On Tuesdays, we are normally breaking down the Cowboys offense with lots of fancy pictures and video from the game that was. Well, it was Monday Night Football this week, of course, and therefore we are rolling this out on Wednesday. On top of that, because of the odd blackout rules for MNF (and the game-changer, NFL Game Rewind), we are forced to act like this is 2010 and to decode Linehan with just words and maybe a few charts!
Bear with me this week - we won't be defeated - but the video breakdown will have to wait for Thursday and Friday, but I do have big plans to look at what derailed the Cowboys train on Monday Night - the blitz and the subsequent issues that causes.
Ok, let's get down to business. The Cowboys lost on Sunday for the first time since September 7th. 50 days without a defeat is certainly rarified air, but after the events of Monday night, we see how slim the margins truly are in the NFL.
The Cowboys have been successful because they have been so efficient in 2014. They have not beaten themselves and they have been great at the two "situational football" categories that we are always harping on - 3rd Down conversions and Red Zone conversions.
Basically, when any team is going well, they are taking great advantage of their opportunities - which is what any opponent wants to attack the most. Again, credit the Redskins for being able to do something that no other opponent has done in 2014 - slow down Dallas on 3rd Down. A great discussion about the offense is 2014 is what is the most vital component - the dominant #1 running game or the #1 3rd Down offense that allows the dominant running game to continue eat up the clock and take over the game.
As you can see below, the Cowboys 3rd Down Conversions have really been just as big an accomplishment for Romo/Linehan/Garrett as anything they have done running the ball. In 2013, they were horrible on 3rd Downs, stuck at 35% at 63-180. In 2014, they have set the pace for the entire league at 59-106 or 56%.
The national conversation about the Cowboys never discusses this component of the entire formula, because it doesn't really fit with their "The Cowboys are winning because they are using Romo less" narratives, but his performance (along with his offensive mates) has brought this whole thing together.
Take a look at this chart that shows the Cowboys in blue along with the league average in green and the Cowboys 2013 rate in orange. It is startling how good this team has been on 3rd Downs - until Washington came to town:
So, we can look at that above chart a few ways. 1) they are way more dependent on this 3rd Down conversion rate than we are willing to admit. 2) they were due for a bit of a market correction as the rate they were at was simply unsustainable. and 3) it is only 1 week, Bob. Let's see a few more teams slow down the Cowboys on 3rd Down.
And remember, when Jason Garrett was doing one of his tennis court press conferences in sunny Oxnard back in July, he addressed the fact that the difference between a disastrous 3rd Down season and an average 3rd Down season is simply one more conversion a game. That is certainly a very "Bull Durham" approach to statistics, but it is pretty close to the truth. But, the Cowboys are basically on course for an uptick of 2 per game, which takes them from the bottom group in the league to #1. And if they are going to be converting on 3rd Downs at a level above the annual leaders in Denver (Peyton Manning) and New Orleans (Drew Brees), then you can best believe that opponents who see Dallas on the schedule are going to burn the midnight oil to try to figure out ways to slow them down.
Which brings us back to the original question: What is more vital to the performance of the offense in 2014? The running game on 1st and 2nd down or the 3rd Down conversions? Well, if you look at it from the perspective of Washington Defensive Coordinator Jim Haslett or Arizona Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles, you are asking yourself what you have a better chance of slowing down. If you were to roll the dice in a game against the Cowboys, which one might you have a chance to take away? Think about it the way coaches see a great basketball team - we can't stop Jordan, but let's focus on making sure Pippen doesn't go nuts. Slow down the area that we have a realistic chance of slowing them down.
Stop the Dallas running game? Washington actually did pretty well on slowing down the zone plays, but then Dallas started pounding them on the pulling guard, "G Power" plays and ended the night with a fantastic 25 carries for 166 yards. 6.64 yards every time you call a run play? That is a great performance and 160 yards is the average for this team after 8 games. The running game did its job (save for the fumbles).
Now, the 3rd Downs. Haslett knew where to attack. And how to do it. Even though this chart is duplicated from far below on this post, let's look at this up here. Here is the pass rush breakdown by downs:
On 1st down, the Redskins sent pressure at a reasonable 30% rate. On 2nd down, they cranked it up a bit more to 34%. But, on that all important money down? On 3rd Down, as we talked about yesterday, the Redskins blitzed on 100% of the scenarios. Just to compare, the Cowboys have received pressure in 2014 on 3rd Downs on 26 of 74 occasions (35%) before Monday. Then, on Washington laughs at that and sends them on 12 for 12 (if you include the 4th down that ended the game).
We will never know if they planned that all along, or were just going to send them early to see how Dallas would respond. When the 1st two drives were blown away by blitzes, the Redskins confidence grew and the Dallas counter punches were nowhere to be found.
