Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Decoding Linehan: Week 1 - Giants

Any time you turn the ball over 3 times, you are going to struggle to win.  If you read my piece from yesterday - the Morning After - you now know what turnovers (or from an offensive standpoint, giveaways) do to ruin a team's otherwise fine performance.  The Cowboys were fortunate to win that game and the fault would fall mostly to the offense if they were 0-1 today.
But, they are not.  They survived 3 giveaways for just the 4th time in the Romo era.  Since he took over as QB1 in Dallas, the team has had 29 occasions (out of 140 games during that era) of 3 giveaways or more (obviously, he wasn't the QB in all of them).   Their 4 victorious days when committing those sins were 2007's miracle in Buffalo, 2012's win over an incompetent Tampa Bay team in Arlington, last year's OT win against Houston, and Sunday Night.  4-25 (13%) is not a very impressive record, so the conclusion should be to stay far away from 3 turnover games. 
Now, how did the offense really do?  They ran 68 plays, so let's not just talk about the 3 mistakes. Let's view the offense like the coaches do - the entire picture - and look for details to tell us about the performance in a more nuanced way.
Every season, we attempt to breakdown the Cowboys offense in a way that both educates and informs about what they are trying to accomplish.  This has been going on in some form or fashion since 2008 and generally runs on the Tuesday after each game.  There is also a defensive series that I run on Wednesdays, but let's get through Tuesday first.  
Decoding Linehan is about discussing the offensive concepts that the coaching staff is clearly trying to accomplish for each game and breaking them down.  They are doing this in a much more exhaustive way in their coaching meetings, so perhaps we should effort to do the same right here each week in print.  
For the new readers and perhaps football enthusiasts who have never tackled this sort of thing, the very first thing we want to do is get familiar with personnel groupings.  Understanding football starts with understanding who is playing and what they are trying to do.  If you know that there are 11 men on the field, and 1 will always be the Quarterback and 5 will always be the offensive line (1+5 = 6), then understanding offense is about figuring out what we are doing with those other 5 players.
The Cowboys, and pretty much every football team at every level, use a similar numbering system to account for those other 5 players.  If you have ever been to a training camp practice or seen them operate, you will hear a coach yelling a number after every play (to start the new play's process), followed by new players running out on the field.  They are setting the personnel.  Each player knows which group he is in, so by yelling the number, the player knows it is his time.
There are a number of groups to get to know:  "11" personnel is the most common these days.  That is 1RB, 1TE, and 3WRs.  In the numbering system, they use the RBs and TEs to designate the name of the group.  So, 1 RB and 1 TE is "11".  It is easy.  By the way, how do we know how many WRs are on the field?  Easy.  The sum total of the three positional groups is always 5, so if we know that 1 RB and 1 TE are out there, then the remainder is 3.  That is how many WRs there are.  The remainder from 5.  
They also use "12" - 1RB, 2 TE, 2WR.  "13" - 1 RB, 3 TE, 1 WR.  Then, "21" or "regular" is 2 RB, 1 TE, 2 WR.  They call it regular because 2 decades ago, that was the system everyone used, but it isn't regular anymore.  "22" is 2 RB, 2 TE, 1 WR.  And so on.  It isn't too complicated.   For a more in-depth explanation of personnel groupings, read this from last fall. 
To show you how it works, I put the chart here on the right.  It shows each grouping in the 1st column.  All it is will be the numbering system I just explained, with one other thing to keep in mind.  For this project, I have assigned the "S" to show the plays that are run from "Shotgun".  So, for my project, we track "11" personnel separately from "S11" personnel.  NFL teams, to the best of my knowledge combine the two, but I figured it makes it a bit easier to digest.  By looking at this chart you can see that the Cowboys ran 68 plays, with 32 from "Shotgun 11", 17 from "12", and everything else was in rather small doses.  You can also see pretty quickly that if the Cowboys are in "S11", they are passing.  32 snaps, 32 passes.  You can bet the defense knows this number and reacts accordingly.
Why do we track all of this?  Because it determines everything about how the defense plans to play against the offense.  Each personnel grouping requires that the defense matches their own substitutions, lest they have someone trying to cover Lance Dunbar who runs a 4.7.  They are trying to avoid that, so that is why before every play, both sidelines are trying to sub players quickly to make sure they matchup.   
