Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Decoding Linehan - Week 7 - Giants

We have been doing this weekly study of the Cowboys offense since 2008.  During that time, there have likely been just as many posts with a negative tone as there have been with a positive one.  Of course, that reflects the play on the field as the Cowboys offense has been mostly frustrating and inconsistent during that span as well.
But not in 2014.  This season, the reports have been mostly glowing and positive - because what could somebody possibly complain about when it comes to 7 weeks of the Scott Linehan offense?
If you go by NFL Rankings, here are the categories in the NFL rankings where the offense is not in the top half of the league:  Fumbles lost (30th), Giveaways (25th), Yards after catch (23rd), Quick strike drives - scoring drives in less than 4 plays (22nd), Rushes for negative yardage (26th), and 2nd down rushing average (28th).  As you can see, most are either inconsequential categories or they lead back to DeMarco Murray fumbles (3) and Tony Romo interceptions (6).  Only 7 teams in the NFL have given the ball away more than the Cowboys, but beyond that, this offense has almost nothing to complain about.
For instance, as you consider Week 7's win against the Giants, the offense was on point for most of the afternoon.   Another 400 yard performance (423) with 156 on the ground and 267 through the air of net yards that gobbled up 33:49 of time of possession.  When you out gain your opponent in all 4 of those categories, you have to be pleased when you "watch the tape" to see how you measured up with an opponent.
However, football requires that we dig a bit deeper into how those yards and possession time was amassed.  If it is not being accumulated in the right context, it can mislead us, so we look carefully at the art of "situational football", something that Tony Romo himself referenced after the game on Sunday to the DMN's David Moore:
“I wouldn’t say it’s the same plan, but it’s the same formula,” Romo said. “We want to run the football. We want to be great on third down, be great in the red zone, situational football that matters. I just think we have guys that are pretty gifted at those certain things, guys who just go out and do what they do.”
You may also recall, that Jimmy Johnson once spoke freely about Romo's lack of grasp about "situational football": "He’s such a freewheeler, an improviser, a style that makes him an exciting quarterback for three quarters, but he does not understand situational football. Romo scares me in the 4th quarter."
Well, we have discussed his 4th Quarter rating that is the highest of all-time, but it is also worth noting that there have been several ill-advised moments that bring down the average severely in those "big situations" pre-2014. To read my previous "Tony Romo's 5 worst decisions" post, click here if you want the details.  That post won't include the Green Bay decision of last December or anything from SF in Week 1, but you will get the idea.
However, the 2014 application worth discussion is his remarkable uptick in "situational football" as it pertains to red zone efficiency (which frankly, is being helped dramatically by the running game) and 3rd Down conversions.
The Cowboys were 3-3 in the Red Zone on Sunday which is fantastic and continues a trend that has been really impressive.  But, nothing is more impressive than the way they have been killing 3rd Down conversions.  #1 in the NFL by a growing margin, and they are red hot with 19 conversions in the last 2 games.  Trust me, you won't find another 2 game span with 19 3rd Down conversions around these parts.  That is historically amazing.
Take a look at the graphic to demonstrate how he has gone from some of the absolute worst 3rd Down seasons of his career in 2012 and 2013, to the best in 7 weeks:
Here is a fun-fact.  In 2014, Romo throws on 3rd Down have already moved the chains 40 times.  If you are curious how that ranks, know that he only was able to do that 48 times in all of 2013!  That is right.  Somehow, he was at about 3 throws a game that moved the chains all last year - and now is on a pace to basically double that.
Now, the team is better on 3rd Downs for a number of reasons - better running game is setting up shorter 3rd Down attempts, better running game is converting 3rd downs on the ground, better pass protection is allowing more time, etc.  But, for me, if you asked for one specific reason for the insane uptick in 3rd down production, I am going to tell you that somehow, they have figured out how to deploy their weapons in a way that attacks defenses without relying too much on Dez Bryant and Jason Witten.  In fact, years of tendencies where Romo would lock in on 82 and his best WR (Owens, Austin, Bryant) are now being used against the league because those players are drawing all the coverage while Lance Dunbar (3), DeMarco Murray, Terrance Williams (3), Cole Beasley (6), and Gavin Escobar (4) are getting the ball and moving the chains.  It all makes too much sense.
He is still using Bryant and Witten a ton on 3rd Downs, in fact, they are responsible for 22 of his 40 3rd Down successful throws.  But, when you can get 18 more from the "supporting cast", you are attacking them everywhere and they don't know how to slow you down.
Which brings us to Mr. Escobar.  The 2nd round pick of the 2013 has certainly not received rave reviews from the fans and media, but let's be honest - the Cowboys drafted him and then, like so many things with this offense seemed to have no idea what to do with him.
