Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Decoding Linehan - Week 8 - Washington


FILE - In this Sept. 10, 2017, file photo, Dallas Cowboys offensive tackle Tyron Smith (77), center Travis Frederick (72), guard Zack Martin (70) and offensive tackle La'el Collins (71) line up against the New York Giants during a game in Arlington. (AP Photo/Michael Ainsworth, File)
Michael Ainsworth/AP
FILE - In this Sept. 10, 2017, file photo, Dallas Cowboys offensive tackle Tyron Smith (77), center Travis Frederick (72), guard Zack Martin (70) and offensive tackle La'el Collins (71) line up against the New York Giants during a game in Arlington. (AP Photo/Michael Ainsworth, File)

Decoding Linehan

Well, I believe that settles it.

Without being a courts reporter and positive about it, this feels like the end of the road for the unstoppable (or not) Ezekiel Elliott train until Dec. 17, when the Cowboys play the Raiders with merely two games left after that.
Elliott is now set to serve his six-game suspension by the NFL, whether the Cowboys like it or not, and it is clearly the job of the remaining offensive players to continue to be as productive as they can possibly be in his stead. In other words, imagine he suffers from a high-ankle sprain or perhaps a shoulder injury that takes him out for six weeks. What would the team do? How would they handle this in a way that would not end with a 0-6 record in that stretch?
The schedule is daunting. There is no doubt about that. Kansas City (at home), Atlanta (away), Philadelphia (home), the LA Chargers (home), Washington (home) and New York (away). There is some good news in that four of those six games are at home (let's assume for a moment the Cowboys enjoy a fine home-field advantage) and more good news that if the season ended today, only Kansas City and Philadelphia would be playoff teams on that list. But, at 4-3, the Cowboys should not assume that anything less than 4-2 during this stretch puts them in a good spot. Be 8-5 when Zeke returns, and you can still get in and make a serious run (with a very fresh MVP-caliber talisman). Being 7-6 puts you in a tight spot, for sure. Fall to 6-7, and your goose is likely cooked.
So as we look back at the Washington road win, let's see if the offensive line is where it needs to be:


As we indicated yesterday, this offensive performance was about what you would expect in the driving rain. The success of their run game at moving the ball in the second half is probably the highlight, and when you consider a 37-to-23 run/pass split, you should probably have guessed there might be a penalty or two on an offensive line attempting to hold off a defense that knows it is about to see Elliott again.
Above you see the levels we are looking for in total yardage, yards per play, third downs and red-zone efficiency. Basically, if this was a loss or a nice weather day, we would take much more issue with the offensive performance. As it stood, they made significantly fewer big mistakes than their opponent and certainly benefited from offensive line health, which Washington certainly couldn't relate to on any level.


Was this the week you thought Dak Prescott and the passing game were going to get crazy? Of course not. Josh Norman makes Dez Bryant crazy, partly because the results suggest that Norman does very well against Bryant (commercials or not). There was only one explosive play all day -- the dig to Terrance Williams early in the first quarter. Everything else was short and methodical and plenty to win, but nothing big to write home about.
They will need production from their passing game, but Sunday wasn't the day to risk the ball. Just let your opponent self-destruct in the rain.


