Thursday, May 28, 2015

2014 Pass Protection Sack Register - Weeks 1-4

Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo (9) fixes his chinstrap before making his way to the line of scrimmage during the first half of a playoff game between the Dallas Cowboys and Detroit Lions at AT&T Stadium  in Arlington, on Sunday, January 4, 2015. (Vernon Bryant/The Dallas Morning News)
Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo (9) fixes his chinstrap before making his way to the line of scrimmage during the first half of a playoff game between the Dallas Cowboys and Detroit Lions at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, on Sunday, January 4, 2015. (Vernon Bryant/The Dallas Morning News)
As many of my esteemed colleagues offer worthy coverage of the OTA's and the amusing things football players say in the last week of May, I will start a new series today that will bridge over the next few weeks to attempt to answer questions posed by many this spring.
Today's will require a few days to work through. It is, "Is the Cowboys offensive line the best in the NFL?"  As La'el Collins suggested, could they even become the best OL in the history of the NFL?
Now, let's be clear.  They are very good.  So much so, that the Cowboys have allowed DeMarco Murray to walk away and their front office and fan base seem to have limited concerns about whether it will affect their product.  The reason is that with all of the highly touted and selected draft picks that make up this line, surely there is no OL in football you would trade for the one right here in Dallas.
But, how good are they really?  If we are going to discuss the best in the league (I will not even address the idea of being the best in NFL history until the 1st question is satisfied that they are really the best in 2014 or 2015), we are looking for a line that runs a game.  One that can run block with great effectiveness and success and also one that can pass protect with the same effectiveness and success.
Only Seattle had more rushing yards per game and only Seattle and Miami had more rushing yards per carry.  Both of those teams use a zone read to get their QB running, something the Cowboys do not use at all.  Russell Wilson ran for 849 yards, Ryan Tannehill ran for 311, and Tony Romo had 61 yards.  When the Cowboys run, there is little deception.  It is declared, and then the ground and pound begins.  I am more than satisfied to declare the Cowboys one of the very top teams at running the ball in 2014, as best tested with the simple premise that it didn't appear anyone could "load up on the run" and stop them.
But, OL play is much more than that.  In fact, in a passing league, you could argue the run blocking is less than 50% of the proposition.  Can you pass protect?  Here was an exchange I saw the other day on twitter from one of the Eagles writers - Jimmy Kempski - when he was discussing the Dallas' OL:
Now, Jimmy may be a guy who loves his Eagles.  In fact, he is.  He makes no secrets about his allegiances when he writes.  But, admitting that, I still think he does raise a valid point that I have been thinking since January:  The Cowboys OL is very good.  But, to be great, they will need to pass protect better than they did in 2014.  Because for all of the great things they accomplished, Tony Romo was sacked 40 times in 18 games, including 10 times in the 2 playoff contests.  For a team that did not throw near the league average, that is too many.  And for a team that had a QB who elusively escaped many more sacks, that is way too many if we are going to discuss the best OL in the league.
They allowed 30 regular season sacks.  20 teams allowed more sacks, and a few teams - Jacksonville (71) and Washington (58) allowed way, way more.  But, 30 teams attempted more passes than the Cowboys.  Only Seattle threw fewer passes.  Therefore, we look at sack rate.  What percentage of passes are sacks?  5.9% in Dallas.  The league average was right there at 6.3%, where the Cowboys finished 16th.  11 teams had a sack percentage of lower than 5%, so you could easily argue that the Cowboys would need to drop 5-10 sacks off their tally to be considered a top team in pass protection.
That isn't to say they are lousy.  But, it is to say they are average.  Jimmy appears to have a real basis for what he is saying above.
They are 21st in most sacks allowed.  They are 31st in most pass attempts.  They are 16th in sack percentage.  They allow a sack once every 16.9 pass attempts.  Peyton Manning, that magician in Denver, gets sacked once every 36.7 pass attempts and Joe Flacco is once every 30 attempts.
This may not be the most air-tight way to evaluate your offensive line, but given the nature of football, there isn't a perfect way, short of sitting down with each sack and trying to figure out what the issues are.  And that is why this next project is on my list.
For the next few weeks, I am going to grab the 40 sacks of 2014 and try to sort through where this team is being attacked.  In our heads, when there is a sack, we imagine someone just getting beat by a fierce pass rusher.  But, when we look at these, I think you will find that the Cowboys were attacked by deception and schemes more than they were beaten straight up.
If they wish to be the best in the NFL in 2015, then the sacks will need to come down.  They will be attacked in new and exotic ways to get Tony Romo on the turf and off the field on 3rd Downs.  So, let's start this week with the first month of the season and look at the 8 sacks that were surrendered in the first 4 weeks.
First a disclaimer:  The analysis below is not meant to be exhaustive for each play.  There is context that could require massive write-ups on each sack, but in the interest of time, let's do this short and sweet.  I will try to identify the bust on each sack, but sometimes, it will be a guess as we do not know specific assignments.  We are trying to get this right, but invariably, some of you will see the same play and reach a different conclusion.  Cool? 
Then, let's begin:
Sack #1
#1SF1/8:152/1/2494 - J Smith77 - T Smith/Romo
This is a play we all remember from Week 1 where it was the run-pass option that Romo decided to opt to the pass.  Trouble is, most every other set of eyes was sure it was going to Murray and a Touchdown was going to be rather automatic.  It was a math decision and one that Romo wanted back in retrospect.  That said, Tyron Smith is given most of the bust here as he did not impede Justin Smith at all and you can tell by his body language that he is quite disappointed in himself.  You could easily give part of this bust to Romo as well, so we will split this one.
Sack #2
#2SF3/6:452/10/28494 - J Smith68-Free/70-Martin
Here is one that is a bit tricky for me.  I think when you first see Justin Smith come all the way from RDT around the left side on a "pirate stunt", you want to blame Doug Free alone.  But, I think when you look a bit longer, you see Free's dilemma.  He has to hand off #59 to Martin, but Martin doesn't see it.  Martin is supposed to hand #91 to Frederick, and take #59.  Free is supposed to hand off #59 and slide to #94.  But, because nobody is waiting to accept #59, Free is left with 2 guys.  No matter what he decides, the other guy is going to crush Romo.  Therefore, despite Free looking like the clear culprit, I think Martin - in his first NFL start - was likely identified by the coaches as needing to handle this better the next time.
Sack #3

