The coordination of the Cowboys offense this year has been one of the points I have visited about week after week in this space. There have been years where it looks like the Cowboys brain trust (Garrett, Romo) have not been able to noodle through their issues with great amounts of success, but this year, with Scott Linehan included in the conversations, it sure seems like they are generally one step ahead of their competition.
Once again, against the Giants, the Cowboys did several things that the Giants were not expecting: They threw from 23 personnel for a big gainer, they tossed a shovel pass to a guy who has almost 1,000 catches but maybe none like that one, and they destroyed a blitz for a 45-yard touchdown. Week after week, it seems that the Cowboys offense has out schemed their opponent.
There are five games left in the season. Of those five games, the Cowboys are about to play four games against teams that love to bring pressure on a regular basis. So far this season that hasn't always gone well. Arizona brings blitzes the most in the NFL, Washington blitzed Romo every chance they get, but Houston (another team that blitzes a lot) decided not to bring much pressure on Romo back in Week 4.
Teams that don't blitz much - Jacksonville (32nd), New York Giants (24th), Seattle (25th) - all saw what a comfortable Tony Romo standing behind a massive offensive line can look like when he throws the ball. Meanwhile, Washington (10th), Arizona (1st), St Louis (3rd), and Tennessee (8th) caused Romo to have some uncertainty and to get the ball out quick or get smashed to the ground.
Now, here comes Philadelphia (5th), Indianapolis (4th), Philadelphia again, and Washington again down the stretch. Only Chicago (23rd) isn't a big pressure team in these remaining games.
You may notice the trend, by the way. In most cases (not all), 3-4 teams love to blitz - the 49ers are the exception, but the Dick LeBeau/Dom Capers/Ryan family tree all love to send numbers. Meanwhile, most 4-3 defenses (not all) love to try to "get there with 4" and play 7 in coverage. And, as the schedule shows, there are lots of 3-4 teams ahead.
Romo has been really solid (bordering on phenomenal) this year against the blitz: 58-78, 822 yards, 10 TDs, 2 INTs and a QB rating of 125.7. The issue is more about the 11 sacks that have caused distress about keeping the QB on his feet and not in the locker room having his back examined. Regardless of his QB rating, opponents did see that Monday Night game and how the constant pressure made the Offensive Line look ordinary contrasted to the final drive against the Giants where Romo had time to eat a sandwich before throwing passes. You must believe that Jim Haslett put ideas in the head of upcoming opponents on how to deal with Romo and Perry Fewell (the Giants Defensive Coordinator) showed people what not to try. Which did Billy Davis and Chip Kelly consider the blueprint for how to deal with this Cowboys' offense?
On top of that is the idea that those numbers only measure individual plays - not the overall effects of a high-frequency game like Washington. Only 2 teams have blitzed more than 12 times in a game against Dallas this year - Washington and Arizona. Everyone else has played with caution.
How good is Romo's 125.7 rating against the blitz this year? Well, consider that in 2011 he had a passer rating of 82.2 versus pressure, it dropped in 2012 to 79.4, and then rose in 2013 to one of his best years of 91.2. So, 125.7 in 2014? Amazing work, players and coaches on how to burn any hands who dare touch your stove.
Here is a great look at why the Giants are happy to be done with Dallas this year. The Giants only tried one "big blitz" on Sunday (6 or more rushers) and this is what happened. It was a 3rd and 5 midway through the 3rd Quarter and the Giants still were up 11. This one play and once decision turned the momentum of the entire game.
As you can see above, pretty basic 3x1 alignment to isolate Dez by himself and put the Giants in a spot where the safety must cheat to Dez which leaves 3 on 3 on the other side. Simple math: Blitz 6, send 2 towards Dez, that only leaves 3 players left. So, are you going to be able to deal with Jason Witten, Terrance Williams, and Cole Beasley with only 3 men? Because if your 6 rushers don't beat the 6 protectors, this is going to happen on a simple pivot route. Beasley versus 28-Jayron Hosley did not go well for the G-Men.