Looking at the chart above and watching the game reminded me of a nice development that may no longer be totally relevant with Elliott out for six weeks. That is: their ability to run out of 11 Personnel and really take advantage of a big running back and a big quarterback who are difficult to tackle against a defense that is inviting to run into because you still have three wide receivers spreading them out.
Look at this -- 11 Personnel, so you have three wide receivers in on fourth and 1. That means there are only seven defenders for six blockers. The Cowboys leave the edge player unattended and get a hat on a hat inside. From there, Elliott busts through and has nobody in his hole. He gets 4 and almost broke through for more (like he did at Pittsburgh last year). There should be no way to stop this and there should be no reason to pack in jumbo sets when you are in third- or fourth-and-short. This should be the standard plan.
Let's check out some of these other videos and talk a little about the offensive line and its drive-killers. Drive-killers from the O-line standpoint are two things: sacks allowed and holding penalties. Both are just precursors to punts on about 80 percent of cases in the league. If you give up a sack or a hold on a drive, it is just about dead in almost all cases. So, you can't do it.
Sacks allowed through seven games are not an issue. The Cowboys are second best in the league and it isn't because they are never holding the ball. They have given up just nine sacks all year and you would blame one on Prescott completely and another on a botched screen. The other seven are the fault of the two tackles, with Tyron Smith getting beat twice (by Chandler Jones, Nick Perry) and La'el Collins having been victimized five times so far (Von Miller twice, Michael Brockers and Ryan Kerrigan twice).
Five sacks allowed for Collins put him on a pace to surrender 11 sacks. That is very poor, and while it doesn't shake my confidence in his ability, it does suggest that at some point against the elite edges, you may want to consider some help. The Cowboys insist on scat protection -- the front five and no help -- but there comes a point when you concede that Kerrigan is too much for him and offer at least a chip, if not a tight end.
Then, the holding penalties:
As you can see, after Sunday's quadruple holding penalty performance, the Cowboys have zoomed into the range of the dubious league lead in holding penalties against. You know teams are complaining to the league that the Cowboys are holding -- even if they are not. Every team is looking for an advantage and I would imagine the league gets sent video of "how the Cowboys are so good at running the ball." The competition is not just going to concede. They are going to look for ways to slow them down. So, don't hold. Not something you want to lead the league in, at all. Let's look at the video and see what we can see.
Here is Elliott's early touchdown run and man, Jonathan Cooper (No. 64) and Smith (No. 77) are so good here. This is really athletic work for both of them to turn their guys in a fashion where Elliott is literally untouched running to the end zone. This is the type of thing where literally any running back gets in on this. Jason Witten gets across nicely and gets the contain guy centered perfectly. Easy as can be. Unfortunately, the day would get more difficult.
This isn't so great from Cooper (No. 64). Washington's Will Compton (No. 51) dive-bombs inside him and is going to get to Elliott on a play that appears to have no chance for more reasons than just that one. D.J. Swearinger (No. 36) comes out of nowhere from across the defense to get into the gap and Witten likely doesn't see him until it is too late here, either. Doomed play.
Here is Witten on the quick pass to Bryant that was a nice gain on third and long but came back because they caught Witten for getting a handful of Bashaud Breeland (No. 26) at the point of attack. It wasn't much, but when you are out wide in space, a tug of the jersey is easy to see. This is Witten's first holding penalty of the season, so for all of you saying he does this every week, let's check those numbers before getting carried away.
Here is Collins' first issue with Kerrigan, a legitimate top edge rusher in this league who has been doing it every year since he arrived from Purdue. He is that perfect edge who can beat you inside or outside, with speed or power, and will fight relentlessly for three hours every Sunday. Love his game and he has whipped Cowboys tackles for many years. Collins sets a bit outside and once Kerrigan gets even with your hips, you have two choices: hold him or give up a sack. Collins did both Sunday.
You can actually see Collins consider holding him here, then letting him go and surrendering the sack. Kerrigan's outside move is his best and once you give him a sliver of light, he is gone. Collins has to get into his drop faster, but he is still thinking about getting beat inside, too.
Now Kerrigan will use power and just one-arm Collins back into Prescott before getting the sack. This is pretty clinical, but you will see the Cowboys still aren't interested in offering a little assistance here. As you can see, when you are empty, there is nowhere for Collins to hide and no help to be found. He is out there, and if Prescott doesn't get the ball out fast, there will be a problem.
Here is the Tyron Smith hold on Preston Smith on the other flank. You can still see Collins trying what he can to deal with Kerrigan, but now Tyron Smith is having the corner turned on him, too. The Redskins' defensive line is still trying to stay in this. Not a big hold there, but Tyron Smith is in a vulnerable spot when you give up the edge -- something we have seen more of in the past 12 months than at any other part of his great career.
Finally, this holding call really bothered me. They blocked this up really well, but they called Tyron Smith for a hold. His hands are inside and his technique is fine. If you called this hold consistently, you would never see a run play without a flag. This is textbook and way too touchy for my taste. Also, this is a play where you recognize that not any running back could do this. This ability to get to the second level and get to the pylon is unique to Elliott on this roster. The other guys move the chains and get what is blocked, but he kills safeties in the open field with his speed and angles. You have to slow-play him because he is considering crossing your face back to the right, hits the speed and it is over.


