Thursday, July 30, 2015

Off to Oxnard, 2015

Every year, I try to write this blog from a similar spot. Today, that spot is 16F, on my flight from Dallas Love to LAX on July 29, 2015.
Other years, it has been other flights to California or perhaps even San Antonio, but if you were to dig through the archives, you would see one from this particular spot for many seasons back.
It is the first blog of the season. It is the first ink spilled. It is the “Off to Oxnard” entry in the diary.
This is my 18th Dallas Cowboys training camp, and although I did not know what a blog was in 1998, I always think it is pretty helpful to time-stamp the initial feelings of a new Cowboys’ season before anything happens. What did we fell about this team on Day 1? Before “that” happened. We don’t know what “that” will be this year, but we do know “that” is going to happen several times this season and we want to recognize where it all started from.
Just last year I wrote one with a wildly different tone. In fact, the gag last year was to actually use several paragraphs of the “Off to Oxnard” entry from 2013 to show the element of “Groundhog’s Day” that Cowboys’ football had been in for the duration of the Jason Garrett era. The franchise could not break out of the rut it was in and there were no real signs that this was about to change.
One year ago, the biggest concern I had was based on QB1 not being right. As a long-time believer in the abilities of Tony Romo, it gave me great indigestion to know that his back was an issue that may limit his 2014 significantly, and the first several weeks of training camp were not calming my nerves. He was largely inactive and the team was being cautious almost to a point where it was difficult to project a point in the season where he could be the talisman from which this entire operation draws its power.
One year ago, I was spending this ride pondering another season of Jason Garrett looking a bit short of standard when it comes to difference-making head coach. In 2013, the Cowboys lost 2 vital games (at Detroit and home to Green Bay) that kept them from the post-season that they simply could not afford to lose (again) like they did and when 10-6 became 8-8 yet again, it seemed to continue to ask the question with the Cowboys head coach, “are you part of the solution or part of the problem?” In July 2014, that answer certainly did not seem obvious in either direction, but his time was running out as the final year on his deal was beginning.
One year ago, the team was trying to explain how adding almost nothing of note to the defensive personnel was going to fix a defense that was forced to say goodbye to DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher of a 2013 defense that was certainly short of the necessary grade to be considered heavily as a playoff contender. Then, just when you allowed yourself to settle down and trust the process (if you will), then Sean Lee falls to an ACL injury during OTAs and the defense looks doomed in the first year of Rod Marinelli at the helm.
Those 3 significant items looked me right in the face as I wrote the 2014 “Off to Oxnard” from a similar spot on a similar plane and that of course was weighed against the prevailing numbers of the Cowboys since 1995 that indicated that this organization is .500 in just about every way since that last glorious run that ended at Super Bowl 30’s trophy presentation. The most prolific era in modern football history that spanned parts of four decades and originated in Dallas, Texas, had turned substantially in Tempe, Arizona, and since that time there had been season after season of mediocrity with but one playoff win of any kind from 1996 through 2013. Almost no franchise had such a hard time over the last two decades of putting together even one January run of substance in the entire NFL. But the Cowboys, who could not avoid winning for decades, now could seldom play a meaningful 17th game of the season.
The conclusions seemed sure. There was just no rational way to project a 2014 where the team turned the plot significantly. Oh sure, this league allows new teams to rise a bit off the 8-8 pace by sheer randomness, but, with a gimpy Romo who might not even be available in September, I thought it was just as likely as the team went in the other direction. 6-10 sounded about right, given that he might not even play in 10 games. And if that is true, then, this thing is in deep, deep trouble.
Well, you know how that worked out for me – and the countless others in the media that must have utilized the groupthink that had so few dream up a scenario where the Cowboys would fall just a play or two from the NFC Championship Game in 2014. 13-5 was the final record after a 12-4 season and two playoff performances that were worthy of remembering. It was a lesson (if anyone in this business needs one) that reminds us that we just don’t know what is around the next curve. Nobody can predict or project with any amount of certainty what a season in professional sports will bring us – good or bad – and yet, it doesn’t keep us from trying again and again to craft our predictive abilities.
So, let’s try it again.
Thursday, they will take the field for their very first practice of 2015 in Oxnard, California. From there until August 13th, the object of the camp will be to avoid anything that is newsworthy. This is important because the first week of camp has brought some bad injury news in recent year with Tyrone Crawford being lost for the year in 2013 and DeMarcus Lawrence starting his rookie season with an immediate injury that knocked him out until November last year in this very week. Get your work in, get acquainted, and get comfortable. But, no news, please. Keep the roster intact for at least until the games start, for crying out loud.
So, let’s review the big problems from 12 months ago? Well, now we are under the impression that Tony Romo is as good as new and while he may not practice each and every day from camp, it is not as part of a major rehabilitation, but rather a smart way to get an older player to opening day in the proper form. If the Cowboys are owed anything, it is a fair amount of credit for the way they nursed him to Sundays all year long last year. He played his best football when it mattered most in 2014, and that credibility they established will not be forgotten here.
