Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Decoding Linehan - Week 16 - Redskins

The regular season has been completed.  As part of our weekly project where we evaluate the week-to-week performances of this offense (every week since 2008), it is important to start with the following summary:
The offense has never been better than it is in December of 2014.  The run game is among the very best in the NFL and a devastating balance of zone and man blocking where the game is taken physically to the opponent regardless of defensive looks.  The pass game is clearly the change-up pitch of this arsenal (by design), but it comes with an impressive precision-based attack that seems to leave almost no plays on the field.  When you make a coverage mistake against the Dallas Cowboys (or, simply a coverage decision to allot fewer men in the secondary), Tony Romo is picking secondaries apart with ease.
The combination of the two is the rarified air that Dallas has enjoyed all season, but before that could never be found in their constant journeys through the wilderness: a balanced, logical, and powerful offense that can control games, frustrate opposing coaches, and take the league by the scruff of the neck.  It is impressive in its power and its simplicity.  It is repeatable and works in all conditions.
It is nearly at full health and includes many pieces that are at the prime of their careers.  They have finally found an offense that offers nearly nothing to complain about or demand they improve upon.
In short, the Cowboys have an offense that can win the Super Bowl in 2014.
This, of course, has been hashed and rehashed in this space through this season long journey, but it can't be stressed enough.  For years - really since 2007 in some form or fashion - we have been amazed that the Cowboys could have so much personnel and so many toys to play with on their offense without ever seeing it perform at the peak of the league.  They have sometimes achieved gaudy numbers, but never the win totals or even the "game control" that we have seen in 2014.  The frustration levels would percolate and the offense would not be able to take a game over, protect the defense, or even just call the same style of game on the road in those years over large stretches.  We searched for solutions as the Cowboys themselves tried everything they could think of.
They tried slinging it around and staying in shotgun, 11 personnel exclusively.  They tried "Romo-friendly" which seem liked a nice way of having him throw less dangerously.  They tried a veteran line that mauled you and then a rookie line that was undersized to gain an athletic edge.  There were dozens and dozens of trips up that hill that looked good in a mini-camp newspaper story about the new innovation attempts or that this will be the year of Martellus Bennett or Felix Jones (or both!).
But, somehow they have arrived here all in 2014.  Credit Linehan.  Credit the offensive line maturation process which started to show their ability in mid 2013, but we certainly didn't believe that Jason Garrett even enjoyed running the ball just 6 months ago.  And to a certain extent, you could always defend that view because "that is the direction the NFL is headed" more and more each year.  Credit DeMarco Murray and credit Tony Romo.  Credit a team that has invested more in their offense than they probably should have, unless their offense was about to take over the league.
Sure, you might prefer Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers or Peyton Manning or even Russell Wilson (with those 2 or 3 ridiculous plays on 3rd Down that win games and his ability to beat you with his arm or legs) at QB to win 3 or 4 games and march right through to January.  But, the reason I think the Cowboys have as good an offense as anybody is that they are not 100% reliant on a QB just performing a magic trick or two to succeed.  That may seem like an insult to Romo, but it is not.  He is part of a machine right now, in a way that is frankly a bit eerie to what Troy Aikman once was.  He is not being asked to carry the team to victory with 45 passes.  He is simply being asked to plunge a dagger into the opponent at several precise moments of the game and is throwing into favorable secondaries who have been allocated fewer troops because of the run.  Then, he is killing them.  Those other QBs are being asked to throw 40 times into full secondaries and to have the entire game leveraged on their arms.  They can do it, but it is a much less repeatable exercise in the playoffs.  It only takes one bad week and it can all end.  It might not help his MVP case, but it makes the Cowboys more dangerous as a team.
Look at the proof from Romo's stand point on why this may have been his calling all along.  Here is a list of all of the times since Romo/Garrett have begun their QB/Coach relationship that Tony has thrown 35 passes in a game (and Dallas' corresponding record).  EDIT: It should be noted that the average NFL team throws 34.9 passes per game in 2014:
YearGames with 35+ PassesRecord
Now, yes, some of those games have been effected by throwing less in the 4th Quarter because of the lead, but trust me, in studying this carefully, there is no disputing that the Cowboys have become the team that runs on 1st and 10.  Over and over and over again.
In fact, let's prove that.  Here is the 1st and 10 Run % and NFL Rank for the last 4 years:
Year1st Down Run%Rank
By the way, the mark of nearly 71% in 2014 is not only a NFL 4-year high, but the next highest was below 64%.  So, 128 team seasons in the last 4 years, and the Cowboys run rate on 1st and 10 this season (and, of course, the low pass rate) is off the charts extreme in the other direction.  And, as you might expect, no team goes from 32nd to 1st in 2 seasons without a major overhaul of everything.