#3SF3/3:142/12/39455-Brooks77 - T Smith
This one is easy.  Tyron Smith just got flat-out beaten badly.  He set to the outside and Brooks just dips inside and crushes Romo.  I think we forget how mediocre Tyron was last September right off his new contract.  He got way better when the season matured, but in those first 4-5 games, something didn't look right with the exceptional left tackle.
Sack #4
Here is Doug Free being beaten pretty soundly by the very impressive Jurrell Casey.  Look how Casey gets into his chest and throws him aside.  Romo tries to escape, but he can't quite save the play on 3rd and long.
Sack #5
#5TENN1/6:511/10/42592 - Pitoitua68-Free
Here is Free being beaten off the snap on a play-action pass play where Romo sees Witten releasing but doesn't have the time.  Free just can't close off the B-Gap to his inside and Ropati Pitoitua gets one of his rare sacks because he is hardly touched.
Sack #6
You may not remember this, but this was the 3rd sack of the 1st Quarter in Game 2, meaning the Cowboys had given up 6 sacks in the first 5 Quarters of the season.  That is a pace that is incredibly disturbing.  This one was the first time it happened against a real blitz as this 6-man pressure caused some issues in 6 on 6 blocking.  DeMarco gets his guy right in the middle, but on the right side, Casey #99 is against Leary and #59 is against Frederick.  Frederick gets the LB blocked so well, that he basically impedes Leary and it turns into a stunt, leaving Casey with a free run at Romo.  I don't think the plan was to run a stunt, but it worked out well.  I will charge this to Leary, but this might have been a simple stroke of bad luck.
Sack #7
This one isn't easy.  First, it is a Tennessee exotic rush that basically keeps the guard-center-guard just standing there as the flanks are attacked by edge guys and defensive backs.  To find fault in this play, we must watch DeMarco Murray try to stand his ground against the DB from the far left of the screen and basically get pushed into Romo, who tries to stay alive and runs right into the other DB from the other side, 31-Pollard.  Pollard gets the sack, but really didn't do much except meet Romo in the escape zone.  If Murray can stick to his spot, then Romo can stand in there.  You know you are going to get the trickiest looks on 3rd and long, and the Titans schemed a nice one here.
Sack #8
#8NO4/8:563/6/24532 - Vacarro68-Free