It absolutely makes us all wonder about where the "rub routes" that we have seen this season were. Now, Washington would show 7 and blitz anywhere between 5 and 7. That means if you were just going to drag Beasley and Bryant across the linebacker zones, know that you might get tricked into throwing a pick to a dropping LB who bluffed his blitz. That has happened many times against Washington over the years (the retired LB London Fletcher seemed to make a living off it) and the cat and mouse game was won big by Washington. They had the benefit of playing like they had nothing to lose (as 2-5 teams will do) and got away with it. Their power is based completely on "showing" that you will bring 1 more than they can block. And, then you actually bring that many enough to spook the opponent.
Honestly, it seems that this is a very logical approach to dealing with Dallas on 3rd Downs. Especially when you consider the physical skills and health issues of Tony Romo. Challenge him with force and see if you can get Dallas off the field. It might be your only way to slow their machine down.
So, what does Dallas do? They try to avoid these situations by passing in running downs. 2nd and 2? Pass! Because maybe there you don't have to try to pass with 7 guys blitzing. And before long, you have basically played right into their hands because now you are not doing what you are best at doing. 6.64 yards per carry.
It is just one game, but you do wonder if the blueprint has been shown to the league on what Dallas least enjoys.
Offensive Participation: Again, no Doug Free at Right Tackle with Parnell in again and filling the spot pretty well. Meanwhile, late in the game, Ron Leary left after regulation and we saw the first 2014 action from Mackenzy Bernadeau in overtime. They tried to get DeMarco Murray time off by splitting 20 snaps between Randle (8) and Dunbar (12). Also, Tyler Clutts provided a full back for 10 snaps. The oddity was back with the tight ends where Gavin Escobar, one week after his breakout performance against the Giants played just 6 snaps. Curious, for sure. Against Houston and Washington he barely plays, and against Seattle and New York, he plays a lot. Is this a 3-4/4-3 thing? All snap numbers courtesy of PFF and they include all snaps including plays that were not official because of penalties.
STATS FOR WEEK 8 AGAINST WASHINGTON
A couple notes here. The Cowboys had 2 Giveaways (and several more where they flirted with the idea) and also were not red zone efficient. It says 1 for 2, but if you consider that the DeMarco lost fumble at the 6 is not scored as a red zone opportunity (because no play started inside the 20), I mentally note that we must consider that 1 for 3. And, that is not efficient enough to only get 10 points from 3 trips inside the red zone. Must do better than that.
(Passing Chart is unavailable this week due to those same reasons from the top)
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.
It is clear their intent on every drive they start. The tendencies are incredibly extreme. They must be setting someone up for the 1st play deep shot.
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.
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.
As you can see, 28 pass plays from S11 resulted in just 120 yards. That is not the YPA they are looking for and again a real credit to Washington and a debit to the Cowboys in game tactics.
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
Wk 8: 5/6, 92 Yds, 1 TD, 2 FD
2014 Total: 25/40, 62.5 Cmp%, 444 Yds, 5 TD, 3 INT, 15 FD, 4 Sack
BLITZING ROMO Pass Rushers Against Dallas - 40 Pass Situations vs Washington
More on what we discussed above here -
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%
Wk 8: WAS Blitzed Dallas 21/40 - Blitzed 52%
2014 Total: Opponents Blitzed Dallas 77/268 - Blitzed 28%
2013 Total: Opponents Blitzed Dallas 210/616 - Blitzed 34%
Big thanks to John Daigle for the work on the charts each week.
SUMMARY AND LOOK AHEAD: With word filtering out today that Tony Romo's back is not going to send him to the injured reserve, we can assume the team will prepare both QBs to play this week against Arizona.
The Cardinals love to send pressure and to do it regularly and from everywhere. This is the first real adversity the Cowboys have tasted in a while and it will be very interesting to see how they handle these next two weeks.
You cannot take any game for granted in this league, but I would like to believe that Brandon Weeden can split the next 2 games (at worst) before the bye week, and therefore, I may have to take that gamble and attempt to rest Romo and allow him to heal 27 days until the Giants game on November 23.
That, of course, is coming from a guy who has no intimate knowledge of the condition of Romo and his back, other than what we all saw on TV on Monday. Personally, I think it is a very bad gamble to ask him to come back on a short week and deal with the high-pressure Arizona attack unless he is fully fit.
This is where things get a little complicated, but the Cowboys are 6-2 for a reason. They have many things going for them and simply need to clean up a few messes. But, the main reason I was bearish on this 2014 season is that I did not believe Romo could make 16 starts (or 12) with his back issues. And, I believe if they lose Romo for an extended time, their ceiling drops considerably. So, from where I sit, now is not the time to throw caution to the wind. Be careful with #9 and use him judiciously through this portion of the season that must be navigated with care.
Meanwhile, get Weeden ready to go and focus next week on turning those big guys up front loose.