Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Decoding Callahan: Week 17 - Philadelphia - Trying To Deal With More Blitzes

There are a number of components about the Cowboys offense as we reach the end of 2013 that can be examined as it pertains to a Week 17 winner-take-all matchup with Philadelphia (without their starting QB Tony Romo) that actually falls in line with the 2013 Cowboys that played 15 games before this (that all included their starting QB).

For instance, as we look carefully at how this offense functioned and accumulated points and yards, it is interesting to note that on 1st Down, the Cowboys ranked #2 in the entire league for efficiency.  This means, that on 1st Downs, they had what are called "successful plays" (4 yards or more) over 53% of the time.  Only New Orleans (53.6%) was slightly better and the rest of the league was worse.  The league averaged 46% and playoff teams for 2013 averaged 48%.  1st Down - a down which we would argue is easily the Cowboys most balanced (which might be arguing the tallest dwarf) - is a down they were quite successful at, even more so than Denver.

On 2nd down, you might be surprised to learn that the Cowboys are again ranked #2 in the entire NFL.  This time, the Denver Broncos were the one team in all of football that ranked higher, as Peyton Manning's offense converted 2nd downs into new 1st downs on 41.2% of occasions.  The Cowboys were right there, though, with 36.7, where a league average is 31.2% and a team like the Baltimore Ravens sits 32nd at a pitiful 23%.

So, let's think about this for a moment.  In a season where the Cowboys were 2nd in the entire NFL on 1st down and 2nd in the entire NFL on 2nd Downs, they still were near the bottom of the league in 10-play drives (29th), plays per scoring drive (29th), rushes + completions (29th), and maybe most notably, finished below league average in yards per game with just 341 yards per contest (the league averages 348 and playoff teams are at 377).  How can this make sense?  How can they do so well in early downs and distances, and yet underperform as an offense overall?

Well, you likely already know.  Behold, 3rd Downs.

We have spent a lot of time on 3rd Downs this season, but, since it is commonly referred to as the "money" down in this sport, we must focus yet again.  Because no matter how much time the Cowboys spent on it, they never really seemed to figure it out.

3rd Down is where you see the primary blitz looks.  Yes, teams mix it up, but on early downs it is an ambush.  On 3rd Down, it is telegraphed.  There is no ambush.  They break the defensive huddle and then line 7 across the line of scrimmage right in the QBs face.  According to our numbers, here is how blitzing broke down across the 3 downs:

1st Down: Cowboys faced 29% blitzes
2nd Down: Cowboys faced 31% blitzes
3rd Down: Cowboys faced 44% blitzes

As you might expect, once you break it down by down and distance, it shoots up again.  3rd and long is now facing blitzes over 60% of the time.  And as the season went along, they increased.

For the season, the Cowboys faced blitzes on 34% of all occasions, but in December, it shot up to 43%, including Green Bay and Philadelphia both bringing 20+ different blitzes.  You could say the Eagles were blitzing Kyle Orton more because he is the backup, until you see that they blitzed Romo almost the same amount in Philadelphia in Week 7.

So, even though I figure you know the answers already, how did the Cowboys handle all of this pressure?  Yet another 3-11 day on 3rd Downs.  This locks their season performance in at 35% and ranked 25th in the NFL, tied with the juggernaut offensive attacks in Cleveland, Oakland, and Miami.  That means there are actually 6 offenses in football who do worse on 3rd Down, but stop me when you see a great offense on this list:  Kansas City, St Louis, Buffalo, New York Giants, Tampa Bay, and Jacksonville.  Of the teams on this list of 10, you can see that only Kansas City figured out a way to fail at this metric and still continue their season into January.

Before we assume that there is more to this than blitz handling by the Cowboys, we should make sure it isn't 3rd and short that is hurting them.  But on 3rd and less than 5, the Cowboys are up in the top half of the league on pretty much each distance.  There is nothing abnormal about their ability to pick up 3rd and short or even 3rd and manageable.

But, 3rd and 6-9 to go?  The Cowboys are 27th at 29.8% in a league where 35.7 is average and 38% is playoff average.  And then 3rd and 10+ Dallas is at 17% where the league is at 19% and the playoff teams are at 20%.

These are small margins, but as you think about it, consider that you won't see full-out blitzing on 3rd and 3.  But, 3rd and 8?  Yes, sir.  Dial it up again.

This was the theme constantly on Sunday night.  Get the Cowboys into 3rd and 6+, unleash the hounds, and know that Orton is going to get the ball out to avoid a crucial sack.  But, this smart, conservative approach is what beat the Cowboys on Sunday.  They were not able to put enough drives together because they couldn't stay out of 3rd and long.  When the blitz is coming, Orton hits the safe outlet.  No trouble, yes.  But, also, not success.  And when Witten or Murray are 7 yards short of the sticks, on comes the punt team or Dan Bailey again.