This is New Orleans dialing up a really trick look here, too.  As you can see, on a lot of these blitzes, you are just trying to cause confusion.  And the Saints did it well here as Doug Free sees 2 guys coming at him and tries to figure out the biggest threat.  He chooses wrong, because DeMarco is over there to take his guy - the outside threat.  Free has no way of knowing that beyond blind trust, but the general rule of thumb is that you take the inside guy when you are in doubt.  If he takes the man in the B-Gap and leaves the C-Gap for Murray, this gets blocked up.  I understand Free's decision, but it appears to be the wrong one as Murray looks confident in his outside role.
So through the 4th game, Free has busted on 3.5 sacks, Tyron 1.5, Leary and Murray get 1 each, and Romo and Martin each get 0.5 sacks.
Next time, weeks 5-8 and the rough night against the Redskins.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Email Bag: Romo's Play of the Year

In lieu of this week's Cowboys mailbag, I have elected to offer a thorough, well researched answer for one email, rather than many short answers for many emails.

I had to make a call, but I hope you are ok with the outcome.  Here is the email:

Dear Sportssturm, 
Given that the catch in Green Bay was recorded in the history books as nothing more than an incomplete pass and a turnover on downs, I was hoping you could look over the near-MVP season of Tony Romo and select his best play of the season.  I have my ideas, but I want to see what you came up with if you were asked to produce a single play to demonstrate his quality.   
Ok.  This is a good one, Roger.  

I have selected 3 plays from 2014.  Of course, he had dozens of great plays in this 2014 season, but many of them were based on him playing an incredibly sound decision-making season.  That means, he did not have to do magic tricks and gun slinging on a regular basis.  He made his read and made great throws, but did so in a clinical sort of precise way.  

But, that doesn't mean he didn't have to do crazy things at times.  What is particularly amazing is that I thought his 3 best magic tricks were all in an 8-day span back in October.  Forgive me if I am missing a good one or two.  

What is also interesting about these 3 plays in 2 games was that it was at a place in the season where some of us - at least I was chief amongst this group - were closely studying his every move as a sign that his back had healed and he could resume being a functional, upper tier, NFL QB again.  At the time, it was certainly unclear as he spent most of September doing very few things that appeared to risk his body.  

But, then these 3 plays happened and he removed all doubt about his abilities.

Let's review the 3 plays in the order they happened (with what I wrote the week of each of these games) and then we can all vote:

Candidate #1 - Vs Houston - 3Q - 3:14 - 2/4/43 - Romo to Williams, 43 yards, Touchdown

The Cowboys are in Shotgun 11 personnel, with double WRs to the Right with Williams wide and Bryant in the slot. Witten is tight on the right tackle, with Devin Street out left by himself. Meanwhile, the Texans are starting to get antsy and are showing a blitz look with 6 across the front, but as they normally do, the LBs drop off at the snap into the shallow zones. The Texans are basically only bringing 3, with a 4th coming on a delayed blitz depending on what the Cowboys do at the snap.

