Thursday, December 29, 2016

Marinelli Report - Week 15 - Lions

Dallas Cowboys defensive end Randy Gregory (94) rushes the passer as Detroit Lions tight end Matthew Mulligan (82) blocks during the Detroit Lions vs. the Dallas Cowboys NFL football game at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas on Monday, December 26, 2016. (Louis DeLuca/The Dallas Morning News)
Staff Photographer
Dallas Cowboys defensive end Randy Gregory (94) rushes the passer as Detroit Lions tight end Matthew Mulligan (82) blocks during the Detroit Lions vs. the Dallas Cowboys NFL football game at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas on Monday, December 26, 2016. (Louis DeLuca/The Dallas Morning News)
Don't look now, but the Dallas Cowboys are ranked 12th in sacks.  It happened very quickly, and I don't wish you to be alarmed.  So, allow me to tell you again.  They are top half in the league in getting to the QB in 2016.

How about this one:  In December - a span of 4 games for every team in the league, the Cowboys are at the top of the NFL in sacks with 14 (tied with Joey Bosa and the Chargers at the top, if you want to get technical).  Now, that should remind us that September through Thanksgiving also happened, and during that span, the Cowboys were at a far more normal spot of 25th in the league.  But then they went on a tear.  
A David Irving and Benson Mayowa tear, that is.  3 sacks in Minnesota.  3 sacks in New York.  4 sacks versus Tampa Bay.  And now, 4 more sacks against Matthew Stafford and the Detroit Lions.  14 sacks in December, which is easily their best month in a long, long time.  In fact, they sit at 34 sacks through 15 games.  Assuming they can get even 2 sacks on Sunday in Philadelphia, that would put them at a very nice 36 for the season, which might put them in the Top 10 in the league. It would also exceed any and all seasons since 2011 when DeMarcus Ware, Anthony Spencer, Jason Hatcher, and Jay Ratliff provided this team their last consistent pass rush crew.  
Since 2011, the Cowboys have had years of 34 (2012), 34 (2013), 28 (2014), 31 (2015), and here they sit at 34 again.  
But, that 2011 team used 19.5 from Ware to stack its total high.  The Cowboys have 34 this year, but have nobody with more than 6.  Benson Mayowa is at 6, Maliek Collins is at 5, Tyrone Crawford at 4.5, and now David Irving is at 4.  This is pretty stacked with a number of rushers from different places, and none of them mentioned were DeMarcus Lawrence (1 sack) or Randy Gregory (0).  Those two have had the biggest draft-day investment, but for a number of reasons which are pretty well documented, they have not really joined the party yet.  
But, with Mayowa and Irving leading another show, we saw 94 emerge from the sideline in flashes on Sunday.  Gregory, a tease of all teases, showed us again why I fell in love with grabbing him at pick #60 - warts and all - in 2015.  He is a fantastic body and is so gifted, that you don't need to watch much football to see him jump off the screen on back to back plays on Sunday in the fourth quarter (a quarter that the Cowboys defensive line seems to routinely dominate this season.  They rank 5th in the league in fourth-quarter sacks).
Will he be able to join the team in the playoffs?  To be determined.  But, with Mayowa, Irving, Collins, Crawford, Lawrence, and Gregory, you can see the pass rush is being built with young, team-controlled assets moving forward.  How exciting.
This is a good portion of the report to point out how disappointing the defense looked through 3 drives.  They were being picked apart by the Lions with a series of frustrating plays that ended up in the end zone.  20 minutes into the 60-minute affair, the Cowboys looked like they were putting up their worst defensive night of the season.
Then, adjustments were made.  Deep breaths were taken.  And the Cowboys limited Detroit to next to nothing for the balance of the evening.  
It is certainly no surprise that from there is where the Cowboys started breaking down the Lions' protection and confusing them with an array of back-end coverages.  The Lions can be a slippery bunch, but once they got the Cowboys' attention, the rest took care of itself in short order.
Once again, 22 splash plays.  The volume of big and noticeable plays from the defense this month indicates to me that this is not a team that is playing bend-but-don't-break right now.  They are making too many plays to say that.  It feels more like an attacking defense that is setting the pace itself, since Thanksgiving.  Again, very good signs.
Here is where Stafford got his business done and as you can see, football fans, here is another QB completing passes at about an average depth of 5 yards.  The Cowboys were very strong again against deep balls.  
My only thought here on that chart above is the following - David Irving is NOT a fluke.  
And with Mayowa, they are quite a force.  Let's take a look at this duo again - with some help from their friends - 
Taylor Decker is a very nice player.  He will get better, but the rookie from Ohio State at left tackle for the Lions had a rough night.  Here is Mayowa extending that left arm and then coming back under it to get to Stafford with a power to speed sack.
This one is artwork.  Irving is lined up over center.  Mayowa is out over Decker again.  Sean Lee helps with the stunt to pick off the LT and Mayowa swoops back inside.  The LG is clueless and the center is getting his lunch handed to him by Irving.  They then meet at the QB and Stafford is having a less than enjoyable time with that.  
We see this a lot.  Someone else - Maliek Collins - makes a play.  But David Irving helps cause it.  Look here as Stafford leaks to his right, but then stops, because he sees 95 right in front of his path.  That means he pulls up, allowing Collins to run over him from behind.  96 gets the sack, 95 gets noted for contribution.
Here are a few Randy Gregory flashes.  This one looks like the Lions forgot to block him and he destroys a run play.  But, look closer.  It is actually because David Irving caused problems inside that kept the pulling guard from getting to Gregory.  Irving keeps Gregory clean, and 94 destroys the play.  Again, David Irving, guys. 
This one is another example of Gregory's athleticism and why he will be useful for a long time around here if he can focus on football.  Great pressure here and Stafford is running for his life in the second half.
And finally, this week's "David Irving is playing at an unfair level" play of the week.  Poor 75-Larry Warford is victim of the push-pull technique and then Irving is by in a flash and doing his thing, which, as you know by now, is not to get a sack.  It is to knock the ball loose while getting a sack.  
Amazing month for this kid.  What a find.
The Cowboys have found a defensive line.  Nobody move.  
I know this Marinelli report was shorter than usual, but the good news is clear.  This defense is playing great football right now in December and that should cause everyone to want to run to the playoffs as soon as possible.
Enjoy the remainder of your holiday weekend.  I have a plane to catch.  Talk again soon.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Decoding Linehan - Week 15 - Lions

