Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Decoding Linehan - Week 6 - Seattle

On Tuesdays, we give the offense a thorough examination in a series that started in 2008 called "Decoding Linehan".  Of course, it was once called Decoding Garrett and then Decoding Callahan, but you get the idea.  This is an exercise in analyzing the offensive performance from a number of angles as well as a discussion on whatever game theory topics affected the game. 
To continue on yesterday's theme, it should be stated how uncommon it really is for a team or an offense to change its identity with merely an offseason where the only personnel change was the drafting of a right guard.  Zack Martin's upgrade over Bernadeau is clear, but we won't suggest that Martin was the tipping point at all.
We continue to feel, as we wrote back in August, that the identity actually changed during last season's bye week (after the debacle in New Orleans).  In that piece we previously linked, you can see all of the many theories, including the most obvious one - that they simply have to do a better job protecting their defense with common sense play-calling from the offense - but they changed their ways before Week 11 against the Giants.  Since then, the Cowboys have played 12 games which is 75% of a full season and the confirmation that the Cowboys transitioned from the worst rushing team in the NFL to the best - almost overnight - is flat out stunning.
Over those 12 games, they have run for 1,696 yards (1st in the NFL) at 5.03 yards per carry (1st) and 141.3 yards per game (2nd) for 91 1st Downs (1st) and 49 10-yard runs (3rd).
What makes those numbers absurd is the fact that the 26 games previous to that from Week 1 of 2012 through Week 10 2013, Dallas ran for 2,035 yards (31st), at 3.67 yards per carry (29th), 78.3 yards per game (31st), for 115 1st Downs (29th), and 45 10-yard runs (31st).  That is right, if it wasn't for Jacksonville being worse, the Cowboys flipped a switch and went from worst to nearly first in pretty much every category.
And keep in mind that the personnel is largely the same (but we must account for the time invested for maturity and continuity), when we ponder philosophical changes having the most likely affect on the proceedings.  If you think about it from the standpoint of last year's bye week, Scott Linehan is no longer the Albert Einstein of this operation, but rather the specialist who helped further implement the existing idea.  If the final 6 weeks of last season are not that dissimilar in the ground game to the first 6 games of this season, then we are wondering if it was more a conscious (and obvious) decision rather than an accident.
So what happened?  As I wrote in the piece back during training camp, there are several things: 1) a clear controversy in the play-calling department as many speculated that Jason Garrett and Bill Callahan were at odds and that Garrett took the play-calling duty from Callahan.  2) DeMarco Murray returned to full health during the bye of 2013. 3) the Cowboys had a new Right Guard after they lost Brian Waters in Detroit and Mackenzy Bernadeau took over.  4) Tony Romo's health concerns and the Cowboys Run/Pass versus Minnesota (9 runs/51passes) were real issues and 5) on December 3, the Cowboys signed their first fullback of the entire year, Tyler Clutts.
Surely a few of those have nothing to do with the big decision, but to go from league-worst to league-best overnight without any other significant developments is difficult to fully understand.  Is it possible they had the pieces for a running game before this and just never "committed" to it?
Which brings us to the latest test, a mauling of the most difficult opponent to run against in football in their stadium where teams don't run.  37 carries for 162 yards was a thing of beauty.  There were several runs that went nowhere, but as a whole, the Cowboys marched the ball right down the throat of the Seahawks with enough ease to make you think that if this is the supposed toughest test for this offensive line, Dallas is going to win a lot of games.
They ran the ball primarily from power groupings, but did get 8 carries for 58 yards from 11 personnel (under center) which was aided by Joseph Randle's big 38 yard run early.  11 Personnel (1RB, 1TE, 3WR) is something that Dallas has almost never done from under center before 2014, but has already run 43 times this season for 219 yards out of this set. This is a major improvement over their productivity in previous seasons and is now a weapon that teams are taking seriously.  11 Personnel forces a defense into nickel and generally keeps the safeties back, so the run can really put an opponent in a bind.
But, now for the power.  One of my favorite personnel groupings over the years has been "22" personnel.  22 personnel is the essence of the ground and pound and it declares to the entire stadium that with 2 RB and 2 TE on the field, the plan is to run the ball down your throat.  The defense will usually take off a corner and put on another LB to deal with all of the muscle in the offensive huddle and then they will often counter with 9 men in the box.  This is power on power.
In 2013, the Cowboys didn't even employ a FB for 12 weeks, and ran only 5 plays all year out of this set for 26 yards.  All year!  Well, Sunday, against the big, bad Seahawks, they ran it 11 times for 62 yards. All 11 times this personnel was on the field, they ran the ball.  They declared run, then they did run.  And Seattle did not come close to stopping it.  If you love power football, it almost brought a tear to your eye.  The Power Cowboys may exist again.
Behold - the final 3 plays of the game winning drive:
Above, the play is simple "Power Right" with the pulling RG 70-Martin and the FB 44 Clutts clearing the path for DeMarco after the Tight Ends Witten and Escobar block in and hold off the Seattle Linebackers.  Until DeMarco makes Earl Thomas miss 10 yards down the field, you could have had anyone at RB on this play.  The final 14 yards though are from DeMarco being so physical that Thomas tries the arm tackle, which hurts less late in a game.

The "Madden" view of the same run.