Additionally, Jason Garrett is now appearing with a fine new contract and the mandate to continue the building of a program that resembles the heavyweights of the National Football League. The teams that contend for Super Bowls in today’s game appear to be stacked with home-grown talent that have learned since their rookie season inside one organization and have been developed to add responsibility as their careers have continued. The Cowboys are now built largely from within and do not rely on free agency to fill holes with duct tape and panic buys and for the most part that is something that seems rather odd and peculiar around here. Garrett has a team that has very few weaknesses and has (with plenty of help from a front office that is on quite a roll) a roster that appears to offer depth that also is not seen in Dallas in past camps, but surely is apparent when you look at the heavyweight contenders across the league.
In short, on the roster front, we actually can squint and see a real situation where the Cowboys will cut players who will be on NFL rosters this season. That has not been a real problem much in the last 4-5 seasons, as the Cowboys hardly had 53 NFL roster players for their own bunch. Their final cuts were not difficult; because they couldn’t find 53 they loved in their own camp. I think that is different this season and I think getting the roster down to 53 will be plenty difficult – as it should be on a team that has a chance to win something.
Then, that defense that seemed to be devoid of major elite talent has received a fantastic infusion of blue-chip talent in the offseason. Greg Hardy is an elite pass rush talent as a veteran, but more excitingly should be the young rookies Byron Jones and Randy Gregory being brought in, along with the return of Sean Lee and even a full camp of DeMarcus Lawrence. The idea that those 5 could all be in your preferred defense by Week 5 is magnificent news and a sign that this defense could go from adequate to substantial in no time if things go right.
There are fresh concerns for 2015, to say the least. We will no doubt wonder how you replace an elite running back coming off a historic season like DeMarco Murray who got away to Philadelphia. The running game is going to be different, and quite likely, not nearly as dominating, but that was going to be the case even if they brought him back. He had a year that doesn’t get duplicated, so his replacements should not be compared to an anomaly.
Also, the questions of what can be reasonably counted upon from Sean Lee and Rolando McClain at LB will be discussed plenty in California. Will they play together for the majority of the season, or like last year, will the Linebackers be a revolving door on a week-by-week basis?
The Corner position is going to be entertaining as will the building of the defensive line and I am interested in seeing if Ron Leary can hold off La’el Collins through camp. There are other ancillary battles to be waged at camp and the alignment of certain players in a certain order will occupy some time in August.
But, these questions are nowhere near as complex as what we looked at in previous Garrett camps, where the answers to the questions often were not seen on the roster anywhere. This team seems fortified to a point where the only questions we currently see appear doable and merely a choice of A or B from what stands before the coaching staff on the field.
That adds up to an odd feeling entering practice #1. An odd feeling that the contenders feel pretty often, but annual attendees of Cowboys camp may not find comforting; the idea that this team looks the part of a very good team in 2015.
Do we trust those instincts? The same instincts that told us 6-10 now feel like 11-5 12 months later, and who is to say that this year’s version is any more accurate than last year’s?
So much of camp talk is wild speculation. We don’t know how the team looks even though they stand in front of us and practice because we may only compare them with themselves. If the offense looks great, is it because the defense is awful? We don’t know. We don’t know what the other NFC contenders are up to (aside from reading people wildly speculate about how they look from their camps), and of course, a few times a week, some unlucky squad in the NFL will lose a very important piece of their team for the entire year. And there won’t be a darn thing anyone can do about it.
All of that said, it is camp. Today is practice #1. For my 18th July-August in a row, I will wander down and look at what the Dallas Cowboys are building. I will see some things I love and will see some things I think are awful. Some will matter in the long run, and some will be comical looking back in a year or two.
The Cowboys will now occupy our time on a daily basis from now until well into the new year (we hope). This looks like a special year on this airplane. A fair warning to all, very seldom does anything appear properly as it should this time of year. But, unlike last year, this year most expect your favorite team to have a great season. Let’s hope for the sake of our entertainment that our instincts serve us well (for once).
And now we wait for the first story of camp to arrive.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

2014 Pass Rush Report - Weeks 13-16

It has been almost 2 weeks or so since we did Part 3 of the 2014 Pass Rush breakdown, during which time my sunburn developed a bit and the NFL has ruled on Greg Hardy's future. That ruling which reduced his original 10-game suspension down to 4, drastically changed any potential impact he may offer the Cowboys as a potential destroyer at DE/DT in what could be his only year in Dallas, 2015.  If he chooses to appeal that suspension down even further (which we thought was a forgone conclusion but he has taken no action as of yet) some believe he might get it all the way down to 2 games.  Regardless, the idea that, by October 11th when the Cowboys host the Patriots in Arlington, Hardy will suddenly give the Cowboys a player who knows what attracting constant double-teams and making his mates match-ups much easier looks like.  And that is what any pass rush is made from.