In many ways, it is the story of the season, and perhaps the Cowboys offense in this era with Tony Romo and Jason Garrett at the helm.  And this is also why judging your pass protection on sacks conceded can be very dangerous and misleading.  The object of the game for an offense is not to avoid sacks, it is to score points.  But, you can see the issues here.  Beating the blitz is only done if you make them pay by punishing them with yards and points.  If you are going to throw a 1-yard horizontal pass to avoid a blitz and thus concede to a punt, you are only encouraging them to do it again and again.  Which the Eagles were happy to accommodate.

Let's look at some examples here - Warning: these may all look like the same play - they are not.

Here is the one right before halftime.  3rd and 10 and the Eagles blitz 7.  The idea is that Beasley will be open because the single-high safety is actually responsible for him and will have to make a tackle before the sticks if Orton finds him, but Orton is just avoiding the sack and playing for a field goal.  Safety first were his orders and he wasn't going to lose points at this critical juncture.  

This is the one shot that had a chance.  Early 3rd, 3rd and 8, and Orton is ready for the blitz and will try to give Dez a chance.  He does, but young Boykin does a nice job of challenging an off-balance Bryant for the ball.  This is exactly the way to beat the blitz, but you wonder if Orton could have thrown a more direct back shoulder fade (which would have required a better stance to throw before the free rusher gets to him) might have been the throw here.  Eagles blitz 6.

This was after the turnover and the Cowboys had the ball at the 20.  They simply must get 7 here and on 3rd and 9, here comes a 5-man fire zone blitz with the opposite edge rusher (98-Barwin) falling back into the flat to deal with Murray.  Orton thought Barwin was coming and then Murray had a chance.  But, with Barwin watching DeMarco, this never had a chance.  Another demoralizing Field Goal.

And then this one.  6 man blitz, man to man everywhere.  But, Orton sees the safety coming through the A-gap untouched (23-Chung) and unloads quickly to Witten who just never had much of a chance to lose his tackler, Brandon Graham.  The Eagles have learned that if you run at Orton, he seldom will look to the sticks, but quickly check down and get the ball out.  This is likely how you want a QB to play conservatively in a situation like this, but it certainly encourages the defense to turn the heat up even hotter.

They did burn the blitz later on the 4th down to Dez, but as you can see, this was a real theme in the game and frankly, for the season.


Starting Field PositionD30
1st Down Run-Pass9-22
2nd Down Avg Distance to Go7.60
2nd Down Run-Pass7-13
3rd Down Avg Distance to Go6.81
3rd/4th Down Run-Pass2-11
3rd Down Conversions3-11, 27%


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)

Orton took a few shots, but mostly down to his right (his frontside).  This is pretty common.

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

Orton's 2nd half tells a story of the completions all being very short and mostly painless to the Eagles.  30 completions for the game, but in the 2nd half, only 1 beyond 10 yards down the field.  

Jason Witten Passing Chart -  (Red incomplete, Blue Completion, Yellow TD, Black INT)

On passes just to Witten, here are the results.  You can see those short and to the right leak-outs against pressure.

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 - 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
Wk 9 - Minnesota Vikings: 2 Run/8 Pass - 20% Run
Wk 10 - New Orleans Saints: 6 Run/5 Pass - 54% Run
Wk 12 - New York Giants: 6 Run/5 Pass - 54% Run
Wk 13 - Oakland Raiders: 7 Run/3 Pass - 70% Run
Wk 14 - Chicago Bears: 5 Run/3 Pass - 62% Run
Wk 15 - Green Bay Packers: 4 Run/8 Pass - 33.3% Run
Wk 16 - Washington Redskins: 6 Run/4 Pass - 60% Run
Wk 17 - Philadelphia Eagles: 4 Run/8 Pass - 33% Run

2013 Totals: 176 Drives - 84 Run/92 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.

Interesting number, 566 shotgun snaps eclipses the 2012 mark of 565, but in 93 fewer plays!  Under center?  Shrinking every year, to my dismay.

