But, seeing that resilience was something important to witness in 2014. What would the Cowboys do when they would not enjoy offensive success in a game? Would they continue to stick with the plan and the "process" as Jason Garrett likes to say and chip away for an ugly win?
That might be overstating the events of Sunday, because they did roll the yardage up in big numbers. In fact, combining 2013-14 for a sample of 21 games, the 456 yards the Cowboys found against Houston offensively were the 3rd highest total on the list - behind the 522 against Denver and the 466 versus Green Bay. Oddly, for whatever reason, all of their high-yardage games come at home (See: Garrett risk aversion theory) and before this win, they had lost 4 of their highest 6 yardage games of the last 2 seasons.
But, the Cowboys offense made 2 plays on Sunday that you might see on NFL Films for the next generation, both for big yards that led to points, and both converted a frustrating day into a joyous occasion on the way to 4-1.
Every Tuesday morning when I write about the offense, I scan the Cowboys rankings in over 200 categories to see where they rank relative to the other 32 teams. This is a very useful exercise to see what jumps out at you. Well, having done this for several years, I will tell you that I cannot recall an occasion when scanning the rankings that I have not found anything negative about the offense's place in the league.
There are a few: The Cowboys are 2nd to last in fumbles lost with 5 (Philadelphia has 7), Only Philadelphia and Carolina are running for fewer yards per play than the Cowboys on 2nd Down (3.3 yards per), and the team ranks just 27th in Yards After Catch (YAC) with just 359 yards so far. But, for the most part, the Cowboys offense is in the top half of the lead in just about everything, and in the Top 5 or 10 in too many categories to list. Allow me to assure you: this is not common.
Maybe the most significant number that we are seeing is that the Cowboys are #1 in 3rd Down conversions in the entire NFL. 35 conversions on 63 attempts means 55.6% conversions and the top ranking in the NFL. Given that they finished 25th last season with 63-180, 35%, we should all be pretty amazed at what has happened on 3rd Downs.
It certainly starts with staying "ahead of the chains" and already this season, the Cowboys average yards to go on 3rd Down are at the most preferable numbers in years. In a year-to-year comparison on 3rd Downs, we are seeing that they have improved upon the degree of difficulty for each conversion.
|2013 (thru 5 gms)||2014 (thru 5 gms)|
|52 3rd Downs||63 3rd Downs|
|7.4 average yards to go||6.3 average yards to go|
|38.5% conversions (13th)||55.6% conversions (1st)|
To break down what the Cowboys are "doing differently" on 3rd Downs from year to year is pretty difficult due to how much things evolve over the course of a year. The fact is, they don't have a season-long 3rd down trend, as much as it is a process of evolution where they try something for a few weeks, the league's defenses counter, they switch a few things up, and on and on it goes.
But, we are seeing production from certain player on 3rd Down and seeing where Romo likes to go with the ball and how often it is working:
|Dez Bryant||11 - 7, 64%|
|Jason Witten||9 - 7, 77%|
|Cole Beasely||6 - 5, 83%|
|Terrance Williams||7 - 2, 28%|
|Others||7 - 3, 43%|
It is becoming increasingly clear that the 3rd down is clear: 1) make the 3rd Downs easier with better 1st and 2nd downs (running!), 2) don't ask Tony Romo to convert all of your 3rd Downs (running!), and 3) Cole Beasely is a great underneath option to Jason Witten.
Not that Terrance Williams isn't a heck of a player, but if he can run coverage off on a deep pattern, it leaves Witten on one hash mark and Beasley on another. And if they try to man-cover those players, they will lose.
It is a very deadly system the Cowboys are putting into place.
People will tell you that time of possession is all about running the ball, but it is only part of the equation. You must be able to move the chains on the money down. When you do, you get 3 more plays and can run 2 more minutes down. And, the better you are at 3rd Downs, the more conversions you will face as every conversion generally leads to another subsequent attempt.
It remains to be seen whether they will be better all season than the usual suspects at the top of the 3rd Down ladder (New Orleans and San Diego), but the fact that they are in the discussion is massive progress.
A huge part of the game was how the Cowboys attempted to deal with JJ Watt which I will elaborate on in Thursday's Xs and Os post. For now, let's marvel at the 2 plays that won the game and will be remembered for their sheer football genius.
The first one, I spent a lot of time on yesterday. Here are 2 looks at it along with what I wrote yesterday:
The Cowboys remain in Shotgun 11 personnel, with double WRs to the Right with Williams wide and Bryant in the slot. Witten is tight on the right tackle, with Devin Street out left by himself. Meanwhile, the Texans are starting to get antsy and are showing a blitz look with 6 across the front, but as they normally do, the LBs drop off at the snap into the shallow zones. The Texans are basically only bringing 3, with a 4th coming on a delayed blitz depending on what the Cowboys do at the snap.