Elliott is gone now, so the pressure cranks up for all involved. Prescott has to be better. His line has to be perfect. The running backs have to be strong. The wide receivers have to get open and make plays. Your advantage has shrunk. It will be interesting how the Cowboys respond.
It will start with establishing your physical edge without taking penalties and surrendering sacks. All of the elite pieces that remain on this offense will be tested thoroughly starting Sunday against that very formidable Kansas City front. You may consider building in some help for our guy, Collins, at right tackle.
Buckle up. It's about to get bumpy.

Monday, October 30, 2017

The Morning After: Cowboys 33, Redskins 19 (4-3)

We will never know how the game would turn out if the field goal wasn’t blocked.  The Washington Redskins were rolling along pretty well on offense in the driving rain with the ability to sneak Jamison Crowder into the secondary and Chris Thompson out on the flanks in the first half of the divisional showdown in Washington.

If Longhorn kicker Nick Rose can knock it through the uprights and put Washington up, 16-7 with about 3 minutes to go, nobody knows what will happen from there.  Would the Cowboys choose that moment to get their proverbial act together and march back down before halftime?  Or would their drive chart continue to shout that the offense was not going to be hitting on all cylinders in the rain on this day?

The first ended with a fumble, then a touchdown drive, then a missed Field Goal, then a 3-and-out-punt and the last drive of the half was another 3-and-out-punt.  Had the special teams chosen this game to get their finger prints on the season, the outcome could have been a real disappointment in Washington.

Instead, the special teams made 2 game-shifting plays.  Rich Bisaccia and his crew did what you always want - swing a game that needs to be swung. The first was a magnificently timed blocked field goal of Washington’s attempt to go up 2 scores.  On a wet day such as this, the timing of the snap and the hold and the kick will always be walking a tight rope.  After the Redskins had gotten away with one earlier when the holder, Tress Way, was able to get a bobble down properly, the timing on this one was thrown off in a bad way.  That left an opportunity, and if there is starting to be a trait of this defensive line group that the Cowboys have put together, it is that if you give them an opening, they will often charge through it.

So, the replay shows that Tyrone Crawford deserves the credit for getting his paw up in the path of the Nick Rose field goal attempt and David Irving looked like he was right behind him and might have also knocked a piece out of the football flying by.  Anthony Brown was coming around the end and looked like had just missed it.  Regardless, what is clear is that Washington’s first real moment of missing most of their offensive line turned out to be on trying to kick the field goal late in the 2nd Quarter.  It would rear its head several more times before the game was ended, but that was the moment that they would have liked Trent Williams on that spot instead of TJ Clemmings (who the Cowboys were definitely attacking along with the LG Shawn Lauvao) and maybe Brandon Scherff or Spencer Long inside making sure their line wasn’t over-run by opportunistic Cowboys looking to make a play. 

But, make a play they did.  And the ball spurted back onto the ground inside the Cowboys 10 where Orlando Scandrick thought about heading to his right sideline for a moment before doubling back to the left sideline where he was able to rumble 86 yards for one of the most influential blocked field goal returns in Cowboys history to set the Cowboys up with a vital 1st and goal situation at the Washington 2-yard line. 

A few moments later, Ezekiel Elliott is in the end zone again and the Cowboys have somehow, on one moment where the ball and Tyrone Crawford’s right-hand meet, it appears that 10 points changed hands.  What might have been 16-7, Washington, has now become a Dallas lead of 14-13. 

There have certainly been some big blocked field goals in Dallas Cowboys history – both good and bad – but, the only one of the positive fashion that included a long return in recent history was the game in 2007 at Texas Stadium versus Minnesota.  In that game – known by many as Adrian Peterson’s NFL debut in Dallas – Patrick Watkins scooped up a Ryan Longwell field goal and ran 68-yards for a touchdown late in the 3rd Quarter that was blocked by Chris Canty.  The result of that play was turning a potential 17-14 Vikings lead into a 21-14 Cowboys advantage.  That 10-point play secured the win for Dallas that day like this one did.  We must give Watkins (who I just discovered played 5 additional seasons in Canada – Toronto and Edmonton - after leaving the NFL in 2010 to retire just last winter) the advantage because he made it to the end zone. 