Here is the protection above. DeMarco lines his guy up perfectly (como siempre) and the place where the Cowboys get in trouble is that Leary goes with his man to Frederick (you would like him to pass off his man and move to 53-McClain). This should leave a free man, but a you can see, Tyron Smith not only deals with Jason Pierre-Paul here, but also picks up the blitzing Linebacker (who took the scenic route) just enough and Romo gets the ball out on time.
There. One big blitz from the Giants in the whole game and it goes for a huge 3rd Down touchdown. That is how you chase teams out of blitzes. Beautiful. The Giants were beaten over and over by the Cowboys when they blitzed back in Arlington, too, and you can review that here if you like.
Prepare for the blitzes, because if we know the Eagles at all, we know it is coming. Honestly, if you are a Cowboys opponent, it is the only solution, because you are not slowing down the train with other methods, it seems.
The Cowboys were not on the field much at all on Sunday night with only 52 official plays. So, tracking who played when is very easy - on virtually every play (aside from 23 personnel) - it was the same 10: Romo, Murray, Bryant, Williams, Witten, Smith, Leary, Frederick, Martin, and Free. The only tinkering is basically that 11th spot which shifted from Beasley (23), to Escobar (12), Hanna (11), and Clutts (10). Dunbar played 2, Street 5, and Harris 3, but you get the idea. The Cowboys are healthy and they know their preferred 11. Everything is running smoothly in late November. Pinch yourself.
All snap numbers courtesy of PFF and they include all snaps including plays that were not official because of penalties.
STATS FOR WEEK 12 AGAINST GIANTS
The big thing to look at there is average yards to go on 3rd Down. This is key and anything under 7 is quite good. Also, the starting field position of your own 32 is actually quite good as well. Dwayne Harris was excellent on special teams again.
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 12 Summary
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.
Balance is proving itself again. Not just Run/Pass balance, but Shotgun/under center balance. And they sit at exactly 50/50 this season.
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.)
In 12 personnel, the Cowboys ran the ball 9 out of 10 times from under center. You can impress your friends by calling run on Thursday out of 12 and look like you know your stuff. Homework!
* - 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
Wk 12: 4/4, 86 Yds, 4 FD
2014 Total: 32/48, 66 Cmp%, 552 Yds, 5 TD, 3 INT, 20 FD, 4 Sack
Brilliant Play Action work in New York. Let's see the ambush presented to the Eagles next.
BLITZING Romo - Pass Rushers Against Dallas - 27 Passes at New York
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%
Wk 12: NYG Blitzed Dallas 3/27 - Blitzed 11%
2014 Total: Opponents Blitzed Dallas 99/360 - Blitzed 27%
2013 Total: Opponents Blitzed Dallas 210/616 - Blitzed 34%
SUMMARY AND LOOK AHEAD:
The Cowboys offense looks like they have reestablished their confidence in the last 2 games thanks in large part to Tony Romo's return to health and his efficient performances which constitute maybe the best 2 game stretch of his entire career. Added to that is supreme confidence in the offensive line, a running game that has had perfect attendance from DeMarco Murray, and Dez Bryant taking over games when they need him most.
Basically, it is turning into that fun discussion of who deserves the credit (or, asked traditionally, who is the Cowboys MVP?). I think Romo will be in the MVP mix in a few weeks if he can win 2 of his next 3, but should it really go to Murray? Or Bryant? Or the offensive line in general? Or Linehan?
If you think this sounds quite a bit like the discussions of 2 decades ago when Emmitt, Irvin, Aikman, a big offensive line, and Norv Turner were the names in the arguments, then you are absolutely right. This offense is a machine at the moment and there is reason to believe they are properly built to deal with the cold weather and the physical football that lies ahead.
But, they must prove that they can consistently deal with pressure and I assume the Eagles will blitz more than 12 times on Thursday to present that test. If it works (if it gives the Cowboys difficulty), then the blitzes will increase steadily each week. If it doesn't work, the Cowboys might ride this wave of offensive excellence all the way into January.