Yet, here are Tony Romo and Jason Garrett sipping ice tea and wondering why everyone doubted them.  It has been a crazy 2014.
On one hand, as I stated Monday in the Morning After Column, I blame myself for not anticipating 2014.  On the other hand, I think we should all wrap our heads around how "out of nowhere" this massive turnaround for the offense has been.
Offensive Participation:
We should not underestimate the premise of nearly having full health for the 2014 Cowboys offense as one real explanation for things falling into place.  Yes, it is true, that more injuries happen to defensive players than offensive players, and yes, it is also true, that more injuries happen when pass protecting than run blocking.  But, even when you are the hammer and not the nail, things happen in this physical sport.  And for whatever reason, this year, the Cowboys offense stayed almost fully healthy with 5 players cracking the 1,000 snap barrier: Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, Zach Martin, Jason Witten, and Ron Leary.  Tony Romo and Dez Bryant were over 900, and DeMarco Murray and Terrence Williams were over 800.  That is pretty much every regular but Doug Free who missed 5 starts but was adequately replaced by Jermey Parnell.  Health is part of the equation, and the injury luck fairies have been kind to the Cowboys.
I recognize I have not spent too much time breaking down this game in particular, but I think that we can all see that again the offense did whatever it wanted in a macro sense.  They certainly could clean up a few things in the red zone and Romo's pick was brutal, but overall they scored on all 5 of their first half drives before time expired and had their way with their initial game plan to deal with Jim Haslett (in his last game with Washington) with ease.
PASSING CHART - My buddy John Daigle has designed this passing chart each week.  Each color represents the possession number listed in the key. The numbers are separated by the half. If you were to start from the bottom and work your way up, you would be tracking that possession from beginning to end. The dotted-lines are incompletions. Large gaps between throws are mostly YAC or carries.
Week 17 Summary
This throw chart is pretty clear what the Cowboys are all about.  Short, short, short, kill-shot over the top when you get to frisky with your safeties.  It is beautiful if you enjoyed the 1990s.
DRIVE STARTERS - The first play of each drive can often reveal the intent of a coach to establish his game plan. How committed is he to the run or pass when the team comes off the sideline? We track it each week here.
 Now, the season ending numbers.  72% run on drive starters!  This is a team philosophy that was not deviated from.  Congrats, coaching staff.
* This statistic doesn't count the 1-play kneel down drives.
TOTALS BY PERSONNEL GROUPS (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.)

* - Knee Plays are not counted in play calls.
Against the Eagles, they tried play-action, but the Eagles were sitting on it each time and Romo had to check down.
Wk 1: 1/5, 9 Yds, 3 INT, 1 FD
Wk 2: 4/5, 39 Yds, 1 Sack, 2 FD
Wk 3: 3/3, 88 Yds, 1 TD, 2 FD
Wk 4: 6/8, 76 Yds, 1 TD, 4 FD
Wk 5: 2/4, 38 Yds, 1 Sack, 2 FD
Wk 6: 1/4, 47 Yds, 1 Sack, 1 FD
Wk 7: 3/5, 55 Yds, 1 Sack, 2 TD, 1 FD
Wk 8: 5/6, 92 Yds, 1 TD, 2 FD
Wk 9: 1/1, 1 Yd
Wk 10: 2/3, 21 Yds, 1 FD
Wk 12: 4/4, 86 Yds, 4 FD
Wk 13: 2/3, 11 Yds, 1 FD
Wk 14: 5/6, 85 Yds, 4 FD, 1 Sack
Wk 15: 0/1, 1 Sack
Wk 16: 1/1, 11 Yds, 1 FD
Wk 17: 3/5, 55 Yds, 1 TD, 2 FD, 1 INT
2014 Total: 43/64 (67 percent), 714 Yds, 6 TD, 4 INT, 28 FD, 6 sacks - QB Rating: 109.7
BLITZING Romo - Pass Rushers Against Dallas - 35 Passes against Washington
I want to break down some plays on Xs and Os (likely Friday), but for now, let's look ahead at what this offense has in front of it.
They now deal with the Detroit Lions and Ndamukong Suh who has a track record of being a nut, but he is also a fantastic football player who may be is as good as it gets on the DL in the NFL if you can't have JJ Watt. You do not block him with 1 player and you do not run inside with much success - especially if Nick Fairley is next to him (which he has not been for the 2nd half of the season and is a long-shot for Sunday).
