Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Decoding Linehan - Week 13 - Chicago

For those that want the Cowboys 2014 season to matter in the history books, so much depends on the results of this final month of the regular season.  To this juncture, the Cowboys have put together a record of 9-4 and every one of their goals are still available for accomplishment.  That said, as the playoff picture continues to come into focus, it is becoming somewhat clear that even a record of 11-5 may not guarantee a playoff berth - as hard as that is to believe.
That is why it is particularly encouraging to examine the game plan and execution of said plan against the Chicago Bears on Thursday night.  Sure, the Bears are not the quality of opponent that you might see in January and certainly are not what you would call a traditional Chicago defense, but that said, the ground and pound was back with a vengeance.
Dallas ran 33 run plays (plus 2 knees) for 5.93 yards per carry.  They dominated the clock and their opponent.  This keeps the large offensive line on the field and the vulnerable defense off of it.  This also allows your QB - with his health questions and all - from having to throw 40 passes for 350 yards.  Instead, an efficient 26 or 28 for about 200 efficient yards with a number of play-action throws into barren secondaries.
It is December and the Cowboys took their game to cold weather and the game plan traveled better than any previous year in the Jason Garrett-era.  It traveled like it did so many other times this season as the Cowboys have won their first six road games.  They take their game on the road and no longer ask Tony Romo to run for his life in the pocket and throw, throw, throw.  They now know - and have the personnel to do something about it - that only the strong survive in the NFL.  If you are finishing 2nd in the trench warfare of Sunday afternoons, you are mediocre.  But, if you are winning those battles at the line of scrimmage, you are allowed to continue playing.
Surely, there was no sign of this on Thanksgiving Day, but I am pretty sure the Eagles are scratching their heads wondering about why Thanksgiving didn't seem to matter too much yesterday against the Seahawks.  This league is a proving ground on a week to week basis.  Your reputation is noteworthy, but when toe meets leather each week, you better be ready to demonstrate your might afresh.  And the Cowboys have now rehearsed for their rematch with the Eagles by battering the Chicago Bears badly.
They must run.  They basically have taken the game plan from 1992 and have installed it in 2014.  When they run it well, they win games by over-powering their opponents physically. They dish out punishment, they don't sustain it.  It is the difference between run blocking and pass protecting.  One is firing forward at the snap, the other is backing up to defend space.  It is the difference between throwing a punch and trying to withstand one.  This year, the Cowboys are delivering the blows.
During this stretch, we can talk about the play design and the offensive philosophy, but I think somewhere along this journey, we must look elsewhere for a key ingredient in the mix that is going unmentioned in most places (including this one).
The offensive line is not only excellent at their job, but they are also staying healthy.  Well, that is a tough term to define, because I am sure that a few of them have been dealing with some real issues, but the point is that they have all played virtually all of the season.
To define that, we take the ideal offensive line (Smith-Leary-Frederick-Martin-Free) and multiply the number of games by the number of spots (13x5=65) and then subtract each missed start to arrive at a 95.3% attendance rate.
The four absences that keep this from going to 100% included Doug Free missing the 3-game home stand from New York through Arizona with a small right foot fracture, and Ron Leary also missing the Arizona game with a groin injury.  So much of the Arizona game has been put on Brandon Weeden's plate, but you would like to see how he might have handled the game if he had all 5 up front.
Here is the game by game attendance chart for the season to date:
Now, let's not act like it is only the Woody Allen quote: "Eighty percent of success is showing up" - because we know that perfect attendance from substandard linemen is not going to scare anyone, but full health is a wildcard that controls everyone's destiny in pro football and yet is talked about the least.  The reason we don't discuss it?  Because, deep down we all know that health disasters might be one play away and because of the nature of this sport, it is best not to fixate on something that can occur without warning or prevention.
In 2012 (the year they went to the Super Bowl) San Francisco had a season with 100% attendance from their offensive line - Staley-Iupati-Goodwin-Boone-Davis (all 5 started all 16) which, perhaps not coincidently, also has 3 1st round picks playing major roles.  In 2014, they have not had the same good fortune.
Meanwhile, the Seahawks last year had nobody start 16 games up front for them (68.7% starters attendance), and they won the Super Bowl anyway - making their accomplishment all the more impressive.
In Philadelphia, the Eagles will tell you all about the bad breaks of offensive line health.  In 2013, when their offensive scheme was the toast of the NFL, they also boasted 100% (80 for 80) up front from Peters-Mathis-Kelce-Herremans-Johnson.  In 2014, as people fret about what happened to the Eagles running game, they sit at 69.2% attendance and have already put Todd Herremans on injured reserve for the year.
First, and most importantly, you need quality.  The Cowboys appear to have a quality and over-powering offensive line.  Second, you need to keep them healthy and able - so they can help your QB and RB also stay healthy - and like so much else, the Cowboys have been enjoying success in this department all year.
And that sets them up nicely to deal with the Eagles on Sunday.  The offense must do a far better job of making its opportunities count than they did on Thanksgiving.  I expect this offensive line will take that day personally.  And that gives Dallas a real chance.
Offensive Participation:
We pretty much handled all participation issues above as the offensive line was all present yet again and joined by Romo, Witten, Bryant, and Murray, we can see that there isn't much room for help from others.  I do think it is important to not get too carried away with the seasons that Gavin Escobar, Joseph Randle, Devin Street, and Lance Dunbar have had.  We spend so much time criticizing these "wasted picks" (Dunbar was not a pick), but we don't consider the idea that the Cowboys have built fantastic depth at those spots that only gets tested if you have injury disasters.  You cannot have it both ways - you cannot complain about the team having no depth and then complain that they aren't using their depth because they have no injuries.  This is one of those spots where I think the front office should be celebrated for having real plans on who is ready to play in the event of an injury to the offense.  Even the reserves for the offensive line with Parnell and Bernadeau  seems as deep a group as the Cowboys have had in years.
Look at that - Seven different 3rd Down conversions.  Romo was at his best here with the key throws to Witten and Cole Beasley on 3rd Downs that were huge.  We will look closer at those in our Xs and Os breakdown on Wednesday.
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 14 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. 
 Still #1 in the NFL on 1st down runs.  That translates, of course, to drive starters.  Look for more 1st down play action this week.
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.
Lots of shotgun snaps can often mean they spent plenty of time behind.  That was certainly the case on Thanksgiving.

