Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Decoding Linehan - Week 6 - Giants

For our weekly view of the offense, I think it is important to focus on each component of the offensive performance in New York to see many positives amidst the obvious negatives.
We can agree that four turnovers is generally an insurmountable obstacle to overcome for any offense in any setting (Dallas is 1-14 with 4 turnovers since 2006 - yes, the miracle in Buffalo, 2007, again).  Technically, by the way, they were only guilty of three, but the fumble of Cole Beasley on the punt return will be hung on the team's ledger for historical purposes.  Regardless, the Cowboys were very generous in their gift-giving in New York, which is exactly the opposite way to win a game on the road and in the division without your starting QB.  Those games need to be nearly clean, and the Cowboys didn't really come that close to pulling it off.
However, what they did do, is prove that despite many turnovers, they were still in the game until the very end - Beasley's fumble again.  Were they ever going to win that game?  I know many readers never really expected that day to end in smiles, but the team still kept chipping away and between the Harris TD return and the Beasley fumble, the hole was too deep.
In other words, it is my premise today that the interceptions, while absolutely, positively problematic, were not fatal.  No, you don't want to repeat that performance because you are not going to win very often with three interceptions (including the deadly Pick-6), but this is where we want to look at the net results.  Factor in the good and the bad and what remains? 
On Sunday, it wasn't as bad as you might be thinking. 
The Cowboys snapped the ball 69 times.  That number is significant because that is precisely the number they averaged in Romo's starts.  Then, for the 3 games started by Brandon Weeden, the number dropped quickly to 57 plays per game.  Then, with Cassel, it pops back up to 69.  Can he do that every week?  Because if he can, that means a few things are happening and a few other are not happening:
Happening:  First Downs, sustaining drives, eating time of possession, controlling the game. 
Not Happening:  3 and outs, punts, defense being hung out to dry. 
"69 plays" answers the questions about whether they were productive snaps.  Of course, they were.  If they were not productive snaps, then you don't get to nearly 70 plays.  You have to move the chains to accumulate that many yards.  Here are the Cowboys' yards by week:

This is not to say that we are happy that Matt Cassel threw a number of interceptions (and to be fair, it could have been worse), but it is a balance of risk/reward.  Are you getting enough positive to make the risk of a negative worth it?  Because, at some point, if you think these games need to be put in the win column, you are going to have to play like it.  
For me, on Sunday, there were 5 plays or so that were very poor.  But, that doesn't mean we need to throw out the 64 other ones.  In other words, this offense did enough good things to give us hope that next week and next month still have a chance without Tony Romo to get a win or two.
It reminded me of a tweet I read a few weeks ago on the topic of Brandon Weeden vs Matt Cassel.  I don't know if you are enough of a fan to have a scouting report that separates Brad Johnson from Jon Kitna, but I sure do.  Here is Steve Dennis' tweet from Oct 11:
He is exactly right.  As backup QBs for previous Romo injuries, Johnson and Weeden were playing the most conservative and ineffective offense possible that was completely reliant on the rest of the offense making something work without any QB involvement, or the team would not score.  Kitna would get in there and stir things up and challenge the defensive backs.  He would lose sometimes, but he would compete to give you a chance.  
And that appears to be what Matt Cassel is all about.  Can you win with 3 interceptions?  Probably not.  But, the way the offense was moving on Sunday (their most yardage of 2015 and dominating the clock), I am pretty sure they could have won with 2 interceptions.  
Something else happened in this gameplan which I think is worth pointing out in this top section and that is the way the Cowboys decided to get under center and really get the running game going with a few new components.  
The debut of La'el Collins was really solid.  There is no doubt he will be a fine player.  The work load of Darren McFadden was increased dramatically.  After not playing more than 32 snaps in any game, Pro Football Focus had him down for 61 in this game.  I thought he looked great, but I am also concerned about his legs at this age and figure the bye week helped him quite a bit.  If he can bounce back against Seattle and Philadelphia and still look like anything close to that, we may have something here.   They need to be careful how hard they push him.
But, I wanted to spend a moment on the return of James Hanna.  He is an interesting player in that the Cowboys have never seemed to truly value him.  There was talk in camp that he might be replaced.  There was the over-drafting of Gavin Escobar to make sure he never really saw the field in passing opportunities.  Then, they traded up to get Geoff Swaim in what appears to be a replacement of Hanna.  
Yet, in this game, the Cowboys used a ton of 12 and 13 personnel.  They used it to get their running game going and they used it to find some passing opportunities down the field.
In other words, the first real signs of 2014 may have returned in this game.  The Cowboys force your defense to declare your personnel and if you load up for the run, they can get you on the pass.  You spend time on the pass, and they have a numbers advantage on the run.  Either choice is wrong.  And maybe, just maybe, it starts with getting your Tight Ends back on the field.
Let's look at a few plays:
This is 13 personnel above with Joseph Randle at RB.  All 3 Tight Ends are to the outside of Doug Free which creates several more gaps for the Giants to account for.  You can tell they shift their entire defense to that side with the middle LB - 52-Beason over Free.  Then, Witten, Escobar, and Hanna all set the edge and the Cowboys get Frederick and Martin pulling into space.   And, wow, Zack Martin!
This one is with 4:24 left in the 2Q.  12 personnel.  It looks like a man/zone hybrid play with the backside on zone and then on the frontside, we have Tyron and Frederick pulling as Witten sets the edge.  This is beautiful and easy.  I am not saying McFadden didn't have a great game, but the way these are blocked suggest that maybe the RB is not as vital in these spots.  Again, multiple options for the defense to consider, and then you get them moving laterally where the Cowboys have a real numbers advantage if Witten can create that edge.  Great job by the Tight Ends on these plays of getting things blocked.  
Again, 12 personnel, but mostly Hanna on the field instead of Escobar.  This time, La'el Collins gets to the 2nd level but has no base of strength and just about gets destroyed into the path of McFadden.  Give DMC plenty of credit for hitting this hole as hard as he had all day.  He looked like a 22 year old again.  And man, Zack Martin looked great on this day.  
One more.  Are the Cowboys pushing you around with 12 and 13 personnel?  Here is why you better not load up versus the run:
Play-action, over the top to the Tight End off of 13 personnel.  This is the offense.  This is why you should have some hope.  
The offense might work again.  