The Lions play tons of "2 Shell" which is the Cover 2 look that sometimes has a safety dive-bombing in at the snap, but are more than happy to make you deal with a full secondary and depend on their front 6 to deal with your run. In the secondary, they have had success against high-powered offenses by playing with safeties deep and then man-underneath with a rather clear trail position technique which makes you fit the ball into tight spaces in the intermediate areas in the middle of the field. As you might have witnessed on Sunday, Aaron Rodgers did a decent job of doing just that on Sunday, without the benefit of any success over the top. Rodgers was completely shut down in their Week 3 game in Detroit with much of the same techniques being applied.
The difference between Green Bay and Dallas' attack is that the Packers are not generally as dedicated to running the ball (despite the game they just played) on Detroit as Dallas will be. And with Suh now back in the game after his suspension was lifted, the game will come down to that. Can the Cowboys run against the Detroit front with great success when nobody else has been able to do so?
The Lions are as stingy a team against the run as any team in football, having only allowed 2 games all year where an opponent runs for over 90 yards. They are #1 against the run, allowing just 69 yards a game against and are #1 at not allowing 4-yard carries, too. They are also #1 at chasing teams from trying to run at all as teams become 1-dimensional passing teams because they know they can't run it.
So, styles make fights, right? In a 1-game, winner-takes-all situation, this is where the game will be won or lost.
Can the power of the Cowboys defeat the power of the Lions? The Cowboys are going to stick to their season-long determination to find out. They are expecting that the Lions have not dealt with this level of power very often.
We will find out soon enough.

Monday, December 29, 2014

The Morning After: Cowboys 44, Redskins 17 (12-4)

What a difference a year makes.  Or two years.  Or three years.  However you want to slice things with your segments of time, any Cowboys' fan who is passionate about breaking the cycle has to be doing a small, measured da nce today knowing that "Black Monday" in the NFL is not on your mind.
For the last 3 years, 2011-2013, the Cowboys have spent this day - the Monday after the final game - with the macro discussions of a team in perpetual failure mode.  I have certainly been front and center for this tradition with mind-numbing dreams of this franchise in a parallel universe where disappointment isn't delivered fresh every Black Monday.
This franchise is broken and it is not getting better. Another showdown against a beatable division rival showed you all you should need to see. Assuming the last 15 years didn't already provide enough evidence.
for some reason, this one feels a bit different to me than 2011.  In 2011, I thought the Cowboys were overwhelmed by the New York Giants in the final game of the season because of the simple mismatch problems that they had no answer for.  There was no strategy or posture that was going to allow that Cowboys OL to handle the DL of the Giants.  It just wasn't happening.  
But, this one, despite the familiar result, seemed a much different style of loss.  To me, especially from an offensive standpoint, this one felt like the Cowboys suffered the most disappointing of failures on the field at the home of their hated rivals.  This one felt like a self-inflicted defeat, full of wasted opportunities and poor execution.
And so ends another season on this treadmill of mediocrity at Valley Ranch…
It is different, in many respects, because this time the culprits are some who were not even part of the story just a year or two ago, with names like Monte Kiffin and Bill Callahan at the top of the list of people sitting on seats that may in fact be warming to hot.  There are new coaches and players in the chairs of blame and some will be replaced and some will not.
But today, those of us who were pretty sure things could never change at Valley Ranch until they did actually change must stand down and admit that a leadership of Jerry Jones and Jason Garrett really could change things around.
After yesterday's resounding regular season finale where the Cowboys crushed a divisional rival on the road to wrap up a perfect season of road football, it is time to gaze at this 12-4 team and admit that no matter how much you study the NFL and sports in general, it is a bad idea to say "never" about anything.  Especially the idea that Jerry Jones will never be able to figure things out at this stage of his career and that Jason Garrett will never be a solid head coach.
I would have fired Jason Garrett after Washington in 2012.  The disappointments were too many and the number of instances where I felt the head coach had cost them the game were more than a few.  They could not afford to have a "learn on the job" head coach and that this thing is doomed until they get a wise man who has already figured out head coaching hired here.  But, we all know that will "never" happen because Jerry Jones will "never" hire that type of guy anymore.
They "never" will buy into power football as the franchise seems to in love with finesse skill position players who make great fantasy football selections, but the Cowboys get killed in the trenches too often.
And, Jerry Jones as a fantasy football general manager who seems more interested in a profitable stadium than a dominating football team?  We can't fire him, so we may just have to wait him out.  They can "never" win with him calling the shots.  He is too in love with his players and by the way, will they ever win with Tony Romo anyway?
These things were said.  Some here, some not, but they were said and repeated and shouted and promised.  The evidence seemed strong and the plan seemed weak over the 2010-2013 range that they were lost without a compass.  And then, strapped with salary cap mistakes and the idea of having to say goodbye to the good players they did have on defense, how could 2014 be anything short of a disaster?
