Tuesday, November 08, 2016

Decoding Linehan - Week 8 - Cleveland


Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott (21) runs the ball against the Cleveland Browns during the second quarter at FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland, Ohio on Sunday, Nov. 6, 2016. The Cowboys won 35-10. (Rose Baca/The Dallas Morning News)
Rose Baca/Staff Photographer
Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott (21) runs the ball against the Cleveland Browns during the second quarter at FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland, Ohio on Sunday, Nov. 6, 2016. The Cowboys won 35-10. (Rose Baca/The Dallas Morning News)

Decoding Linehan

Sunday was one of the least dramatic games the Cowboys have played all season. The Cowboys went touchdown, punt, touchdown, touchdown, touchdown and touchdown on their first six drives Sunday (not including the kneel going into halftime) and drove a quick and decisive stake through the hearts of the Browns on their way to yet another big performance on offense.

They had another 400-yard offensive day which, according to my notes, is the first six-game streak of 400-yard games in Cowboys history. Of course, last week, their five-game streak also was the first such streak in team history. These are rather historic times.


What numbers above stick out the most? The 9.1 YPA? The 67 percent on third-down conversion rate? The 80 percent in the red zone? Forty minutes of time of possession? Is this real?
They had Cleveland in the palm of their hands all day. Every single look they gave the Browns made Cleveland do one thing and Dallas countered with the other. They were two steps ahead all day.
Let's take a look at some of the major damage from Sunday to figure out why it all looked so easy:
So here is Jason Witten's touchdown from the first drive. This is a great way to defeat zone coverages with a route combination where the outside man -- No. 83, Terrance Williams -- and the in-line tight end -- No. 82, Witten -- cross each other's path at about 15 yards. Williams is running a post to the inside and Witten a deep out. The outside corner continues on with Williams and the linebacker does not get enough depth to stay with Witten. Tough to tell who busted, but clearly, leaving Witten that wide open is a really bad plan. Easy route, nice throw to keep it in bounds and a very disturbing start for the Browns on defense.
Same play -- just watch Dak Prescott's eyes. He is holding the safeties in the middle as he scans the field.
Well done.
Second quarter, back the other way. Here is that wide-open play to Beasley. But why? Because, on the stack with Dez Bryant, the Browns have a classic "3 over 2" to defend with a triangle. The problem is, Cleveland is sitting on Beasley coming inside and Dez going outside. They practiced it and studied it and haven't seen the Cowboys go the other way. But then they did. Dez took the inside and it drew all three guys. Or, the shallow man is so unclear on leverage that Beasley made it look like high school. Either way, with Beasley usually able to run an option route based on leverage at the goal line, he popped open in a way that he likely couldn't believe. The Browns look lost again and the Cowboys look smarter. But, it is all about design and deception with going against tendencies.
First play of the second half. This time, it is a pitch-left zone play with the fake pitch roll-out the other direction to hit Witten or Geoff Swaim on that multi-level tight end play we have seen a thousand times this season. Here, Swaim gets stuck, but Witten gets behind his defensive back with ease and, since the safety is playing Ezekiel Elliott honestly, it's off to the races again for big No. 82. Again, you may say these are easy throws, but you may also notice that Dak doesn't miss them. Rookie quarterbacks are supposed to waste open chances like this. He doesn't.
... 14 personnel? One running back and four tight ends (with a sixth offensive lineman), and here we have play-action with Witten headed to the post. He draws both defensive backs who are playing the pass, so Gavin Escobar sells his pass protection and then bursts into the end zone all by himself. Now, this is a pitch and catch Jerry himself might have pulled off. But, again, the play is designed to make you think the ball is going to Zeke first, then Witten. Escobar is simply a change-up off the change-up.
Now all of those plays are deception-based. These are just great football plays:
Here is a zone play where the idea is that the backside guys -- Tyron Smith, Ron Leary, Witten and Williams -- all want to help the flow continue to their right. If it works, a backside cut from Elliott will either leave him all alone, or result in a one-on-one matchup vs. some poor defensive back who has no support and must bring Elliott down in the open field by himself.
We call this a mismatch. You could give that poor guy -- Briean Boddy-Calhoun, who wears No. 20 for Cleveland -- 10 shots at this and I wouldn't fancy his chances much.
Finally, here is one of those throws that wasn't wide open. It was third-and-6 and the Cowboys needed Dak to stand in there, deal with some pressure and deliver a seam throw in a rather tight window to Beasley -- just to show he can do it. That is a very nice throw, and I thought you might like to see it.
It's easy for everyone to reduce this performance down to just "the Browns are bad," but I think that is only half the story. If you scheme your guys wide open because they are too worried about Zeke or Dez, or the threat of Dak moving the chains with his feet again, that is not defensive incompetence -- it's offensive might being realized. In other words, it is what an offense that is well-coordinated and well-staffed with talent dreams about. Everything works because everything works.
Do not reduce this to the opponents being Keystone Cops. They don't look like that against everyone, but the Cowboys are so powerful and balanced that it makes teams react poorly as a matter or routine.


Here is the John Daigle-made grid that demonstrates the targets Dak found Sunday. A few misses on a weird day for Dez Bryant and he missed Witten once or twice, too. But again, another day when there were many completions and no real threat of turning the ball over. What a season.


This was a game the Cowboys entered once again emphasizing the idea of being in "12" personnel as their default early-down look and maybe even mixing in a little "13" or "14" if they wished. They want the Browns to try to have everyone thinking run, so that at the time of their choosing, they can sneak a tight end behind those run-hungry defenders and get something big -- like they did Sunday.  
Remember, multiple tight ends are the ideal way to run a balanced offense, especially if they are threats down the field -- as the plan certainly must have been when they spent second-round picks on Anthony Fasano, Martellus Bennett and Escobar back in the day. Too big for a defensive back and too quick for a linebacker to cover, but they can stay in and block well and open up running lanes. Unfortunately, we are in 2016 and there still is only Witten on routes down the field. But Swaim has been very solid and James Hanna is returning soon. Escobar? He had his first catch of the season Sunday, but maybe he can do more, too.
For fun, since everyone hails 2014 as the season to end all seasons (see what I wrote yesterday about the over-glorification of that season being a bit much), I thought I should compare the two seasons through eight games.
SEASONPointsRush YdsPass Yds1st D3rd DTOPTurnovers
20142131,2891,92118259 of 10632:5215
20162231,3221,97019946 of 9933:336

Pretty crazy how close everything really is -- 2016 has a slight edge everywhere but third-down conversions. Those first eight games in 2014 were off the charts and in 2016, the Cowboys are still near the top in third downs -- just not quite to those same heights.
Uncanny and unexpected that two rookies could roll in and match arguably the Cowboys' best season in two decades.


Nothing earth-shattering here. Just an all-time Cowboys record for production with yet another 400-yard game and another 35-point performance.
In other words, if they are looking for a good spot to slide Tony Romo back in, Dak is not making that available. There is no way to know if he is motivated by this urgency, but either way, the bar is so high right now that it would be borderline absurd to mess with anything this offense has going. And make no mistake, if they do go back to Romo -- while he may be top-notch -- the Cowboys would not do many of the same things they have been riding to success at this point.
They would have to tailor the offense back to him and the preservation of his health. The idea that you can accomplish that while keeping this train speeding down the track doesn't seem terribly likely at this point.
But, things change quickly in this league. You think you know something, and then reality hits you with another idea. So, we shouldn't assume we have seen every twist and turn by Nov. 8.
There will be more.

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