The next thing I lay out each week (with plenty of help from John Daigle each year) are the big stats.  How may plays, where did the drives start, what were the run/pass splits for each down as well as the distances needed.  How efficient was the offense in 3rd down conversions, and then the overall yardage productivity of each snap and throw.  
Then, as you can see, we want to track those last two numbers very closely.  They are Red Zone TD% and Giveaways.  These are the two big ones.  In 2014, the Cowboys had great success for many reasons, but two big ones were the fact they cashed in most of their red zone drives for 7 points (not 3 or 0) and they were not giving the ball away.  As you can see, on Sunday night against the Giants, the Cowboys settled for Field Goals early and also turned the ball over 3 different times.  Usually, that is going to lead to a defeat.  But, they got away with it on Sunday.
PASSING CHARTS       These charts are sometimes helpful to see how Jason Witten and Dez Bryant are attacking secondaries.  Given that Bryant is out for a while, we might track Terrance Williams instead, but for now, here is Witten's production from Week 1 against the Giants.  As you can see, Romo found Witten for 2 Touchdowns (both in yellow) and an interception on a poor throw (designated in pink).  You can see that - as you would expect, if we use the goal-line as our hypothetical line of scrimmage, all of Witten's routes are shallow and to find spaces in the short zones and the winning TD was easily the deepest route of the day.
We also track the routes run by each player and won't give you the data every week, but our feature subjects will have their data revealed - including Jason Witten's work from Monday Night.
Assuming we are all familiar with the route tree - if you aren't it is right here on the left, by numbering each route - here is how we can track what "82" ran on Sunday on the 9 routes that Romo threw the ball at him.
I realize this is a lot of information, but as the season goes along, this will make more sense.
OK, this down here is going to be important to track.  We want to know a few things each week from the data that has practical applications.  We want to know how much the Cowboys are in Shotgun.  The reason - at least in this offense - is that this generally indicates the flow of the game.  If the Cowboys were behind a lot, they will be in Shotgun way more.  And yes, on Sunday, they spent a good portion of the game behind, so when that happens, throw balance and physical football largely out the window.  
That general number of 55% is actually not as bad as it gets sometimes.  They have had some games over 70%, so despite our overall feelings about the game, the reality is the offense was fine.
Now, let's look at how the Giants tried to deal with Romo.  
Just to be clear, blitzing is anything more than 4 pass rushers.  Big blitzing is 6+.  Here are the results from Sunday.
The Giants tried to shake it up, but even without Dez Bryant, the superior pass protection the Cowboys offer kept the Giants from finding success.  
Here is the main takeaway from Week 1: Any issues the Cowboys had offensively, they were largely self-inflicted.  Romo misses Witten and the ball is picked off.  Beasley's fumble was a fine defensive play but fumbles take 2 sides.  Bryant drops an easy 3rd down conversion that leads to a Field Goal.  Street coughs up the ball on a slant.  
Meanwhile, Romo hits on 80% - despite looking a bit "off" at times, the running game had moments, the RBs showed a diversity in strengths, and there were many lengthy drives put together, albeit with mixed results.
I realize I haven't had much time to break out Week 1 like I normally would, but introducing people to the concepts we cover seemed important this first week.   In short, the running game actually wasn't bad at all when it was utilized.  They were able to get solid production overall, but clearly the raw numbers say 23 carries for 80 yards and that is not good enough.  The passing game was effective, but clearly nothing to explosive down the field.  
From an offensive line standpoint, Romo stayed relatively clean and the Giants were unable to get home with their blitzing attempts.   They then decided to stop trying to get to Romo and just play coverage, and that is where he really got going without the benefit of trying the Giants deep.  
Now, dealing without Dez Bryant and the potential absence of Ron Leary will alter this thing a bit, but 436 total yards is considered a fantastic offensive day in the NFL.  For reference, 360 is about normal, anything above 400 has to go in the "successful day" column.   But, going back to the yards per play (in that box near the top) of 6.4, and 7.9 yards per passing attempt, and 7 - yes, 7 drives of 40 or more yards tells us that the offense had very little problems being productive on Sunday Night.
They just have to take care of the football.  And if they do, they will be in every single game.  And yes, that goes for games without Dez Bryant.  There are too many weapons for this group not to excel with the amount of pass protection and run blocking they have at their disposal helping Tony Romo do his job.  

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