Thursday, December 31, 2015

Xs and Os - Week 15 - Buffalo

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. 
Yesterday, I spent quite a bit of the Marinelli Report focusing on what I believe has been a very underrated year for Sean Lee.  Even the people that read the report were not in unison in their response as many were not aware of how much he has played and certainly how well he has played.  
It is totally normal to not see a few things that get lost in the mud of a terrible year.  But, if you want a deeper look at the Cowboys as an observer, or if it is your job to get this team on the right path for 2016, I think it makes quite a bit of sense to try to evaluate each player separately as we go.
Which leads me to today's breakdown.  While this has been a pretty strong year for Sean Lee, I might argue the same cannot be said for almost the entire remainder of the linebacking group.  Now, this is primarily about Rolando McClain, Anthony Hitchens, and a bit of Kyle Wilber, as the young Damien Wilson did not see the field much as a rookie.  
As we look ahead to the draft, there will be questions for sure about whether the Cowboys should seek a destroyer at linebacker to make this defense into something more special.  Because, to be honest, there was not a ton of "special" in this group all year.
This is not a very complex look from Buffalo at all.  But, you might have to help me with what exactly 55-McClain and 59-Hitchens are doing here.  McClain is thinking the lead blocker is coming for him (he is not) and totally misses everything.  Meanwhile, Hitchens is watching the lead blocker go inside, so he follows - not realizing that he is running right from the path of the Running Back.  
We should be careful not to over-use terms like this, but this is pretty much "garbage LB play".  
The play ends with a nice facemask from Byron Jones and the Bills march 41 yards on one snap of the most simple of run concepts.  And it was the 1st Quarter, so we should have a focused and motivated group right here.  Let's look at another play.
Well, this is clearly man coverage (causing all of the traffic underneath) and there is where 55-McClain gets caught up in traffic again trying to run with Mike Gillislee.  I think Gillislee showed some things this week, but this is not Darren Sproles in space.  This is also not all the way to the sideline.  If McClain is fit (fair question), this is a play your middle LB has to be able to erase in no time.  Instead, he barely touches the RB and gives up a touchdown (that was ruled down at the 1 after further review).  
McClain has shown off some elite skills at certain times during his run here and was an amazing player out of Alabama.  But, a few snaps in a game like this have you questioning whether you can give him the job in 2016.  This is not good enough at all.
Here is one that really smarts.  It is a 9-6 game and there is still time.  But, you need a stop right here or the game might be over.
And, as you know, there would be no stop and the game would be over on this pretty simple 2nd and 5 run right with Mike Gillislee again.
Cowboys are in base personnel against the Bills.  Buffalo pulls a guard right with a lead blocker and suddenly they are off to the races.  Again, this is a really basic running concept that seems to out-flank the Cowboys way too easily.  
Watch Byron Jones at the snap.  He is walking down (sort of) and then bolts back into a 2-high look which is a mysterious coverage for 2nd and 5 with that lone receiver to his side of the field (Chris Hogan).   Regardless, darting back takes Jones out of any sort of run support angle and that is going to be a problem, as the end zone view below will show.
So, Lee follows the lead blocker inside.  I think Lee should have stayed outside more to try to set some sort of an edge, because when he gets sealed off it is off to the races.  The LG gets McClain on the pull, so now in a foot race between Hitchens and the RB, it is too much for Hitchens to make up.  But even at that corner, you see Brandon Carr, Jones, and Hitchens with only Hogan and Gillislie.  
You would like to think a 3-man situation could at least lay a hand on the runner, but there is no such thing.  I would say you had about 4 or 5 defenders that could have done better there:  50, 39, 31, 59 and 90 all come quickly to mind.  
The Cowboys gave up 236 yards on the ground to the Bills after 230 to the Packers earlier in the month.  Those were the only 2 days of 200+ yards rushing against this year, but the taste in your mouth after these two games makes you wonder about the personnel up front against the run.  Especially as the game wears on, the Cowboys are wearing down.  
Not great.  

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Marinelli Report - Week 15 - Buffalo

Next week, we will close the door on the 2015 season for the Dallas Cowboys and with that, this weekly series of looking at the defense of Rod Marinelli.  We will evaluate how each player did and consider who should stay for 2016 and who should go.  This process will take us a bit, but it is an enjoyable way to pass the long offseason where we don't have Cowboys' football.  Even though they have been a tough watch, I greatly prefer even a poor football season over no football season at all.  Oh well.
