Friday, September 16, 2016

DMN - Mailbag Sept 16 - Special Teams

On we go to Week 2, where the Cowboys are packing for a Noon kick in Washington.  Divisional games are all around the NFL as they have made it a point to start and end the season with these divisional battles.  It is enjoyable, for sure.  But, wow, if you lose both of them to the Giants and Redskins right off the bat, the stress level will go way up.
The Cowboys have slim margins throughout as they have to do many things right to emerge victorious.  I am not sure this is a team that can win too many weeks when they don't play very well.  They need, as their coach will say, to be solid in "all three phases."  Of all of the things he says, most don't shed much light on anything.  But, his acknowledgement about the special teams phase is vital is something I have always appreciated.  
Special teams are not that important - until they are.  And while that sounds silly, it is the margin for so many teams.  A few years ago, a mediocre 2014 Eagles team was able to disguise their mediocrity because their special teams were getting them so many points.  In the end, they were found out, but they rode that all the way into December that year.  Meanwhile, the 2010 San Diego Chargers were just the opposite:  A playoff team on offense and defense, but a few blocks here and there and the Chargers did not make the playoffs because their special teams unit cost them a few games.  In this league, you cannot spare a few games.  
That is why on certain mailbag days, I will supplement your content with a look at the various elements of the Cowboys Special Teams under their ST coach Rich Bisaccia.  Unlike college football, this requires all sorts of mental gymnastics, because NFL teams only have 46 available on game day.  When you deduct almost every starter from the choices, then deduct almost all of the linemen from the options, all of the QBs, and then all of the players that just aren't very good at running and tackling, Bisaccia has a list of about 15 players with which to build his 4 kick and cover teams.  Field Goal and Field Goal block teams can use linemen and it is easier, but covering and returning kicks require the end of your roster.  
The object of special teams is simple:  Don't be a catastrophe.  Every coach would accept league average.  Just don't get us beat.  Now, if you can find a great special teams, then your team might erase a lot of other weaknesses.  It could be a beautiful thing.
The Cowboys haven't really been particularly special on special teams since I have been tracking them, but they also have gone several years since they have been a real problem.
Today, I wanted to share a look at the kick teams.  Soon, I will do the same with the punt teams, but not today.
Here first, is the coverage team:

