Friday, December 13, 2013

Defending Dez Week 14 - at CHI

Our weekly look at how the Cowboys took advantage (or, often, didn’t take advantage) of their best offensive weaponThe whole series can be found here.

Another shot at a "statement" game for this Dallas Cowboys team, another dysfunctional and frustrating outing that keeps them living right on the margins where they seem to always find themselves. Week 14 at Chicago was another week where the Cowboys offense was going to have to exhibit that they were, overall, the strongest unit among the two teams. Another week where Romo and Co. would have to prey on a below average defense, making enough plays to minimize the effects of having a half-practice squad defense of their own. And it was another week where they left us wanting, while Chicago's offense was busy putting on a clinic just to make sure you knew the weather couldn't be used as a full explanation for their ineptness.

Clearly, the collection of Cowboys on the field when the Dallas offense and special teams are not are approaching historically bad levels, regardless of era-adjustments. They are allowing opponents to run the sixth most plays per game, and this has a direct impact on the flow and functionality of the Cowboys offense. They essentially had seven drives in this game (before getting the ball with 3:41 to play down 45-21); league average is around 11 per game. Add it all up, and they are getting off the fewest snaps per game in the league. Certainly, a large part of that is the defense's inability to get stops and get off the field (28th in opponent 3rd down conversion %). But the offense's own underperformance on the money down is certainly not helping matters in this regard (underperforming at stick moving time in their own right, at 20th in the NFL.

A defense that (when not forcing turnovers at an unsustainable rate) doesn't have a chance of getting you the ball back without the score changing, and an offense that plays it's worse football on 3rd down. A head coach who is trying to set records for a low-risk approach to fourth down conversion attempts (we'll get to this last part later). Pretty, pretty, pretty good.

And to make matters worse, it was another week where we saw opposing receivers of relative elite/near-elite status dominate the contest, while Dez Bryant had essentially zero impact. He had just four targets, his second lowest total of the season. His season low was two in the New Orleans massacre. I concluded my post after that game with this:

What I know is this: if the Cowboys are going to win this division and get to the postseason, they cannot afford another game in which their best player has no impact. 

Welp. I'd rate Bryant's "lack of impact" in Chicago right alongside his night in New Orleans. The Cowboys were able to run the ball effectively against the Bears, which sometimes is the result of committing to shut Dez down, but I don't think that was the case here. I just think the Bears are terrible against the run, and the Cowboys offensive line/DeMarco Murray performed well in that area. We can see this reflected in our route/coverage data below.


RouteAgainst HelpTargetsComp.Yards
10-12 Yd. Stop1000
5-7 Yd. Stop11110
Screen Block/Clearout2000



RouteAgainst No HelpTargetsComp.Yards
Back Shoulder Fade1112 (TD)

9312 (TD)

The first thing that jumps out, obviously, is the crazy low number of pass attempts Dallas had. Again, they didn't have the ball much, and the ground game was a viable option, which explains a good deal of that. But when Dez is only seeing safety help on 57% of his routes? There's no other way to put it: it's unacceptable. In two matchups with the Bears this season, Calvin Johnson was targeted 10 and then 14 times. His yards totals in that game are not very impressive…until you compare them with the 12 Bryant had in this game. Obviously, Dez is not Megatron. But the point stands.

I've crowed for two seasons now about moving Bryant around in formations if you are having that hard of a time getting him open from the X or Z spots. Dallas has done this in flashes and been very effective with it, but apparently this wasn't the week for that, as Bryant ran just one of his 21 routes from the slot. At this point, I must concede I really don't have an answer for why they aren't trying this more. I really would love to know.

We will take a look at a couple of missed connections that illustrate the issues the offense had Monday night shortly, but first, I do want to look at one interesting positive I saw early in the game. This doesn't really have anything to do with Dez, but I want to point it out anyways.

1st Q - 10:22 - 3 & 3 - CHI 25

On the opening drive of the game, Dallas was methodically moving the ball downfield, largely relying on the ground game. But facing a 3rd and 3, the Cowboys decided to go to the air. This has typically been Jason Witten option route time, but here we see a look from the offense I don't recall ever seeing them use. DeMarco Murray is in the left slot next to Dez, and in the backfield it's…Cole Beasley? Beasley has really impressed me this season, and I hope he's impressed the coaches enough to be considered a strong option for the WR3 role next season when Miles is gone. Since Austin's return, Beasley has seen 9, 10, and 12 snaps, respectively.

Here we see him running and angle route and going up to get a high throw to move the sticks. Putting him in the backfield is essentially the same as going empty as far as pass protection goes, because he's never going to block anyone. But it does leverage his skill set well because a) he'll almost certainly be covered by an LB (at least initially), and b) it puts him in the same area of the field he would likely work from the slot anyways. The end zone view is below.

