Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Breaking Down A Great Drive

Tony Romo is on a tremendous roll right now, playing some of the best football of his career over the last few weeks. It sure seemed that if you combine his mastery of the 4th Quarter against Washington to what we saw in the 2nd half against Miami, there is reason to believe that Romo is rounding into a form that makes him a big threat in the NFC to put the Cowboys in a great spot. The sequence we want to review from the Miami game is all about Romo making play after play at a crucial moment of the contest.

Let's review the 9th Drive of the game here today. At this point, the Cowboys are trailing, have been out-gained badly, have lost momentum, and need to make a statement before this must-win game gets totally away from them. They have barely touched the ball in the 3rd Quarter and now take the ball after the Dolphins have taken a 16-10 lead.

Play #1: 1/10/23 - (3:48) T.Romo pass short left to M.Bennett to DAL 31 for 8 yards (K.Burnett). Pass complete on a "Crossing Pattern."

Cowboys start in "12" personnel. This is worth noting because they never leave "12" the entire rest of the quarter. This is an odd and enlightening idea for Jason Garrett. Seldom does he stay in the same personnel package for any extended period of time, but this time he saw they were getting in a rhythm and stayed with it. 1st Down and the Cowboys have the two tight ends lined up off each tackle in a double wing look. Dolphins are in a man-under coverage so Romo picks out Martellus Bennett going across the field with a LB - Kevin Burnett - in a trail position. Bennett has a step but is tripped up after 8 by a nice ankle tackle.

Non Play: 2/2/31 - (3:08) PENALTY on DAL-D.Free, False Start, 5 yards, enforced at DAL 31 - No Play.

Play #2: 2/7/26 - (2:43) (Shotgun) Romo pass short right to Witten to DAL 35 for 9 yards (K. Burnett)(R.Starks)

This play goes poorly because Kyle Kosier is getting trucked into the backfield by Randy Starks. This causes Romo to throw the ball into a bad area and if there is a moment he would like back, it would have to be this. Vontae Davis very likely should have picked off this pass to Witten, but the jump ball falls into the hands of the trusty Tight End after Romo held the ball for nearly 4 seconds (3.9). Protection and the QB just about ended the drive right here, but instead the Cowboys move the chains and get a fresh set of downs after Romo made a play under duress.

Play #3: 1/10/35 - (2:04) T.Romo pass short left to D.Murray to MIA 48 for 17 yards (V.Davis) [C.Wake]. Pass complete on a "Wheel" route.

Here it is all about Romo being Romo. Pass protection is a mess here as the Dolphins run a double LB blitz from the QB's right side and Tyron Smith guesses wrong in his assignment. He ends up helping Kosier for no apparent reason and the flank is unguarded. This leaves John Phillips to try to block two blitzers, and he doesn't touch Cameron Wake on the outside. Trouble is, Karlos Dansby is blowing him up on the inside, too. Romo is dead here and actually decides to run from Wake to the left and somehow sees Murray out of the corner of his eye on the wheel route and a sure sack turns into a 17 yard gain. There is no way he should be able to make this pass after such a poor protection breakdown. Murray takes the pass in full gallop and gets into Miami territory. Sensational play by the QB.

Play #4: 1/10/48 - (1:41) D.Murray right guard to MIA 44 for 4 yards (K.Dansby).

A standard run/pass option that turns into a Fullback lead play with Phillips helping Murray shoot up for 4 yards on 1st Down. This is a play you will see from many different personnel groupings and formations about 5-6 times per game.

Play #5: 2/6/44 - (1:06) T.Romo pass short left to L.Robinson ran ob at MIA 30 for 14 yards. Pass complete on a "Square Out."

I wanted to point out this play to whatever remains from the "Jon Kitna should start faction". There was a time in the last 12 months where some well-meaning Cowboys fans actually thought Kitna should start in front of Tony Romo. I know they may be hard to identify right now, but trust me, they existed. Anyway, this, right here, is a throw Kitna cannot make. In fact, this, around draft time, is what they call "the NFL throw". It is an out from the far hash mark of his own 48-yard line to the 30-yard line of the Dolphins on a frozen rope to Laurent Robinson from the slot with a corner trying to undercut the route. If the pass doesn't get there, it is a Pick-6 the other way. Romo fires it and verifies his arm strength with ease. Not easy, but it looked easy and the Cowboys are now at the Dolphins 30 as the clock is running down in the 3rd Quarter.

Play #6: 1/10/30 - (1:06) (No huddle) Murray to left end to Mia 30 for no gain. (C.Clemons)

It looks like the Cowboys are hurrying to the line of scrimmage to get a snap off to insure there is no challenge on the pass to Robinson. It is simply a zone play to the left with Phillips in a lead FB spot. The Dolphins string out the play wide, and Murray has to fight to just get back to the 30. Not the smoothest looking run play of the day as Doug Free loses his fight at the point of attack. The Dolphins have DBs crashing hard and there is no gain to be found.

Play #7: 2/10/30 - (:11) Romo pass to short middle and Robinson to Miami 23 for 7 yards (C Clemons) Pass complete on a drag route.

The last play of the 3rd Quarter is a route that we were wondering about a month ago. Where had all of the shallow crosses gone in the Jason Garrett offense? It looks like Laurent Robinson is bringing them back. Still in "12", Tight Ends clear out the shallow linebackers, and now Robinson from the slot takes his man coverage across the middle. Just like the Bennett completion, this is all a matter of leading the man and giving him a chance at a big play, but again Clemons is sound on the tackling and it is just 7 yards.

4th Quarter

Play #8: 3/3/23 - (15:00) (Shotgun) T.Romo pass short middle to J.Witten to MIA 18 for 5 yards (M.Mitchell) [K.Dansby]. Pass complete on a "Crossing Pattern."

At the Quarter break, the Cowboys change personnel packages for the only time in the drive. They switch to "11" personnel and take off a TE in exchange for a WR. Kevin Ogletree and Witten both run shallow routes while Robinson and Bryant head down the field. Again, the Dolphins are in a man-under coverage with 3rd and short. This play is not that far from the play that broke Romo's collarbone against the Giants in 2010. Like that play, they have a check-release call on for the RB. Felix Jones checks for a blitzer and then releases into his route. But, like Chris Gronkowski last year, he didn't see and pick up the blitzer as Karlos Dansby comes free and tries to knock Romo out. Romo keeps his cool and delivers a duck as he is being hammered and Witten barely gets to it and moves the chain before taking down an unsuspecting cheerleader. Surely, this is not something you want to have happen much, but full marks to Romo for hanging in there and making a huge 3rd Down. This is a field goal drive if this play doesn't happen.

Play #9: 1/10/18 - (14:37) (Shotgun) T.Romo pass deep left corner of end zone to L Robinson for 18 yards and TOUCHDOWN. Pass complete on roll left for Romo.

Just a superb play, once again from "S11". Romo stays alive for 5.1 seconds with the ball as the protection is strong against a Dolphins 4 man rush. He then rolls to his left which obviously where he feels most comfortable these days (how many times have we seen it recently?) Robinson comes all the way across the field and Romo is feeling so good that he fires the ball over the head of Witten into the back of the end zone. Again, this requires a very strong arm and pin point accuracy. If the ball is not caught for a TD, then nobody is catching it. Simply phenomenal QB play on this play and the entire drive.

9 Plays - 73 yards - and the Cowboys took the lead again. They would need even another drive later to secure the win, but I just thought this was such a thing of beauty that we should take a harder look at it. Romo was on fire here as the ball never hit the turf.

"I'm not kidding you, that is one of the best drives a QB in the NFL will have this season" - Phil Simms

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Decoding Garrett - Week 11 - Data - Miami

Sometimes, one of the most difficult jobs of an NFL offense is to not "beat yourself". This can manifest itself in many ways, but clearly, the best way to stop a drive is with a turnover, penalty, or to allow a sack.

These three possibilities are called "drive killers" or "drive stoppers" in many coaching circles. Drive killers can make a decent drive into a punt. It can make a TD into a FG. It can take a win and turn it into a loss. Drive killers come in many forms, but here are the numbers in the 2010 season for what drive killers can do to an offense.

In 2010, teams scored touchdowns on only 18% of drives that had offensive penalties. Drives that included negative rushes only resulted in TDs on 14% of the time. Sacks? If a drive had a sack, only 7% would then end up in the endzone with 7 points. And, it goes without saying that 0% of drives with turnovers get touchdowns. I don't have the numbers league-wide for 2011, but I believe that most who follow the Cowboys would confirm that sometimes the best defense is an offense that insists on getting in it's on way.

So, on days like Thanksgiving Day, you understand why coaches go on and on about "not beating ourselves" and getting execution clean and precise. It is really difficult to beat your opponent when you are beating yourself.

Let's take a quick look at the 11 drives:

#1 - Drive ends with a Romo interception intended for Bennett.
#2 - Penalty to Free, Penalty to Ogletree, Punt.
#3 - Drive ends with a Romo interception intended for Robinson.
#4 - Cameron Wake Sack, Punt.
#5 - Clean drive stalls for Field Goal.
#6 - Clean drive goes 3 and out.
#7 - 1 play drive for Touchdown.
#8 - Clean drive 3 and out.
#9 - Penalty to Free, Long drive for Touchdown.
#10 - Penalty to Free, Penalty to Smith, Punt.
#11 - Clean drive for game winning Field Goal.