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%
Wk 9 - MIN: 50 Shotgun/63 Total Plays - 79.3%
Wk 10 - at NO: 27 Shotgun/43 Total Plays - 62.3%
Wk 12 - at NYG: 32 Shotgun/60 Total Plays - 53.3%
Wk 13 - OAK: 33 Shotgun/63 Total Plays - 52.3%
Wk 14 - at CHI: 22 Shotgun/54 Total Plays - 40.7%
Wk 15 - GB: 35 Shotgun/69 Total Plays - 50.7%
Wk 16 - at WASH: 25 Shotgun/51 Total Plays - 49.1%
Wk 17 - PHI: 43 Shotgun/64 Total Plays - 67.1%

Season Total - 566 Shotgun/945 Total Plays - 59.8%

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.

Totals by Personnel Groups:

PackagePlays RunYardsRunPass

* - Knee Plays are not counted in play calls.

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


Pass Rushers Against Dallas - 46 Pass Situations vs Philadephia

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%
Wk 9: MIN Blitzed 9/54  17%
Wk 10: NO Blitzed 3/27  11%
Wk 12: NYG Blitzed 10/43 23%
Wk 13: OAK Blitzed 16/33 48%
Wk 14: CHI Blitzed 11/27 41%
Wk 15: GB Blitzed 20/51 39%
Wk 16: WASH Blitzed 9/24 41%
Wk 17: PHI Blitzed 24/46 52%

Season Blitz rate vs Dallas 210/616: 34%

Pass Rushers3 Rush4 Rush5 Rush6 Rush
Short (0-5 Yds To Go)0000
Second Level (5-10 Yds To Go)2991
Open Field (10+ Yds To Go)0010

Pass Rushers3 Rush4 Rush5 Rush6 Rush
Short (0-5 Yds To Go)0320
Second Level (5-10 Yds To Go)0530
Open Field (10+ Yds To Go)0001

Pass Rushers3 Rush4 Rush5 Rush6 Rush
Short (0-5 Yds To Go)0200
Second Level (5-10 Yds To Go)0032
Open Field (10+ Yds To Go)0010

7 Rush (1) - Second Level

Pass Rushers3 Rush4 Rush5 Rush6 Rush
Short (0-5 Yds To Go)0100
Second Level (5-10 Yds To Go)0000
Open Field (10+ Yds To Go)0000

7 Rush (1) - Second Level


15 -
164 -
64 -
8 -
1 -
11 -
132 -
56 -
12 -
10 -
75 -
54 -
9 -
2 -
02 -
1 -
1 -
1 -
Totals36 -
373 -
175 -
30 -
4 -

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


SUMMARY:  Next week, we will begin to sort through the season numbers by personnel groupings. But, surely, the objective going forward if we assume that the offense will stay the same is combining the things this offense is good at - and yes, I believe that the numbers continue to show that this offense is good at balanced offense.  They did very well this season at running the football from under center and mixing pass and runs.

They must combine those attributes with things that must be improved upon from the category of "things they are not so good at" which to me, starts and stops with 3rd Downs.  If we are to judge elite QBs with who can make their team move the chains the most, then the Cowboys need to figure out ways to put Tony Romo up in the class of the elite in this situation.

In many cases, the blitz is a self-fulfilling prophecy, in that the teams that face them the most are teams that do not deal with them well.  The more you fail, the more it comes - conversely, the more you burn it - Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, and Tom Brady (when he had Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski) face far fewer blitzes - the less you see.

The real question now turns to Romo's health.  If I was playing the Cowboys, I would be considering a QB who has shown that he is attempting to avoid contact to preserve his aching body.  This is not a compassionate league that sympathizes with a situation like this. Instead, it targets it.  And therefore, a Romo who is trying to preserve his health may be making the wise decision for the big picture, but inviting even more pressure when he returns.

And that is why that this should be objective #1 moving forward.  Even though this team did a nice job this season on 1st and 2nd down of staying out of 3rd and long, every team is going to have several a game they have to convert.  How is that going to change in 2014?

No rocks should be left unturned on this topic.


trying2notbestupid said...

New offensive philosophy needed! Fresh set of eyes and approach- Cowboys need to admit their offense has become wildly inconsistent and inefficient - stale even. New OC would be number 1 on my list - then draft dline and safety.

Cam Farrally said...

First, AWESOME post. 2nd, I have a pet theory that romos back inury originally occurred in the 2nd NYG game when he got sandwiched by two giants, and that the injury affected his ability to throw accurately in the vertical game. I dont have access to the game film, but would love to see some charts of romo's throws throughout the season similar to what you've done for orton here. Is that possible? :)

Cam Farrally said...

First, AWESOME post. 2nd, I have a pet theory that romos back inury originally occurred in the 2nd NYG game when he got sandwiched by two giants, and that the injury affected his ability to throw accurately in the vertical game. I dont have access to the game film, but would love to see some charts of romo's throws throughout the season similar to what you've done for orton here. Is that possible? :)