Now, the Cowboys have the lead going into the 2nd half against the battered Redskins and the feel of the contest is 100% different to how it could have felt.  They take control in the increasing rain of the 2nd half with a defensive front that cannot be blocked by what is left of Bill Callahan’s offensive line in Washington.  On 3rd and 9, the Cowboys send 6 rushers and it is too much for Kirk Cousins to have a chance.  Tyrone Crawford breaks in and gets home against TJ Clemmings at left tackle, but he only beat David Irving and Maliek Collins to the QB by a fraction of a second.  The ball comes loose and there is Demarcus Lawrence to recover the ball.  They are finally becoming what the Cowboys have needed most; a relentless group of long and athletic “war daddies”.  There is a group of them now, and after years of fruitless harvests, the crop has all grown together into something remarkable. 

They weren’t done there, of course.  Cousins would be under duress the rest of the day and they would insure that there would be no Washington rally.  By day’s end, it was another 4 sack-performance with Irving getting two, Crawford and Lawrence one each.  From the Cowboys PR staff: “With four sacks in today’s game, the Cowboys defense now has 25 sacks through the first seven games of the season. It is just the fifth time since 1982, when sacks became an official stat, that a Cowboys defense has recorded at least 25 sacks through the first seven games of the season, joining the 1982 (27.0), 1985 (29.0), 1986 (28.0) and 1987 (34.0) teams.” 

Let that soak in for a moment.  This is the first time since 1987 that the Cowboys have been on this sort of sack pace?  Heck, it was so overwhelming again that you were pleased how they made such quick work of what Washington was able to field yesterday.  So much so, that at the end of the game Coach Jay Gruden offered Cousins his appreciation for taking the beating and continuing to fight the whole game.  They knew if the Cowboys brought it yesterday, they would be in trouble. 

To the Cowboys credit, it took them a while to get cooking, but then they brought it.  And it was sparked by their special teams in both that blocked field goal and then early in the 2nd half, after the Cowboys were kicking off after the Lawrence recovery was only converted into a field goal, they knocked the ball loose when Keith Smith hit little Chris Thompson hard enough to put the ball on the ground and that is where Ben Benwikere was able to make his first real impression in a Cowboys uniform by falling on the ball.

When you combine 3 Takeaways and 4 sacks together, you can afford a slightly less impressive day from your offense.  The Cowboys offensive machine slowed a bit due to some infectious penalties and loose precision in the driving rain.  They turned some touchdowns into field goals in a rather uncharacteristic fashion that they will not want to become a trend.  The penalties put them behind the chains and the Redskins brought a strong defensive effort that caused some frustration as Ryan Kerrigan and Josh Norman showed their quality. 

Ezekiel Elliott was as impressive as ever after his first carry turned into a fumble.  But, once he got that out of his system, he turned in another Emmitt Smith-like effort where the yards are inside the tackles, vicious, and always going forward.  Sometimes, there is a lot to get and sometimes he has to make his own 4 yards, but either way, they want him to be a battering ram in weather games and he touched the ball a career-high 34 times for 154 yards from scrimmage.  That is now 644 yards from scrimmage in the four games in October for 7 touchdowns.  Only one player in football has had a better October, Pittsburgh’s Le’Veon Bell has 743 yards and 4 touchdowns, but it took him five games to get there.  In other words, nobody has been better than Zeke’s 161 yards per game in October.

Now, our attention can’t help but wonder about his availability between now and mid-December, because when you are rolling out the most punishing player in the league and he may need to go away for yet another Dallas Cowboys suspension, that will definitely lessen the likelihood that they could win a game like this where the passing game did very little heavy lifting.  I have attempted to avoid this headache topic in this space for a while, but the gravity of the situation as the Cowboys reach the gauntlet portion of their schedule cannot be lost on anyone who is following this organization.

Elliott is what this whole team has been built on and therefore losing him for six weeks would be like a severe injury to any other MVP candidate on any other team.  This one would surely be more self-inflicted, but the effects would seem similar. 

Regardless, the Cowboys needed two road wins in two weeks and they put both away in convincing fashion.  They took a 2-3 start that disappointed and turned it into a 4-3 spot going to November.  That start may have cost them the division, but they have their full health are 2-0 in the NFC East, and have a chance to play the Eagles a few times moving forward. 

The questions for the Cowboys are still to be answered.  The Chiefs, Falcons, and Eagles in succession will address plenty of the questions that the judge doesn’t handle today.

Your guess is as good as mine on what happens next.