Romo appeared to have some sort of pump and go to the right, but the play appeared destroyed at the snap. To run a pump and go, Romo needs time, but when JJ Watt blew past Tyron Smith at the snap without Tyron barely getting out of his stance, Watt has a chance to drill a QB who has back issues from the blindside. There is no telling what might be the result of a QB who is looking to his right, trusting his All-Pro left tackle to protect his backside, and waiting for a play to develop. Smith had no help, because he never needs help. But, this time he needed it badly.
What happened next was amazing, and yet, if you have watched every Tony Romo snap of his career, you have seen it no less than a dozen times (just not that often recently). Somehow, Romo felt what was about to hit him from behind. If you watch the replay, you will marvel at how Romo knew JJ Watt was bearing down on him. It must have been something he heard, because it is difficult to say it was anything he saw. Regardless, with Watt having a free run at a QB with a bad back, Romo pulled out his text book, blind spin back against the grain to his own end zone and then off to the offensive left. Watt who surely was 100% certain he had the sack got both hands on Romo but rolled past when the QB was able to shake him off. Now, Romo had bought just another second as Danieal Manning was bearing down on him from the delayed blitz. Romo lets a throw go deep down the field where Williams is running a deep post pattern against Kendrick Lewis. The throw hits Williams right in the chest as Romo watches from the ground.
The biggest question out of that play has been whether JJ Watt jumped the snap illegally, or was he simply that fast? I have slowed it down and I think his anticipation is DeMarcus Ware-like. It looks offsides to the naked eye. But, partly with Romo having a snap count that doesn't vary much and even the silent count on Sunday, I think Watt was guessing and guessed so correctly that Tyron Smith hardly even moves before he is gone. Amazing.
The other point is that once Tyron got beat so badly, he sort of checked out of the play as Manning runs right by him to have another free run at Romo. Come on, Tyron. I know you don't get beat much, but when you do, try to limit the damage!
OK, now on to the other one:
Again, the Cowboys brought in Shotgun 11 with a 3x1 look, but this time, it was Dez off by himself on the left. And this time, the Texans once again rushed 6. That left DJ Swearinger with a free run at Romo after Murray had to get Brian Cushing on the blitz pickup. Romo had to contort his body to make the throw while falling to avoid the hard-hitting safety, but he put the ball far enough down the field to give Dez a chance on a stop and go route against the very good corner, Johnathan Joseph.
What Dez did next might be his finest catch ever when you consider what was at stake combined with the degree of difficulty. He jumped high enough to get over Joseph, but the corner's arm was right in the middle of the hands of Dez, who somehow held onto the tip off the ball and then pulled it off of Joseph's shoulder as they both hit the turf. If you had to choose between which play was more amazing, the Romo twirl or the Dez catch, you might split the audience 50/50.
Romo's "bailing" here is called self-preservation or "smart". That DB in particular would have happily ended Romo's afternoon and the Cowboys need to be ready for that pressure next time. Travis Frederick had no feel for what was happening and he went to help on Watt which seemed like a good idea at first. And Murray should be credited with another perfect blitz pick-up with Cushing, something he does nearly every time.
Offensive Participation: In this game, the perfect attendance of the 7 who are "always on the field" continued: Smith-Leary-Frederick-Martin-Free-Witten-Romo. They are each now 355 for 355 on the season. Keep on doing whatever you are doing, guys. That is working. There is not much to report elsewhere, except that Cole Beasley is producing his way to more snaps and Gavin Escobar is playing less every week. When they want 12 personnel, they are going with James Hanna 20-3 over Escobar. All snap numbers courtesy of PFF and they include all snaps including plays that were not official because of penalties.
STATS FOR WEEK 4 AGAINST NEW ORLEANS
|Avg Starting Position||D24|
|1st Down R-P||22-10|
|2nd Down Avg to Go||7.17|
|2nd Down R-P||8-21|
|3rd Down Avg to Go||5.85|
|3rd/4th Down R-P||3-11|
|3rd Down Conversions||8-14, 57%|
|4th Down Conversions||0-0|
|Yards Per Play||6.1|
|Yards Per Pass Attempt||7.5|
|Red Zone TDs - Drives||1-4, 25%|
1-4 on red zone attempts is very poor, but so far it is jut this one game. It was a productive day that was very unproductive on the scoreboard. That is what a few red zone turnovers will do to you. Can't give the ball away anywhere on the field, but those down by points hurt.
This season, we're attempting to track both passing and drive progression. John Daigle has designed a fantastic chart. Each color, for instance, represents the possession number listed in the key. If you were to start from the bottom and work your way up, you would be tracking that possession from beginning to end. The dotted-lines are incompletions. Large gaps between throws are mostly YAC or carries.
Week 5 Summary
It might not seem like much, but, for reference, here's a glimpse into just how much this passing game has evolved since Week 1. For the most part, note the significant increase of attempts (and completions) downfield. Romo might be ducking out of deep throws more often (and in an historical context, that might be an issue moving forward), but for now at least, a chance is all each receiver apparently needs.
And since we know what you're really looking for: the last black line is the famous Jedi-trick, and the blue line at midfield is the final Dez catch.