Now, this is also often travelled road for those of us who closely follow this team.  They continue to look for a TE to compliment the offense and play behind a Hall-of-Fame Tight End who not only never misses a game, but also hardly ever misses a single snap.  So, if Jason Witten is never coming out of a game - the last time he missed a single play was Week 17 of last season when he played only 68 of 69 snaps against the Eagles - they need to find a role for a guy who cost a lot but can't play a lot. The math is simple - if you only have 5 skill positions and Murray, Bryant, and Witten are going to play nearly all of them, then you have to figure out how to divide the other snaps between 7 pieces: Williams, Beasley, Escobar, Hanna, Harris, Dunbar, Randle, and Clutts.  If you have only 60 snaps, we are looking at limited opportunities where one must take advantage of - and hope Romo looks his way on the 5-10 snaps where a pass is called and he is on the field.  If you look at it that way, you can understand why somebody like Martellus Bennett might start stressing his opportunities.
So, Linehan has deployed multiple tight ends as his featured grouping and on Sunday played 36 snaps with 2 or more Tight Ends.  That means more chance to load up beef to block on the run, and more chances for Escobar or Hanna to be matched up with soft zones or Linebackers in coverage.
Behold, the breakout of Gavin Escobar:
3rd Down opportunity above where the Cowboys have Witten and Dez with shallow crosses in each direction.  So, follow Escobar who is in the right slot who then takes a deeper route (almost a Dig) and while the LBs are trying to sort 88 and 82, Romo knows that Escobar is going to get the least attention (they never throw it to 89 out of the red zone) so here is an easy conversion for a 1st Down.
Again, playing off all of the attention that Jason Witten gets to run to the sticks and curl, watch Escobar run right past him and barely attract anyone.  Here he shows the hands that we saw at San Diego State for maybe the 1st time in a game in his career.  He really catches the ball like a WR if you ask him to run an advanced route instead of what he has done so far as a Cowboy.
Finally, here is fantastic work.  13 personnel, with play-action.  All of that running leaves a bare secondary, right?  Look, single-high safety, but he is far more worried about helping with Dez Bryant.  Meanwhile, 31-Zack Bowman is playing as if he does have a safety to the inside (or that he is pretty sure this is a run play).  Honestly, the coverage isn't horrid, and the throw is on the money.  The catch is impressive and even more so that he took a body-rocker and held on.  This is the best example of the skills of a guy who has been underutilized severely. Score another one for Scott Linehan for sorting out what used to be a series of messes in the Cowboys offense.
Offensive Participation: With no Doug Free at Right Tackle, all eyes were on Jermey Parnell who was seeing his first extended action since 2012 when he filled in for 2 games for Tyron Smith and then split the final month with Free series for series.  I thought he played really well and had almost no busts that were significant.  Otherwise, Hanna 29, Escobar 26, and Beasely 20 were the complimentary pieces that played more than 7 snaps.  All snap numbers courtesy of PFF and they include all snaps including plays that were not official because of penalties.
STATS FOR WEEK 7 AGAINST NEW YORKWe talk situational football and then we see it on paper.  9-14 on the money down.  3 for 3 in the red zone.  Bravo.  The Giants could not get a stop when it counted.
PASSING CHART 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 7 Summary
Notice here, how many shots down the field Romo is taking.  They are passing less, but passing for higher stakes.  Stretch them vertically when they want to crash down to stop the run.  The Cowboys are playing offensive chess.
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. 
 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.
Like a proud papa, I smile when I see how little they rely on the shotgun these days.  Balance!
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.  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
Wk 7: 3/5, 55 Yds, 1 Sack, 2 TD, 1 FD
2014 Total: 20/34, 58 Cmp%, 352 Yds, 4 TD, 3 INT, 13 FD, 4 Sack
They hit on some big play-action against the Giants, and with 34 Play Action attempts in 2014, they have finally joined the NFL in this category again - after a few years ranked 30th or lower on using it.
BLITZING ROMO Pass Rushers Against Dallas - 25 Pass Situations vs New York
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%
Wk 7: NYG Blitzed Dallas 5/25 - Blitzed 20%
2014 Total: Opponents Blitzed Dallas 56/228 - Blitzed 24%
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:  Again, this series was started because the offense was underachieving and we all wanted to know why.  That was many, many moons ago, and somehow in 2014 the Cowboys are so good offensively at the moment that those of us who love to dissect have nothing but good news to report in nearly every phase - especially if our relative comparisons are Cowboys offenses of the past.
My takeaway of the last few seasons was the conclusion that the Cowboys needed a fresh set of eyes to look at the issues and attempt to sort them out.  I think the personnel has improved - primarily with Frederick and Martin on the inside and Williams and maybe even this Escobar kid - but, man, the way they are being deployed and used is a real credit to the minds of this offense figuring it out.
Linehan deserves a ton of credit, but we can't forget that Romo is the man with the ball in his hands.  And if he wasn't making these decisions and throws at the moment of truth like he is, then this train is not speeding down the tracks.  The national narrative that he is not as high leveraged is part-truth, part-ridiculous.  He has the ball all of the time and his 3rd down performances are not that of a bus driver.  But, in the end, the national narratives (and local ones) don't really matter.  The win-loss record does.
I am sure there is a crisis ahead at some point, but for now, I can honestly say I have never seen this Cowboys offense look so strong during the course of this study.  They really have become an offensive powerhouse in the first 2 months of 2014.

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