Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Decoding Linehan: Where Do We Start?

A long time ago, I became interested in the inner-workings of the Cowboys game strategies.  From there, I started studying more and more the Xs and Os of the game.  That led to attempting to understand what the Cowboys do and why they do it.  Sometimes, it enlightens a situation involving this team and sometimes it only leads to more complex questions.

But, in the end, it is now a passion of mine to attempt to decipher what the Cowboys are doing from a strategic standpoint, and then attempting to pass it on to readers who want to join on this journey.

It is not for everyone.  In fact, in this day and age of fantasy football and the red zone channel, it may not be for most.  But, to those who enjoy diving deep on just one team and knowing as much as humanly possible about the Dallas Cowboys, you might just enjoy this trip.

Every week, on Tuesdays most the time, I write a blog entry called "Decoding Linehan".  This, of course, is the next in a long line of "Decoding Garrett" from 2008-2012 and "Decoding Callahan" in 2013.  On there, we track all sorts of offensive items that aren't generally found in the box score.

We elaborate on what worked, what didn't, and what this may tell us about their next battles.  In a sense, we attempt to review and predict what their game-plans will be, and then review them carefully as the coaching staff itself does on a weekly basis.

That said, our level of detail can't get so deep that only football nerds understand it.  So, it is my goal every year to track things that are easily consumed for the passionate, and not too intimidating for the newcomers to join in.

Feedback is very helpful, so that I can make sure to elaborate on points that need it from a reader's standpoint, so feel free to drop me a message at any point.


To begin, let's discuss how we got here.  Below, please examine the NFL run/pass splits compared to the Dallas Cowboys run/pass splits over the last 6 seasons.  As you can see, the NFL is not even close to 50/50 anymore.  In fact 45% run/55% pass is rather dated.  We are now clearly into the average NFL offense considering 42% run/58% pass to be the new normal.

Compare that to the 35%/65% views of the 2012 and 2013 Dallas Cowboys:

If you can make it work, then great.  If you think the offense needs to be even better than 2013 (which I do and you can read many explanations on that in my August breakdowns of the offense in the archives), then we have to hope that their claims of being a more physical, under-center team are not just words.

Next, here is a look at the % of plays in shotgun.  Now, before we get all carried away here, please know that every system is different.  Personally, I don't think Romo/Garrett have shown that they are more efficient and productive in the shotgun - thus I cringe when they run it to the exclusion of everything else (It invites blitzing and forces a lot of passes into nickel and dime defenses).  However, there are teams that are making it work and Philadelphia was in some level of Shotgun/pistol an absurd 86% of the time.  But, Chip Kelly also ran more on 3rd Down than any team  in the last decade (thanks, Football Outsiders) so whatever you can make work is fine.

Regardless, the Cowboys have moved more and more to standard shotgun, which for them results in a 85% pass split.

Next, we need to know what personnel grouping the Cowboys run the majority of the time.  The chart below can seem confusing (because it kind of is), but just know that you can see the Personnel Groupings on the right with a corresponding color.  The numbers around the pie chart are the percentages each grouping is used.  Yellow is "S11" or "Shotgun 11" Personnel which was run 36.5% of the time out of about 950 plays in 2013.  Purple is "12" and was used 20% of the time.  "S12" was used 11%, with normal "11" used 10% of the time.

Those were the 4 most used personnel groupings in 2013, which is a departure from the last several years where "21" and "22" personnel were used.  However, for the first 12 weeks in 2013, the Cowboys did not employ a Fullback, so there were almost no plays where they had 2 backs in the game at the same time.


If there is one thing we need to look at to better understand how a game of football in the NFL works, it is knowing why personnel groupings matter more than formations or even the plays themselves.

Offensive Groupings are how the defense decides who to put on the field.  After every play, the defensive coaches watch the offense change players and then quickly respond.  If the Cowboys bring on another WR, the Redskins are watching and quickly yell for another corner to run out and replace a LB.  But, if Dallas does the opposite and takes off a WR and puts on a Fullback, then the opposition needs to take a corner off and put a bigger LB out there because they are now feeling a power run coming on.

Formations matter, but a defense has to then adjust with the 11 players already on the field.  When formations are being changed by the offense, the defense cannot swap players, they simply have to match up their 11 as best they can before the snap.  That is why if you can only study personnel or formations, any coach will tell you to concentrate on who is on the field.

Once you do this for a while, you will be able to count in your head as you see the screen and note what the offense is in.  You might even be able to look at the defense and see how the defense has decided to match up.  It is an amazing chess game that goes on before every snap.

Let's show you the Cowboys' favorite 6 groupings.  For the most part, the entire NFL world will roll with these 6:

11 Personnel - 1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR - Under center - The Cowboys almost never used this grouping from 2008-2012, but in 2013 they started using it more and more.  The Broncos almost never run anything besides "11", but most of it is Shotgun 11.  If you look around the league, the modern NFL seems to believe in "11" as they would rather have a 3rd WR in the game than a FB.

