Friday, December 11, 2015

Xs and Os - Week 12 - Washington

Late in the week, we finally get a chance to "look at the tape" as Jason Garrett likes to say and examine some plays that we cannot fully digest on TV. I can't promise that every week we will be able to do this, but honestly, this is my favorite exercise of the week because only here can you fully appreciate how advanced and complex the NFL game can be sometimes. 
Here, we are not looking to call anyone out, and we surely want to leave open the possibility of our eyes deceiving us and more than anything, I want to admit that I don't have the benefit of the coaches telling me what coverage they were in. So, sometimes, this diagnosis will be "pretty sure" rather than "100% sure" even though I am trying to get it right. I will make calls and try to hunt down the right answer, but I will just admit right here that we will try our best to be accurate but invariably, I will see something wrong. 
But, let's pick plays that are interesting but not played out by this point of the week and have some fun talking Xs and Os. Feel free to tweet me @SportsSturm when a game shows you a play that you would like broken down and I will attempt to include it in this post.
With Washington behind us and Green Bay closing in quickly, let's work through another Xs and Os post and tackle 3 things that have come up this week.  
1.  Sean Lee has a very impressive technique on his blitz sack.
Evidently, everyone is on the same page this week.  Let's look at the 1st Quarter sack for Sean Lee and see how design and technique allow him to get home.  
This concept is a 5-man pressure that starts with the nickel pass rush which offers 2 wide defensive ends, 2 wide defensive tackles on the outside shoulders of the guards, and then 2 LBs that are "sugaring" the Double A-Gap blitz.  
All across the league you see the Double A-Gap in pre-snap, because it is so effective.  And from a defensive standpoint - especially on 3rd down - there are so many things you can do out of it.   And since the Cowboys are always playing Cover 1 it seems, that leaves 6 up front to get creative.
So let's look at the front 6 from the Cowboys and see how it works.  They have 2 defensive ends wide and 2 defensive tackles wide, too.  Now, back to the sugaring LBs.  The Redskins have no idea what the plan is.  The Cowboys can send McClain, Lee, both, or neither.  Washington has to be prepared for all 4 possibilities.  The center and the RB have to coordinate who has who which in most cases means the center takes the LB opposite the RB.   In this case, the center has McClain, the RB takes Lee.  Pretty plain and simple.  
But, what happens when Lee is working a stunt with Hardy?
The other 3 DL all take wider routes to the QB.  This A) keeps Cousins in the pocket and B) allows Lee and Hardy space to do their game.  Now, Lee goes first and his job is to knock the guard off of Hardy, because the Cowboys want Hardy matched up with the tiny RB.  Obviously, in pass protection, you don't want little-on-big very often, but the defense is trying to do just that.
Now, watch Lee below.  The RB is standing between the rush and the QB and knows that his guy usually comes to him.  But, you can see the "?" over his head when Lee takes a sharp right turn and runs at the guard.  This puts the RB on notice that a freight train is coming around the bend in a stunt so he braces himself for Hardy.  
If it is timed perfectly, Lee will then chip the Guard, but also then get a free run at the QB because the protector, 31, has already decided that the biggest danger is Hardy. Which is sort of right, but mostly wrong. He was just tricked by Lee who acted like he was the sacrificial lamb, but then rushed himself.
This also isn't the first time it has given Sean Lee a sack this season with a befuddled RB being tricked.  Remember the Atlanta game?  Same concept from the other side, but on a 6-man pressure with Barry Church shooting the opposite A-Gap.  
The Double A-Gap is something 4-3 teams can feature that I think the Cowboys use, but could use so much more.  The late Jim Johnson in Philadelphia could control entire games with his mastery back in the days when the Eagles defense was impossible.
2.  Play-Action is the only way to win with a backup QB
Well, that might be over-stated, but given that play-action is based on fooling a defense when they are convinced you are likely going to run, and given that the Cowboys get big plays from their backup QBs almost exclusively in "run" situations, I think we have a trend.
There is a reason Tony Romo can command a million dollars a start and that is because, like the best QBs in the business, he can do great things in the face of a blitz and win games with wonderful plays.  
Well, backup QBs need the odds more in their favor.  Very few teams blitz in early down situations because they don't want to be gashed by easy runs that exploit the aggressiveness of the defense. 
Now, notice Matt Cassel's season numbers.  On 1st downs, he is 43-67, 536 yards, 3 TDs and 1 INT.  On any other down, Cassel is 60-100, 589, 2 TDs and 4 INTs.  In other words, he is a 97.6 QB rating guy on 1st down which is excellent (Aaron Rodgers QB rating this year is also 97.6).  But in any other situation he has a 66.6 passer rating which is miles below everyone.  Nick Foles is at 69 and somehow Peyton Manning is at 67 this year.