Romo appeared to have some sort of pump and go to the right, but the play appeared destroyed at the snap. To run a pump and go, Romo needs time, but when JJ Watt blew past Tyron Smith at the snap without Tyron barely getting out of his stance, Watt has a chance to drill a QB who has back issues from the blindside. There is no telling what might be the result of a QB who is looking to his right, trusting his All-Pro left tackle to protect his backside, and waiting for a play to develop. Smith had no help, because he never needs help. But, this time he needed it badly.

What happened next was amazing, and yet, if you have watched every Tony Romo snap of his career, you have seen it no less than a dozen times (just not that often recently). Somehow, Romo felt what was about to hit him from behind. If you watch the replay, you will marvel at how Romo knew JJ Watt was bearing down on him. It must have been something he heard, because it is difficult to say it was anything he saw. Regardless, with Watt having a free run at a QB with a bad back, Romo pulled out his text book, blind-spin back against the grain to his own end zone and then off to the offensive left. Watt who surely was 100% certain he had the sack got both hands on Romo but rolled past when the QB was able to shake him off. Now, Romo had bought just another second as Danieal Manning was bearing down on him from the delayed blitz. Romo lets a throw go deep down the field where Williams is running a deep post pattern against Kendrick Lewis. The throw hits Williams right in the chest as Romo watches from the ground.


The biggest question out of that play has been whether JJ Watt jumped the snap illegally, or was he simply that fast? I have slowed it down and I think his anticipation is DeMarcus Ware-like. It looks offsides to the naked eye. But, partly with Romo having a snap count that doesn't vary much and even the silent count on Sunday, I think Watt was guessing and guessed so correctly that Tyron Smith hardly even moves before he is gone. Amazing.

The other point is that once Tyron got beat so badly, he sort of checked out of the play as Manning runs right by him to have another free run at Romo. Come on, Tyron. I know you don't get beat much, but when you do, try to limit the damage!


Candidate #2 - Vs Houston - OT - 10:09 - 3/8/D32 - Romo deep to Bryant +37 yards, TD

Same game, which was very lose-able.  This is in overtime and at the moment, it looks like they are headed for a tie or loss if they don't pull this play off.

Again, the Cowboys brought in Shotgun 11 with a 3x1 look, but this time, it was Dez off by himself on the left. And this time, the Texans once again rushed 6. That left DJ Swearinger with a free run at Romo after Murray had to get Brian Cushing on the blitz pickup. Romo had to contort his body to make the throw while falling to avoid the hard-hitting safety, but he put the ball far enough down the field to give Dez a chance on a stop and go route against the very good corner, Johnathan Joseph.

What Dez did next might be his finest catch ever when you consider what was at stake combined with the degree of difficulty. He jumped high enough to get over Joseph, but the corner's arm was right in the middle of the hands of Dez, who somehow held onto the tip off the ball and then pulled it off of Joseph's shoulder as they both hit the turf. If you had to choose between which play was more amazing, the Romo twirl or the Dez catch, you might split the audience 50/50.

Romo's "bailing" here is called self-preservation or "smart". That DB in particular would have happily ended Romo's afternoon and the Cowboys need to be ready for that pressure next time. Travis Frederick had no feel for what was happening and he went to help on Watt which seemed like a good idea at first. And Murray should be credited with another perfect blitz pick-up with Cushing, something he does nearly every time.


Candidate #3 - At Seattle - 4Q - 4:55 - 3/20/D31 - Romo to Williams, +23, FD

Behold, for the 3rd time in 2 weeks, we have a "Play of the Year" candidate.

If they don't get this play converted, they have to punt, down 23-20 with less than 5 minutes to go. To convert this is vital and quite possibly the ball game. The Cowboys are in max-protection, with Witten and Murray in protection until they can slide out and get in a late route.

Bryant is out left, Williams wide right, with Gavin Escobar in the right slot and Witten tight to Free to help if necessary.

This is one of those cases where the All-22 is actually worse than TV, but you can definitely see below what Romo was looking at. I think the key point of strategy to look at is DeMarco's poor chip on 51-Bruce Irvin. If he is going to "assist" Tyron, then he has to make sure he actually knocks Irvin back to where Tyron can take over. In this case, his chip doesn't really move Irvin off his path at all, and also he gets in Tyron's way. Bad combination. They would have been better without any chip at all.

