Friday, July 29, 2016

DMN Cowboys Mailbag - July 29

Dallas Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett runs with his team between drills during the first practice of training camp on Thursday, July 30, 2015, in Oxnard, Calif. (Smiley N. Pool/The Dallas Morning News)
Dallas Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett runs with his team between drills during the first practice of training camp on Thursday, July 30, 2015, in Oxnard, Calif. (Smiley N. Pool/The Dallas Morning News)
Here we go again.  For me, it is Dallas Cowboys Training Camp #19.  I have certainly picked up on the patterns of optimism, high hopes, and "best shape of his life" descriptors.  It happens every year at this time, and frankly, since camp has moved from Wichita Falls and San Antonio to the Pacific Coast, I will confess to enjoying every bit of it (with my fish tacos).  

I personally won't leave until Sunday, but that leaves me plenty of time to enjoy a nice Cowboys mailbag with you folks.  Let's see what you have on your Cowboys mind today:
Q:  Cowboys went 12-4 in 2014 without much of a pass rush. Is there too much concern going on there?
Well, first of all, I don't think you can ever have too much concern about not having a pass rush.  If this has evolved into a passing league, then you better figure out how to stop a passer.  From there, we can discuss the finer points of accomplishing that, but at the core, you better not allow a passer to stand back there all day and try to pick you apart.  The Cowboys simply did not do enough to put pressure on the passer in 2014, but it didn't matter too much.  In 2015, they actually did better at getting to the passer on a "per pass" basis, but it still wasn't close to enough to turn games.  
Now, they lose Greg Hardy's pass rush and his attention he attracted.  Don't fool yourself on Hardy; he was being double-teamed a lot which made everyone else's job easier.  This year, Tyrone Crawford and DeMarcus Lawrence aren't going to be left alone very often.  Then, we have the stupidity of the suspensions to consider.  This could be a very poor group where the career sack total of any Cowboys defender on the roster is 9.5 (Orlando Scandrick and the likely-departed Rolando McClain).  Ouch.  The real hope has to center around Benson Mayowa. He has some signs of being a decent edge guy.  Otherwise, the group looks very light in this regard and I think it has to be the top concern after Romo's health.  So, no, I don't think too much is made out of it.  
Q: Do you think with Scandrick back and Byron Jones being an up and comer that the Cowboys' secondary is solid enough to perhaps force some coverage sacks?
Ok, now this a good follow-up.  The return of Scandrick should be great.  Last year, they tried to replace Scandrick with Tyler Patmon, Corey White, and Terrence Mitchell.  If you are struggling to find any of those guys on this year's depth chart, it is ok - they aren't on there anymore.  I often wonder why they sent Patmon away (I thought he was decent), but the bottom line is none of them came close to approaching the levels of excellence in the slot that Scandrick provides.  Additionally, he is one of those voices on the sideline that make a difference that every team needs from its veterans.  You may see that there aren't a lot of voices on defense that have credibility, so I think Scandrick does that trick.  
Additionally, Byron Jones at free safety is another fantastic opportunity for a major upgrade.  I thought the times he played there in 2015 were all sufficiently solid with hopes of him growing into something very nice back there.  The problem was - partly thanks to Scandrick - that they needed Jones everywhere else in the secondary for most of the year.  But, I think I like him better at FS than at corner.  He can be a good corner, but I think he can be a great safety, and I don't think this team has been great at safety in ages.  
Now, do either of those moves help the pass rush up front?  It certainly can't hurt.  The secondary is still going to depend on the ability to cover well and if you want to send extra pass rushers, then you are likely going to need more man coverage behind it and that hasn't always been great for Dallas.  The good news is that they played a ton of Cover 1 last year and did it pretty well.  Now add Scandrick and Jones at their spots and maybe it just gets better and better.  We can hope that.  And if it is true, the QB holds the ball longer and that helps the boys up front to get some heat there.  We shall see.
Q: Have all these defensive problems for the Cowboys changed your opinion of how the NFC East is likely to shake out?
For sure.  The Cowboys have taken themselves out of a good spot with their own stupidity with as many as 24 games of suspensions.  This leads to a weaker front.  This leads to fewer stops.  And this leads to issues in winning the NFC East which needs to be priority #1 in 2016.  
It is obviously too early to speak with any certainty because now we wonder down this 6-week path where at any moment, any of these teams can suffer a massive personnel loss for the year when a knee blows out.  