On the night after Christmas, the Cowboys had the entire league in front of televisions, ready to give the NFC's No. 1 seed a critical eye to see where weaknesses would appear.
The verdict is to hope that the Cowboys team that shredded the Lions' defense cannot be found in January, or the rest of the league may not even bother to try to take it down. For on this occasion, there was almost nothing the Cowboys didn't do well.
First, keep in mind that this Detroit defense had not surrendered 21 points in a game since Week 6. So to allow a season-high 42 points to Dallas, which seemed to be able to name its final score, was a rather impressive show of strength by the Cowboys.
Then to see the efficiency (the Cowboys only attempted 21 passes) and diversity (they used a season-high 11 different personnel groupings and variations) with a number of options they had not previously shown the league, it all appeared as a message sent to the Lions -- and more so to the rest of the NFC -- of "come and get it."
The Cowboys' offense has answered charges of growing stale, predictable, and even careful from two weeks ago, and now after seeing them shred the formidable Tampa Bay and Detroit defenses like they did -- 68 points, 824 yards of offense and just one turnover (a very rare Jason Witten fumble) -- it appears one could argue they are once again peaking at just the right time.
This offense has built a scheme that requires a defense to play everything "honest." That is, if you do not cover what the Cowboys show, they will simply run the play you think they are running. But if you seem to committed to the initial look, they will use your decision-making against you and go in the exact opposite direction of their look. This is what the good offenses can do. They can make you choose, and then your answer will never be right. You cannot cover everything against an offense that can stretch you and pull you in all sorts of directions at once.
This isn't about the Lions or Buccaneers. This is about 15 opponents over four months who have tried to slow the Dallas Cowboys down. We shall certainly give the New York Giants their due, but when you start to study the league stats, you see that the Cowboys -- with rookies at two of the most important spots -- have set the pace for the NFL on offense.
The NFL declares 15 different statistics to measure offensive performances as more significant than all of the others. They are: Yards per game, yards per play, rushing yards per game, rushing yards per play, passing yards per game, passing yards per play, interception rate, sacks per attempt, first downs per game, third-down percentage, fourth-down percentage, red-zone scoring percentage, goal-to-go scoring percentage, time of possession and points per game.
The Cowboys' offense ranks "top five" in 12 of those 15 statistics. Top five! They rank in the top two in six of them. The only three offensive metrics the Cowboys do not rank in the top five of are: passing yards per game (19th), third-down percentage (11th), sacks per attempt (13th). That's it. And we could easily argue that passing yards per game and sacks per attempt are mostly by virtue of not passing in the second halves of games they have in hand. The third-down percentage being as good as it is, with a rookie quarterback, is actually a very impressive accomplishment.
In other words, if you are complaining about the state of the Cowboys' offense and the premise that you think it can be better, allow me to help -- you are wrong. The Cowboys' offense has not ranked in the top-five category of everything in decades. In fact, let me help you on 2014. The Cowboys ranked in the top five in nine of the 15 categories. They were out of the top five in: Yards per game (7th), passing yards per game (16th), interception rate (14th), sacks per attempt (16th), first downs per game (11th) and fourth-down percentage (11th).
It has been some year around here.