But, now Irvin, a rusher with incredible speed, has Romo in his sights - once again from the blindside. How Romo feels that, spins out, and then stays alive is a story. The fact that he then converts a 3rd and 20 (something that the league does less than 10% of the time even when conditions are ideal) is nothing short of miraculous. Then, Williams awareness and technique to complete the catch in bounds... Wow.

There is some question about who Romo was throwing this ball to, but I feel this angle proves that it was Williams and that he might not have even seen Witten since he knows Witten is not on a route long enough to move the sticks. You cannot imagine how fast this is happening in real-time as the Seahawks rushers and your linemen are all swirling around as you try to make this play.

I have watched this play dozens of times and it doesn't get any less impressive with each viewing. Romo is a special talent who appears to have the ability to still make plays that most QBs wouldn't even attempt.


So, mirror, mirror, on the wall, which of those 3 plays was the fairest of them all?  

I think I will take the 3rd and 20 in Seattle.  But, let's not sleep on any of them.  He had a truly special year and these 3 plays are a testament to his game still being at the top of his abilities.  

A Review of Another 21-Day Body Makeover

Perhaps by now you have heard me talk periodically about my strides for health and wellness.

That's right.  I am that guy who always admires the dude who is in the best shape of his life.  At least, I admire the end without fully admiring the process.

I make the resolutions that this is the first day of the rest of my life and vow that this time will be different.

Well, I have really made strides over time.  As someone who hardly lifted a finger after I stopped playing sports regularly, I started running back regularly in 2002 and never stopped.  15 miles a week since my daughter was born and since she turns 13 this July, I am proud of that.  I knocked out the White Rock Marathon in 2004 and that picture hangs on my wall.  Even beat Oprah's time by over 5 minutes!

But, aging continues.  Metabolism slows.  Schedule accelerates, diet diminishes.  Changes of getting older in this fast paced world has led me to George DiGianni.

I have known George since I moved to Dallas.  He is a guy who helps a lot of people.  He offered to help me for a long time to really commit to changes in my health since he could sense I was one of those people that was willing to step over the line if I had a slight nudge.  In 2006, I tried his 21-day program which is essentially a body makeover that is all about Detoxification and Fat loss.  You run yourself through a rather strict eating program and exercise at a reasonable level every day and you emerge on the other side 3 weeks later feeling like a new man.

I have done it every year since and just did it again.  Now, the program gets better all the time as he is trying to figure out how to improve each element.  Over the many years I have done it, he has certainly figured out how to fine-tune the eating program (much easier than it was back then!) and make your workouts more efficient.  The supplements are better and the shakes are quite delicious now (not always the case in 2006!).

But, check out the best part of this - now, in 2015, the price has dropped substantially!  He has knocked $100 off the price, all the way down to $197.  That is fantastic news for me - and I am guessing, you, too.  Click Here for all of the details and to get started.

Here are some of the details of my report:

The 21 days only requires you to buy-in mentally. If you do, everything in the plan is simple. The eating is great - provided you follow the recipes and have committed to it. I actually look forward to the eating program because it is clean foods and clean eating. I have seen a few who were not committed and they just won't get the results if they are looking to cheat here and there or make too many exceptions. I challenge anyone to really sell out to make this work. If you do, the results will be there.

Basically, follow the road map for 21 days with food, your tasty morning shake, your tablets, and your exercise.

Exercise? Yes. You simply must make your body work to get results, but you already know that by looking in the mirror, right?

This time, in the 21 days, I dropped down 12 pounds and could really tell the midsection transformation where, honestly, age has taken its toll.

I was sleeping better again and having more energy. I am telling you, it works every time.

Now, I know what you are saying. Bob, if it works so well, why do you allow yourself to ride the roller coaster where you need to keep doing it each year?

