Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Decoding Linehan - Week 13 - Green Bay


They suggest to us that "styles make fights." In 2014, one of the exciting aspects of the Dallas Cowboys roster construction included the idea that they matched up very well with the other NFC heavyweights - Seattle and Green Bay - because those two defenses were strong at defending the pass but when it came to the ground and pound of the all-new Cowboys, those teams were getting pushed around at their own stadium.
It seemed sustainable.  If you recall, they went to Seattle last October and did something that we didn't think was possible.  They ran the ball down the throats of the mighty Seahawks. In fact, they declared run and then showed no deception by running from "run looks" and under center and gashed the Seahawks at their place with 30 runs from under center for 156 yards. That 5.2 yards per carry allowed the Cowboys to feel like they won the physical battle in the trenches and showed domination with might that just might be the magic formula for taking over the NFC.
Then, they went to frigid Lambeau Field in January against a team that fancies itself the most physical team on the field that time of year.  The Packers always want to run in the cold and stop your run.  They get categorized as a pass team because of the famous QB situation, but when the weather turns, they want to ram their big running back in their and also flood the line with the defense that makes running difficult on a frozen or slick field. 
Yet, in that game, the Cowboys ran the ball from run looks and under center right at the Packers defense.  They also had great success that day on the ground and even without the DeMarco Murray home run that wasn't because Julius Peppers knocked the ball free and erased a 60-yard touchdown, the Cowboys still 24 times from under center for 131 yards for an average of 5.5 yards per carry.  Again, these numbers are quite uncommon in the NFL if you take away shotgun runs.  Teams sit on your physical running formations and deploy all 11 to stop it.  It is hard to run from under center continuously.  But, the Cowboys - against the 2 teams that stood in their way in 2014 - were able to run almost at will. 
They were unable to win that day in Green Bay - for other, non-running game reasons - but the impression was made.  If the teams were to meet again, the Cowboys had some repeatable tactics that should swing the game in their favor.
Then we moved to 2015 with the swagger that this offensive line was prepared to tangle with the best in the business.  Especially, what most people believed were the two teams to beat in the NFC; Seattle and Green Bay.
Well, the disaster that was Tony Romo's collarbone insured that the rematches with those two teams would include their QB1s, but the Cowboys would have Matt Cassel at the helm.  And in both of those situations, the Cowboys were determined to run the ball again.  Against Seattle, it did not go as well with 19 carries for 72 yards from under center (3.7 per attempt).  But, back in Green Bay, it was ground and pound city. 
In fact, as you reflect back on that game on Sunday, I am sure you are fixated on the offense being so poor.  And make no mistake, the offense was horrendous.  The fact that they completed just one pass in Green Bay territory all day is incredibly remarkable.  In fact, as we mentioned yesterday, on 10 of the 12 Cowboys' drives, they never even got to their own 40-yard line.  From that perspective, the Cowboys offense was thoroughly dominated without much exception.
But, allow me to go back to the top here and remind us what the Cowboys intent was entering these matchups with these supposed heavyweights (this would be a good time to point out that identifying "teams to beat" in the NFL is a very difficult task because now it is apparently Carolina and Arizona who are being pursued, not Green Bay and Seattle).  They wanted to run the ball and run it well.  Take the game away by keeping the offensive line firing forward and gashing Green Bay's defense while Aaron Rodgers stands over there and watches.
And, if you look at the game on a play-by-play basis, the Cowboys were very close to doing actually that.
They ran the ball from under center 17 times for 166 yards.  They had 3 big runs (which, of course, was a lot of that total) and all told, from running sets, were able to gash Green Bay for 9.7 yards per carry from under center.  Declare run and then pound them with it. 
You watched a game where the offense looked inept, and yet they accomplished one of their main objectives. 
Of course, there is more to the game-plan than just that.  And this leads us back to the crippling nature of the 3rd down conversions.  They are going to be shorter - because the offense is running the ball so well, but you still have to get a fresh set of downs.   We covered this at length yesterday, which you can read here. 
And, this is where the train went off the tracks all day. 