12 Personnel - 1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR - Under Center - This is what you have heard so much about.  The Patriots, the 49ers, the Packers, the Saints, and the Cowboys have all tried to make this their diet.  It is the ultimate balanced package both from personnel (the defense has to make a choice between DBs and LBs and the offense then picks the opposite strength) and from formation - if each side of the offense has a TE there is no weak side!

21 Personnel - 2 RB, 1 TE, 2 WR - Under Center - Below is the standard personnel grouping that you grew up watching.  This is also called "regular" as it has always been the default grouping.  Of course, we know that the fullback is a dying breed and there is almost no 2-half backs (Tony Dorsett and Ron Springs!) lined up next to each other anymore.  So, while this is the grandfather of them all in the Super Bowl era, it is now just a change-up.  Most teams want a 2nd TE now over a FB.

22 Personnel - 2 RB, 2 TE, 1 WR - Under Center - This is the new ground and pound grouping that the Cowboys were so good at during the Martellus Bennett/Marion Barber run in 2009 that ended up in the playoffs when they ran this grouping over 200 times in one season.  This declares run to the defense, they bring in extra "bigs" and we have a street fight.  You have power, but they have 9 in the box to stop you.  My favorite idea here is play action over the top to Dez Bryant running in a wide open secondary because everyone is up for the run.

S11 Personnel - 1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR - Shotgun - This is the most run personnel package in the entire NFL now days at it isn't even close.  The Cowboys love it, but their efficiency is not great.  It is the 2-minute offense and the 3rd Down offense, and also the most favored of them all in any situation.  It spreads out a secondary and makes the DBs prove they can cover without a ton of safety help.  The bad side is it reduces your protection options and really encourages blitzing (especially if you aren't great at stopping them).  This is actually also a great running option because the defense is set up for the pass and has few "bigs" in the game.  Especially delayed runs when the DBs all vacate on routes.

S12 Personnel - 1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR - Shotgun - And this is what Jimmy Graham, Rob Gronkowski, Julius Thomas, and other hybrid TE/WR types love.  This is 12 out of the shotgun and may actually make defenses decide to go dime (6 DBs) so that they can cover everyone with a corner and still have 2 safeties.  But, if they do, they are undersized.  The Cowboys drafted Gavin Escobar for this, and still have not figured it out.  But, they have plans and we should see plenty of this in 2014.

Ok, so once you can identify the groups, you are in good shape to understand what the offense is good at and what they are not so good at.  It is far more advanced than saying, "we are a good passing team".  We need to know in what situations are the Cowboys good?  How are defenses adjusting?  Who is winning the match-up game of chess?

Those are the questions we want to answer here every Tuesday.  See if you can learn to look for RBs and TEs on each play and you will have it down.  Each personnel group is named by the total of each.  2 RBs and 1 TE?  21 Personnel.  1 RB and 2 TEs?  12 Personnel.  Easy.


Here are the rankings for the last 3 years on what the Cowboys did most.  We are listing the 4 groups from each of the last 3 seasons that they ran the most often ranked from 1st to 4th.  Then, we list how many times they ran the group for total yardage and then the yards per play (ypp).

Every season has a different number of plays, but 1,000 is about normal.  Also, yards per play are context free, so expect more yards per play from a shotgun situation than from a "Run 1st" situation.  It is nearly impossible to get 7 yards an attempt on the ground, but 7 yards an attempt in the passing game is considered mediocre.

2011 2012 2013
1. S11 Personnel 1. S11 Personnel 1. S11 Personnel
303 - 1733 yds 479 - 3141 yds 345 - 1911 yds
5.71 yds per play 6.55 ypp 5.53 ypp
2. 12 Personnel 2. 12 Personnel 2. 12 Personnel
224 - 1475 yds 143 - 767 yds 190 - 1063 yds
6.58 ypp 5.36 ypp 5.59 ypp
3. 22 Personnel 3. 21 Personnel  3. S12 Personnel
124 - 693 yds 121 - 820 yds 105 - 735 yds
5.59 ypp 6.77 ypp 7.00 ypp
4. S12 Personnel 4. 22 Personnel 4. 11 Personnel
93 - 703 yds 73 - 272 yds 95 - 451 yds
7.55 ypp 3.72 ypp 4.74 ypp
Dallas YPP: 5.91 Dallas YPP: 5.71 Dallas YPP: 5.70
NFL YPP: 5.45 NFL YPP: 5.41 NFL YPP: 5.36

The final 2 lines of the graphic above are the overall "Yards Per Play" for Dallas (overall for all plays) and then the overall NFL YPP to provide some comparison numbers.

And yes, you read that correctly - the average play in the NFL is about 5.4 yards.  That seemed high to me, but it is true.

That is a ton of info, but that is how we roll here.  I hope you can handle it - but as I said at the top, this may not be for every football fan.

Now, we wait to see the Scott Linehan offense on Sunday and then begin to figure out what the changes will be.  It should be fun to see how he plays with these toys.  

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