11 drives, 5 were clean (although 1 of those was a 1 play drive from the 5-yard line). If we operate under the theory that any drive that has a blemish has about a 80-90% chance of failure (according to the league stats), we can then see how much pressure you put on those few drives where nothing goes wrong.

The connections between "negatives" (Sacks, penalties, minus rush plays) all mean that you are setting up a 3rd and long. As we discussed last week, 3rd and 10 or more in the NFL is a play that fails 80%+ of the time. So, minus plays set up low-percentage 3rd downs. And the numbers below confirm that 3rd Downs on Thanksgiving Day were near the worst of the season. The season average for 3rd Down distance to go is 7.48 before the Miami game which is near the league average. But, partly due to the Dolphins D and partly due to self-inflicted wounds with false starts and things of that nature, the Cowboys faced 9.55 yards to go on 3rd Down. That is 2nd worse, only the Jets season opener saw a longer distance all season (9.91).

And what are the great effects of this? Well, the Cowboys went 2-9 (22%) on 3rd Down against the Dolphins - their lowest 3rd Down production of 2011. All of these items are related. Self-inflicted wounds don't just hurt that play, they often kill the entire drive. Even a little false start penalty.

Data from Week 11 vs. Miami

1st Down Run-Pass14-14
2nd Down Avg Distance to Go7.52
2nd Down Run-Pass8-13
3rd Down Avg Distance to Go9.55
3rd Down Run-Pass1-8
3rd Down Conversions2-9, 22%

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Drive Starters - 1st play of each drive can often reveal the intent of a coach to establish his game plan.

5 Runs on Drives 2-6. Then, all passes the rest of the game. It is clear that Garrett wished to pound the ball quite a bit on Thursday. But, it was a bad combination that forced him back to the air to get the win late. The ground game was impressive in their resolve, but the results were not great. The lurking issues of the lack of a Fullback reared its head again.

Wk 1-At New York Jets: 13 Drives - 5 Run/8 Pass
Wk 2-At San Francisco: 10 Drives - 4 Run/6 Pass
Wk 3-Washington: 11 Drives - 5 Run/6 Pass
Wk 4-Detroit: 14 Drives - 7 Run/7 Pass
Wk 5-At New England: 11 Drives - 4 Run/7 Pass
Wk 6-St Louis: 11 Drives - 8 Run/3 Pass
Wk 7-At Philadelphia - 9 Drives - 2 Run/7 Pass
Wk 8-Seattle - 11 Drives - 4 Run/7 Pass
Wk 9-Buffalo - 10 Drives - 7 Run/3 Pass
Wk 10-At Washington - 14 Drives - 4 Run/10 Pass
Wk 11-Miami - 11 Drives - 5 Run/6 Pass
Total: 125 Drives - 55 Run/70 Pass 44% Run

Here is the breakdown by groupings:

Before you study the data below, I would recommend that if the numbers for the groupings are unfamiliar, that you spend some time reading a more expanded definition of the Personnel Groupings here.

No Tony Fiammetta again means that there is no "21" or "22" personnel available, which then means that the offense will be in some form of "12" or "13" for all plays from under center. "12" personnel ran the ball a bit better and but still averages a mediocre 3.54 yards per carry this season (71 carries for 251 yards). However, "13" personnel - where John Phillips is generally the lead blocker with a shift to FB - the Cowboys remain worse than mediocre and cannot get out of their own way, averaging 2.42 yards per carry (64 carries for 155 yards).

You can see now why Fiammetta or the signing of another FB seem to be on the minds of the people that follow this team. With December and hopefully January looming, 2.42 a carry is not going to get you very far - even with DeMarco Murray.

Totals by Personnel Groups:
PackagePlays RunYardsRunPass

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Totals by Personnel Groups on 3rd/4th Down:

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Shotgun snaps are fine on 3rd Down and in the 2 minute drill. But, we track this stat from week to week to make sure the Cowboys aren't getting too lazy in using it. They are not efficient enough to run it as their base, and with a 15%/85% run/pass split across the league, there is no way the defense respects your running game.

Dallas has been in shotgun 275 occasions this season, and has run the ball out of that 31 times (11%). Most of those runs are on 3rd and long where they just want a handful of yards to allow the punter some room, so there is really no reason for the opponent to scout the Cowboys shotgun running schemes until they show that they will use them. I only remember a few times in the last few years when the Cowboys ran the ball for purpose out of the shotgun.


Wk 1 - NYJ: 24/66
Wk 2 - SF: 32/66
Wk 3 - Wash: 27/62
Wk 4 - Det: 29/75
Wk 5 - NE 31/67
Wk 6 - StL 10/60
Wk 7 - Phi 39/49
Wk 8 - Sea 19/59
Wk 9 - Buf 15/61
Wk 10-Was 24/73
Wk 11-Mia 25/58

Total - 275/695 42.7%


Overall, it was clear to anyone who was watching the game that Dallas has won the last two contests without the offense playing particularly well. This is a nice problem to have, but it also shows there are problems to be fixed. Moving forward, there will be days where the Cowboys will need 31 points and a sharp performance to find a victory and I assume that is the focus in this extended week off.

They won on Thanksgiving due to 2 drives that were almost completely on the shoulders of their QB in the 4th Quarter. Tomorrow, we will examine maybe one of the finest drives of his career; the drive that resulted in the TD to Robinson in the deep corner of the endzone. A true thing of beauty.

And please email me at if you have questions that I may clarify in an upcoming email blog.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Morning After: Cowboys 20, Dolphins 19 (7-4)

How different is this Jason Garrett-coached Dallas Cowboys team from teams that have preceded it? Perhaps, as the Cowboys have dragged themselves to win in two very "lose-able" scenarios these last 5 days, we have had some light shed on that interrogative.

There are certainly many similarities to the Wade Phillips' teams that have come before it. Mistakes are a bit too plentiful. Talent is a bit too scarce. Turnovers make things more difficult than they should be. Stops at the moment of truth are not always around. Heck, even the go-to move of the last decade of Cowboys football - 12 men on the field - is alive and well.

This is not a team that is going to threaten the 1972 Dolphins in the quest for football perfection without a substantial facelift in many areas.

But, in the afterglow of the 20-19 win over the 2011 Dolphins yesterday at Cowboys Stadium, Dallas appears to have discovered something that didn't live in Dallas last season.


For it was guts that helped the Cowboys escape Washington with a much-needed victory on Sunday when things were conspiring against them. That was a very dangerous game that was on the brink of defeat for much of the afternoon. The defense caved, the running game stayed home, and it was a gritty and gutty effort from Tony Romo that rescued the victory from the jaws of defeat with big-time moments and big-time throws.

And then, on a short week of work where soreness was present as well as an opponent that did not offer much familiarity, the Cowboys ground their way to another ugly win that required all 60 minutes to take the final lead. There were several opportunities to lose the game and more than a few Cowboys' loyalists already allowed themselves to accept the outcome, but once again the common denominator that seemed to save their skins was actually inside their skin.


A quick scan of the game log of the 2011 season for Romo will reveal that Thanksgiving was one of his worst statistical performances of the year. It would be foolish to fight this sentiment based on a 1st half that included 2 interceptions and 2 punts in the first 4 drives of the game. A drop here, an under-thrown pass there, and before long the Cowboys offense had once again found themselves an unproductive bunch with a 4th Quarter deficit of 16-10. Surely, it is slightly ironic that a similar offensive performance on Sunday yielded a similar deficit (17-10) after 3 quarters on Sunday.

But, the 9th drive of the game was the kind of drive that will hopefully allow some of his biggest critics (Cowboys fans) to see that he is having one of his best seasons of a very strong career. Time after time on that drive he either was decked by a Miami blitzer or nearly avoided being decked by a Miami blitzer. And each time - whether being decked or not - he delivered a great throw to a Cowboys receiver to keep the drive alive. Bennett. Witten. Murray. Robinson. Robinson again. Witten again. And finally, his finest play of the drive that should be dropped in a time capsule, Laurent Robinson in the back corner of the end zone for the Touchdown. It was a drive of sheer guts. A QB who has dabbled in injury for much of the last two seasons throwing caution and good health to the wind and taking some major shots to make some major plays.

Of course, that would not be enough to find a victory at 17-16. Instead, the defense had a big stand nullified when a DeMarcus Ware sack was cancelled out by a Abram Elam holding penalty. Momentum was lost and the Dolphins offense gained in confidence and marched down the field. After a Anthony Fasano reception and a pointless Frank Walker penalty for hitting out of bounds, the Cowboys faced a situation where the Dolphins had 1st and goal from the 3 yard line. Cave in here, and the Cowboys chances would reduce quite a bit.

But, they didn't. They held the Dolphins out of the end zone and gutted their way to only conceding the 3 points. Still down, 19-17, but still alive.

The teams traded possessions and that left the Cowboys with 1 last chance and the ball at their own 36 after Dez Bryant showed the Cowboys a return could turn into something marginally exciting again.

From there, Dallas had a "get it done or lose" situation. 2:59 to go. Must get at least a field goal and you would sure like to not leave the Dolphins any time to counter.