The reasons for Cassel/Weeden/or any QB being better on 1st down is simple.  On 1st down, the defense is deploying to stop the run first.  They see your tendencies and know you love to run 70%+ on 1st down to chop that 10 yards down to 6.  So, the linebackers and safeties are ready for a zone stretch to either side.   This is almost always going to be from "under center" which is another key for the most basic defense that knows you run 70% from under center, but pass 85% from shotgun.
But, on 3rd down, they know you are 85% pass and almost always in shotgun.  So, they are covering guys and sending pressure.  It is almost a different sport.  I always use the term "populated secondary" and even think about guys like Tim Tebow or Vince Young.  They could pass in the NFL if it was on 1st down.  What killed them was 3rd down.   Same with most every QB.  Can you pass against a 4 man coverage?  Yes.  How about a 6 man coverage with a 5 man blitz?  That separates the men from the boys.
Now, look at this chart for Sunday that shows the 10 biggest plays from the offense:
Look at the top 4 plays.  Those were the only big plays they had on Monday night, really, and all 4 of them occurred on 1st down.  And all of the throws utilized play-action deception to find a big play down the field in advantageous coverage situations.  
Again, it is not a coincidence.  Let's look at how Cassel can make safe throws to space when the defense is pretty sure you are going to run.
Above, look at Williams outside and Bryant inside.  Play-Action fake and the Redskins are sucked up, then, as they see Cassel is throwing, they all go to Bryant.  This leaves an opportunity for a safe, downfield throw to Williams.  Cassel can make this with confidence and time in the pocket.  No defender is within 5 yards as he stands and delivers.  Ideal practice field scenario - all because of 1st down.
This next one from the 3rd Quarter uses a "run" look with 12 personnel and Cassel under center.  But, from there, there is no run fake.  Just a quick 3 step drop and then he even has a chance to reset and pick his route.  Then he seeks the safe sideline throw (safe means that there is no chance of a defender joining this 1-on-1 in an ambush) and Williams gets his back shoulder fade on target and makes another nice play.  
And here is the big shot to Dez.  1st and 10.  Play action fake.  Safety eats the cheese and that leaves Dez Bryant down the sideline in a 1-on-1.  Clean pocket.  Cassel has all day.  Sets his feet and fires the ball into a safe area where it is either a big play or a harmless incompletion.
The Cowboys threw plenty of 1st down passes out of "under center" run spots and were rewarded.  Cassel was 7-8 for 129 on play-action for an absurd 16 yards per attempt and a QB rating of 118!  That means he was 9-21 for 93 yards without it.  That is 4 yards per attempt.
It is pretty clear what works and doesn't work for Cassel - at least in the Washington game.  Pass on 1st down and hope for a pass interference on 3rd down.  
3.  Dan Bailey is the best kicker in the sport.
Not really breaking news here (and not really Xs and Os), but the Cowboys have an amazing weapon who can do special things with his foot.  Kicker Dan Bailey is good enough that there is nobody you would rather have at this position and therefore the Cowboys contract that has him locked up through 2020 looks like a nice piece of business.
Here is the moment to scream at: a 54-yard winner.
As you can see, there was never a doubt.
As a career 90.8% kicker, he is not only the most accurate kicker in NFL history at 139 of 153, but it is not even close.  The next closest kicker, Stephen Gostkowski of New England, is at 87.5% which means Bailey would have to miss 6 consecutive kicks to fall back into 2nd place - ALL TIME!
Now, early in his career, Bailey had a bit of a trend where he missed some very big kicks that cost the Cowboys games.  That led me to wonder if he felt the collar tighten on end of game kicks.  
But, if that was a flaw in his game when he first entered the league in 2011 and 2012, it seems like he has erased that completely.
Below, here are the 16 kicks in his career (in order) that were "late game" and "lead changing" field goal attempts (thanks,  He has made 12 of them which is impressive.
The stretch that had me wondering was the 3 in a row (marked with the red arrows) in Arizona (in that game best noted for Garrett being accused of icing his own kicker with a timeout), at the end of the very damaging 2011 Sunday night home loss to the Giants (Miles Austin loses the ball in the lights) and then the October 2012 kick in Baltimore (best remembered for the poor game management at the end) against the Ravens.  
Since then, though, Bailey has been money.  10 big time kicks to win or tie games and he has delivered on 9 of them.  90% in clutch situations - just like his 90% career percentage.
When we list blue-chip assets on the Cowboys, we better not forget the kicker.  He is awesome.
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