Well, 2 things. #1 - I think doing this program annually is not a bad plan for many other reasons besides weight loss. I think the supplements do in many ways reset your body to optimal conditions, just like going to the dentist for an annual cleaning helps keep your teeth healthy. I think the results say to do it for many reasons beyond weight loss and I will continue to do so indefinitely.

But, #2 - you are right. Why do I ride this roller coaster of weight?  Thankfully, the last 12 months have represented big changes for me on that front.  I kept eating better and better during the weeks (healthy lunches were the key for me - sorry, guys, but I opted out of the radio show lunch rotation) and therefore did not give back my progress.  I still enjoy great foods, but my moderation is helping.

So there you have it.  George likes me to write a brief report each year and I am happy to do it.  I believe in his program - not because he is a friend, but because it works for me.  Maybe you might find similar results.

Now, the price is down 33%.  Here is his website and I am telling you, I have done it - many times - and enjoy the results.  My wife does it, too.   Take a chance and see if it works for you.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Football 201: Mike, Will, Sam

Dallas Cowboys outside linebacker Anthony Hitchens (59) defensive tackle Tyrone Crawford (98) and defensive end Anthony Spencer (93) during the first half of the Dallas Cowboys-Washington Redskins NFL football game at FedEx Field in Landover, MD,  on Dec 28, 2014.  (Michael Ainsworth/The Dallas Morning News)
Dallas Cowboys outside linebacker Anthony Hitchens (59) defensive tackle Tyrone Crawford (98) and defensive end Anthony Spencer (93) during the first half of the Dallas Cowboys-Washington Redskins NFL football game at FedEx Field in Landover, MD, on Dec 28, 2014. (Michael Ainsworth/The Dallas Morning News)
Football 201 is our periodic series where we attempt to assist in improving the overall football comprehension level of any and all who wish to do so. I don't profess to know all of the answers, but I love this sport enough to work tirelessly to get you the best answer I can find.  "Questions you always wanted answered, but were afraid to ask" can be addressed here.  Send them in and I will get them in time.  
This week's Football 201 starts with one of the most-asked questions that I get.  Many of you have asked for the simple descriptions of the different linebacker spots in the 4-3.
You hear the media always designating linebackers as Sam, Mike, and Will types, but seldom do they take the time to explain them in a way that will hopefully make sense.  Here is Mark's tweet from last week on this very topic:
Screen_Shot_2015-05-19_at_9_50_08_PMWell, first, let's start with the proper terms.  Sam is what we call the strong-side LB.  Mike is the middle LB and Will is the Weakside LB.  Coaches want 1-syllable terms for each guy  because each syllable takes time to say and in the heat of a NFL game, they don't have lots of time to throw around.  So, to quickly say what they have to say, they want just about every term and concept imaginable whittled down to 1-syllable.  Therefore, Sam, Will, and Mike.
Sam is the strong-side LB.  Now, this used to be very easy to figure out, because teams used to play in 21 personnel all the time.  So much so that they called it "regular" personnel.  The Cowboys in the early 1990's played 70% of their snaps in 21 personnel which is a RB, FB, TE, and 2 WRs.  We all grew up with 21 personnel in the "good ol days" so it wasn't hard to figure out what side was the strong-side.  Simply find the TE.  Whichever side had the TE had 1 more blocker than the other side did.  So, that was the strong side.  The weak-side (not to get too simple) was the other side.  The one without the TE - therefore generally just a guard and tackle and WR on that side of the field.  Now, with personnel groupings being so varied, you generally put the Sam on the side with the more targets - even if they are often WRs.  But the thing to know here is that as football evolves, we are seeing less and less differences between the 3 LB spots.  To be valuable, a LB needs to offer interchangeable traits and most do.  In fact, the Cowboys are definitely trying to assemble a core of guys who can play 2 or even all 3 of the spots.
Now, let's get something clear here right away.  These defenses are complex.  So, for me to tell you what their assignments are in general is actually only likely true.  But, there are enough variations that in a given play the assignments will vary.  So, this is in very general terms of what they do most of the time.