That process will take us through a number of discussions that will generally all slant in the negative direction.  It has not been a very good year for the defense and it certainly wasn't that big step forward that hopeful eyes in Oxnard might have imagined.  Simply from a standpoint of "winnable" games in the 4th Quarter that were actually secured with help of this defense, there will not be any problem finding negative things to fret about.
Perhaps that is why I want to spend a few minutes on a positive aspect this week.  Last Wednesday, I focused on the good news of DeMarcus Lawrence coming into his own.  I think that continued in Buffalo to a certain extent, and I am positive that the combination of Tyrone Crawford and Lawrence on that defensive front going forward is an exciting duo to build around and develop (Hello, Randy Gregory). 
So, let me try again to kick it positive, because amidst the 4-11 avalanche of bad, there is another very solid development happening down the stretch.
Sean Lee is very good again. 
Now, I know that this might be approaching the category of obvious for some, but for others, I think when he was out on his feet a time or two this year, the conversation could be had whether or not Sean Lee was approaching "past tense" and might be a candidate to go do something else with his life for 2016.
But, I am happy to report that - at times - he has been dominant in 2015.  Allow me to offer some exhibits from Sunday as he was superb:
Here is Tyron thinking he will turn the corner for 8-10 yards and Lee gets to the top of his drop and then hits the gas.  Not sure I would bet on him to win the race to the corner against Tyrod, but he won it with ease.  Impressive acceleration in Week 16.  
Navigating through traffic has always been something he can do, but the question was whether he could do it enough and whether he could do it on the proper side of the line of scrimmage.  Not a problem here. 
This one is likely a reminder that you might want to account for #50, as he is wrecking quite a few plays here.
This is my favorite right here.  Just look at him take on the tackle, move to the fullback, and then to the ball carrier.  Lee even lets you know that this was a beauty with his celebration (or what passes for one with him).  
I realize that Lee requires accepting his circumstances and he will never be labeled as durable.  But, after missing the Saints game when he left early and being held out of the Tampa Bay game altogether, he has played every snap since Miami - and more importantly - has played at an incredibly high level.  
Overall, I am ready to say that the Sean Lee at Will Linebacker storyline of 2015 has turned out about as well as anyone could imagine.  And in the last month, he has been an absolute monster.
If I may get back to some negativity for just a moment, it should be noted that the team gave up 408 yards to Buffalo.  Now, that is not very good, especially 236 on the ground.  But, you might be interested to know that was only Buffalo's 6th biggest game this year in terms of yardage.   And in terms of rushing yards, they actually ran for more (240) the week before against the Redskins.  In other words, the Bills are not bad in 2015, and I actually thought this was going to be a pretty rough day for whatever team the Cowboys brought to play the Bills. 
Otherwise, as I wrote on Monday, I am not sure there was much from a Bills standpoint to examine in that they almost never threw the ball because they were convinced that 14-17 points would likely be enough to win.  The Cowboys offense was going to have to prove they could score to bring Buffalo out of a conservative posture and we all know that the Dallas offense wasn't going to make that happen.
As you can see, it is a pretty easy day to play QB for Buffalo.  By the way, I am sure that one yellow dot - the fade interception before halftime - did not encourage them to get too liberal with 2nd half passing.
The above and below chart showed again that the Cowboys do not wish to blitz in most cases.  They decided to break it out a few times this year, but down the stretch have dropped down to about 15% which is even low by their low standards.
And then the chart below shows the Cowboys sacks and interception and whether they were blitzing on any of those.  Just the McClain sack that we will look at tomorrow on Xs and Os.
Behold, the big week for Sean Lee!  
I figured that a good place to wrap this up today is to look at the season total for individual splash plays and try to put it in perspective.  I have kept this statistic since 2011 and the season leaders have looked like this:
2011:  DeMarcus Ware 39, Anthony Spencer 29, Sean Lee 25, Jay Ratliff 24
2012: Anthony Spencer 38, DeMarcus Ware 30, Jason Hatcher 16.5, Mo Claiborne 16
2013: George Selvie 28, Jason Hatcher 26, Sean Lee 22.5, Brandon Carr 20.5
2014: Rolando McClain 24, Tyrone Crawford 23.5, Orlando Scandrick 21
And, with a week to play...