I said 6-10, and although I already knew I was bad at predictions, this one might take the cake.  The Cowboys not only won twice as many games as I predicted, but they are not done and have a real shot of a deep run in January where you could make the case that the Cowboys match-up with every single team in the NFC.  They will start with Detroit at home next Sunday and I can already tell you I anticipate them to advance on to Green Bay for the following Sunday (But, you have already been informed repeatedly about my ability to make predictions).
The talk about this win in Washington seemed somewhat irrelevant for much of the week, because for once this game was not leveraged at all for the Cowboys divisional title or post-season hopes.  They insisted on doing what they do - which is to play each game as if the stakes are high and that means playing the starters with no intention of carefully managing the risk of bad things happening at just the wrong time.  To their credit, they have pretty much stuck to this all season and have remained consistent throughout that if there is a game, Tony Romo and DeMarco Murray are going to play and they are going to play a lot.  Again, I will admit that this philosophy is not my cup of tea at all, but to this juncture, one would fairly have to study this and say that it appears to be something that the whole team has bought into as far as an overall worldview and mentality that this team would be happy to meet you in a parking lot to play with no crowd present and engage in a street fight.  It is something that Jason Garrett has preached for years, but when something is developing under the radar, it looks vague and difficult to detect.  Then, it fully arrives all at once and you can see his "process" right in front of your face.
Overnight, the Cowboys went from a team that was always the 2nd most physical team on the field each week to one the meanest bullies of the NFL, and for those of us who covered this team closely during the entire process, it would have been easier to follow if they had a more linear progression.  But, sometimes, it just clicks and "presto!" you have a team full of bullies.   And, evidently, bullies don't sit games out because you are worried about whether or not it is a good idea to risk injury.  At least that is what popped in my head yesterday as Romo and Murray were playing in the 4th Quarter for no reason and how badly this whole run would suffer if either of them were to get nicked up.  Jason Garrett and his team believe that as a football team with a "team tough" attitude, they can't play conservatively anymore.  They can't play with the worst case scenarios always making their decisions.
Risky?  Maybe.  But, if that is what put them in this spot of 12-4 and the team nobody wants to play in the playoffs, then I would be tempted to keep consistent with the team attitude as well.
Beyond that, you saw more of the same on Sunday.  You saw an offense that Washington had no real answer for.  The drive chart reveals that the Cowboys first 5 drives all resulted in points as the Cowboys quickly put up 3 touchdowns and 2 field goals to jump out to a 27-7 lead against a long-time rival that has so lost their way that calling them pathetic might be flattering.
Alas, it is now a rival that looks lost without a compass, with personnel moves that continue to sabotage them and a ill-advised trade up in the draft that has left things as hopeless until their owner stops playing fantasy football and starts to realize that he is going to need to stand down and let the real decision makers help him see his way through the complications of pro football.  The Cowboys have been the nail for so long that it feels weird to be the hammer again.
But, here they are.  Jim Haslett wants to send the house on a blitz?  Tony Romo cooly sees it, throws it to Dez Bryant who puts a wiggle on his man and runs for a touchdown.  You want to blitz the Cowboys defense?  Let that be a lesson as to what happens next for those who want to try that in the future.
Defensively, make it 9-0 this season when the Cowboys take the ball away 2 times or more.  They get takeaways and they win, and four times on Sunday, Robert Griffin - the man who had humbled the Cowboys so badly in 2012 - was making foolish decisions with the football.  They fly to the ball with great energy and take it away.  They have taken the ball away 31 times this year, 2nd in the league to only Houston with 34.  Again, if you saw this coming after a 2012 where they only had 16, then you have predictive strengths I do not possess.  28 in 2013 and 31 in 2014 are two major steps for a defense that was without identity.  Now, over a 32 games sample, 59 takeaways tells us they are not the Seahawks, but they will go get that ball on you.
I, for one, have no idea where this January will take this team.  We now enter the time of the season where one poor play can end your year without warning.  It is the amazing emotional roller coaster of playoff football that can make or break legacies.  The Cowboys have entered the post-season with a parade of destructions in December that are unlike anything this generation has witnessed in Dallas, and have confidence that should take them places.
They are healthy and sure of themselves and more importantly, have a quality to their offense that makes them a force to be reckoned with.  And, without warning, they have a chance to go on a run with a few players - Tony Romo and Jason Witten - that had to wonder if they would ever get another crack at the ultimate prize.
20 teams are mourning Black Monday today, and the Cowboys are one of the 12 franchises that hardly will even notice.  They don't have to have a macro discussion about the hopelessness of their ownership group or the incompetence of their coach.  They have persevered when many of us would have started over with a new coach, a new mission statement, and a complete re-rack of the 5-year plan.  I have to give them credit.  They stuck with it and now find themselves about 4 years into a 5-year plan that looks as convincing as just about any of their adversaries.
