Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Decoding Linehan - Week 10 - Jacksonville

Continuing the theme of the weekend, let's start this post as we should many weeks:  Football is much easier if you have special players who can do special things.  At any given time during the season, there are over 2,000 players employed by the NFL.  If you are lucky enough to have any that stand above at their position (say top 10%), then there are some instances where they do something that makes everyone on your side look better and, in fact, smarter.
You called their number, then they do what they do.  Dez Bryant was that man on a few occasions on Sunday.   We can get into quite a debate about how good he is relative to his colleagues at the WR position in the NFL, but I think most would agree that at worst, he is in the Top 10.  At best, you may put him at or near the very top.
It is difficult for someone to live up the hype that was bestowed upon him when the Cowboys drafted him in 2010, handed him the highly regarded #88 jersey, and basically preordained him to accomplish what Drew and Michael had before him.  But at this point of his career, it seems reasonable to assume that he will threaten the chance to stand alone by the end of his run.
The year Dez Bryant is having is certainly complicated by his contract situation.  That, rather normal juncture of a player's career is also complicated because it is Dez.  And with someone's contract, we don't always hear about every step on the staircase of a negotiation, but there is no question that this one is not as simple as a Tony Romo or Tyron Smith deal.  Dez has a price he believes in, and the Cowboys - for some reasons that pertain to Bryant and for other reasons that pertain to their overall salary structure system - have a different number.  So, Bryant has been particularly animated from the start in Oxnard this year.  I believe that he badly wants to do everything he is asked to do both on the field and off to demonstrate his worth.
Meanwhile, the Cowboys have to juggle many situations simultaneously, while attempting to get their financial house in order - which, if we were to be honest, would be something they have been working to do for about a decade now.  But, at the present, their goal is to get Bryant under contract for as little as possible, while his goal is quite the opposite.  He wants to respect from his organization that comes with a deal with 9 figures - and with a significant amount guaranteed.
So, how do you find a reasonable number that everyone can be happy with?  Well, you start by defining what it is as a player that makes him special, the likelihood of it continuing for the length of the deal, and the effects of his absence.
Each of those conversations - especially the last two - are, in themselves, lengthy and nuanced.  But, it doesn't take a genius to look at the moments that he puts on the highlight shows repeatedly over his 5 seasons in Dallas to argue that his combination of skill and will is rare and unique.  There are lots of players who have special talents in the NFL, but they often don't run at maximum effort at all times.  Conversely, there are many who compete as hard as they can all the time, but they don't have the gifts that others have, thus they compensate with high motor.  But, how often do you find a guy who goes 100% all the time, yet can do what he can do physically?  When you do, you have a cornerstone player of a franchise.
And on a far lesser game on the schedule - a game that had only 19% of the country watching against a 1-8 opponent - Dez put on a show on Sunday that was timed between news of his agent change, the Cowboys leaking their stance, and the bye week (a normal and expected negotiation window in the NFL).  It was pretty special and demonstrative of what he means to this offense and this organization.
The first was a formation "12 Tight" that we don't see in Dallas much, so I think I would suggest this falls under the "new for 2014 Linehan" file.  From yesterday's Morning After piece:
The first – with 7:14 left in the 2nd Quarter on a 2nd and 8 from the Jacksonville 35-yard line – was an interesting tight formation with “12″ personnel balanced up with a tight end and a wide receiver both tightly bunched together off the outside shoulder of each tackle.  The idea here is to beat any man-coverage with the tight end (James Hanna) breaking outside and then running Dez Bryant back inside in a rub route that then drags Bryant across the defense at the line of scrimmage.  Jacksonville was in a rare-for-them 5-man pass rush and that left the strong safety 37-Jonathan Cyprien to have to account for Bryant from a difficult angle.  Surely, the hope was to move the chains, but once Bryant caught the ball in stride and blew by his defender, Cyprien, at the corner, he had other ideas.  First, he stayed outside and turbo-boosted past 26-Josh Evans and 57-Dekoda Watson, before cutting back inside around the 10-yard line, where he made 27-Dwayne Gratz miss, and then 35-DeMetrius McCray at the 5-yard line and 91-Chris Clemons at the goal-line where even Evans and Watson also had another shot at him.  So, depending on how you score a play like that, he beat somewhere between six and eight defenders to the end zone because that is how he plays.  He never goes down without a fight and this time his fight put him in the end zone.
The 2nd TD was even more fun from a breakdown standpoint.  Sometimes, the TV copy gives us a clue that we don't see on the All-22.  This one, which I have watched several times, is pretty amusing.  Romo is watching the safety 26-Evans from the second he breaks the huddle.  Romo is trying not to stare, but he keeps glancing over.  Evans is the key, here, and Romo will simply follow his lead.  If he is really in Cover 2, then Romo hits Witten across the middle on a DIG.  But, if the safety is dropping down in the zone and they are really in a Cover 1, then this will open things up for Dez.
Romo is trying not to be obvious here, but he is looking at Evans who is looking at Witten.
Evans is circled to show you what Romo is spying, and that safety is more worried about the 3 threats up top more than he is about Bryant by himself on the opposite side.
In his drop, Romo even sells Witten a little bit with his eyes, but he knows his play all along.  Meanwhile, the single-high safety is on the opposite hashmark.  That will not help his efforts in getting Bryant to the ground.
I am sure if you are a Jacksonville fan today, you are bemoaning the lack of tackling technique on these plays, but if you are a Dallas fan, you are impressed with Dez refusing to go down until he breaks into the end zone.  Either way, if you are concerned with Bryant being too caught up in his negotiations and is letting it distract his play, I think you are looking at it wrong.  In reality, he might be using his play to negotiate.  And that is the best stance a player can take.
Offensive Participation:  This, of course, is the one complaint point for Dallas enthusiasts from Week 10.  Why did everyone play so much!  Romo 52, Bryant 45, and Murray 37 all likely played more than needed, and this time of year, every football fan has been frightened into submission by the injuries that destroy seasons every week.  With that in mind, most of us have a default setting to get everyone off the field if you are ever up 31-7 in a game in the 4th Quarter, but we repeatedly see that the NFL doesn't think as we do.  Elsewhere, the 5 starting offensive linemen were all available and played every snap.  The only other detail worth noting is that James Hanna/Gavin Escobar workload is slanting in Hanna's favor.  As they continue to use 12 personnel, it seems Hanna gets a consistent 20 snaps, and Escobar averages about 14, but his week to week workload is very inconsistent.  He will play 24 snaps and then 6 the next week.  Hanna is about the same each week and seems to be more trusted to block for Murray even though it wasn't long ago that he was not regarded as a blocker much at all.  All snap numbers courtesy of PFF and they include all snaps including plays that were not official because of penalties.
 Balance is the theme of the day and shorter distances on 3rd Down.  However, just 4-13 on 3rd Down means the down trend there continues.  Hopefully, they will find the keys there again in the final 6 weeks.  That is imperative to success.
PASSING CHART - My buddy John Daigle has designed this passing chart each week.  Each color 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 10 Summary
Pretty clear that the idea was to keep Romo's throws quick and high percentage.  Get the ball out and don't take sacks.  It worked most of the day as a compliment to the ground attack.
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.
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.
 It is all relative, but less shotgun in 2014 compared to 2013 and 2012.  They believe in power football much more under Linehan.
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.)
 Under center running success.  Line up, declare run, and then do it.  The Cowboys are back to their winning ways with Leary and Free back up front with Romo keeping people honest.  When all are present, the differences are remarkable.
* - Knee Plays are not counted in play calls.
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
Wk 9: 1/1, 1 Yd
Wk 10: 2/3, 21 Yds, 1 FD
2014 Total: 28/44, 63 Cmp%, 466 Yds, 5 TD, 3 INT, 16 FD, 4 Sack
We are seeing less play-action, but I am sure it will be back soon.  They are setting someone up for an ambush.
BLITZING Romo - Pass Rushers Against Dallas - 29 Passes vs Jacksonville
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%
Wk 9: AZ Blitzed Dallas 13/36 - Blitzed 36%
Wk 10: JAX Blitzed Dallas 6/29 - Blitzed 20%
2014 Total: Opponents Blitzed Dallas 96/333 - Blitzed 28%
2013 Total: Opponents Blitzed Dallas 210/616 - Blitzed 34%
Jacksonville, like Seattle, does not believe in blitzing.  Therefore, the pass protection was hardly challenged.  You don't beat the Cowboys OL on individual rushes very often.