Safeties on the perimeter, Church has the position called "L1" and Wilcox is over on "R1".  Jones and Brown are L2 and R2 to keep speed on the edges, and then you start stacking linebackers and tight ends on the inside for L3, L4, L5 and R3, R4, R5.  Sometimes, they put safeties inside next to the kicker, too.  This time, Jeff Heath has L5.  Usually, the L5/R5 and L2/R2 are the first to arrive, with L1/R1 playing safety, and the 2nd wave behind the 1st, is L4/R4 and L3/R3.
Now, the return team:
Here is the kick return team.  We should point out that the NFL is slowly taking out the kickoff with rules that limit how often you actually need these teams, but for now, we proceed.  
The first line is often going to be linebackers/tight ends/full backs/safeties.  Then, the Cowboys like having a diamond behind the first line of five.  Behind the diamond are the last two, #45 Rod Smith will be the lead blocker for #13 Lucky Whitehead who is barely in the picture.  
These teams change constantly, due to injuries.  I imagine when the bullets are flying, Bisaccia is trying to keep his group intact, given that any injury on offense or defense could have immediate implications to the punt team he has to run out.  Everyone has to know every scenario to keep from catastrophes during the game.  In college, you have a huge roster to account for this, but on Sundays, he has no roster and little time to come up with quick solutions.
For now, the spine of his special teams appears to be:  Kyle Wilber (21 special teams snaps in week 1), Andrew Gachkar (18), Jeff Heath (18), Rod Smith (18), Damien Wilson (18), Byron Jones (15), and Keith Smith (13).  
How is this useful information for you?  Well, of course, you want to know who to credit or debit for big special teams moments, but you also want to know which names down the roster provide added value on gameday and thus keep from being scratched or even released when they need roster room. It is very basic job security for a lot of those names above - provided they do a great job.
Now, on to your emails:
Do you think this new guy, Ryan Davis will bring a spark to the pass rush?
I sure hope so.  I am sure you have seen how this guy - who I am guessing most had never heard of - is instantly the Cowboys career sack leader on the roster with his 11.5 career sacks.  Wow.  He is 27 years old and has played plenty in this league.  The Cowboys do a decent job of targeting names and jumping on them on the waiver wire when they come available at this position.  George Selvie and David Irving both come to mind as guys they see fit their profile (high motor, active players) who can cause commotion.  I have been asked if he is a player this weekend, and while I have no idea, I suggest that he is only here to help in September for now.  So, I would not be surprised if they run solution possibilities right out there in these first four games.  
Would you change the offense at all to take advantage of more Dak skills, like maybe running the read option?
Oh, yes.  And I expect that is already their plan.  They are trying to get him prepared for so many scenarios that they are likely trying to keep things simple, but I expect that will be a real weapon this year before it is all over.  His one "keep" on Sunday was pretty effective.  But, more than anything, it is the threat that he will keep it that is most valuable.  It should keep defenses honest.
At what point would you hit the panic button on Zeke? Is it not alarming that he couldn't produce behind this offensive line?
It surely wasn't a great debut by any stretch and you already know my consternation on the idea of investing so heavily in him.  But, let's slow before we get too carried away on the debuts of Elliott or even Dez Bryant.  It was one game.  Let's chat when it gets to four or five games.  By then, either they have demonstrated their quality or we are panicking.  
People scoff at Week 2 being a "must-win" but isn't it when you consider not just starting 0-2 but being two back in the division?
All along, I was thinking 2-2 in the first four was vital.  I was planning on splitting the first two divisional games and then splitting the next two with the Bears and 49ers.  0-2 would not be ideal, but it also would not be the end of the year.  So, yeah, winning on Sunday would be a real great plan.  But, it will also be a very angry Redskins team that was humiliated on Monday Night in that same stadium.  That should make one optimistic, but it always makes me nervous when you have to play a humiliated opponent.  
Alfred Morris has been the ideal teammate and is producing in limited action. You think he's earned the right to more carries, especially against his former team?
I think Morris is quite an impressive man.  He really says all the right things and then just plays his tail off.  I would be quick to give him a heavy workload on Sunday as it will mean a lot to him to show his old team that they definitely made a poor choice.  The odd thing is, I kind of think they did the right thing.  You see, Morris as a #2 is great.  Morris as a #1 is probably not great.  I think Washington realized that, too.  The real mystery is why Washington really didn't do anything at RB and now they look like they have nothing there.
Is Dak being too safe right now? Seemed like in the preseason when he had nothing to lose he would let it rip to Dez but now he seems a little scared...
I really don't have much concern about this.  His job is to lead drives down the field and then make throws for points.  If Beasley holds his touchdown and Dez holds his, Dak fever is off the charts and the Cowboys scored 27 or so in their opener.  From what I have seen from Prescott, I would not call him "captain check-down" at all.  He did his part.  Now, as he gets more comfortable and as the coaches make adjustments (please, please), getting the ball to Dez in better spots is the goal.
Do you think the Cowboys have enough depth in the secondary? Seemed like once Scandrick went out for a bit last week things fell apart. Is Anthony Brown any good?
I like what I have seen from Brown, but I will grant you that I haven't seen much in a Cowboys uniform yet. I think they have decent depth, but they desperately need Scandrick to be Scandrick again for this to work.  He was victimized badly by Odell Beckham on Sunday and that was quite distressing.  Let's see how he is able to rally from what we are hearing is a small hamstring issue.  If he isn't special this year, things might start to fall apart in that secondary.  Brown seems capable, but they need better than that right now. 
The Cowboys have made a habit of restructuring contracts (and drafting them with an eye toward that possibility). Is this an advisable/sustainable way to allocate resources or does it risk too much dead money if players break down or underperform?
No.  It is not advisable or sustainable.  I don't like it and no team does more of it than Dallas.  In fact, I have even heard them admit that they write contracts knowing they are going to restructure the deal.  Other teams try to go the other way and find ways to do a deal where they pay a ton in Year 1 to make the end of the deal nothing.   But, the Cowboys always have this giant boulder rolling at them - take Tony Romo's deal - and they run to stay ahead of it, like Indiana Jones.  
I don't think that anyone keeps record of this, but I would love to see the league's restructuring standings in the last decade.  It would be a real shock to me if anyone did it more than Dallas does.  This type of business cost them DeMarcus Ware and it always keeps them in a financially tight spot where they never seem to catch up.
Ok, that is the mailbag this week.  Enjoy the game.  The Cowboys can definitely win it, but this one should be another tight game with 5 minutes to go.  Let's hope they make a few plays down the stretch this time.

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