They can enter this wild card week with a business plan that tells them they can go toe to toe with whoever they encounter on this march, and the even more exciting idea that they are but 4 wins from a Lombardi Trophy.  That possibility is still miles down the road, but most of us would have to agree that they are already much closer than any of us thought possible under their current regime.
Credit is due, but I bet they aren't worried about that right now.  They want playoff success much more.  And they can start grabbing that prize in 6 days time.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Bob Sturm Scouts the Redskins

With the regular-season finale upon them, the Cowboys have the division title clinched and a low-percentage opportunity to raise their standing in the NFC playoff picture.
It seems more than likely they will remain positioned as the No. 3 seed and play the loser of the Green Bay-Detroit clash in Arlington next weekend.
But, first, the final regularly scheduled date: their annual trip to the nation’s capital to take on the perennially disappointing Redskins, a team that has won just seven of 31 games since the 2012 playoff season when Robert Griffin III was a rookie.
Here is a look at a few of the things the Cowboys will see from Washington’s defense as they close down another year:
LB Jackson Jeffcoat
Ryan Kerrigan has again posted a strong season in Washington. His 13 1/2 sacks and overall exceptional play have again demonstrated his star quality, and it was the best of four seasons from yet another product of the fertile 2011 draft.
But finding a durable bookend partner has not been successful with the many injuries to Texas’ Brian Orakpo. It appears that the Redskins have found a new candidate in Stanford rookie Trent Murphy, but he was lost for the season two weeks ago when he suffered a broken hand.
In steps the rookie from Texas, Jackson Jeffcoat. The Plano West star was a consensus All-American in his final season in Austin. He went undrafted and spent the year trying to make the Seattle roster in training camp before landing on the Washington practice squad, where he played one snap in Week 7.
Murphy’s injury placed Jeffcoat on the active roster for last week’s game against Philadelphia, and he sacked Mark Sanchez in his first extended action in the NFL.
Jeffcoat still deals with the issues that caused his draft stock to slide, with questions of having enough pass rush ability to cover up his deficiencies in pass coverage and run support. But he has a chance to make a major impression, as Washington looks to 2015.
CB David Amerson
Because of the Redskins’ massive investment to trade for Griffin, it was vital that they made their remaining draft picks really count.
The problem there is that players like Amerson, their highest pick in the 2013 draft (second round, 51st overall), have had difficult seasons.
Amerson’s season hit a low in Indianapolis where he was responsible for coverage breakdowns that made Andrew Luck’s day quite elementary. Athleticism has never been his issue, but awareness and confidence seem in short supply as quarterbacks have posted a cumulative passer rating of 132 against him this season — the worst in the NFL according to Pro Football Focus.
Joined at cornerback by rookie Bashaud Breeland (fourth round), the Redskins have two young and talented cornerbacks.
But their secondary has been nothing short of a disaster, with the NFL passing for a 108.9 quarterback rating against Washington. The Redskins appear ready to move on from Cowboys’ nemesis Jim Haslett as defensive coordinator, mostly because the defense has made every passer they face as efficient as only Tony Romo and Aaron Rodgers have been this season.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Xs and Os - Week 15 - Colts

Late in the week, we finally get a chance to "look at the tape" as Jason Garrett likes to say and examine some plays that we cannot fully digest on TV. I can't promise that every week we will be able to do this, but honestly, this is my favorite exercise of the week because only here can you fully appreciate how advanced and complex the NFL game can be sometimes.
Here, we are not looking to call anyone out, and we surely want to leave open the possibility of our eyes deceiving us and more than anything, I want to admit that I don't have the benefit of the coaches telling me what coverage they were in. So, sometimes, this diagnosis will be "pretty sure" rather than "100% sure" even though I am trying to get it right. I will make calls and try to hunt down the right answer, but I will just admit right here that we will try our best to be accurate but invariably, I will see something wrong.
But, let's pick plays that are interesting but not played out by this point of the week and have some fun talking Xs and Os. Feel free to tweet me @SportsSturm when a game shows you a play that you would like broken down and I will attempt to include it in this post.
This week, many things were noteworthy and interesting.  Originally, I was planning to discuss the offensive line blocking schemes, because over the evolution in 2014 from an exclusive zone-blocking team to what has become - including Sunday - as a team that calls a ton of man-blocking plays with pulling linemen.  On the first drive, there were 7 called running plays with only 2 of them being zone and 5 being man-blocking concepts.