And that is where the guts of Tony Romo, and the guts of both his new sidekick, DeMarco Murray, and his old sidekick, Jason Witten marched the ball right down the field. Murray, like Romo, will not have the type of gaudy numbers that were there a few weeks ago, but Murray's conviction when he is running the ball and his willingness to punish anyone that attempts to tackle him is a thing of beauty right now. He had a very large impact on this contest. As the last of their 179 seconds ticked off the clock, Dan Bailey hit his 26th straight field goal from short range and the Cowboys won another game in which one can either take the victory and breath a sigh of relief or they can take the next 10 days to list all of the ways the Cowboys need to get better.

In 2010, we saw the Cowboys lose a lot of games when it came down to a showdown of guts. The first team to cry "uncle" would lose and the Cowboys "uncled" their way to a 1-7 start that saw Wade Phillips fired. There seemed to be almost no guts on this team when Jacksonville were humiliating them on their own turf. The next week, they seemed to care even less at Green Bay. It was a sad display that made you wonder if those players were fit to wear the uniform.

I don't necessarily suggest Jason Garrett is coaching strategies based on "guts", but I do feel like his QB and other vital members of this squad have decided to not allow this team to cave in and accept defeat. Sometimes, Romo knows he must make a play at the moment of truth or the team will lose. This team puts a ton on the QB, and while everyone seems to discuss the Jets and Lions games, I would like to counter that with those wins against the 49ers, Redskins, Redskins (again), and now the Dolphins. The Cowboys simply do not win any of those 4 games if Romo is not making the plays. He didn't make them all. Just the ones that mattered to the outcome of the contest.

Romo showed guts. The defense made a stand. Murray never quit on a single run.

So, you can fixate on the issues that are still around on this team, for there are more than a few. But after these last two games, I think it is notable to point out that this team has something that has been missing around here for a while.

Resolve. Fortitude. Guts.

Those characteristics can go a long way down the stretch in the NFL.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Special Teams Report - Returns Needed

We have received an awful lot of questions about the special teams portion of the Dallas Cowboys over the last few weeks, so I thought I would attempt to squeeze a little attention in their direction on this short week.

Overall, it has been a mediocre, but quiet, year for the special teams. We say "mediocre" because the return teams rate near the bottom of the league as punt returning is 27th and kick returning is 29th. There is absolutely no threat back there right now when the Cowboys return kicks, and that would be the primary reason that Dallas loyalists are always wondering why Dez Bryant or Felix Jones are not back there to attempt to at least put a little fear in the hearts of the opponents. For the Cowboys to realize their full potential, at some point, someone needs to make a play in the return game.

Last year, Dez Bryant returned 2 punts for Touchdowns against the Bears and the Giants. Bryan McCann had a famous TD return against the Lions that helped win the game. On the other hand, they conceded giant kickoff returns to Marc Mariani and Percy Harvin, as well as a crucial blocked punt in Indianapolis. They even had their own kickoff return taken back by Green Bay for a TD on that forgettable night in Lambeau. All of those special teams plays - good and bad - are able to be studied in great detail on my blogs from 2010 if you are so inclined to follow the link.

This year, "quiet" might be more the way to describe the return and cover teams. There have been almost no catastrophic moments - the only moment that requires disdain would be the punt blocked in Week 1 which very likely cost the Cowboys that season opener in New York. Replays of the moment captured Tony Soprano (actor James Gandolfini) celebrating with delight in the arms of another Jets fan. The punt team parted like the Red Sea for Moses and allowed a man to come right up the middle and block a Mat McBriar punt.

Since then, all had been completely quiet until Brandon Banks used his 4.4 speed to almost break a punt return twice on Sunday. Both returns were huge, but thankfully for the Cowboys and their special teams coach, Joe DeCamillis, Bruce Carter made one tackle and punter Mat McBriar made another (sort of).

That week of poor work took the punt return coverage from 11th in the NFL to 22nd in 1 week's time and has caused a fair amount of consternation with regards to the performance levels of those involved.

Let's fill out a participation chart for Week 10 against Washington so we know who is participating on "teams" for the Cowboys:

KickoffKickoff ReturnPuntPunt Return

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The first thing we want to point out is the participation on all 4 teams of 7 different players. This is a very important list of players to know, and when you often ask questions about the Cowboys roster, the value of a fringe player, and the question of whether a given player is "active" or "inactive" for a given contest, look no further than this list of 7 players. This is the spine of your roster on game day to make sure that you do not lose the game on special teams.

This year, those 7 players who can play on each and every specialty team are Jesse Holley, Akwasi Owusu-Ansah, Alex Abright, Danny McCray, Barry Church, Bruce Carter, and John Phillips. There were 23 special teams kick and return moments on Sunday and if you are caught overlooking the importance of those few dozen opportunities, you will lose games every year. It can make a team's record better or worse than it deserves to be. Just ask San Diego, last year that team saw their entire season destroyed because their specialty teams were a mess.

That list of 7 players have the faith of the coaching staff to contribute on special teams. Conversely, one of the knocks on Tashard Choice and Kevin Ogletree has been that they are not thought to be very good on special teams. Ogletree is still being used on 2 of the 4 teams, but last year he was pulled off the kick cover team after a moment that helped cost Dallas the Tennessee game. Two other players contribute quite a bit on teams, but don't play on all 4. Phillip Tanner and Victor Butler are both key members who will be quickly inserted if there is any injury for those 7, or will fill out the 11 on the other teams.

Teams want to avoid using starters on special teams if possible, although different coaches have different philosophies. The real issue is that you continue to use young players on teams, but those young players are often not accustomed to playing on specialty teams back in college. Therefore, they are often covering kicks for the first time in years. Meanwhile, as players become bigger contributors on offense or defense, the team starts to protect them form over-use and potential injuries, and that is why a player like Sean Lee, who did quite well on special teams at times last year, never sees the field in that capacity now. He is too valuable to the defense.

Basically, it comes down to this: If you are a starter, you generally won't be asked by the Cowboys to cover or return. If you are a reserve, you better be able to play on these teams and play well (unless you weigh near or above 300 pounds). A reserve DB, WR, RB, TE, or LB simply must be great at special teams because that is where he can play between 20-30 plays in a game, even if he is getting no snaps on offense or defense. These are the players that will be active on Sunday when other players can be shut down.

Kickoff Cover Team

The Cowboys are the 9th best kickoff cover team in the NFL. They are having about 60% of kicks returned against them (20th), but when those kicks are returned against the Cowboys, they are limiting their opponents to merely 21.9 yards a return. San Francisco returned a kick 43 yards, but overall, this coverage unit is far better than last year's edition that was gashed for large yardage on a few occasions in the 1st half of the season. This put them in a very poor spot against the Vikings and Titans.

Punt Cover Team

Clearly, a big part of punt coverage is also making sure a punt doesn't get blocked. It is a very fine line because you want to stop a speedy return man, but you better not leave early or miss your block or the game will get changed with a blocked punt. In the two photos above, you can see McBriar before his punt was blocked in Week 1 and McBriar during the game on Sunday. The formation is different as the Cowboys in the first photo have 2 blockers behind the line as protectors on the flanks. Now, 26-Elam has been added straight on as a third player behind the line. This would secure the up-the-middle rush that burned them in Week 1. This alignment has been far more secure and seems to have taught DeCamillis a bit of a lesson the hard way.

Regardless, punt returns were not an issue until Sunday, and the Cowboys ranked 11th in the NFL conceding 7.7 a return, but now rank 22nd with a return average against of 11.4. Keep an eye on that as they are starting to play some teams with potential game breakers as punt returners on the horizon (Patrick Peterson, in particular).

Kickoff Return

This unit is absolutely awful. 29th in the NFL in kick returns and if you want to win a trivia question with your buddies, ask them who has the team's longest return of the year (Sean Lissemore). Somehow, New England, Buffalo, and Indianapolis have worse return teams, but the Cowboys have tried Kevin Ogletree, Dwayne Harris, and Owusu Ansah. None of them have appeared the least bit threatening. And frankly, it appears to have zapped any confidence as the Cowboys now happily accept a touchback more often than not. It is difficult to understand why Felix Jones would not be a potential solution to this problem if DeMarco Murray is a full time back.

Punt Return

Again, 27th in the league and not the least bit threatening. I understand the reluctance to use Dez Bryant when Miles Austin is hurt, but in my estimation, this has to be strongly considered down the stretch. 7.3 yards per return when Chicago leads the league with 20.6 yards per return. You simply must have a dynamic and confident return man. Owusu-Ansah seems to lack decisiveness, explosiveness, and confidence. Each return is an opportunity and presently, the Cowboys seem to be lacking any ability to take advantage of those opportunities.

So, in conclusion, the Cowboys are getting outstanding kicking from Dan Bailey in converting their Field Goals. The punting has obviously suffered due to McBriar's injury, but it remains reasonable most weeks. Coverage teams have been fine for the most part, but cannot rest on any accomplishments as trouble lies ahead. But, if there is one place the Cowboys simply need a boost, there is no question it would be in both punt return and kick return.

With suitable options available on the roster, it will be interesting to see if they take advantage of this opportunity.

Decoding Garrett - Week 10 - Data - At Washington

The Cowboys won a game Sunday that is tough to fully explain from a statistical standpoint. From a production perspective, they accumulated their 2nd worst yardage day of the year with 354 yards. Only the blowout loss in Philadelphia saw fewer yards (266), while only the loss to Detroit saw more snaps (75). 73 offensive plays and barely 350 yards makes for a very poor 4.84 yards per snap. That would be easily the least efficient day of the season for the offense crew.