It all works off 1st down runs.  The team was able to put the average 2nd down to go distance under 7 yards and the average 3rd down to go distance at 5.5.  This is exceptional and again resembles a good day for the offense when Tony Romo and Dez Bryant are present.  
Also, notice how well they looked on 3rd downs.  6 of 11.  That is Romo again.  Yards per pass attempt?  8.1!  
Look, 3 interceptions is not acceptable by any stretch, but let's not throw out the baby with the bathwater.  There is a lot of good in here, too.

Now, let's take a look at how they put the troops in place.  As I mentioned, there was a clear emphasis on multiple tight ends in this game and if you add up the number of times they used 12 and 13 personnel from under center, you will see it was easily a season-high in New York.
They had averaged 12.5 snaps per game in that posture through 5 games, but on this day they were out there 22 times and put 155 yards on the board.  Even better, it was balanced with 92 yards on the ground and 63 through the air.  Balance!
You can also see balance on total yards.  228 on the ground, 231 in the air.
Here is the Matt Cassel throw chart - thanks to my man, John Daigle for his hard work each week.

Cassel is an aggressive QB who believes in his arm, sometimes to his own detriment. He will look for passes down the field and many will connect. Several others though will flirt with disaster and I believe we saw plenty of both varieties on Sunday. The team moved the ball with him at the helm repeatedly - after 11 3-and-out drives in the last 3 games, the team gained at least a first down on all of their ten drives on Sunday. He made as many throws (5) for explosive plays to wide receivers (20 yards or more), as Brandon Weeden had for 3 games combined.  

We will always want all of the positives and none of the negatives from this sort of thing, but if he could do that, he wouldn't be a backup QB.  He would be a $20m a season starter in this league.  Being an elite QB is very hard and something very few humans can do.  For now, you settle for the mixed bag of Matt Cassel.  

You can often tell a lot about an offense by how they start a drive.  They have just been on the sideline waiting for the ball back.  How are they starting that drive?  
If they are running, they better be good at it.  If you combine these findings with the numbers above that said how well they were running the ball on 1st down, you will see that it is possible this team might be back in business.
I think this is worth looking at.  Why do we want to pass on early downs?  Because, teams start sending big numbers on 3rd down.  The Giants don't bring much pressure usually, but a few times, they tried to cross Matt Cassel up and frankly, it worked.  

I remember always enjoying Bill Parcells and his way of crossing up conventional thinking by being extra encouraged and positive after a loss (because everyone else was going to beating up the team) and conversely, he would be negative and grumpy after a win (because everyone else had the anointing oil out).  
I am not trying to imitate him, I promise.  But, I look at this offensive performance and I see a lot to be optimistic about.  Yes, the Giants are a weaker defense, so we better not expect Seattle to resemble them in any way.
But, amidst the panic, I think the rock of this operation has been the offensive line.  They were overwhelmed with numbers when a non-threatening QB was at the helm.  Matt Cassel has massive limitations, but he will try to make you pay for not respecting the pass game.  I expect Seattle will say, "let's make Cassel beat us".  The Cowboys will have to be careful.
Much depends on the return of Dez Bryant, of course.  But, if 12 and 13 personnel - the same groups that worked so well in Seattle last year - can set the tone again on early downs, I think the Cowboys have a chance to take over game control again and start to look like their old selves.  
Yes, they are 2-4.  Yes, they are running out of mulligans.  But, I would like to think that this offense has left a disappointing afternoon at Met Life Stadium, knowing they rediscovered their groove with the ball.  
Just take care of that ball.  

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