This speaks to the larger point that in today's NFL, nobody is exclusively "one thing" much anymore.  It is too easy to defeat.  If you are a 3-4 defense, you likely have several 4-3 fronts, and if you are a zone blocking team, you likely have other things in your playbook to keep everybody honest.  There was a story in Sports Illustrated recently that the Cowboys are a Cover-3 defense.  I would agree that they play some Cover-3, but I would not call it anywhere close to "what they are", rather in most cases, this would be an example of something they play at certain times.  The larger point being that nobody does one thing.  It would be too easy to deal with.
But, what I do want to work on today were two exceptional passing touchdowns.  There were several more, but these two were selected.  The top one was used because Tony Romo spoke at length about it in the post-game and as he unpeeled the layers of information, the play gets even more interesting.  I included his thoughts on the play with the video here and you can play it below.  I highly recommend you hear Tony talk you through the play before I look at it.  He certainly has great thoughts on what he was looking at.
Play #1 - 3Q/4:48 - 2/11/25 - Romo to Witten for 25 yard TD on seam route.

This is "Shotgun 02" with Romo in empty, 3 threats to his left (83-89-82) and 2 to his right with 11-88.  Why is that important?  Well, this is the same personnel grouping that has been taking teams apart in Philadelphia that we featured here and in Chicago that we broke down and featured here If you love this stuff like I do, you should really review those two pieces and break down how they are playing this awesome chess game. It is a week-to-week dance where they know that defenses are figuring out how to deal with this look and then manipulating them to do the bidding of the Cowboys offense. It is quite enjoyable.

It starts with the pass rush.  There was a time, not so long ago, that if the Cowboys went empty, they would see blitzing.  But now, Romo and the offensive line have been so good at handling it, the blitzes have stopped and the 3-man rush has been the new approach by many defenses.  Well, this means 8 to cover 5 Cowboy threats, and usually this requires either patience by the QB to take underneath gains or precision to throw perfect passes.  As you can see, Romo chose the latter.
Beasley is the only receiver running underneath in what appears to be an option route.  He reads the coverage and then takes his route to the sideline.  The other 4 are on "Go" routes, with the Colts in sort of a 4-4 zone that looks like Quarters up top (but the safeties are definitely not selling anything but getting to the sideline threats immediately), and the middle LB - 50 Jerrell Freeman - sitting on Jason Witten (surely expecting Witten to do what he often does, which is to sit down on a hook at the sticks).
This is where it is fun to hear Romo talk about where he was looking as you can actually see his head go from Dez, to Cole, to Witten, exactly as he says.  He also has all kinds of time to let this happen, but note how he says he has to know where both safeties are.  The safety to the right is all over Dez (because he watched the Eagles film and knows that is Romo's first idea if the corner out there is not getting help) and the safety to his left is on Escobar because with 4 verticals, it is clear that they are getting hit with a zone beater and he can't get them all.  Usually a safety is worried about the "most dangerous threat", but when all 4 are headed to the end zone, the math dictates that someone is going to be in a favorable match-up.  And that, of course, is Freeman vs Witten.
It happens so fast and it does take a great throw right to the perfect spot, but Romo knows where he is headed once the hips turn on Freeman.  Witten sells the hook with one inside step, and from there, the LB stops and then turns to run.  Good night, Irene.
Watch Romo here.  Look at a man who seems to have it all figured out at this point of his career.   Forgive me if the Fountains of Wayne tune "All Kinds of Time" plays in my head here.
He looks to the left
He looks to the right
And there in a golden ray of light
Is his open man
Just as he planned
The whole world is his tonight
Play #2 - 4Q/10:19 - 3/6/43 - Weeden to Williams for TD.
This is how you know the offense is ready to win something.  When it is no longer Romo to Dez.  Instead, both have been pulled from the game and the Colts want to blitz Brandon Weeden with 6 and see how that works out.  You can see the route concept underneath serves to affect the safety and isolate Williams against the corner 28-Toler.  Once Weeden sees this, he knows exactly where he is going and it is - like when they attacked Bradley Fletcher in Philadelphia - over when the ball leaves the QB's hand.
Now, you can see the safeties here.  The Cowboys are in S11, with Joseph Randle in to protect, so the Colts when they send 6 rushers are left to Single-high, man under.  The single-high safety is on the opposite hash mark leaning to the side with Devin Street (and assuming Toler can handle his own business).
Here, note the perfect pass protection.  6 on 6 and everyone has their business worked out nicely.  Randle and Bernadeau (and Parnell) are not the regulars, of course, and this entire lineup of 11 is what you might expect in preseason, but even they hit the Colts hard for a touchdown when they were given their chance.
Weeden puts a beautifully thrown pass right on top of Williams and the Baylor product turns on the jets and goes and gets it easily.  One of those days where everything the Cowboys tried turned to gold.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Marinelli Report - Week 15 - Colts

Last Sunday, the Cowboys had a chance to clinch their division title after the unlikely run since Thanksgiving of nothing but wins from the Dallas Cowboys and nothing but losses from the Philadelphia Eagles.  If Dallas could beat the playoff-bound Indianapolis Colts - and their high powered offense that leads the NFL in many categories - they would clinch the divisional title in front of their home fans and with a week to spare.