Back to 2014, in those games where they physically battered the Seahawks and Packers, they were 14 of 25 on 3rd downs.  56% in a league where 50% leads the league, you can see that Romo and the offense were able to play fantastically when they had to move the chains.
Well, in these two matchups against the same two defenses, but substituting Cassell for Romo, they also had 25 3rd down situations in the two matchups with Green Bay and Seattle.  How did they do?  Well, 5 for 25 for 20%.  20% in a league where 37% is average and 25% is the worst team. 
And maybe, at least from this perspective, you can find a little hope.  Maybe this things is not broken or poorly designed.  Maybe the components that were so close in 2014 are still close.  Maybe, for a power running team, it does come down to trusting your QB (Russell Wilson, Aaron Rodgers, or Tony Romo) to convert enough 3rd and 6 situations to put it back into the hands of your RB and your offensive line.
Just a theory I was thinking about as I looked at runs where the offensive line looked pretty salty still.  Maybe the style of the Cowboys is just fine.  They simply are missing the one spot you cannot be without.  
Now, lest this post appears a bit disingenuous, there is more to offense than gashing Green Bay for 3 big runs and a few moments of physical dominance. In fact, there were more moments of 3rd down issues where the Cowboys would go Jumbo and still not get it done. This does not feel dominant from the offensive line and the Cowboys really need to figure this out with creativity and some new ideas. 
There is no question that the Cowboys offensive line is solid and high-quality, but when you go jumbo, you are not going 5 on 5, but 9 on 11.  This decreases their level of influence on the play and also requires much more timing and precision to get a yard.  You can see Clay Matthews affecting each effort and the frustration grows.
Well, there is a lot to unpack here, but the thing that jumps out quickly to me is the 3rd and 4th down conversions which at 1 for 13 combined indicates that you were likely blown out in the game.  
They weren't actually blown out as it was 14-7 with less than 5 minutes to play, but the offense kind of asked for it.  
Also, the 3.2 yards per pass attempt were not only the Cowboys low for 2015, but it ranked in the worst performances in the entire NFL.  
Of course, you will be interested to know who has the lowest YPA for the entire season in the entire NFL, right?  Yes, that would be the reigning most valuable player, himself:  Mr Aaron Rodgers at Denver back on November 1st when he registered 2.0 yards per attempt in the worst night of his career.  
Again, if the desire is to run the ball from run sets and then you do it for 10 yards a carry, it is hard to say much about that.  
But, at some point you will have a 3rd down come up and you need to extend the drive and keep marching down the field and of course, as we have already detailed with quite a few paragraphs yesterday, the punt team got plenty of work on Sunday.
But, they ran so well.  A real shame they didn't get much of a chance to continue to do so.
As you can see, Green Bay wants to bring pressure.  On 1st down, they almost never do, on 2nd and 3rd down they do at least half the time.  Again, this is about either staying out of 3rd downs or having someone who can beat that situation.  
Word spreads in the NFL.  If you struggle to beat blitzes, then the next team does it, too.  And the next team.  And so on.  Look at Week 10 through 14.  The word is out.  
This is most certainly not the year for the Dallas Cowboys.  This is clear.  But, if you are looking for just a little encouragement for how long it might take to become a contender again, I would like to report that the offensive line and the physical running game are still here.  Yes, I would like a better running back to anchor the running game and will be looking to upgrade in the spring.
But, the view on a play-by-play basis of whether this group can line up and run the ball right at you and kill you around the corner with pulling guards and smash mouth football, well, I think lost in the disaster at Lambeau were plenty of signs of life from that group.
In other words, there are plenty of things to wonder about from the 2015 Dallas Cowboys.  But, I think the only main thing that is keeping the offensive line from the love that it go last year is having the other components in place to make it all come together.  
They have run for 1500+ yards at almost 4.5 yards per carry.  They have not forgotten how to do it.  But, the team that had only 1 better team at converting 3rd downs in 2014 now have only 3 teams that are worse at that same metric in 2015.
And that means everything.  Just don't throw the baby out with the bath water.  
The offensive line will be fine next season.  In fact, it is pretty strong in 2015, all things considered.  

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