And as we saw late, it wasn't like the defense carried the team to victory, either. The defense has the dubious distinction of conceding 166 passing yards to Rex Grossman from the start of the 4th Quarter on. That is certainly not going to make the rest of the NFL take notice, either.

So, why did the Cowboys win on Sunday? And why are they playing winning football overall in the last 3 weeks during this streak?


Look no further than what is referred to around the NFL as the "Money Down". 3rd Down conversions can either sink a perfectly healthy ship if they are going wrong, or they can pull a team out of a bad spot if they are going right. There is almost nothing an offense does that has more impact than moving the chains when you simply must.

The sample sizes are not large enough in the last 3 games to say definitively that the Cowboys have figured out one of their biggest issues in October and November, but just one check of the 3-4 start versus the 3-0 run they are currently on takes you to this particular metric:

Weeks3rd Down Conv-AttRate - Rank
1-728-8234% - 22nd
8-1022-4351% - 2nd

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Just look at those results. The NFL average for 3rd Down conversions of any length is 38%. In 7 games, the Cowboys were sitting just above Washington's offense and just below Denver's as they ranked 22 out of 32 in 3rd Down conversions. A quick look at the bottom teams in the league and their talent levels, and you will quickly notice that it is made up of teams that just do not have the horses to compete. Dallas has no business down in that group. Meanwhile, the best 3rd Down conversion teams in the NFL have QBs named Rodgers, Brees, Brady, Roethlisberger, and Rivers.

Since that trip home from Philadelphia, the Cowboys - albeit in a 3 game sample so it is too early to consider this problem fixed - the Cowboys now are 2nd only to the Packers in moving the chains. And wasn't that the story on Sunday? Yesterday, we discussed at rather great length that the only reason Dallas won was because Tony Romo's 3rd Down play was off the charts late in the game. The Touchdown to Robinson, the TD to Witten, and of course the 3rd and 15 conversion to Bryant in Overtime all testify to this fact.

And how has Romo been in those two stretches of time on 3rd Down? Well, his QB rating in September and October on 3rd Down is under 80 at 79.6. That ranked him below Colt McCoy, Josh Freeman, and Michael Vick for 3rd Down marksman, and miles below the elite QBs. But, since the calendar turned to November, Tony Romo on 3rd Down is 2nd to only one passer in football - Aaron Rodgers. Romo's passer rating during that stretch sits at a near perfect 146.5. Off the charts.

Again, we don't want to over-explain a 3-game sample against 3 poor teams, but if this is a sign of a QB getting fully healthy and an offense finally coming together with a runner, a line that is playing better, and receivers that are starting to figure it out, then the sky could be the limit during the final third of the season.


It is certainly difficult to imagine back in training camp that the fan base would be depressed with the absence of a player they had never heard of, but knowing that Tony Fiammetta was not available in Washington and likely won't be on Thanksgiving, either, is starting to give everyone pause.

Fiammetta was not in the plans for the Cowboys at fullback, for they felt they were squared away with two other candidates at training camp, Chris Gronkowski and Shaun Chapas, a 7th round pick this past April out of Georgia. But, in camp, neither player was able to justify a roster spot, so around Labor Day, the Cowboys scanned the waiver wire and claimed Fiammetta from Carolina right before the start of the season and cut the other two loose.

Since then, we merely have to look at the following graphic to see how this team runs the ball in "under center" situations with their new FB and without him available:

W/ Fiammetta1057447.08
W/O Fiammetta1233723.02

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One thing is certain about the Cowboys in 2011 - that their running game changes from week to week. Many have seen these Fiammetta numbers and have properly pointed out that DeMarco Murray's run as the lead runner has coincided with the games Fiammetta has played, and that is mostly true. However, Fiammetta's performance in Week 3 against Washington opened up the lanes for Felix Jones with great success. Also, the game this week at Washington was a game with Murray, but without a fullback, and once again the Cowboys proved they have no back-up plan to Fiammetta where they needed 32 carries to get 89 yards. John Phillips is many things for this team, but lead blocker is not one of them.

Murray is getting 6 yards a carry and Jones is getting 4. Another interesting split is that the team averages 6.2 yards per carry running the ball at home and 3.3 yards per carry on the road. At Cowboys Stadium, the Dallas running game has not had a day under 100 yards. On the road, they have no games over 100 yards.

I would very much enjoy a candid discussion (as opposed to a guarded Jason Garrett in a press conference setting where he tries to say very little) with the Cowboys offensive coaching staff as to their theories on what is working and what is not in running the football, but it sure seems that Fiammetta is the one constant that is required for this team to really run the ball well.

Data from Week 10 at Washington

1st Down Run-Pass16-15
2nd Down Avg Distance to Go7.33
2nd Down Run-Pass12-12
3rd Down Avg Distance to Go7.70
3rd Down Run-Pass3-14
3rd Down Conversions8-17, 47%

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Drive Starters - 1st play of each drive can often reveal the intent of a coach to establish his game plan.

The Cowboys passed the ball to start nearly every drive. Deceiving because they seldom were downfield passes, but a series of high-percentage passes seemed like the plan of the day. This number factors in 2 kneel downs, also. So in reality, the Cowboys started 10 of 12 drives with a pass play.

Wk 1-At New York Jets: 13 Drives - 5 Run/8 Pass

Wk 2-At San Francisco: 10 Drives - 4 Run/6 Pass

Wk 3-Washington: 11 Drives - 5 Run/6 Pass

Wk 4-Detroit: 14 Drives - 7 Run/7 Pass

Wk 5-At New England: 11 Drives - 4 Run/7 Pass

Wk 6-St Louis: 11 Drives - 8 Run/3 Pass

Wk 7-At Philadelphia - 9 Drives - 2 Run/7 Pass

Wk 8-Seattle - 11 Drives - 4 Run/7 Pass

Wk 9-Buffalo - 10 Drives - 7 Run/3 Pass

Wk 10-At Washington - 14 Drives - 4 Run/10 Pass

Total: 100 Drives - 50 Run/64 Pass 44% Run

Here is the breakdown by groupings:

Before you study the data below, I would recommend that if the numbers for the groupings are unfamiliar, that you spend some time reading a more expanded definition of the Personnel Groupings here.

Here is what we learned yet again. The Cowboys try to cover up the absence of a fullback by putting 3 TE's on the field "13" personnel and lining them up as if they were in "22" - with a TE lined up as FB. The theory is that Phillips is too tall (Fiammetta is 6'0, 242 and Phillips is 6'6, 262) for proper leverage as a lead blocker at the point of attack. If "low man wins" in blocking drills, perhaps there is something to this theory. Regardless, there is a stark contrast in productivity between the FB lead plays when Fiammetta is there versus a tight end. You can see that in the "13" run plays below (17 carries for just 36 yards).

Totals by Personnel Groups:
PackagePlays RunYardsRunPass

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Totals by Personnel Groups on 3rd/4th Down:

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Shotgun snaps are fine on 3rd Down and in the 2 minute drill. But, we track this stat from week to week to make sure the Cowboys aren't getting too lazy in using it. They are not efficient enough to run it as their base, and with a 15%/85% run/pass split, there is no way the defense respects your running game.

This game saw the Cowboys seldom in shotgun other than 3rd Down. And as we said, they were doing quite well there.


Wk 1 - NYJ: 24/66

Wk 2 - SF: 32/66

Wk 3 - Wash: 27/62

Wk 4 - Det: 29/75

Wk 5 - NE 31/67

Wk 6 - StL 10/60

Wk 7 - Phi 39/49

Wk 8 - Sea 19/59

Wk 9 - Buf 15/61

Wk 10-Was 24/73

Total - 250/637 39.2%


Overall, we would rate the Washington win as part luck (Gano missed a kick to win) and part winning the turnovers and converting key 3rd Downs. Romo saved the day, but you don't want to play like that every week against inferior competition if you want to win the division.

And please email me at if you have questions that I may clarify in an upcoming email blog.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Morning After: Cowboys 27, Redskins 24

Last week, Jason Witten spoke with superlatives dripping after the dismantling of Buffalo when asked about his Quarterback's performance: "Probably the best game I’ve seen him play where he’s just picking them apart," were his exact words in describing a near-perfect day from Tony Romo.

One would guess that there is a new "best" award to be distributed this week. As in, best performance by a QB in the 4th Quarter and Overtime to do everything he could to drag his team to a victory and then almost single-handidly prevent that victory in classic fashion. That award may sound a bit wordy, so elaboration is certainly necessary.

The Cowboys needed a win in Washington on Sunday in the worst way. If things worked out as the day went on (and they did) then Dallas could sit in 1st place in the NFC East by simply beating a team that hadn't led in a game in 49 days.

But, this team happens to be the Redskins, and if anyone has been paying attention for the last 50 years, they would know that wins against even the most putrid of Washington teams is never as easy as it seems it will be on paper. It is the ultimate true definition of "throw the records out the window when these two teams play". Crazy things happen and at least that stayed true to form in the latest meeting.

Dallas took an early lead, but due to careful play calling, poor special teams, and a shift in momentum that is tough to stop, the Cowboys entered the 4th Quarter down 7 points and seeing their season drifting away from them.