A SAM LB is going to lineup on the strong side and he will be the LB who is likely capable of standing up against blocks the best.  Run defense is very important for him, but he might also need to run with a TE in man-coverage or to handle himself in zones underneath.  He needs to be athletic, for sure, but of the 3 he is valued 3rd overall in the personnel department.  Jerry Jones even recently said that the Cowboys consider the SAM as the place LBs end up if they cannot cut it at Will or Mike.  On a normal play, he is attempting to funnel plays back inside and not let runs turn the corner on him.  He gets his keys from the QB and RB - but generally, he needs to be sitting on the RB.  The SAM is generally the guy who comes off the field when a team goes to nickel.  Therefore he plays the least of the 3 and that explains his reduced value.
A MIKE LB is, of course, famous for being the QB of the defense.  He handles the calls, he is the guy who is making sure everyone is carrying out their proper alignments and responsibilities and he is the "coach on the field".  Beyond that, he has to do a number of things and it likely changes by the play.  He certainly needs to run the defense, but he also needs to run.  He might need to get the deep middle of a Tampa 2 zone, he might need to "spy" an athletic QB, he might need to blitz, he might need to get his under zone, he might need to blow up a run play, and he certainly needs to be at the top of your tackle stat.  He needs to be willing to take on a lead blocker and often give himself up to make a stop through a team-mate.  He better be willing to give and take hits and play as physically as anyone on the team.  It is a very difficult position that takes a physical toll and combines physicality with the ability to move sideline-to-sideline.  It is very demanding and you better have two.  Rolando McClain is really close to the proper prototype for this position when he is healthy and fit.
A WILL LB is the premium spot of the 3, so this is the one that the personnel department will target high on the list.  If the SAM is the strongest, the WILL is the fastest.  He is the guy who is dealing with Darren Sproles in space and better be able to run with the quickest RBs.  He also, since he is on the weak-side, is theoretically called upon to run plays down from behind the most often.  On the other hand, he is not dealing with as many direct blocks (in fact, in many scenarios, he might not even be accounted for by the offense) so he must chase down plays and make stops with great effectiveness.  He must be a play-maker and basically hit like a LB but run like a Safety.  Derrick Brooks is forever the prototype, but in the modern days, I think Lance Briggs was pretty fantastic at this spot in Chicago.  This year the Cowboys want Sean Lee to be this guy.
So, here we go with last season - week 2 - Cowboys at Titans.  #59 is Anthony Hitchens, #55 is Rolando McClain, and #54 is Bruce Carter.  In this particular game, Carter was the Will, McClain was the Mike, and Hitchens was the Sam.
So, you can see the TE is on the left for the Titans, so there is the SAM, Hitchens.  Then, McClain is right over the center, and Carter the Will is lined up "TAN" which is head-up over the right tackle.  This is the 4-3 Over alignment for the Cowboys, which means that the 3-tech is on the strong side.  We can do "Over and Under" fronts on a future entry, but basically the fronts tell the 3-tech DT which side is his spot to take the B-Gap (we can also do the gaps in a future entry).
As you look above, just know Hitchens is preparing for a strong-side run where he has to get outside the play and anticipate the TE is looking for him.  The Cowboys have their SDE 2-gapping that TE to allow Hitchens to get to the flank before the RB would.  Carter on the other side is anticipating the RB on his side to perhaps try his wheels out in space to the weak side.
Below, from the playbook of Monte Kiffin, you can actually see the basics of the 4-3 Over, including responsibilities and keys.  Keys refer to how they see the play.  For instance, at the snap, the closed end (SDE) is basing his role on the play on what the TE does.
This is only the basics.  There are several stunts and games that the DE can do from this look that change things each time.  But, that would be Football 401.

Hopefully, this answered questions, but it likely created more.  As we go, I will try to make these simple enough for people to follow along, but deep enough for football fans to enjoy.  As Jason Garrett might say, Football 201 is going to be a process.
Leave questions, comments, or whatever below and we will do this again soon.