The incentive was high, but the question of how the defense would contain Andrew Luck and his host of weapons was difficult to answer.  This is the match-up that caused much stress when the schedule was released, and reminded many of us of the 4 times that the Cowboys caved in for 500 yards in a game in 2013 to San Diego, Denver, Detroit, and New Orleans.  Two more teams went over 475 in 2013 - Chicago and the Giants, making it 6 teams that absolutely obliterated the Cowboys defense.
So, with the aforementioned exits of DeMarcus Ware, Jason Hatcher, and the unfortunate injury to Sean Lee, the question of how Rod Marinelli might eliminate the obliterations was a major point of concern and stress in the offseason.  With 2 meetings against Chip Kelly's offense, Indianapolis, Chicago, New Orleans, Seattle, and various other games on the schedule, how could this year be different in that regard?
It is difficult to say exactly how it has been accomplished, but now, 15 games into the challenge, and 3 days since they held the Colts to 229 yards - easily the lowest production of any of Luck's 47 starts in the NFL - the Cowboys have avoided the meltdown occasion in 2014.  In fact, only once all year have the Cowboys allowed 450, and that was the 464 they gave up to Philadelphia on Thanksgiving.
Here is evidence of the fantastic defensive performance that you might find suitable for framing:
Now, we realize that the Colts were certainly culpable in their own suicide on Sunday, with limited participation, focus, and interest levels, but we have been taught to ignore excuses when they hit close to home, so this one might have to also be good for the gander.  5 punts, 3 takeaways, a turnover on downs, and a garbage time touchdown before the game ended is perhaps the finest defensive performance the Cowboys have rolled out all season with the exception of their performance in Seattle.  I think the job done in Seattle stands on its own two feet as the best of the year (perhaps of the decade), but to clinch against the Colts in a style that had the Colts pulling the plug early in the 2nd Quarter is a testament to a full-team demolition and one that assures the defense properly gets a certain amount of credit.
Unbelievable job that was predicted by absolutely nobody before the game started.
If you follow this defensive series through the years, I bet by now you are aware of my fascination with pass rush tactics.  The Cowboys have fewer sacks than almost every team in the NFL (Bengals, Raiders, Falcons, and Chargers have fewer) and of the 25 sacks the Cowboys have this season, the vast majority of them have come from a sack generated from confusion.  Said another way, the Cowboys have almost no sacks this season where a pass rusher from the "front 4" has simply beaten his man to the QB.  It doesn't happen much with this crew, which should offer a fine clue on what direction the Cowboys need to head in April in the draft.  Until then, creativity is the only way.
But, the classic conflict Rod Marinelli must face is that when he brings pressure, he weakens his secondary.  Rush 4, drop 7 is safe and sound defense.  But, bring more and you have less in coverage.  That is why over the years, coordinators have designed "zone blitzes" where you get the confusion of the blitzes of the past, without leaving your defenders out on their own where a broken tackle means a touchdown.  Overload blitzes - or fire zone blitzes - bring 5 rushers (many from the same side), but the weak side drops into coverage to keep 6 in the secondary.
Here are the two sacks from Sunday  both on 5 man rushes.
This first one is interesting because Scandrick comes off the right side of the screen with the LDE (90-Lawrence) and both DTs (97-McClain and 98-Crawford) all slanting to the right  (your left) and the RDE (99-Selvie) drops into zone coverage.  Scandrick gets home and Selvie ends up recovering the fumble.  Again, zone blitzes just want to confuse the OL and get advantageous match-ups.
This 2nd one is a similar concept to the other side.  RDE, DT, and DT all slant left, while the LDE 99-Selvie drops in coverage (this time he man covers the tight end).  Meanwhile, 53-Lawrence and 51-Wilber rush from their LB spots and Wilber is too much for the RB to pick up.  More of coverage sack, but the key there is the rush either generates A) a pass into coverage or B) an extra second for the rush to arrive.  It helps to have a backup QB in the game trying to get his bearings, but both of these worked very well from a team that doesn't blitz much.