And that is when Tony Romo started making throws that would save the day. It was not his best day and it did not flirt with a perfect QB rating, but with 15 minutes to go and a crucial game on the line, there is no question that #9 was the catalyst in an amazing escape that required some high-stakes 3rd Down throws.

Here are the details:

Crucial Throw #1: 3rd and Goal from the 7 yard line, down 17-10 with 14:48 to play in the game. It is very important that the Cowboys get 7 points here and the only it is going to happen is if Romo keeps the play alive. Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan are closing in fast around the edge and Romo must step up and then slide to his left. Romo is trying to find Dez Bryant on the left, but the Redskins have him bracketed with 2 defenders, causing Romo to look elsewhere. He holds the ball an unheard of 4.7 seconds to wait for Laurent Robinson to drag across the field and to pop open for a split second. If he leads Robinson, the pass won't work because Robinson will get blown up, so he places it on the back shoulder of a cross route. Perfect ball placement for a Touchdown. 17-17.

Crucial Throw #2: 17-17, 3rd and 8 from the Cowboys' 14-yard line with 10:22 left in the 4th Quarter. Cowboys elect to use a 7-man protection here, meaning that Jason Witten will not be out in a route. Instead, with Robinson and Bryant out wide, the Redskins are using 2-deep to double both players on the sidelines. This leaves Kevin Ogletree against Kevin Barnes in the slot on the left as Romo's only viable option. It takes 3.5 seconds this time for Ogletree to get past the sticks and open, but Romo puts a throw right on him and he is wrestled down at the 26 after a 12 yard gain and a 1st Down.

Crucial Throw #3: Another 3rd and 8, later in the same drive with 9:01 to play. This time, the Cowboys have "S12" personnel on with 2 TE, 2 WR. This personnel grouping allows Witten to go into a route and asks John Phillips to stay back and protect to the right of Romo in shotgun where he can assist rookie Tyron Smith with Kerrigan. This play is just amazing as again Romo feels the rush of Orakpo as he knows Doug Free has no help at left tackle. Once he spins to the outside of Orakpo, there is nothing Free can do to help without holding, so Romo knows he is just buying a bit more time before he will get hit. This maneuver requires Witten to improvise across the field into an opening and Romo finds him with a perfect throw that travels from the Dallas 32 to the Washington 35 where it finds Witten in stride. Witten finishes the play by beating DeAngelo Hall to the endzone and the Cowboys take a 24-17 lead on a 59-yard improvisation. It only happens because Romo stays alive for another 4.7 seconds and then makes a perfect throw while fading to his left. It would have to be considered one of the best single plays of his career.

Crucial Throw #4: The fact that he had the opportunity to make this final throw is due to the Redskins missing a 52-yard FG in overtime. But, that happened, and so now the Cowboys had a chance to still find a victory. But, in overtime, they may not get many chances, and now it is 3rd and 15 from the Redskins' 49-yard line. A punt is near certain as the Cowboys rate of conversion on 3rd and 10+ was 6 for 35 (17%). They were 1-12 (8%) on 3rd and 15+, but the lone conversion, ironically enough, was a 3rd and 21 prayer to Dez Bryant against DeAngelo Hall back in Week 3. Here is 3rd and 15, and again the play is made possible because Romo is moving in the pocket elusively for 3.4 seconds. 5 Redskins are rushing and Stephen Bowen nearly gets there, but Romo works away, again to his left. Bryant breaks off his route and improvises to the sideline which leaves Hall in his dust. Romo squares and hits Dez past the chains at the Redskins 31 and then Bryant drags Hall to the 23. The game is now the Cowboys to be lost after an amazing 3rd and long conversion.

It would be disingenuous to not finish the story of the win in Washington. As the Cowboys often do, they flirted with disaster as Dan Bailey came on to attempt a game-winning 39 yard Field Goal a few minutes after Bryant's big catch. For reasons that apparently include the angle of Mat McBriar's ankle when he holds, Romo is still being asked to hold on Bailey's kicks. And, in the NFL overtime rules, each team gets 2 timeouts in the extra session - not 3. This is an important thing to know if you are Tony Romo. After making 4 gigantic throws to put the team in this position, he nearly wrote another chapter in his life-story about agonizing mistakes at the moment of truth. NFL Rule 4, Section 5, Article 1, Item 4 in the NFL Rulebook tells us that any team calling a timeout it doesn't have will be charged with an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty and lose 15 yards. 39 yard field goals are money for Dan Bailey, but the Cowboys would not let him try a 54-yarder, most likely.

And, judging by the result of the 39-yarder, a good kick - barely - we know that this would have likely been the difference between winning and losing (or at least, tying). But, thankfully, the Redskins were also trying to call a timeout to practice their "ice the kicker" ritual, and Romo and the Cowboys were off the hook.

(Edit 11/21 at 4:05 pm): On Monday, the league cleared up the scenario with a clarification on the ruling of what might have happened: "Officials would not have granted Tony Romo a time out. They are instructed to ignore the request when a team has no time outs." This renders my speculation on what might have been irrelevant as was discussion on whether this would have been ruled a 5-yard delay of game or a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct.

But, make no mistake. This game isn't won without superior QB play in the 4th Quarter and Overtime. Not typical throws that should be made, but many high-stakes 3rd Down throws that you just thank Romo for converting. The Cowboys answered a gut check with a crucial win and their QB dragged them to victory.

The game itself wasn't pretty, but those 4 throws should certainly answer charges about his clutch ability with some exhibits for the other side of the debate.

Many things went wrong on Sunday, but the quarterback was there to save the day.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Redskins Verify The Importance of Romo

Sometimes, in order to appreciate what you have in life, you simply have to look at the circumstances that others deal with on a constant basis.

As humans, we are able with great ease to check those more fortunate than us and allow jealousy to build up as we see the bigger and nicer house or car and feel that our possessions do not compare. Seldom, do we look in the other direction to concede that just about everyone on the planet would love to change places with us. That helps us appreciate what we have, but it is something that nobody ever enjoys doing.

Such is life in the NFL. When we look at the quarterback of our team - in this case, Dallas' QB Tony Romo - many of the diehards of the organization will spend time comparing him to legendary Cowboys of the past (Aikman, Staubach) or legendary QBs of the present around the league (Manning, Brady). The very best to ever play the position are impossible for almost anyone to measure against. Our memories remind us of their victories and great moments and time erased any and all shortcomings. They are perfect, and we want to measure a man against perfection to see that he is not there. This is the equivalent of taking the family through Highland Park to see all of the houses that you will never be able to afford.

It is not a complete waste of time to do this, as the object of the game is to win and to figure out how to add to the Cowboys trophy case. Part of the ongoing battle is to constantly evaluate and to strive for excellence. But, to be realistic, one should always know where they sit in either direction. Constantly looking up at genius can make you forget how far you are from football poverty.

As the Cowboys travel to Washington to play the Redskins on Sunday, we are reminded that so much in football depends on the QB position. Washington teaches us this lesson on a year to year basis.

Let's start in 2006, the same year Tony Romo replaced Drew Bledsoe in midseason, Washington ran out 2nd year QB Jason Campbell to replace veteran QB Mark Brunell. Campbell was taken with the 25th pick in the 2005 draft, 1 pick after Green Bay snagged Aaron Rodgers. One can only wonder what Washington would have done if Rodgers had made it one more pick down the board.

With young Campbell, the Redskins believed they had finally filled the QB vacancy. Since Mark Rypien, the Skins had never found the permanent holder of the position. Heath Shuler, Gus Frerotte, Trent Green, Brad Johnson, Tony Banks, Trent Ramsey, and Brunell had all had shots at the job for the long term, and nobody held down the spot for any length of time.

But in 4 years as the Redskins starter, Campbell never won more games than he lost in a season. 2006: 2-5, 2007: 6-7, 2008: 8-8, and 2009: 4-12. Todd Collins actually rallied the troops in 2007 to get into the playoffs, and Campbell proved to never fully possess anything above mediocre.

By the end of 2009, the Jim Zorn and Jason Campbell era in Washington had run its 2-year course and it was time to reload with Mike Shanahan. The Redskins have now have won 9 of 27 games under Shanahan - thanks in no small part again to mediocre QB play. Donovan McNabb has started 13 games, Rex Grossman 9, and John Beck 3.

During that stretch, the Redskins quarterback position has combined for a QB rating of 74.5, with 29 TD passes against 34 interceptions.

It has been 20 years since Mark Rypien won the Super Bowl MVP for the 1991 season and was a strong candidate for the full season MVP. Since that time, the Redskins have not had a single season with a 90 passer rating. Not one.

Meanwhile, here is Tony Romo. He is having the best passing season of his career according to the passer rating (97.7). But, on a year by year basis since he has been the Cowboys starter, Romo has put up these ratings: 95.1, 97.4, 91.4, 97.6, 94.9, and now 97.7.

A 90 QB rating is the benchmark for excellence. About 8-10 QBs a year have a rating at or above 90. Since 2006, do you know how many QBs can boast a QB rating of over 90 each year? Exactly 2. Peyton Manning and Tony Romo. Obviously, that number is about to shrink to 1 with Manning sitting out the year with injury.