But, my July 29th feeling is that the Cowboys and Redskins are the two best teams in the division.  The Giants are a close 3rd and the Eagles a distant 4th.  I think the Redskins are going to be a real issue this year as their roster build has come along nicely for sure.  But, Dallas still has as good a chance as anyone.  
However, they also seem to have the fewest insurance policies if you look at where they are "covered" for disaster.  So, from that point, Dallas seems to have the largest range of possibilities this year.  11-5 or 5-11?  Tell me how Romo's attendance record is.
Q: With such a wealth of talent on the OL, would it make sense to try and move somebody like a Chaz Green and a future draft pick to perhaps get some legit DL help in here? Or is a trade not really feasible?
I would just like to confirm that Chaz Green is an actual pro football player before we examine his trade value.  He really needs to establish some level of performance in the NFL for the Cowboys to believe they have a sufficient swing tackle.  After all, they spend a 3rd rounder on the guy, so he better be decent.  But, for now, the Cowboys drafted him 15 months ago, in front of RBs that might have allowed them to feel better about that position (Matt Jones, Jeremy Langford, Jay Ajayi), which would have allowed them to use pick #4 on something more practical.  Nevertheless, they need Green to be good enough to handle actual snaps in the event that either of their tackles miss a month or more - which is a reality that many teams face every year.  
We are now hearing La'el Collins trade rumors (likely started by media people) and of course Ron Leary rumors are there, too.  Clearly, trades are rare in the NFL.  And we have no idea what is out there, but teams are rarely giving up pass rushers.  I am into the idea if you can fix your DL with your OL depth, but these things are seldom available in the NFL.  Especially a month before cut-downs.  
Q: Do you think the Cowboys' offense can handle the expectations of having to outscore opponents week in and week out? Seems like in 2014, the expectations weren't there, it just kind of happened.
I don't like that plan very much.  It may be the only plan around here, but I don't think there are too many cases where you just "out-score" your opponent.   They will need takeaways and sacks to make that work, in my opinion.  If this league was "make it, take it", we might have that ability.  But, for now, I think we see that this is a decent regular season philosophy and a poor playoff philosophy.  Teams like Green Bay have been trying to "outscore" their opponents for years and it worked in 2010, but since they have been hit in the mouth in the playoffs by great defenses from San Francisco, Seattle, and Arizona.  A good defense will eventually slow you down and you need to have all 3 phases working to have a chance to advance.
Q: Is there a DL that you think could help out pass rush wise that's maybe flying under the radar?
Yes.  Benson Mayowa is that guy.  Here is my study on him from when the Cowboys got him from Oakland for that offer sheet back in March.  I also think that when he gets healthy, Maliek Collins should be great fun from the inside.  Here is my write-up on Collins from May.  
I think there is far more information in those two links than I could provide here.  Take a look at each of them and then allow your optimism to run wild.  They will both get big chances this year and they both have plenty of ability.  David Irving is another to keep an eye on for sure.  
Q: Will you be going out to Oxnard? If so, what will you be keeping an eye on in camp?
Beyond golf in 65 degrees and fish tacos, I will be looking at plenty.  Obviously, there are all sorts of things to consider, and I will have a full breakdown for Monday morning for you.   But, QB2, WR depth, the new additions to the secondary, and of course that defensive front are all considerations.  Mike LB and who is the new version of Rolando McClain is likely a question that has no answer right now.  
Q: Do you think it would make sense to bring in somebody like Dwight Freeney if he wouldn't cost too much? Think Freeney would take a one-year deal?
Yes.  I think Dwight Freeney should be signed today.  Although, given his ability and the league's need for pass rushers, he has lots of leverage.  You are not doing him a favor by offering him the minimum.  Also, he likely has no use for a full training camp.  So, if Dallas wants him - which I am sure they do - they would have to bid big right now.  More than likely, they will evaluate what they have on campus and then around Aug 15 or Aug 20, prepare to bid against any team that loses their pass rushers in camp (Washington is already on that list).  But, yes, Freeney could fix a lot of what DeMarcus Lawrence has messed up for September.  
Q: Do you know what the NFL suspension protocol is? How many tests do you have to flunk to get suspended for a year like Josh Gordon did? Would seem Gregory is approaching that.
If I am not mistaken, it is your 5th failure that gets you the year.  I think Gregory just missed his 4th.  Clearly, this is getting to a point where we are silly to assume he is ever going to get things worked out.  
Q: Do you think Randy Gregory will play for the Cowboys this season?
I really don't.  Nor, do I think Rolando McClain will, either.  It has not been a great year for the Cowboys rehab projects.  