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.)
 12 personnel up top - 22 snaps, 19 runs.  13 personnel - 5 snaps, all runs.
So, Romo under center with multiple TEs and no fullback - 27 snaps, 24 runs.  Building tendencies, aren't we?
* - Knee Plays are not counted in play calls.
Against the Eagles, they tried play-action, but the Eagles were sitting on it each time and Romo had to check down.
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
Wk 13: 2/3, 11 Yds, 1 FD
Wk 14: 5/6, 85 Yds, 4 FD, 1 Sack
2014 Total: 39/57, 68 Cmp%, 648 Yds, 5 TD, 3 INT, 25 FD, 5 Sack - QB Rating: 113.7
BLITZING Romo - Pass Rushers Against Dallas - 27 Passes against Chicago
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%
Wk 13: PHI Blitzed Dallas 8/33 - Blitzed 24%
Wk 14: CHI Blitzed Dallas 7/27 - Blitzed 25%
2014 Total: Opponents Blitzed Dallas 114/420 - Blitzed 27%
2013 Total: Opponents Blitzed Dallas 210/616 - Blitzed 34%

The Chicago game reminded us in many ways of so much in that 6-1 start. It was physical and effective, with less leverage put on Romo on 1st and 2nd downs. He is then able to make fewer than 30 passes that are often made in advantageous spots against lighter secondaries because linebackers and safeties are trying to figure out how to deal with yet another DeMarco Murray zone stretch.
I don't believe it can be stressed enough that this is the only way that the Cowboys in 2014 can be successful. This is a team that has already over-achieved most projections because of the realities of this defense. And they have done that because their offense has done an amazing job of protecting its defense. That broke down a few times along the way and it is asking quite a bit, but no more than other teams that have a championship defense and must protect its offense from having to do too much (the 49ers and Seahawks again come to mind). Every team, even those with top QBs, has one dominating unit and the other just tries to help out and not sabotage everything. This is the way of the salary cap, parity-designed league.
And on the 2014 Dallas Cowboys, there is no question that the resources have been heavily allocated to the offense. So, as they pack for Philadelphia and a showdown for a chance to not only make the playoffs but maybe even battle for a bye week, I think it is fair to ask the offense to pitch its finest game against a battered Eagles defense on shorter rest.
The recipe is obvious, the offense is at full strength, and the opponent is not known for much defensively, save for a healthy dose of risk-taking blitzes in front of a fired up crowd. A composed effort from the offense can take this team a long way into January. But, it must start the rest of that journey on Sunday. If not, we might bemoan the year the Cowboys wasted nearly a completely healthy season for their offense.

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