Now, before I am reminded that Manning also has the Super Bowl ring that is so badly desired around these parts for the Cowboys, let me share one more number: 144. 144 starts for Peyton Manning to get to a Super Bowl ring. Not everyone waits that long, but since some wait longer (John Elway, 219), it is fair to say that Romo with 71 starts entering Sunday's action still has a chance.

Sure, if you were smart, you would rate Drew Brees, Rodgers, Tom Brady, Manning, Roethlisberger and perhaps 1 or 2 others in front of Romo with great certainty. You would also concede that Eli Manning has a ring and therefore bragging rights despite his flaws and lack of consistency.

But, I think you would also glance at the 20 or so spots around the league that would be thrilled to have the level of QB play Dallas has enjoyed since Romo was installed as starter. 44-26 as a starter in those 70 starts means that the Cowboys are almost always in the playoff mix when he at the helm.

He does have flaws - there is no doubt - and you can find better QBs when you look around the league. But, I hope when you are driving through the nice neighborhoods looking at the QBs in New England and Green Bay, you are also being fair to your own situation by taking a turn down the roads in Washington, Seattle, St Louis, and for goodness sakes, I hope you were able to catch a bit of Broncos and the Jets last night.

The Cowboys should easily dispatch of Washington on Sunday, with perhaps the biggest reason being that the Redskins are awful at the QB position. And the reality is they have been awful for years. During that time they have tried several coaches - with at least a few of them being labeled as "offensive geniuses" - as well as elite play at many positions on the field. But, the Skins lacked quality at QB, the most important spot on the field.

Dallas shows us that QB is the most important spot, but not the only spot for a team to go from a winning team to a champion. The talk shows and message boards can say whatever they want, but there is more to winning football than whether Romo plays golf in April.

Since 2006, the year Romo and Campbell were both named starters with their respective teams, the Cowboys (53-36) have won 18 more games than the Redskins (35-54). Neither team has won Super Bowls, so if that impossible standard is the only way to appease the masses, both organizations need a QB. But, anyone with a fair and balanced perspective on current events in all 32 organizations in the NFL would easily concede that the Cowboys are receiving above average QB play.

Dallas may never win a Super Bowl during Romo's career. If you have a trade ready for Brady or Rodgers, I would tell you to take it. Otherwise, you should be willing to admit that Romo is strong to quite strong at the position. Romo may end up being a solid QB with a solid career, but never the Hall of Fame resume that he is compared to in this city. But, a quick look at the data will reveal that if that is the case, and he never wins it all, it might have less to do with the QB position that you think.

The grass is not always greener. Washington proves that every year.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

X's and O's Breakdown - Fire Zone Blitzing

Rob Ryan has a bit of a reputation for having a high-risk, high-reward defense. There are many versions of the 3-4 defense and to compare and contrast Wade Phillips' 3-4 to Rob Ryan's 3-4 would take quite a while. They utilize the same personnel in the base defense, but there are an infinite number of ways to apply that defense. And make no mistake, Ryan does it differently than Phillips.

The object of the game for the defense is 2-fold. 1) don't allow points (this is rather obvious) and 2) to cause game-changing plays (takeaways, sacks, and the occasional big hit). Both are important and just about all championship caliber defenses can excel in both categories.

As we look at the first year under Rob Ryan (and maybe the only year), we see the Cowboys are allowing 20.2 points per game rather than the 27.3 they allowed in 2010. We also see that after years of not generating takeaways, the Cowboys already have 19 which rank them only 2 takeaways short of the league lead. In 2008 and 2009, the Cowboys had but 22 and 21 takeaways for the entire season.

Is the Cowboys defense elite? That would be a stretch given the clinic they were taught in Philadelphia a few weeks back. But the defense has more takeaways, more sacks, fewer explosives against, and are allowing fewer points than last year's edition. Of course, last year's defense was so bad that improvement was imperative. But, given much of the same personnel, Rob Ryan has put his stamp on how things are done around here. And as each week grows into the next, the confidence of the unit seems to grow and they pull more tricks out of their sleeves.

There may be a misperception about how Rob's blitzes work. In the 1970's and 1980's, blitzes were simply an effort to throw more numbers at an offense than they could block. If they are using 6 to protect, you send 7. They move to 7, you send 8. This became impractical when QBs started feasting on an exposed secondary. When both safeties would blitz, then the QB and WR knew that they had to beat just one man - the corner in front of them - and they were off to the races. It became more and more routine to find the hot route and chase the blitz away. And that is when coaches had to go back to the drawing board.

The evolution has brought us to the aggressive 3-4's of today's game. What Dick LeBeau in Pittsburgh, Dom Capers in Green Bay, and Rex Ryan in New York all employ are variations of 3-4's based in deception utilizing fire zone blitz concepts and techniques.

What this generally means is that they will seldom ever bring more than 5 pass rushers on a given play (On Sunday, Rob Ryan sent 6 rushers twice in 37 pass situations), but you will never fully grasp which 4 or 5 defenders are coming until the play is under way.
Bringing 5 on a blitz looks chaotic, and yet, it allows 6 players behind it to retreat into a relatively sound 3-3 zone defense.

Pass Rushers Against Buffalo - 37 pass rush situations:
Pass RushersTimes

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Clearly, these principles present the best of both worlds when it is run properly - pass rush effectiveness without giving up coverage behind it.

Wade Phillips is no slouch himself when it comes to designing defenses. However, Wade had no interest in the last couple years engaging in the fire zones like those other 3-4s. Also, Wade Phillips would almost never blitz a defensive back. We see every Sunday that some of the most successful blitz situations in the NFL culminate in a QB being blindsided by a untouched safety or cornerback. But, Wade - for reasons that can only be speculated upon - would almost never send a DB as coach of the Cowboys.

In 2008, the Cowboys blitzed a DB (according to our friends at just 37 of 602 pass situations (6%). In 2009, it was 29 occasions on 707 pass plays (4%). And in 2010, the Cowboys defense actually did more when Phillips was fired, but for the year, 50 DB blitzes in 584 pass plays (8%).

But, we know that those other pressure defenses believe in making the QB believe that with 11 defenders, you better believe that at some point, they are going to send every single one of them at you. Not often, but often enough that they think when the time is right they will spring the ambush and change the game.

In 2011, the Cowboys have blitzed defensive backs 81 times in 335 pass plays. 24%! In other words, Ryan has blitzed more DBs in 9 games than the Cowboys had in the previous 2 seasons combined. That is enough to confuse and confound when applied properly. Now, let's look at how they are doing it.

Here is the 3rd snap for Buffalo in Sunday's game. Bills bring out shotgun with 4 WRs and force the Cowboys into a dime package with 6 DBs. It is 3rd and 14, and the numbers we tabulate indicate Ryan doesn't like to blitz much on 3rd and long. Rather, he enjoys playing coverage and blitzing when you least suspect it.

But here, the Cowboys are bringing a fire-zone from Ryan Fitzpatrick's blindside. Look at the picture at presnap and try to decide which 5 Cowboys are about to rush. I don't think that is an easy task.

If you guessed 2 corners, the LDE, NT, and Ware, you win. Ware - playing inside LB, Walker and Scandrick - the two corners, and Hatcher and Ratliff from the DL. Meanwhile Spencer, who sure looks like he is lined up over RT - ready to rush - drops out of the play into the hook/curl area on the right. Sean Lee must go all the way across the field to get the hook/curl on the left in that zone. Abe Elam takes shallow middle and now you see the 3-3 alignment behind the blitz. Check the diagram below.

Now for the blitz. When considering pass protection, offenses try to cut the pass rush in half. In fact, the center and running back are always in communication to make sure they understand each other about which is going to help which side. If the center is going right to help the RG, then the RB must pick up from the left. But, in presnap, the RT and RB are looking at Elam and Spencer as possible blitz targets. This deception is what makes it work. They are occupied until the snap, and then when their men don't rush, they are too late to redeploy elsewhere in time.

And thus is the concept of the fire zone blitz. The defense is not trying to outnumber you. They are trying to get you to pick up the wrong men. 5 can beat 6 if the 6 don't know which 5 are coming until it is too late. Then, in the blink of an eye, your QB is getting blindsided. Check the video of play #1 here.

You can really see the problems that are caused for Bills' LT 67-Andy Levitre as he is trying to block 3 guys at the same time. Finally, Walker goes by him and almost caused another takeaway. Meanwhile, the RT 79-Erik Pears has nobody to block so he joins the C and RG in blocking the same guy, Ratliff.

Let's look at another snap with a similar concept. 3rd Quarter, 2nd Down and 8 to go.

This time, you can tell that Fitzpatrick is nervous about what Ryan is doing in presnap. Trying to sort through so many possible blitzers to find the right combination is not fun - especially when you go to 4 WR and "scat" protection. Scat protection means simply 5-man protection, no help from RB or TE. But, the way the Cowboys align is causing great distress to the presnap reads for the Bills.

To understand why, look at 94-Ware and 90-Ratliff. Ratliff is over the center again and the RG was likely assigned to help. With Ware out wide the RT is locked on one of the most ferocious pass rushers in the sport. So, where does that leave 25-Frank Walker who is standing between them? What an odd place for a corner. The Bills are trying to sort this out. Then the snap happens and Walker and Ware are not rushing at all. Instead, another 4 man blitz against 3 men on the left side. Hatcher, Ratliff, Spencer, all occupy the OL, so around the corner again comes an untouched DB, Orlando Scandrick.