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Cowboys Defensive Film Study Summer Project - Part 4


All hands were on deck again in Green Bay, now with four games to play.  The Cowboys put up an amazingly silly offensive performance that saw 12 possessions only advance to their own 40 yard line on 2 occasions.  They got nothing done at all, which left the defense on the field all day long.  The Packers ran 81 plays for 435 yards and an mauling 230 yards on the ground, despite having their own massive offensive issues in the passing game where Dallas held up very well.  Basically, the Cowboys stayed in Cover 1 (out of a Cover 2 shell) and then the Packers responded by taking what they could on the ground and only passing as a change-up.

Green Bay (like Atlanta) employed the physical FB right at the LBs and this is a game where the Cowboys were certainly accused of being to light up front to stop a big rushing attack.  It didn't help that by December, Sean Lee and Rolando McClain looked beat up and physically worn down from the long year of ground and pound.  Meanwhile, Claiborne left he game again injured, which took Byron Jones from FS back to corner, and Wilcox or Jeff Heath played deep in the 2nd half.  Time of possession was 38-22, GB, and the Cowboys just looked beaten up by their own offense's incompetence.  It truly felt like the last game of the season with 3 pre-season games to follow.

COVERAGES - The Cowboys wisely dedicated all troops to the run (it also was rainy and cold) and forced Aaron Rodgers to try to sort through some Cover 1 Robber most of the day.  It worked pretty well, as the Cowboys were only really beaten in the air by a few well-timed screen plays to RBs.  40 pass play situations with Cover 1 - 26 times, Cover 3 - 9 times, and Cover 2 zone on 5 change-ups.  It should be noted the Cowboys used a ton of Cover 2 shell to disguise their Cover 1/3 intentions.

Season totals through 13 games - Coverages in 479 pass plays: 235 in Cover 1 (49%), 120 in Cover 3 (25.1%), 11 in 2-Man (2.2%), 112 in Cover 2 (23.3%), and once in Cover 0.


The Cowboys played the Jets on a Saturday Night without Mo Claiborne (Again) and without Rolando McClain who fell late in the 4th Quarter of the Green Bay game.  That means Hitchens would play the mike LB and Byron Jones would head back to cornerback, meaning Wilcox and Church would handle the safety spot again.  Terrance Mitchell ended up playing the slot corner spot and grabbed a very rare Cowboys interception.  The game was more of the familiar theme of the team getting beat in the turnover game, the offense providing very little, the defense being on the field too long, and then conceding a 4th Quarter collapse that resulted in losing the lead late and the game at the end.

They tried to key on the run (plenty of 3 LB sets with Wilber at the SAM after many games where that position hardly gets on the field) and send the extra safety (Church) down at Chris Ivory and actually did a nice job there.  Behind it, it was pretty clear they weren't trusting the team to stay in Cover 1 much, and therefore tried the safer Cover 3.  Unfortunately, Brandon Marshall and the gang knew how to kill Cover 3 all day (with outs and posts), so eventually, they played more Cover 2 which then gave up plays underneath to tight ends.  They simply did not have their first choices at pretty much every spot except Carr.  DeMarcus Lawrence continued his growth with some really impressive run stops, and Hitchens performance was uneven at the mike as I don't know that scraping is his forte and shedding is no picnic, either.  He will run with guys, but power seems to lack at point of attack.  The defense is really running on fumes now and they are getting work for many players just added to the roster in the secondary.  There was a major mix-up late in the game that cost them the win when coverages were confused and it appeared Byron Jones took the blame for the bust.

COVERAGES - Ryan Fitzpatrick passed for 299 yards and aside from his one error in judgement had a very efficient and impressive night.  44 pass plays situations - Cover 1 - 13 times, Cover 3 - 14 times, and Cover 2 zones the other 17 plays.

Season totals through 14 games - Coverages in 523 pass plays: 248 in Cover 1 (47.4%), 134 in Cover 3 (25.6%), 11 in 2-Man (2.1%), 129 in Cover 2 (24.6%), and once in Cover 0.


The Cowboys went to play Buffalo with no Mo Claiborne (who had now been shut down for the year) and no Jeremy Mincey.  No Claiborne combined with the fact after Byron Jones had a major bust late against the Jets meant that they were going to stick him in his now permanent home at Free Safety once and for all.  Of course, that meant that they were going to have to play 29 Deji Olatoye and 21 Terrence Mitchell full time for the remainder of the year because they had no Claiborne, and had already released Tyler Patmon and Corey White into the wild.  Perhaps because of this, the Cowboys broke from their season-long tendencies of using Cover 1 as their primary coverage (or the fact that they were dealing with a Buffalo team that loves to run the ball and features a QB who is a dual-threat.  Cover 1 is not great for stopping the run, so on this day there was a full compliment of zones (Cover 2, Cover 3) behind the fronts.