Ok, now on to our namesake. As we've said before, sometimes it seems like the Cowboys offense is too quick to consider Dez "taken out of the play" by particular types of coverage. And sometimes, it is apparent that getting the ball to Dez would take a risky and difficult throw that Romo seems less and less interested each week. One such example is below.

2nd Q - 2:10  - 2nd & 10 - DAL 39

Trailing 17-14, Dallas is now trying to throw their way down the field to set up a score before the half. You may remember this as the first of two plays where Romo looked disgusted with DeMarco Murray. 

The Bears only bring four, and the protection is decent enough. Dez is split out to the left, at the bottom of the image. There is a safety over the top of Dez, but he runs a deep dig that still breaks well in front of the retreating deep man. There is a linebacker dropping into vicinity the throwing lane that Romo would have to use to hit Bryant. However, that backer is being held by Murray's route. I think if Romo holds this ball a split-second longer and steps into the throw, he could have hit Bryant for a big gainer. Again, a risky throw, and a pocket that would have likely become precarious by the time the throw was released. But when your defense looks several limbs short due to frostbite, it might be time to up the risk factor. 

And speaking of treating risk like a disease, we go now to the moment where I considered the game lost from the Cowboys perspective. After holding the Bears to a field goal on the opening drive of the second half (a success by the standards of this game) to go down 27-14, Dwayne Harris gave the team some life by returning the kickoff into Chicago territory. 

3rd Q - 12:07 - 3rd & 4 - CHI 41

Dez is split out to the left at the top of the image. He runs a deep dig, which was probably his third or fourth read in this progression. It appears he wants to go to Witten first, who is pretty well covered. The ball he ends up trying to deliver to Bryant is obviously off target, but Dez didn't do him any favors as far as adjusting his route. Also, it seems a pre snap sight adjustment could have been made to get Bryant on shorter slant route, but that is probably hindsight nitpicking. 

Perhaps the bigger mistake on this play (and again, it would've taken a really tough throw) was not noticing Miles Austin getting a step on his man in the right slot on the out route. In any case, the ball sailed incomplete, brining up 4th and 4. Now, I concede that I am from a generation of football fans whose beliefs on fourth down conversion viability are fare more aggressiveness than the current conventional wisdom. But I don't know how anyone could possibly disagree with the wisdom of going for it here. You can read more about the math behind this here, but suffice to say, this decision showed a supreme lack of confidence in the Cowboys offense. Maybe they hadn't been great up to that point, but they had been good enough to take a chance here in my opinion and I would think in everyone's opinion except the head coach of this team. 

A head coach, by the way, that is in on pace for a historically conservative year with regard to fourth down conversion attempts. When the Cowboys did eventually attempt a fourth down conversion on the next drive (when they were down 21 rather than a manageable 13), it was the first time they had attempted a conversion all season. That's the longest a team has ever gone into a season before attempting a conversion since the stat has been tracked (1980), Mike Tirico pointed out. And it's not like 4th and 9 down 21 in the waning seconds of the third quarter is exactly an "aggressive" play; it's a desperate one. Again, the offense may not be in top perform, but they're in better shape than the defense, and this team will have to be able to rely that unit to win games down the stretch. It seems that Jason Garrett is increasingly failing to put them in situations to do so. 

Again, with regard to Dez, the excerpt following the New Orleans game:

What I know is this: if the Cowboys are going to win this division and get to the postseason, they cannot afford another game in which their best player has no impact. 

With three to play, they clearly have a healthy chance to get into the postseason despite another loss in which Dez was a non-factor. However, I do think at this point they will need one game from him in the remaining three where he essentially takes the game over. It remains to be seen whether or not those who dictate how, and how much, he is involved are able to put him position to do so.

1 comment:

Thomas said...

This game was a replay of the Saints nightmare in so many ways. Success running the ball early, no defense, Lee hurt and no plan to use Dez. I get the Bears are easy to run against but I still don't understand why they tried to copy the plan from the Saints game. Heavy doses of running with a weak defense is not going to win many games, especially against teams that are very good at passing. It limits the number of offensive drives and places greater emphasis on defensive stops, the exact opposite of the Cowboys strength. If the running game stumbles then you are forced to abandon the game plan. This allows the defense to start blitzing more because you have to move into pass only mode. I don’t think it coincidence the Cowboys looked for pass first vs. Denver at home and went to run first on the road vs. the Saints and Bears. You can argue that Denver has the worst pass defense of the three but I suspect the Cowboys m.o. of playing more conservatively on the road is just as responsible. The Cowboys have a good SR% when running but they are not a running team. Why not play N.O. and Chicago with a posture similar to Denver but mix in more runs?