A season high in points, yards per attempt, red-zone scoring, and the third-down numbers are back to where they need to be. The Cowboys set the Lions on fire with three touchdowns in each half and just put on an offensive clinic, so much that I had to stop picking plays to highlight below in the interest of time.


Hope you don't mind John making a chart for Dez Bryant. But you want some 20-yard throws for touchdowns? There. Three of them. (We will count the Dez back-shoulder fade as "close enough.")
Dak, once again, never approached the hint of an interception. The fact that a rookie quarterback can throw 23 touchdowns with a 105 quarterback rating and only four interceptions in an entire year of relevant NFL football, while being criticized by a large portion of his own fan base, is truly remarkable. Then you add in the other six touchdowns he has scored with his feet, and you have a 29-to-4 season in the TD/INT department, which generally is known as "Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady" territory. And he is a rookie. Who was picked at No. 135. Evidently, some people would look a gift horse in the mouth.


As you can see above, the Cowboys pretty much expanded their universe to show the NFL a little bit of everything to prepare for, in the event of a matchup with the Cowboys. They shifted groupings, looks and tendencies in a way that made you think they were toying with the overmatched Lions. I am sure they were not that cocky, but it sure started to look that way in the third quarter. They were calling their shots.
Let's take a look at some video to show you what was so impressive. Like I said, we could have looked at 20 plays, but since we are all on Christmas break, let's limit it to my favorite half-dozen:
Motion of Gavin Escobar (No. 89) shifts the Lions to the offense's left. They must respect the run left with Tyron Smith pulling out into space and Escobar setting the down block, or Ezekiel Elliott will punish them. This is a play we have seen, but seldom with the quick pitch element. The fake pitch does a great job of setting the trap, and the Cowboys roll back right, with Jason Witten uncovered and an easy way to get 23 yards off a very basic variation of showing run left and going pass right. If the defense doesn't shift, you run left. If it does, you come back right. They are always wrong.
Here is another view, and on plays like this, it will be the quarterback's decision on what looks best to him. The O-line and even Zeke don't know if they are getting the ball or not. But just look at the movement of the Lions' defenders and listen for them cussing when they realize they just fell into a trap.
Here is a throw that demonstrates that Dak is a good quarterback. Third-and-14. He has to read coverage here, check into the right situation, and then execute an accurate, on-time throw to the appropriate place. I will express again the opinion that good quarterbacks make their throws to places where the math makes sense. That means if he is doing it right, you never see the death-defying throws because he is not trying them. But when he sees a tasty matchup, he makes you pay for a dicey coverage plan. Like here, where they have three to cover three on the left.
Once Witten clears out the lane, it is now just two vs. two, with the Lions looking like they want to zone with the inside defensive back taking the shallow and the outside defensive back taking the deep. But, with leverage and the receivers' paths, there is just no way to close this lane to Brice Butler and the middle safety is not going to get there in time. Dak has to see the options and execute a quick and accurate throw to make this look easy. And he did.
Here are the Lions looking at Cover 1 with a run blitz to try to shut down this 11 personnel run from Zeke. They crowd the line and cover every gap. The problem here, of course, is if you are going to put seven in the box against six blockers, you better get the running back. If he breaks through, he is gone. Most of us said "gone" when Zeke took one step through the hole. There is no way the safety is going to bring him down. It is a deadly game the Lions played here.
Zeke chooses the B-gap between Zack Martin (No. 70) and Doug Free (No. 68), and because the Lions defensive back is taking the C-gap around, this thing is gone. And when you have a running back with a home-run gear, all he needs is a bit of daylight and he will do the rest. Run blitzes against 11 personnel works quite a bit. But that one time you miss, it hurts the scoreboard. Like Russian roulette, you only have to be wrong once.
This is the true test of a quarterback for me. Tony Romo used to make teams look silly in this and now Dak is, too. Empty in shotgun with 01 personnel, or S11-empty. Either way, it spreads the defense out with five targets on the line. You must pick your poison, but a quarterback will have a few options. No. 1, it chases you out of a blitz because it is so hard to disguise it when everyone is spread from sideline to sideline. No. 2, you want to leave a quarterback spy, because this is where a quarterback can look to break contain and move the chains on his own. This is another third-and-7.  So, five wide with a quarterback spy is always going to mean Cover 1. Dak knows Darius Slay is not playing, so he is going to target the overmatched Johnson Bademosi (No. 29). Dez does the rest.
Watch Dak's eyes. He is taking the safety to the other side. He might even go there, but you know in the back of his head he is thinking that Dez is locked up in man coverage against a guy who is only on the field because the Lions have no other choice. At worst, he will draw a flag. At best, he will get a touchdown. How about both?