Watch video of play #2 by clicking here.

Again, neither play changed this game. But, it shows what can happen and it shows the opponent what they better be thinking about before they line up against the Cowboys. Corners, safeties, and linebackers. Anyone on the field might be blitzing.

They had better be ready.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Decoding Garrett - Week 9 - Data - Buffalo

Play calling is one of the more discussed and perhaps misunderstood elements of football. It seems that everyone who enjoys this game fancies themselves as learned play callers and yet just about every coordinator they follow never gets their job quite right. The only play callers that ever seem to get unanimous support are those that happen to have an offense under their command who wins all of the time. Generally, this also coincides with having superior talent and likely a wonderful QB.

Conversely, those who have inferior talent or a QB without experience are labeled as "poor" play callers. Whatever they tried on a given Sunday did not result in a victory, and therefore, to their fan base and media, they obviously called the wrong plays.

It is an exercise in insanity that often includes someone watching a spectacular TD catch by Dez Bryant and telling the person sitting nearby, "See, why don't they do that more often?" You know, call the touchdown play again. If only it were that easy.

Is Jason Garrett calling better plays now? Or, is a running game allowing easier passing attack opportunities? If there was no threat of a running game, would teams play more conservative defense and shade a safety over Dez Bryant? As you watch Green Bay dismantle Minnesota on Monday night football, you wonder if Mike McCarthy is the best play caller in football or does he have the best players? Or both?

In this space each Tuesday, we attempt to discuss the topic of play calling, deploying of the troops, and offensive execution. That includes an array of various items that can be looked at, and we attempt to tackle a different 1 or 2 each week. Then, we show data from that particular game to offer substantive results rather than simple opinions that have no evidence to confirm or deny the findings. Clearly, we are not NFL offensive minds that have resumes that may us candidates for future openings in the league, but by re-watching a game carefully, we can find a number of clues that tell us way more information about a football team than a guarded press conference ever can.

This week, we need to ponder whether the game against Buffalo was won during the week when the coaches sat down to discuss plans of attack. Much like the Eagles did to Dallas 2 weeks prior, the Bills suffered a 1st round knockout. When this happens, you can only look at each team's preparation and whatever the coaches decided on Tuesday in the film room was absolutely right in Dallas and absolutely wrong in Buffalo.

Let's look now at one example: The Cowboys very 1st Drive.

When Jason Garrett starts a game, he wants to get as many personnel groups out onto the field as possible. This practice is not uncommon around the league and generally the reason seems to be to collect photos and information in those first 10-15 plays. Of course, you want to score on those early drives, but you also want to see how the Bills have decided during their week of preparation how they are going to defend certain situations. Against "12" personnel, will they go nickel or dime? When Witten is flexed out as a receiver, will he receive bracket coverage or will they attempt to defend him with a safety straight up? Against "22", will the Bills put 8 or 9 in the box? These findings, often on pictures that are then studied between plays, are then applied for use later in the game. A scenario in the playbook that a coaching staff "wants to come back to" because they believe they have a plan for just that situation. Of course, they then hope that Buffalo doesn't change their strategies later in the game, too. This is the mental chess match that goes on during every game, but we seldom discuss or consider.

Dallas' 1st Drive of the afternoon included 5 plays. In order, they used "21", "22", "12", "S01", and "11" on the 5 plays to go 80 yards for the Touchdown. 5 different personnel groups and used a screen, a FB lead, then a short dump to Witten.

On 3rd and 4 from the 41, the Cowboys used "S01" which is empty backfield, 1 TE and 4 WRs. This puts Jesse Holley back into the mix and on to the field. He played exactly 1 pass play on Sunday and this was that moment. Off the snap, Laurent Robinson is to Holley's outside and runs a quick in route at the sticks. Meanwhile, Holley takes Terence McGee down the seams and McGee believes that Holley is going to stop in a shallow route. Once Holley keeps going, McGee is beaten in a trail position. I think it speaks volumes that Romo is willing to go to a player like Holley when he is never on the field, and he floats a ball where he needs Holley to go get it. When Holley gets his chance he leaps over McGee and helps move the chains with a large 26 yard gain for a 1st down.

The scoring moment in that 1st drive is another play of great beauty. 1st and 10 from the Bills 34, and the Cowboys use a grouping that they seldom go to. "11" personnel - but with Romo under center (11 personnel from the shotgun is what is called "Red Gun" or the Cowboys 3rd down and 2 minute drill package). "11" under center has only been used 13 times in 9 games. But, in this case, Witten is lined up as a fullback, and he will be asked with DeMarco Murray to stay in as a fortified protection ploy as the Cowboys wish to "take a shot" again on 1st down. We loved this concept last week as the Cowboys are now using the 50/50 1st Down for their most aggressive pass attempts because they know that with the new-found balance, the odds are much more in their favor to hit something big (rather than against a dime defense on 3rd Down where safeties lurk for interceptions).

The protection is needed as the Bills are sending a safety. This means that 3 Cowboys WRs will be working against 3 Bills corners and safety George Wilson up top. For Romo, it is a 7-step drop and he needs it all as the rush is closing in up the gut with Phil Costa losing his battle. 5 Bills against 7 Cowboys in pass protection means Romo can set and fire and when he sees Dez Bryant (on a stop and go pattern) against Leodis McKelvin in a 1-on-1 as Wilson cannot get there in time, his mind is made up. Romo sends the pass to the near pylon and Dez has to go over McKelvin to win the ball and save an interception. It was a fantastic play by Bryant and it shows that in this league a QB has to trust his WR to make a play because he is essentially throwing it right where the corner is waiting. But, Dez out leaps McKelvin and the Cowboys finish their 1st drive with a dazzling result.

5 personnel groups, 5 plays, 80 yards, and Romo is 4-4 for 76 yards. And you see how the preparation had the Bills tied up in knots before they even broke a sweat.

Another very interesting finding from our research on Sunday is that the "21" package was strong, but in a whole new way. "21" is what they call "regular" personnel in the Cowboys coaching offices. This is what the Cowboys ran under Norv Turner nearly all the time. Emmitt and Moose behind Aikman, Novacek at TE, and Michael Irvin with Alvin Harper out wide. A few weeks back, we talked about how Tony Fiammetta is helping to bring back "regular" personnel.

The numbers were exceptional. The Cowboys, who had no FB on the roster for several games to start the season, now employ Fiammetta as part of their attack on a routine basis. "21" is the neutral personnel group in the NFL, meaning that there is really not a heavy run package (like "22") and not a heavy pass package (like "11"). The defense has to play "21" straight up, or risk being burned.

For the 1st month with Fiammetta, the Cowboys killed teams with "21" personnel. 17 running plays for 235 yards means they were grabbing an insane 13.8 yards per attempt. Buffalo saw that and clearly purposed on stopping the run when they see "21" on Sunday. And they did. The Cowboys tried 13 run plays out of "21" on Sunday and only accumulated 37 yards. Buffalo wanted to plug up the run on Fiammetta and did a nice job on this personnel grouping. But, at what cost? Well, the Cowboys also threw the ball out of "21" 8 times. On those 8 throws, they found 110 yards - including the 58-yard bomb to Robinson off play action in "21" personnel. The Bills were sitting on the run with Fiammetta and they were burned badly. This is the beauty of balance in your offense. Pick your poison.

Data from Week 9

Shotgun snaps are fine on 3rd Down and in the 2 minute drill. But, we track this stat from week to week to make sure the Cowboys aren't getting too lazy in using it. They are not efficient enough to run it as their base, and with a 15%/85% run/pass split, there is no way the defense respects your running game.

Against the Bills, the Cowboys avoided shotgun because they were in control of the lead. The better you run the ball, the less you depend on Romo in the shotgun against nickel and dime coverages. In other words, the more you have offensive success.


Wk 1 - NYJ: 24/66

Wk 2 - SF: 32/66

Wk 3 - Wash: 27/62

Wk 4 - Det: 29/75

Wk 5 - NE 31/67

Wk 6 - StL 10/60

Wk 7 - Phi 39/49

Wk 8 - Sea 19/59

Wk 9 - Buf 15/61

Total - 226/564 40.1%


Here is the Game Data from Week 9:

Big development here. The Cowboys owned 3rd Downs. Romo was dead on and the team saw a conversion rate they seldom see. 8-12 is 67% and a rare awesome week in this category.

1st Down Run-Pass20-10
2nd Down Avg Distance to Go7.63
2nd Down Run-Pass12-7
3rd Down Avg Distance to Go6.00
3rd Down Run-Pass3-9
3rd Down Conversions8-12, 67%

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Drive Starters - 1st play of each drive can often reveal the intent of a coach to establish his game plan. Heavy run and then when you least suspect it, a max-protect throw up top.

Wk 1-At New York Jets: 13 Drives - 5 Run/8 Pass

Wk 2-At San Francisco: 10 Drives - 4 Run/6 Pass

Wk 3-Washington: 11 Drives - 5 Run/6 Pass

Wk 4-Detroit: 14 Drives - 7 Run/7 Pass

Wk 5-At New England: 11 Drives - 4 Run/7 Pass

Wk 6-St Louis: 11 Drives - 8 Run/3 Pass

Wk 7-At Philadelphia - 9 Drives - 2 Run/7 Pass

Wk 8-Seattle - 11 Drives - 4 Run/7 Pass

Wk 9-Buffalo - 10 Drives - 7 Run/3 Pass

Total: 100 Drives - 46 Run/54 Pass 46% Run

Here is the breakdown by groupings:

Before you study the data below, I would recommend that if the numbers for the groupings are unfamiliar, that you spend some time reading a more expanded definition of the Personnel Groupings here.

