - since Oct 2012 only 7 players have had more balls thrown to them than Dez Bryant in the entire league - and now that the red zone utilization of him has been improved, there is less and less to complain about.  He is averaging over 9.3 targets a game and those who get more than that is a very small class of Calvin Johnson (12.6), Brandon Marshall (11.5), Reggie Wayne (10.6), Wes Welker (10.5), AJ Green (10.2), Andre Johnson (11), and Vincent Jackson (10.4).

Remember, this is not fantasy football and the Cowboys are not trying to force the ball to him to figure out ways to have him set individual records like Detroit was doing with Johnson last December.  They are trying to get down the field in as best a way as possible.  When the defense takes one player out with coverage, they need to make them pay with others.  And with no DeMarco Murray and Miles Austin, this is tougher than it should be, but that isn't because the Cowboys are not aware of Dez Bryant's ability.


Let's stick with the theme of Bryant and this team's offensive frustrations which now have reached a 3rd consecutive week and finally fell into a defeat.  The Cowboys offense has certainly not looked the same since the Denver game and much like Baltimore 2012, we might need to start treating it as the aberration that it was, rather than some level of form that is easy to return to.  This Cowboys before and after that day have had to deal with the idea that their offense is not very strong - all things considered.

They do not sustain drives very well at all.  They sit 26th in the league in 10 play drives and had zero of those on Sunday in Detroit.  And the reason they cannot sustain long drives is that they are 24th in the league in 3rd Down conversion rates.  Understand that they have not ranked in the lower half of the league in years, but this year sit down in 24th with just a 33-93 record this season for a lousy 35.5% on the "money down".  In Detroit it was 3-13, in Philadelphia it was 5-16, and in Kansas City 3-11, and at San Diego it was 3-9.

That means that in the 4 road games, the Cowboys are 14-49 on 3rd Downs!  That ranks 30th in the NFL at 28% when the stadium gets loud and the opposition dials up the blitzes.  You want to know where the biggest issue is for the Cowboys?  Look no further than its inability to deal with pressure and convert 3rd Downs.  By the way, Dez Bryant leads the Cowboys in 3rd Down targets with 19 this season, but only 8 have been converted into 1st Downs.  Bryant is 8-19, Witten 7-16, Williams 3-12, Beasley 5-9, and Miles 2-6.  Only 1 other player has converted a 3rd Down on a pass this season, and that is a swing out to Tanner on Sunday.

Here is one example of how they are a tick off.  My radio pre game show colleague David Newbury brought this 1st Quarter 3rd Down to my attention.  This is 3rd and 8 and the Cowboys are in empty.  This is a great way to unwind the secondary issues, but it requires protection from your line.  If there is something that is disconcerting right now, it is that we don't see Romo waiting in the pocket right now, because he is not getting great protection.  Remember, empty means that it is usually going to be just the offensive line against the Detroit front.  So, if anyone breaks down, there is no help to protect the passer.

The design of the play above is that Hanna will go shallow and Bryant will run an out route beyond the sticks.  If they get the coverage in man, Hanna might be able to beat the LB to the corner, but Detroit runs zone which allows Bryant an opportunity.

Mathis switches to Hanna and the LB (Levy?) and the Safety try to close on Bryant, but this will be a great opportunity down the field.  Trouble is, Nick Fairley is devouring Ronald Leary here (and many other times during the day).  Remember, with 5 vs 4, one of the two guards is going to handle their own business, and with Waters' health issues which saw Bernadeau in plenty, Frederick was doubling Suh to the right much of the day.  And this exposed Leary.

Ball is gone to Hanna here and Fairley is on Romo.  If Romo waits another half-second, can he get the ball to Bryant?  I think so, but then you are getting your QB trucked again by a DT.  So, Romo understands that he needs to pick his spots and in the 1st Quarter take the safer throw to Hanna and hope he can break a tackle.  He cannot.  And it is time to punt.

Again, can Romo keep this play alive and make a better decision or is he understanding that he needs to play 16 games and taking punishment needs to be rare?

So, there you see the quandary.  Empty backfield means that the front 5 have to be perfect and while they are improved, they are not close to elite.  Detroit says, fine, go empty.  Let's see if you can block our front.  And too many times, the clock in Romo's head is getting the ball out quickly.

No playmakers, not enough protection, and Romo perhaps playing too conservatively.  These are issues to sort, because 24th in 3rd Down conversions is not going to cut it.


Starting Field PositionD38
1st Down Run-Pass14-9
2nd Down Avg Distance to Go7.10
2nd Down Run-Pass9-10
3rd Down Avg Distance to Go7.00
3rd/4th Down Run-Pass2-11
3rd Down Conversions3-13, 23%

Lots more 2nd Down running in Detroit, but very little success.


Here are the passing charts to see what was being accomplished on Sunday.  Intern Tim has made some pleasing to the eye charts for us to see.

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.

1ST HALF PASSING CHART -  (Red incomplete, Blue Completion, Yellow TD, Black INT)

Did they take shots?  yes.  Did they find even the slightest success in the 1st half?  Not at all.  

2ND HALF PASSING CHART -  (Red incomplete, Blue Completion, Yellow TD, Black INT)

Dez Bryant Passing Chart -  (Red incomplete, Blue Completion, Yellow TD, Black INT)

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 -

In Detroit, they really wanted to run the ball and open coverage up.  Didn't work, but the idea is sound and the commitment was there as they started drive after drive with a running play and showed faith in the OL.  A season high 9 drives started with a run.