Here, 12 personnel. This is the Lucky Whitehead end-around. But this time, Dez plays the role of Whitehead. Probably because he is a left-handed passer, right? Well, this one definitely felt like something the Cowboys wanted to get out there to show the league for January preparations.
As you can see, Witten's man is thinking end-around, so he has to shed his block and get to the corner. And of course, when that happens, it is Witten who is five yards clear of everyone.
He must have wondered why he shed Witten so easily. Again, this is scheme and execution working together in perfect harmony.
And finally ...
A few weeks ago in this space, after the Giants game, we talked about the fact that the back-shoulder fade had disappeared. Why? Dak had hit Dez with it a number of times earlier in the year, and what better way to punish tight coverage? Well, they brought it back. This was the cherry on top, and it is a huge confidence builder that this can appear at any time again. This needs to be a big throw for Dak moving forward.
Again, Dak looks to the opposite side and then comes back. With great protection (again), this has the time to develop, and then Dak allows Dez to use his strength and body position to make this easy.


Given that Sunday should see a lot of regulars on the sideline for big parts of the game, this served as the last real rehearsal before the playoffs. And what a rehearsal it was. With nothing on the line against an opponent that had plenty, the Cowboys toyed with and destroyed the Lions with a flick of the wrist. Every component is operating at a high level and benefiting from the others.
This is not to say that they will never hit a rough patch. But it is to say that we see what happens when scheme meets execution. To go back to what we were saying in this space in October -- this appears repeatable and sustainable.
And if they roll out anything close to this, their playoff run will be lengthy.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

The Morning After - Cowboys 42, Lions 21 (13-2)

Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant (88) celebrates with wide receiver Terrance Williams (83) and quarterback Dak Prescott (4) after throwing a 10-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jason Witten during the second half of an NFL football game against the Detroit Lions at AT&T Stadium on Monday, Dec. 26, 2016, in Arlington, Texas. (Smiley N. Pool/The Dallas Morning News)
Staff Photographer
Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant (88) celebrates with wide receiver Terrance Williams (83) and quarterback Dak Prescott (4) after throwing a 10-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jason Witten during the second half of an NFL football game against the Detroit Lions at AT&T Stadium on Monday, Dec. 26, 2016, in Arlington, Texas. (Smiley N. Pool/The Dallas Morning News)

The Morning After

There is no reasonable way to know where this journey will take the Dallas Cowboys. Too many variables -- many of which the team has no control of -- are going to randomize in ways that will create smiles and frowns. In the end, the Cowboys will attempt to control what they can control and hope that is good enough.