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 - San Francisco: 5 Run/5 Pass - 50% Run
Wk 2 - At Tennessee: 8 Run/3 Pass - 72% Run
Wk 3 - At St. Louis: 7 Run/2 Pass - 77% Run
Wk 4 - New Orleans: 9 Run/2 Pass - 81% Run
Wk 5 - Houston: 8 Run/3 Pass - 72% Run
2014 Total: 43 Drives - 37 Run/15 Pass - 71% Run
Wow. Look at these numbers compared to the last 3 years!
2013 Total: 176 Drives - 84 Run/92 Pass - 47% Run
2012 Total: 173 Drives - 76 Run/97 Pass - 44% Run
2011 Total: 181 Drives - 79 Run/102 Pass - 44% Run
* This statistic doesn't count the 1-play kneel down drives.
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 - San Francisco: 41 Shotgun/63 Total Plays - 65% Shotgun
Wk 2 - At Tennessee: 30 Shotgun/76 Total Plays - 39% Shotgun
Wk 3 - At St. Louis: 26 Shotgun/50 Total Plays - 52% Shotgun
Wk 4 - New Orleans: 26 Shotgun/62 Total Plays - 41% Shotgun
Wk 5 - Houston: 42 Shotgun/75 Total Plays - 56% Shotgun
2014 Total: 165 Shotgun/326 Total Plays - 50% Shotgun
2013 Total: 566/945 - 59.8% Shotgun
2012 Total: 565/1038 - 54% Shotgun
2011 Total: 445/1012 - 43.9% Shotgun
TOTALS BY PERSONNEL GROUPS
(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.)
* - Knee Plays are not counted in play calls.
Balance. Every week. Is this real life?
Wk 1: 1/5, 9 Yds, 3 INT, 1 FD
Wk 2: 4/5, 39 Yds, 1 Sack, 2 FD
Wk 3: 3/3, 88 Yds, 1 TD, 2 FD
Wk 4: 6/8, 76 Yds, 1 TD, 4 FD
Wk 5: 2/4, 38 Yds, 1 Sack, 2 FD
2014 Total: 16/25, 64 Cmp%, 250 Yds, 2 TD, 3 INT, 2 Sack, 11 FD
It looks like teams are now aware of the play-action and now the cat and mouse game really begins. Linehan has teams tossing out everything they knew before Week 1 about the Cowboys offense. I cannot wait to see the Jim Haslett matchup. I think the Cowboys finally are ready for that.
Pass Rushers Against Dallas - 42 Pass Situations vs Texans
Interesting to see Houston elect to blitz considerably less than anyone since San Francisco. We need to continue to watch this as we go and I assume we will continue to see teams backing off because of run offense concerns. Just another unintended by product of running the football. Teams blitz less.
Wk 1: SF Blitzed Dallas 1/40 - Blitzed 2.5%
Wk 2: Tenn Blitzed Dallas 12/33 - Blitzed 36.3%
Wk 3: STL Blitzed Dallas 11/23 - Blitzed 47.8%
Wk 4: NO Blitzed Dallas 11/32 - Blitzed 34.3%
Wk 5: HOU Blitzed Dallas 11/42 - Blitzed 26.1%
2014 Total: Opponents Blitzed Dallas 46/170 - Blitzed 27%
2013 Total: Opponents Blitzed Dallas 210/616 - Blitzed 34%
Thanks to John Daigle for his work on the charts and graphs.
SUMMARY AND LOOK AHEAD: With a tip of the cap to Tony Romo in the Eagles' locker room in 2008, allow me to say that if this is the worst day the offense will have this year, then I guess we must have a pretty good offense in Dallas."
The yardage was good, the turnovers were costly. The team struggled but then needed to summon two fantastic offensive plays to save the game against a stubborn and talented Houston defense and they found them. I imagine the meetings will have a mixed tone this week - sort of like this report - but in the end, everyone will advance to their next challenge feeling good about the spine of this offense clearly being the ability to run the ball and protect the passer. Beyond that, it is a roster of talented playmakers and a QB who looks comfortable knowing how to use them.
Now, going to Seattle will test everyone of these theories, but if we can maintain the context of wondering if this might be a team that struggles to win 6 games versus a team going to play the Super Bowl Champions in a building where they simply do not lose at home. They are 17-1 since the start of 2012 at home (when they beat Dallas in their home opener) and have not allowed any team to get more than 24 points in any one of those games.
Do you realize how crazy that is? Dallas has allowed more than 24 points or more in a home game 9 times during that same stretch.
So, I say all of that to say that this is an upcoming defensive opponent that is the real deal and takes tremendous pride in bringing the pain. I believe the Cowboys have the type of team that can compete with them (unlike Green Bay or New Orleans who play right into their hands with their styles) - with a physical run game, play-action, and strong pass protection.
But, now, in the noise, they will get their stiffest test.
Try to remember that it is all about context. The results will be important, but not life-changing. It is a measuring stick against the best - but, either way, this offense is amongst the league's best now and for good reason.
This should be very interesting.