Above, here is the very next play.  Do you like it?  Because it is the exact same "Power Right" play.  This time, Travis Frederick gets to Bobby Wagner and helps secure the 8 yard gain.  Otherwise, more physical running from a Dallas front that may not pass again.
And now, the kill shot. This time, a simple zone stretch with a Full Back taking on any penetration.  Keep in mind, Doug Free was lost on the previous play, so Jermey Parnell is #78 and Clutts goes to assist him on this play.  Look at Ronald Leary's massive cut block on 50-KJ Wright.  Wow, I bet that got cheering in the film room at Valley Ranch yesterday.
Bottom line, we wondered how they would do against an elite defense on the road with this new running game.  Many of us hoped for a draw - some good moments and some bad - but leave with your pride and optimism intact.  Well, this was no draw.  All the judges scored the fight easily in Dallas' favor.
What an amazing identity change for this offense.
Offensive Participation: Finally, the 7 with perfect attendance on the Cowboys offense (9, 82, 77, 65, 72, 70, and 68) dropped to 6 as it looks like Doug Free will not be in the lineup next Sunday.  It is too early to know for sure, but now all of the years and checks the Cowboys have given Jermey Parnell are likely to be on full display.  He should be ok, out there as he is a physical player, but I am sure that is where the Giants will look for a soft spot.  Beyond that, we saw a huge dose of Lance Dunbar (14 snaps) and major impacts as he moved the chains 3 different times in that 2nd Quarter.  Also, lots of Cole Beasely (31) and more Gavin Escobar (24) than we have seen all year.  All snap numbers courtesy of PFF and they include all snaps including plays that were not official because of penalties.
10 3rd Down conversions?  In Seattle?  Who are these Dallas Cowboys?  This was their achilles heel in 2013 and now, they are the #1 team in the NFL in 3rd Down conversions - and looked like it on Sunday.  Also, and I can't believe this: They are #1 in 3rd Down conversions on 3rd and 10+.  8 for 18 on the season for 3rd and really long, including that 3rd and 20 gem to Terrance Williams.  Pinch yourself.
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. The numbers are separated by the half. 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 6 Summary
There is no color scheme for the final possession of the game because quite frankly, the passing chart doesn't display 22 personnel. The last attempt of the game, however, came during the Cowboys ninth possession and was specially designed as white for our purposes.
This play, of course, is simply known as the Terrance Williams 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
Wk 6 - At Seattle: 7 Run/3 Pass - 70% Run
2014 Total: 62 Drives - 44 Run/18 Pass - 70% Run
As you can see the Cowboys are starting 70% of their drives with a run play.  They are not hiding their intentions, which makes play-action all the more dangerous moving forward.
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.
This year, less shotgun is clearly the focus.  And so far, so impressive.
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. Louis26 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
Wk 6 - At Seattle: 32 Shotgun/69 Total Plays - 46% Shotgun
2014 Total: 197 Shotgun/395 Total Plays - 49% Shotgun
2013 Total: 566/945 - 59.8% Shotgun
2012 Total: 565/1038 - 54% Shotgun
2011 Total: 445/1012 - 43.9% Shotgun
(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.  It is almost now assumed that this is the new identity.
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
Wk 6: 1/4, 47 Yds, 1 Sack, 1 FD
2014 Total: 17/29, 58 Cmp%, 297 Yds, 2 TD, 3 INT, 12 FD, 3 Sack
They have to be careful with protection on play-action, because some teams tell their LBs that if they take a false step on the fake, just keep coming on the rush.  This means that Romo is starting to feel heat on play-action passes, but they still hit on a long ball to Williams off this, so overall, they have to be pleased about that result.
Pass Rushers Against Dallas - 33 Pass Situations vs Seattle
Seattle and San Francisco just don't blitz much.  Seattle didn't get to blitz hardly at all once the Cowboys started driving at them.  Not a factor this week. But, look at the season numbers - run more, get blitzed less.
Wk 1: SF Blitzed Dallas 1/40 - Blitzed 2.5%
Wk 2: TEN Blitzed Dallas 12/33 - Blitzed 36%
Wk 3: STL Blitzed Dallas 11/23 - Blitzed 47%
Wk 4: NO Blitzed Dallas 11/32 - Blitzed 34%
Wk 5: HOU Blitzed Dallas 11/42 - Blitzed 26%
Wk 6: SEA Blitzed Dallas 5/33 - Blitzed 15%
2014 Total: Opponents Blitzed Dallas 51/203 - Blitzed 25%
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:  There is a lot of information here for sure and it can be a bit much to the new reader (welcome DMN new readers!), but take it slow and we will try to walk you through anything that is confusing.
The bottom line is that the Cowboys have answered every single offensive concern so far.  We wondered if they could run the ball.  They can.  We wondered if they can run the ball against really good defenses (SF and Sea).  They can. We wondered about 3rd Downs and whether they can sort that mess out.  They can.  We wondered if they can have a healthy season from Tony Romo and if he can make the same plays he has always made when they need him (ala, John Elway late in his career when the Broncos found a zone running scheme to take the load off his shoulders).  So far, so good.
Now, they must demonstrate this new-found might against divisional rivals who must prepare for the "Same Ol Cowboys".  I wonder if they are using any of their old reels or if they are discarding anything pre-2014 and starting new.  Surely, they know that this Cowboys offense is not what they have dealt with in the past, but when we talk about these last 12 games and the new identity of the offense, we must remember that those 12 games only have 3 NFC East games.  With New York and Washington next, we wonder about the ability to grind those teams into powder with this physical style and what they can do about it.
The Seattle game can give this offense all manner of confidence, but in the big scheme of things, the season has only just begun.  6 NFC East games are ahead, and the quest for a division title is just starting.  If they must play 3 weeks without Doug Free, this will be their first offensive health challenge of 2014.
Somehow they have created a brand new identity with largely the same pieces.  Now, we challenge them to maintain it with the 11 who can take the field.

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