DEFENSIVE PARTICIPATION:  Again, when the game plan is working great, the defense is not on the field many snaps.  This is the 6th time the defense has had to play 56 snaps or less - which is well below the NFL average of 64 snaps per game.  When the Cowboys are on the field fewer than 64, they hold a 8-1 record. It is clear that the defense is much more explosive and impressive when they play less.  It makes sense, but it all fits this "1-game plan" 2014 season which has tied the offensive and defensive game-plans at the hip. The entire defense had a very relaxing day with no DL playing more than 37 snaps, and many seldom used defenders each getting over 20 snaps: Kyle Wilber, Cam Lawrence, Keith Smith, CJ Spillman, and Jeff Heath.  You never know when you will need one of those to play in a big situation, so live ammunition helps.  All snap counts from
Yards per play: 4.1!  That is a 2014 low and the lowest since they held the Eagles (the most unstoppable force in the universe) to 3.7 in 2013.  And, of course, the team moves to 10 straight wins when they generate 2 or more takeaways.
A reminder of what a splash play is by clicking on the link:
During the Marinelli Report, we attempt to chart how the opposing quarterback fared against the DAL pass rush (unlike Decoding Linehan, when we chart drive progression). The key in the bottom end zone defines how many rushers came during a given throw. Each line entails where the ball was thrown from, trailing to the (general) point where it was caught. Dotted lines are incomplete passes.
Week 16 Summary
This week, we charted both Andrew Luck and Matt Hasselbeck in order to show just how ineffective the Dallas defense rendered the Colts starting QB.

This segment of the defensive study is simply to find out how well the Cowboys are doing at getting pressure on the opposing QB.
Each week we calculate how opposing quarterbacks fare against the Dallas blitz. Consider this the raw data behind the passing chart.
Wk 1 - Colin Kaepernick: 4/8, 74 Yds, 1 TD, 1 SACK
Wk 2 - Jake Locker: 3/6, 22 Yds
Wk 3 - Austin Davis: 4/7, 42 Yds, 1 INT
Wk 4 - Drew Brees: 6/8, 68 Yds, 1 TD
Wk 5 - Ryan Fitzpatrick: 6/11, 41 Yds, 2 FD
Wk 6 - Russell Wilson: 2/6, 25 Yds, 1 FD
Wk 7 - Eli Manning: 7/8, 75 Yds, 4 FD
Wk 8 - Colt McCoy: 5/7, 66 Yds, 2 FD
Wk 9 - Carson Palmer: 5/7, 42 Yds, 2 FD
Wk 10 - Blake Bortles: 4/6, 47 Yds, 2 FD, 3 Sack
Wk 12 - Eli Manning: 6/6, 75 Yds, 5 FD
Wk 13 - Mark Sanchez: 2/2, 16 Yds
Wk 14 - Jay Cutler: 6/9, 98 Yds, 3 FD, 1 TD
Wk 15 - Mark Sanchez: 4/5, 24 Yds, 1 FD, 1 Sack
Wk 16 - Andrew Luck/Matt Hasselbeck: 2/3, 11 Yds, 2 Sacks, 1 Forced Fumble, 1 Fumble Recovery
2014 Total: 66/99, 66 Cmp%, 726 Yds, 3 TD, 1 INT, 22 FD, 6 Sack - 94 QB Rating
Each week we monitor how often the Cowboys send pressure on passing plays.
And, here are the full season numbers to date:
There is no question that the absence of T.Y. Hilton helped the Cowboys along on Sunday,  but let's not make any mistake about what happened.  The Dallas defense seemed determined to not let this situation slip through their hands and with the help of the emotion of the home crowd, the Colts were going to have their hands full all afternoon under any circumstances.
The defense has survived all season with relentless pressure, a decent rotation of depth, and some pretty solid tackling on most occasions.  Yes, they have had their issues, but the team is 11-4, and in 3 of the 4 losses, the defense had plenty of assistance in losing the game.  Only in the Eagles debacle could you lay the majority of the blame on their ledger.
Now, they have qualified to the main stage of January, and will open with a home game against a team that will have its own warts to deal with.  The defense has improved by improving its floor, not its ceiling.  They have fewer meltdowns and fewer replacement-level players on the field when someone gets hurt.  They have improved their depth and have never just conceded the game like so many times in 2013 under Monte Kiffin.  This point is not made to disparage Kiffin, but rather to compliment Marinelli.  Whatever changed on that defense from last year to this - given the realities of who was going to be here to play and who wasn't - is the real story of 2014.  They simply do not collapse like a house of cards this season.
For the rest of the run - the playoffs - they will no longer have the benefit of some soft opponents along the way.  Any team that makes the NFC playoffs (with the exception of Arizona with its chaotic QB realities) will be picked to slice and dice the Cowboys defense.
Now, the only thing that might stand between the Cowboys and a deep January run is the ability for Marinelli to scheme his way around match-ups with offenses that have some very difficult players to deal with.  That is what we look forward to, marquee battles between heavyweights.
Until then, one last contest against Washington - a place where they have had some unpleasant visits over the years.  Putting them to the sword in Week 17 would be a most enjoyable way to enter the new year.