2015:  Sean Lee 24, DeMarcus Lawrence 23.5, Greg Hardy 19.5
And this is the week-by-week for how we got there:
Over the next few weeks, I will calculate the "Splash Per Snap" ratio which is very important for looking at this, but there is plenty of data for you to chew on as we get to the final game.
Xs and Os are tomorrow.  

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Decoding Linehan - Week 15 - Buffalo

Sunday gave us yet another game of offensive frustration for the 2015 season where it seems that nothing has gone according to plan.  Now, this one, in which the Cowboys were playing with their 4th starting Quarterback and without their opening day plans at both Running Back and Wide Receiver, it would seem rather predictable that they were not going to light up the Buffalo Bills in Buffalo a few days after Christmas.  One might have aspired for 7 points or more, but in a season that has been marked with 4 occasions now where the team has failed to score more than a touchdown (New England, At Tampa Bay, At Green Bay, At Buffalo) it should hardly surprise us at this point.
You have heard all of the facts.  This team is now starting its 4thQuarterback in which the one that might have engineered the least hope-inspiring performances of them all - Brandon Weeden - is now enjoying some harmless trash talking of Jerry Jones on his way to the playoffs. 
Question: Will it be extra satisfying because of what Jerry [Jones] said to see the Cowboys completely just turn into a dumpster fire if you're in the playoffs?
"I mean, yeah. Absolutely," Weeden said. "We get to play extra football and he'll be watching on his couch. That's what it's all about. We're playing for something and this is a fun time of the year."
I can't really blame the guy.  As we said at the time, as uninspiring as watching Weeden was, there should be blame placed on the coaching staff for basically making sure he did nothing but check the ball down.  I don't want to belabor the point, but I had it on great authority that part of the reason Weeden was a mess here is because the coaching staff was in his ear with the constant charge of checking the ball down.  Over and over again.  And he did.
This is Weeden's throw chart against Atlanta.  As you can see, all of the blue were the completions from that game.  He built up a great QB rating from never throwing the ball down the field.
Then, he followed that up in New Orleans - had that deep shot to Brice Butler:
And Finally, against New England:
So yes, he racked up an impressive completion percentage and QB rating.  But, as you can see, over 50 of his 64 completions in his 3 starts were 5 yards or less downfield.  He was a check down machine.  Now, was this his fault or the coaching staff?  I don't know anymore.  And honestly, by now, it doesn't matter.  But, everyone revising his history on this team pulled me offsides.
Regardless, the Weeden run into the playoffs (I guess that is what we are calling a win against the Titans in Week 16) is one thing that people want to talk about.  Hopefully after looking at the charts above, they will refocus their interest on why the Cowboys have issues with their backups.  
The curiosity for me is found in Buffalo.  Why, if the Cowboys don't really trust their backups to run the offense, is Kellen Moore now slinging the ball all over the field?  Also, earlier in the year, why did Matt Cassel look like a check down machine in some games and a gun slinger in others?  
It is almost like the above charts with Weeden got everyone in a room to agree that "safe is death" and that the QB (whoever it is) is going to have to throw the ball down the field at some point.  Weeden was the victim of the ultraconservatism from Linehan and Garrett and maybe Moore is the beneficiary.  In fairness, Moore has been with Linehan for years and that might give him an advantage, but Weeden had 2 years.   Somehow, as you look at the 10 longest plays on 3rd down this season, Kellen Moore has 4 of them in just 7 Quarters at QB.  That makes no sense (thanks to ProFootballReference):
They can't possibly think Kellen Moore is more able to attack than Weeden, right?  Weeden has one of the Top 10 and that was the slant at the end of the Eagles game that Williams broke for a TD.   Otherwise, it was check down after check down.  But, the more you watch this team, the more you wonder if the offensive coaching this year during a QB crisis was a major part of the issue.  
Look at Moore on these 3rd downs on Sunday:
Beautiful fade to Brice Butler converts a long 3rd down.  
Stands in against a big blitz and delivers a nice pass to Beasley in stride to kill said blitz.