This game also featured the Cowboys playing with 3 LBs for most of the time on early downs which would also break tendencies where the Cowboys were in nickel almost 70% of snaps all season long. This would also be in the mix for the best game of Sean Lee's 2015.  He had several - all seemed to be on the road - and returned to the top of the Cowboys defender rankings.  He was simply superb in scraping and blowing up run play after run play.  The team also grabbed multiple takeaways for only the third time of the year (at Philadelphia, at Tampa Bay).  But, the story of the game for the defense would have to be collapse late in the 4th Quarter where because of no offensive support, they had to deal with a long drive where Buffalo pretty much just ran it right down the field for the win.

COVERAGES -  with 28 pass situations: Cover 1 - just 3 times the whole game, Cover 3 was 12 times, and Cover 2 was the other 13 (although 2 of those 13 were 3rd and long prevents that looked more like 4-4 zones.  They butchered one of these badly, allowing a pass to the sticks on 3rd and 19 or so - it looked like Olatoye.

Season totals through 15 games - Coverages in 551 pass plays: 251 in Cover 1 (45.5%), 146 in Cover 3 (26.5%), 11 in 2-Man (1.9%), 142 in Cover 2 (25.8%), and once in Cover 0.


The final week of a disastrous year is not a great place to get a feel for a defense.  This had all the trimmings of a "let's just get this over with" performance from the entire roster.  But, in the interest of properly cataloging all 16 games, here are the notes.

First, Barry Church, Sean Lee, and David Irving joined Mo Claiborne in street clothes.  This kept the 2 backup corners on the field at all times and Kyle Wilber got a lot more play at the SAM with Hitchens playing the Will for Sean Lee.  The defense looked positively lost throughout and were sliced up by Kirk Cousins and Colt McCoy.  Combined they had about a perfect performance with a passer rating of 151 and a ridiculous yards per attempt of 10.8 per play.  All told, the defense gave up some season highs in many categories and they looked absolutely lifeless.  The Redskins scored touchdowns on drives of 2 plays, 3 plays, 8 plays, and 3 plays.  In other words, there were big plays on blown coverages all day long.  Tackling was poor and this team looked like it already left for vacation.

COVERAGES -  In 26 passes, they returned to the trend of Cover 1 the majority of the time (18), Cover 3 on 4 occasions, and Cover 2 on 4 others.

Season totals through 16 games - Coverages in 577 pass plays: 269 in Cover 1 (46.7%), 150 in Cover 3 (25.9%), 11 in 2-Man (1.9%), 146 in Cover 2 (25.3%), and once in Cover 0.

Sunday, July 03, 2016

Cowboys Defensive Film Study Summer Project - Part 3

No Sean Lee in this game due to his concussion at the start of the 2H vs Philadelphia.  Scratches were 23 White and 99 Russell.  This game was another frustrating trip through an inept offense putting a beat-up defense on the field repeatedly with no offensive scoring support.  The Cowboys allowed an unreal 5 drives of 8 plays or more to a rather weak offense which demonstrated an inability to get off the field.  There were a few takeaways and a few sacks, but Tampa was able to get 327 yards by pretty much just finding Mike Evans and throwing him the ball.  Otherwise, there was virtually no real threat on the ground and Jameis Winston was inaccurate for much of the day.  The Cowboys also lost Morris Claiborne at halftime who was being victimized by Evans - especially out of Cover 3 - and left due to a hamstring that would keep him out for a month.  Jeff Heath played more than usual and was good.

COVERAGES - The Cowboys really mixed up coverages after a majority of Cover 1 vs Philadelphia.  Tampa played more run groupings and the Cowboys faced 44 pass plays with the coverages divided between Cover 1 (15), Cover 3 (13), and a real uptick in Cover 2-Zones (16).  When in dime in the 2nd half, there were 4 safeties and 2 corners, which might have been showing how they really had no other extra corners besides Byron Jones.  Jones played in every spot in the secondary and was really solid at all of them.  The Cowboys also had 3 other chances at takeaways in the 2Q, 3Q, and 4Q and perhaps could have won had they gotten any of them.

Season totals through 9 games - Coverages in 336 pass plays: 162 in Cover 1 (48.2%), 86 in Cover 3 (25.6%), 11 in 2-Man (3.2%), and 77 in Cover 2 (22.9%).


No Morris Claiborne who was lost in the Tampa game at halftime.  Sean Lee returned.  Scratches were 49 Nzeochoa and 99 Russell.  This game was the return of Romo and everyone had a skip in their step.  It also helped that Miami appeared nearly helpless in the passing game throughout.  Dallas opened in a ton of Cover 1 and the Dolphins tried to run against nickel with 6 bigs but eventually had to throw and when they did they did not beat Cover 1 early.  Eventually, Tannehill hit Jarvis Landry and Ken Stills deep both over Byron Jones at corner (for Claiborne) and the Cowboys decided to move more to Cover 2 options in the 2nd half when they had a lead.  Also, there was at least one sweep against Cover 1 where the Cowboys got outflanked with the corner (Carr) turned his back.