SUMMARY AND LOOK AHEAD:  The Cowboys really needed an offensive performance like this.  Their systematic dismantling of a defense will do wonders for their confidence as Romo's efficiency was remarkable, the ground game returned, the screens and counters looked explosive, and Dez Bryant was Dez Bryant.
Now, in the final 6 games, we look forward to their return to the basic recipe that was on display early in the season.  We must credit Jim Haslett for derailing the Cowboys offense for a few weeks, it seems, but I go back to the rather naive coaching on the Cowboys sideline to allow over-confidence to teach them a lesson.  I assume they will learn from that and keep their guard up.  There is no question that Philadelphia will attempt to capitalize on the chaos that Washington and Arizona used to send pressure and cause stress.
But, with everyone in decent health and 6 games to play, I really don't think the Cowboys should be afraid of cold weather or schemes that give them fits.  They should have a different approach to the winter stretch drive because for once, the Cowboys seem to have a team that is built for this type of challenge.  Go on the road, face the weather and the crowds, and deal with it all because they have a confident front.  They can set the tone with a balanced offense and the men up front to protect and execute what needs to be done.
We have seen 10 games now, and we can see what the Cowboys do well and don't do well under Linehan.  For the first time in quite a while (2009?), I see no reason why Dallas cannot have an awful lot of self-belief heading into the stretch drive.
They finally are equipped to not only fight back, but to throw the first punch.

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