That is the reality where right now, there is a sense of real accomplishment with the 12 "soon-to-be" playoff teams that are going to participate in the postseason, the goal of every team that tapes ankles in July. Everyone just wants to get into the playoffs and then receive a smile or two from Lady Luck. But the reality remains that of the 12 to earn postseason berths, 11 (or 91.6 percent) of them will have their seasons end in pain and agony.
The 2016 Dallas Cowboys may be one of those teams. There is no escaping this.
But when it comes to checking all of the boxes and answering all of the questions on their way to this unpredictable January, this team has passed those tests with flying colors.
Last night, against a Detroit team that was awfully incentivized to play some inspired football and came out with its guns blazing, the Cowboys took some real punches early before stepping on the gas, and then their opponent, with ease on their way to their 13th victory of the year. It was a win that included all of the normal trimmings of Cowboys victory. It starts with an offense that seems to be able to score every time it touches the ball and fret more about who gets to score each time, rather than whether they actually can punch the ball in.
From there, it takes us to a defense that is able to build energy as the game goes on, along with pieces that are far from household names. But in a way that reminds us of the Giants teams of a decade ago, the high-energy players up front seem to get fresher as the game goes along. Most weeks we assume that is a deep rotation, but on this occasion, the Cowboys only had five defensive linemen available for much of the evening. This put some of those players -- including the incredible David Irving -- at 67 snaps. This type of work slows most explosive line players to a crawl, but his energy level (as well as those of his mates) continues to impress late in games, when they may pin their ears back and go get the quarterback again.
And, lest we forget when they do something positive, let's mention this coaching staff -- one that has hit the right notes on many occasions this year. About 13 days ago, in this space, I mentioned we were going to learn plenty about what they (and the front office) are all about when it comes to a steady hand on the helm of a very promising season. Would they panic under the duress of the Vikings-Giants road trip and overreact with nonsensical decision-making, or retreat to a position of risk aversion?
They would not, it turns out. They would not settle for field goals when touchdowns were waiting for them if they were willing to roll the dice on third-and-14. They would not start playing into tendencies and allowing defenses to key against them. They would not dumb down the offense for a rookie quarterback who might have been hitting a wall or, at least, showing the effects of being questioned publicly by his own boss.
Instead, Jason Garrett and Scott Linehan asked Dak Prescott to step up and play his best football during this mini-homestand against two teams that would likely be in the playoffs if they could beat the Cowboys in AT&T Stadium. The results are pretty clear. Now, because the Cowboys' offensive machine handled them both, neither may play past next week.
Prescott has put up some of his best numbers in the past two weeks, including hitting on 47 of the 56 pass attempts that left his hands. His credentials have been questioned by countless voices for a myriad of reasons, and all he has done is play his best football when the noise got the loudest. Allow me again to do something I have done time after time this season, and ask who this guy is, and how did this all happen? His story was already crazy back in September. To not collapse under the noise in the past 14 days was something. But to seem him put his best football out there, where he seems to be seeing blitzes and understanding the best audibles to punish opponents without mercy, is just mind-boggling.
Whether people see it or not, the verdict is in. This kid is the real deal. And while he may not be holding a huge trophy in a month, he appears to give this franchise the hope that they have found a diamond at the most important position to lead their team for years to come.
But that is just the thing: he may be holding a trophy in the next month. It has taken him just one season to help (considerably) put this franchise in a spot where it hasn't been since 2007. And if they can pull off a win in three weekends -- just one, in which they will likely be a heavy favorite -- Prescott can raise Dallas to the heights of an NFC Championship Game. This is a place the Cowboys have avoided since 1995, and because of the results from September through December, they now are just able to rest and recuperate, and wait to see which lowest surviving seed is charged with coming to North Texas to tangle with this machine in its own building.
His play is enough to make us think this is the story of a rookie quarterback, but in reality, it is the story of a roster that has been built from within -- at last check, of all of the NFC teams, only Green Bay has more "homegrown" players on its roster. This means the Cowboys have turned their back on the "get rich quick" schemes of free agency and vagabonds from elsewhere. They have developed their own talent from within and built a wealth of talent that has only ever called Dallas home and grown into a group with resolve and unified agendas.
The offensive line is the calling card of this operation, and when one looks around the league, it is easy to see that Prescott has a massive advantage over the countless teams that have assembled skill-position talent but forgot how to protect it. Dallas has no such problem, so the quarterback can stand back there and feel comfortable that he will seldom get blindsided into a fumble. Heck, when bored, they can even allow the franchise wide receiver to throw for a touchdown.
Now, maybe the biggest surprise is the oncoming defense. For reasons that remain somewhat unclear, the athletic monsters on the defensive front are all being unleashed simultaneously in December. Irving showed signs earlier in the season but now appears to be a week-to-week force.  Benson Mayowa was signed in March but took the scenic route through the doghouse before becoming a guy who now creates havoc each weekend. And, lo and behold, they are joined by yet another physical marvel in the Cowboys' second-round pick in 2015 who was all but gone, as Randy Gregory looks shot out of a cannon and is making a difference.
Everything isn't all about smiles. Left tackle Tyron Smith looks like he may have a knee situation that won't help his dominance, which, admittedly, has not quite been as dominant as it has been in previous seasons. And the road to Houston may include some very daunting opponents, depending on how things shake out this upcoming weekend.
But regardless, that can wait a day or week. This team has earned the right to insult the Philadelphia game with a list of healthy scratches that includes any and all Pro Bowlers. They have literally done everything they can to stack the odds in their favor for January.
It has been a tremendous year and now, the second season awaits. This is a test that only requires two wins at home to end up in the Super Bowl, but that is a much larger task than it sounds this morning.
The job they did last night just continues to serve as an example of what this team is all about. Take care of business and move on to the next one. The Lions came out breathing fire. The Cowboys felt the challenge, stomped on it, and then enjoyed another casual fourth quarter.
This is some team.