Wk 1 - New York Giants: 5 Run/7 Pass - 42% Run
Wk 2 - Kansas City Chiefs: 3 Run/9 Pass - 25% Run
Wk 3 - St. Louis Rams: 8 Run/2 Pass - 80% Run
Wk 4 - San Diego Chargers: 6 Run/4 Pass - 60% Run
Wk 5 - Denver Broncos: 3 Run/8 Pass - 37% Run
Wk 6 - Washington Redskins: 5 Run/4 Pass - 55% Run
Wk 7 - Philadelphia Eagles: 5 Run/9 Pass - 35% Run
Wk 8 - Detroit Lions: 9 Run/5 Pass - 64% Run

2013 Totals: 78 Drives - 44 Run/48 Pass - 47% Run
* This statistic doesn't count the 1-play kneel down drives.

2011 Total: 181 Drives - 79 Run/102 Pass - 44% Run
2012 Total: 173 Drives - 76 Run/97 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.

Wk 1 - NYG: 44 Shotgun/71 Total Plays - 61.9%
Wk 2 - at KC: 46 Shotgun/60 Total Plays - 76.6%
Wk 3 - STL: 28 Shotgun/59 Total Plays - 47.4%
Wk 4 - at SD: 33 Shotgun/56 Total Plays - 58.9%
Wk 5 - DEN: 39 Shotgun/54 Total Plays - 72.2%
Wk 6 - WASH: 23 Shotgun/50 Total Plays - 46%
Wk 7 - at PHI: 53 Shotgun/73 Total Plays - 72.6%
Wk 8 - at DET: 33 Shotgun/55 Total Plays - 60%

Season Total - 299 Shotgun/478 Total Plays - 62.5%

2011 Total - 445/1012 43.9%
2012 Total - 565/1038 54%

Here is the breakdown by groupings:

And now, a look at the efficiency of each personnel grouping.

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.

OK, below you will see the issues of being "too predictable".  22 plays from under center, 18 runs/4 passes.  33 plays from shotgun, 26 passes/7 runs with several of the runs being scrambles.

Totals by Personnel Groups:

PackagePlays RunYardsRunPass
231-11- -10-0

* - Knee Plays are not counted in play calls.

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


Pass Rushers Against Dallas - 48 pass rush/blitz situations in Week 7:

Wk 1: NY Blitzed 13/49: 26%
Wk 2: KC Blitzed 19/46: 41%
Wk 3: STL Blitzed 10/25: 40%
Wk 4: SD Blitzed 8/41: 19%
Wk 5: DEN Blitzed 10/40 25%
Wk 6: WAS Blitzed 17/31 55%
Wk 7: PHI Blitzed  22/48 46%
Wk 8: DET Blitzed 9/31  29%

Season Blitz rate vs Dallas 108/311: 34.7%

Pass Rushers3 Rush4 Rush5 Rush6 Rush
Short (0-5 Yds To Go)0211
Second Level (5-10 Yds To Go)0611
Open Field (10+ Yds To Go)0000

Pass Rushers3 Rush4 Rush5 Rush6 Rush
Short (0-5 Yds To Go)0400
Second Level (5-10 Yds To Go)0330
Open Field (10+ Yds To Go)0000


11 -
75 -
33 -
4 -
6 -
70 -
29 -
7 -
5 -
38 -
29 -
3 -
1 -
Totals22 -
183 -
91 -
14 -
1 -

Thanks to John Daigle and Tim Krajewski for their work on the charts and graphs.


SUMMARY:  Lots of things at work here that are keeping the Cowboys from efficiency.  You see now how many balls are being juggled in the air by a coaching staff, and very little of it is the simplistic nonsense about "you gotta get Dez the ball!"

There are 11 players who have to carry out their responsibilities and very few are on point at this juncture.  The 3rd Down issue is becoming very problematic and needs to improve, but that is going to require better protection and more faith in the QB to keep a play alive and risk a hit or two that might be unpleasant to sustain.  The running game has to function, but to do so, they are going to need to get DeMarco Murray back and performing.

Detroit showed us something very revealing, which is that a team that hardly ever blitzes decided to blitz as much as they can because the Cowboys do not handle it well.  Yes, they were burned a time or two, but overall, the Lions felt that they were in Romo's face enough to get the entire offense frustrated.

You have to look at the evidence and look ahead.  If you were playing the Cowboys, you would have to bring more and more pressure until the QB decides to hang in there and trust his protection - or burns the opposition on quick throws.  The empty package is getting mixed results.  It is opening up more opportunities in coverage, but it is also making Romo face more pressure.  Nobody knows his injury status or pain threshold, but we are not seeing him stay alive that extra half-tick (especially in these road games) and it is making me wonder where this is heading.

One would hope that the return of his weapons will fix this.  We shall see.  But, I am not sure Minnesota is in a position to test these theories next Sunday.  

1 comment:

Thomas said...

Bob- several studies(Advanced NFL Stats, Jason Lisk are 2 notable) have shown that teams run too often on 1st down even at a league avg of ~47%. There are several reasons to pass more often on 1st down with defenses expecting run more than they should being one. Would like your thoughts on what the Cowboys thought process might have been to run the ball 65% of the time. With the Lions pass rush I was surprised to see the Cowboys ran 65% on 1st down, when the D has to guard against both run and pass. Do the Lions give up more running yards on 1st down vs 2&3rd? Are they better against the pass on 1st down vs 2nd?

Love the blog and thanks in advance.