Again, look at the production from under center. And see that the easiest time to throw for an offense is when the defense is sitting run. This is as balanced an offense as we have seen since 2008 when their September performance was a beauty to behold.

Totals by Personnel Groups:
PackagePlays RunYardsRunPass

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And now those same numbers on 3rd and 4th Downs. It is clear here that Romo was seeing the game and feeling the coverages with great ease. Dallas can only hope there is more of this coming now that he appears healthy again.

Totals by Personnel Groups on 3rd/4th Down:

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Overall, this was another successful offensive day. Even the goal-line offense was great. If they can find this performance on a regular basis, they will surely be in the playoffs. Trouble has been playing on the road. Will Romo and Garrett "let it rip" when they go on the road? Sunday will tell us plenty when they head to Washington.

Tomorrow, for our Xs and Os breakdown, we will examine the blitz scheme Rob Ryan threw at the Bills with such success.

And please email me at if you have questions that I may clarify in an upcoming email blog.

The Morning After: Cowboys 44, Bills 7 (5-4)

Something very important has happened with the Cowboys over the last few weeks.

No. The important occurrence was not the 44-7 thumping of Buffalo and a rather underwhelming, but commanding win over Seattle. Although, those wins were both imperative and necessary and have the Cowboys off to a nice start in this stretch where they would play 5 very beatable opponents and would need to go 5-0 to have a chance at the NFC East entering the final stretch in December.

No. The important occurrence was not the continuing breakout and dominance of rookie RB DeMarco Murray. Although his 4-game stretch in games that he has started since Felix Jones went down in New England is easily the best yardage total of any 4-game stretch of any Cowboys Running Back EVER. Murray has 601 yards in 4 starts, and as a reference point, Emmitt Smith's biggest 4-game yardage pile is 550 yards from 1993. Nobody is saying that Murray is Emmitt, but, um, we must be saying he is pretty good.

No. The important occurrence was not Tony Romo finally resembling the QB that he has been since 2006 with a nearly perfect passing performance against the Bills. Only Peyton Manning and Tony Romo have a streak of the last 5-straight years of over a 90 passer rating. He is sure to make it 6 in a row, it would seem, now that he has bounced back from his broken rib/punctured lung episodes from Week 2 and finally looks the part of a QB who is in charge of his offense.

And, No. The important occurrence was also not the defense suddenly making opposing QBs look helpless against various blitz concepts. Although it was sure pleasant to see some invention and execution meet on the field after the debacle in Philadelphia where Rob Ryan's bravado seemed to lack a whole lot of substance when his poking-with-a-sharp-stick routine fizzled on Sunday Night 15 days ago. Now, the blind-side hits on unsuspecting QBs are adding up and so are the takeaways. That is a very key development as well, but not the most vital.

The very important occurrence that has happened for the Dallas Cowboys 2011 campaign might have taken place in a meeting room in Valley Ranch or perhaps on the team chartered airplane as it flew quietly from Philadelphia back to Dallas. Wherever it happened doesn't matter. But it happened. Jason Garrett decided to challenge and trust his offensive line and return to attacking offense. And when that happened, the Cowboys offense received a facelift that it needed terribly.

Anyone who watches the Cowboys on a week to week basis with a very careful eye will see that the Cowboys problems are not nearly as delicious as people want you to believe on the national pre-game shows. While they argue that Jason Garrett doesn't trust his QB Tony Romo to make smart throws at big moments, the reality was right in front of everyone's face. The head coach would love to be put in a spot where he had to trust his QB again. But, the issue never got that far as he stopped believing in his offensive line, one could argue, in the Metrodome back in the 2009 playoffs when Ray Edwards tossed Marc Colombo around the dome while Doug Free and Jason Witten were trying to handle Jared Allen. Then, in the middle, the Cowboys had their hands full with the "Williams Wall" and Romo was running for his life. As for the running game that day, well, there wasn't one. Romo was sacked 6 times and the Cowboys were spanked 34-3, leaving a bad taste in the mouth of those were were feeling pretty good about the 2009 season to that point.

From there came a 2010 season where the Cowboys started the year with Jason Garrett allowing the offensive line to prove itself. Within a month, the line was caving in on all running plays (who can forget the way Tennessee destroyed the Cowboys' front all day) and Romo was under pressure constantly. Leonard Davis and Colombo looked like they were done and the Cowboys had nobody behind them that they were willing to put on the field. New left tackle Free was being given help on nearly every occasion as Dallas was wisely making sure he was ready for primetime. They left the training wheels on Free through another trip to the Metrodome last season in Week 5 as the Cowboys threw 22 of 32 passes at or behind the line of scrimmage. They threw the ball because they had to, but the passes were all short and quick because they did not want to see if the OL could hold up. It was arguably the least aggressive game plan of Garrett's career and the Cowboys lost late without ever really throwing their best punch for fear that the punch might expose them to a counter they couldn't handle. It was textbook careful coaching.

The next week, the Cowboys saw why Garrett was so scared of his offensive line. Tony Romo was decked because of a faulty blitz pick-up and broke his collarbone. He was gone for the season and whatever remained of the Cowboys season and the Wade Phillips coaching regime was discarded that evening. The last two games Wade likely ever coached as a head coach in the NFL were two of the most embarrassing displays in Cowboys history as they were laughed at in front of their home fans by the Jacksonville Jaguars - a team that seldom laughs at anyone. Wade was put out of his misery in Green Bay in early November, 2010, as Clay Matthews and Dom Capers put a clinic of blitzes on a Cowboys offense that looked like they couldn't wait for the season to end.

In the offseason before 2011, the Cowboys knew they needed to gut their offensive line. They knew if they were ever compete again at a high level again, it would not be with Davis, Colombo, and even center Andre Gurode still holding down unchallenged spots on the offensive line that was no longer capable of even being called average. Their performance handicapped the offensive play calling and while fans wanted Romo and Garrett's heads on platters, the truth was that they were both doomed because of protection and blocking issues every single Sunday. Garrett's only advantage was that he did not suffer physical pain from the OL's lack of performance. Romo was the man who had to wear a sling because of it.

They bid those 3 highly-compensated veterans a farewell, and replaced them with kids. Tyron Smith was highly regarded and promising for any team in the NFL. Phil Costa and Bill Nagy were unregarded and Dallas was really gambling that they were right while the rest of the league missed on two young jewels who were ready for primetime. Change is good. But, change without proper replacements is reckless. It was most curious that the Cowboys seemed so sure of themselves and even talked about their new love for "zone blocking" and smallish type fighters in the trenches that surely did not agree with Hudson Houck's career resume of road-graders and pulling guards.

In the first 5 games, it was different but not better. The interior of the line was very bad. The running game was not going anywhere and the passing game was not stretching anyone. 3 and 5 step drops as Romo was trying to get rid of the ball quickly to save his body from another cast or sling. Garrett was not calling games to attack, he was calling games to just stay alive and hope for a play late. He was playing the cards he was dealt.

Something happened in New England as the Cowboys played another protective, conservative offensive game. Bill Nagy was hurt - forcing the Cowboys to bring back Montrae Holland. Felix Jones was hurt which forced DeMarco Murray into the group. Tony Fiammetta recovered from his injuries giving the Cowboys a true fullback. The zone running was almost completely scrapped for the familiar G-power and larger man blocking that the Cowboys know. Suddenly, the running game returned against the Rams. It gave the defense something to consider and opened up a little more space. At the same time, Romo was healing and returning to a QB who didn't look spooked.

Then, the massacre in Philadelphia hit, and that is when the details get fuzzy about Garrett's thinking. He hides his cards very well and talks for 30 minutes without saying much at his media press briefings. But, his actions speak loudly.

And upon the team's return to Arlington for Seattle and Buffalo, we are seeing the results of his actions. The offensive line has been granted a helping of belief from the play-caller and the Quarterback. They are being asked to block and protect. This allows the running game to feed the passing game and vice versa. And when that happens, things open up. Safeties creep up and get burned over the top. This is possible because the QB and play caller are willing to risk a 7-step drop and believe in pass protection again that is required for deep passes. Blocks are opened and swagger returns. And suddenly, we see that the Cowboys offense, for the first time in nearly 2 years, is back to attacking.

Is Phil Costa ready? No. Is Kyle Kosier healthy? Doesn't seem so. Is Holland any better than he has always been? Probably not. But, the group has a coach that has decided to put some responsibility back on their shoulders. That is easier at home against Buffalo than it is in Philadelphia or New York, but it is a welcome start. As they continue to show that they can be counted upon, I believe Garrett and Romo will continue to feed more their way.

The offensive line is proving it can carry some weight again and that is the story here. That certainly won't entertain a national audience like a Romo/Dez/Garrett/Jerry debate, but sometimes the truth doesn't attract ratings like fabrications.

All that matters from the Cowboys perspective is that they are back on the attack. Let's see if it continues in Washington.