The defense was dominant versus 3rd Down (1-10) and dominant in yards against (210).  They also went and got the ball with a Pick 6 and also found 3 sacks.  There was reason to believe the season was turning in this game.  Rolando McClain was very good.  Byron Jones demonstrated the first signs that he might be a better FS than a corner.  David Irving showed signs at DE.

COVERAGES - The team faced 30 passing plays and were in Cover 1 14 times, Cover 3 just 3 times, and Cover 2 variations for 13 times including 11 out of 16 situations in the 2nd half when they had a lead.

Season totals through 10 games - Coverages in 366 pass plays: 176 in Cover 1 (48.1%), 89 in Cover 3 (24.3%), 11 in 2-Man (3%), and 90 in Cover 2 (24.6%).


No Morris Claiborne again.  The Cowboys were playing a red-hot Panthers team that did not need help from a generous turnover-prone Dallas offense, but they received it.  Many interceptions were thrown and 2 for touchdowns put this game in the loss column without any assistance from the defense.  However, it should be said that the defense was very, very poor on this day and perhaps best exposed to be a bit too light up front to deal with a physical rushing attack.  When the Cowboys went nickel, the Panthers were determined to run into a light box and Dallas was never able to slow it down.  They tried to play a nickel with 3 safeties with Heath joining Church and Wilcox, but the Panthers barely had a single short drive.  Every drive was either 8 plays or a scoring drive or both.

The Cowboys moved to a ton of Cover 3 early to make sure that they were not in man with their backs turned to Cam Newton on passing plays.  This is a departure from the normal zone-read offenses, but Newton is a far bigger threat than Bradford or Tannehill to run.  The Cowboys did not get very positive performances from many.  They faced nearly 40 runs and just could not get off the field on 3rd down.

COVERAGES - 33 pass plays (most in the 1st half before the score got way out of hand.  The Coverages normalized as the game went on, but was heavy Cover 3 early.  Cover 1 - 14, Cover 3 - 11, and Cover 2 zones - 8.  Newton didn't throw much, but hit 4 different passes for 24 yards or more that were all quite deflating.

Season totals through 11 games - Coverages in 399 pass plays: 190 in Cover 1 (47.6%), 100 in Cover 3 (25.1%), 11 in 2-Man (2.7%), and 98 in Cover 2 (24.6%).


All Hands were on deck for this Monday Night matchup in Washington. The Cowboys were going to continue life without Tony Romo again and that led to the shoulder slumping Matt Cassel return. But, the defense was up to the task for the most part and dominated early with a very high number of blitzes and a streak of 5 consecutive punts from the Redskins to open the game. The most interesting attributes in this game were the constant blitzes of Barry Church and trying to get him more proactive in the game. He sometimes appears a decoration on the defense with no perceivable impact in some weeks, but when they deploy him to attack, he seems better for it. He blitzed about 6 times and came up with some splash plays on three occasions. This was also a great look at Byron Jones at Free Safety on a more regular basis and it sure appears between this game and the Seattle game that this is his best fit. Greg Hardy was a load - especially against the run, and it should be noted that the center turns to his side quite often, making us wonder how much more attention Crawford and Lawrence will receive in his absence in 2016.

On the negative side, this was a very poor return by Mo Claiborne. He was very poor against Tampa, left with an injury, missed Miami and Carolina, and now returns against Washington. If he was still hurt, then we will cut him some slack. But, really, his great start has been cancelled out with Jameis Winston and Kirk Cousins both picking on him. Zone or man, it doesn't matter. He is being targeted. I recall his verbal jabs about too much zone and not enough man early in his career, but there are just too many times where he is asked to run with a player and he gets lost. His confidence looks low and he is attacked, including an ill-advised sequence late where he was in cover 1 against DeSean Jackson and a simple Go route was the game-tying touchdown.

COVERAGES - The Cowboys faced 40 passing sequences in this game and went Cover 1 on 19, Cover 3 on 11, Cover 2 zone on 9, and Cover 0 for what I believe was the first and only time of the season at 11:23 in the 1st Quarter.

Season totals through 12 games - Coverages in 439 pass plays: 209 in Cover 1 (47.6%), 111 in Cover 3 (25.2%), 11 in 2-Man (2.5%), 107 in Cover 2 (24.3%), and once in Cover 0.