This is more of a duck, but Williams came back and made a play.  Something we were told he was incapable of making earlier in the season when they didn't really try too hard.
It is all very confusing.  I think Moore has a very high FBI score (Football Intelligence) and has confident to cut the throw loose.  
The bigger question is why Kellen Moore has the most 3rd down successful big plays despite playing just a fraction of Cassel and Weeden?
And why does this matter so much?  Because for the next few months, this team is going to be shopping for a young college QB to raise.  Do you want this prospect to be raised by a coaching staff that seemed to wander all over the map in 2015 with QBs that were not Tony Romo?  In other words, do you trust these guys to develop Goff, Lynch, Wentz, or Cook?  
I just showed you the good plays above, but let's not forget that Moore was just 13 for 31 and that he had some very confusing throws and the receivers were not on the same page way too often.  I hope that people don't get the impression that I am ready to set sail on the good ship Kellen Moore.  He has something, but I am not sure if we have any idea what that is until we get a long look with more dangerous weapons than what he had on the field on Sunday.  
But, if there is anything to admire about the performance on Sunday, it would be the 7 3rd down conversions.  In just one game this year, the home OT game against Philadelphia, did the Cowboys get past 7 and finished with 8.  What is amazing is that with 7 3rd down conversions, they still only scored 6 points.  It is almost impossible to have more 3rd down conversions than points.  But, the Cowboys did it, 7-6.
Here is the throw chart for the first ever start of the Boise State product.  Way too much red, but look at all the quadrants of the field he was working.  All 3 levels of the defense and both sides.  I will continue to say he has something.  Probably, just a backup, but he sees the field, sees the blitz, and understands football quite well.  Those are all admirable traits.
Yet again, if there is a tendency that does nobody any favors, it is the Cowboys run/pass tendencies continuing to match-up every week with the Shotgun/Under Center formations.  Under Center, the Cowboys ran the ball on 23 of 26 occasions. 
From Shotgun, they passed the ball on 28 of 29 occasions.  Gee, do you think the defense has a pretty good idea of what the plans are for the Dallas offense these days?  
The only change up is the 2 or 3 times a game they try to sell the play-action over the top.  I think to find consistency, which is something they may have given up on in 2015, they would need to run out of pass looks and pass out of run looks more.  Because being a linebacker or safety against these Cowboys looks very simple.  
Soon, I am going to give Darren McFadden and the running game the attention they have deserved these last few weeks.  He has done plenty to like this year and with 3 more yards versus the Redskins he will hit 1,000 yards for the 2nd time in his 8-year career.
Ben Muth, someone you hopefully know about over at, is a guy who routinely covers this from an offensive line perspective.  He wrote about them last week and I wanted to make sure you see this:
If I had only had one word to describe the 2015 Dallas Cowboys offensive line, it would be "underappreciated." Thankfully, I have more words than that, so we can get a little more in depth. Just because they underachieved according to their massive preseason expectations does not mean that they are a bad unit. In fact, I'd say they are a really good line that is about to get a thousand yards out of an aging Darren McFadden (who wasn't even that good in his prime). You could take an all-decade offensive line and it would struggle to run the ball with the skill talent with which the Cowboys played this year. I just don't think Dallas' offensive line ever had a real chance to live up to its hype as a potential all-time great unit. 
When the running backs are Darren McFadden and Joseph Randle; the quarterbacks are Brandon Weeden, Matt Cassel, and Kellen Moore; and the No. 1 receiver is Terrance Williams, Cole Beasley, or a not-100-percent Dez Bryant, no offensive line is going to look good. That's not even getting into some of the most conservative play calling seen in the NFL is this year. At the end of the day, so many things were wrong with the Cowboys' offense that no offensive line could have salvaged much. The pieces are still in place, however, for this to go from a really good offensive line in 2015 to a special one in 2016.
Go read the whole piece, but this is where I have been all year.  I think the pieces are in place, too, and with an upgrade at QB or RB (or both), I have plenty of faith in the rest of the offense.
Anyway, let's get another look at Kellen Moore - odds are the last one - and 3 more yards for McFadden and call it a year.  Then, the question becomes whether the franchise will figure out a new look for their offensive coaching staff or stay with what they have.  That is its own conversation for January.