The Cowboys have overhauled their defensive line before our very eyes in a way that is causing some to compare it to the over-haul of the Offensive Line.  I am not sure that is fair to the can't-miss quality of Tyron Smith out of college, with Zach Martin and Travis Frederick also both guys who had floors of "solid NFL starter, but this group on the defensive front has improved so much over the last 12 months that it almost boggles the mind.
Think about what showed up on the DL to the 2014 camp:  Henry Melton coming off ACL surgery was going to step in for Jason Hatcher.  30-year old journeyman Jeremy Mincey signed a 2 year, $3m deal with $700k guaranteed to replace DeMarcus Ware.  George Selvie was hoping to duplicate a reasonable 2013 on minimal money and next to him was another guy the Cowboys rescued off the couch, the anchor inside, Nick Hayden.  That was your starting DL 12 months ago, today.  Where/Who was Tyrone Crawford?  Well, he was coming off his own significant achilles injury that took his entire 2013, and he entered camp 12 months ago trying to figure out if he was a DE or a DT in a Marinelli 4-3, because when he last played the Cowboys were a Rob Ryan 3-4.
Well, it isn't November 1st against Seattle yet, but can you imagine that crew above being transformed into this on a 3rd down and 8 for Russell Wilson late in the 3rd Quarter?
DE - D Lawrence, DT - T Crawford, DT - G Hardy, DE - R Gregory
Get there with 4.  All 4 not only can, but should be able to get home against 1-on-1 blocking, so if Seattle wants to leave 5 in to block 4, the Cowboys should be on their way to eat.
Long way to get to Nov 1.  But, that should make you salivate.  Of course, goal number 1 is navigating through July without injury.  I don't want to freak anyone out, but the defensive line hasn't made it through July without a devastating "gone for 10 weeks or more" injury to a key DL man in quite a while.  Jay Ratliff and Tyrone Crawford both had major injuries hit in 2013 and then in 2014 was the broken foot to DeMarcus Lawrence that knocked out 10 weeks of his rookie campaign.  So, get through July with no news from camp other than "all present and accounted for" and you should be happy.
Regardless, let's wrap up the 2014 regular season with a look at the final 4 games of the season - At Chicago, At Philadelphia, H to Indianapolis, and At Washington.  This looked murderous when the season started, but it turned out to be a month the Cowboys plowed right through with ease.
The defense yielded another 9 sacks in the final 4 games which put them at 18 sacks in the final half of the season.  We pointed out how poor the pass rush was in 2014 (28 for the season), but if you just use the final 8 weeks they were actually right at league average and were quite productive with 18 sacks in 8 games putting them on a 36 sack pace for a full year.  Is it all adding DeMarcus Lawrence?  No, it is also Tyrone Crawford fully breaking out and the Cowboys finding some scheme ideas that they kept going to, but you could see a drastic uptick from the paltry 10 sacks in the 1st half of the year to a proper 18 in the 2nd.
So here is the production from December, sack-by-sack, below:
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 nuts and bolts on each sack, but sometimes, it will be a guess as we do not know specific calls.  We are trying to get this right, but invariably, some of you will see the same play and reach a different conclusion.  Cool?
Sack #20
This is a pretty interesting 5-man pressure on a 3rd down against Mark Sanchez and the Eagles.  55-McClain and 98-Crawford are both inside the edge rushers (92-Mincey and 99-Selvie) and the goal for 55/98 is to occupy the offensive tackles.  This Tackle-End game then allows the end to come back inside and underneath and challenge the guards to pick them up.  As you can see, McClain knocks the RT so sideways that 55 almost gets the sack himself.  Then, Mincey basically powers by the LG with such ease that he does get the sack.  I think this is interesting because in the middle the whole time is 96-Hayden occupying the center.  So, it isn't really a T-E stunt, because we know Ro McClain isn't a Tackle.  But, on that play, he was the 5th man and you can see what a mess it made the Eagles into.
Sack #21
1st play of a vital drive for the Eagles early in the 4th Quarter of this game, and on 1st and 10 they try their normal play-action fake on an outside zone to McCoy left (with the TE coming across to pick up the unblocked DE.  Sanchez didn't see his primary open and panicked, meanwhile you can see what Tyrone Crawford does in 1-on-1 against all-world Eagles' Center 62-Kelce.  He walks him right back into the QB and collapses the play.  Crawford was not the most productive DT in football last year, but he destroyed the Philadelphia interior on a regular basis.  They know how good he is now.  This is all #98.
Sack #22
The statisticians gave this to Tyrone Crawford, too.  I think Mincey deserves at least half for his fine work against 71-Jason Peters who many tout as an equal to Tyron Smith.  But, inside, here is that T-T game where Crawford is trying to take out the Center and the Guard and then Melton comes around behind them.  Again, if Sanchez has to stand in the pocket and find his 2nd read, it is clear he isn't very good.  Then his eyes drop down and the Cowboys get home again.  This is why you wanted the ball in his hands in the 4th Quarter.
Sack #23
Hey, it is the very same rush on the very next play.  And on 3rd and long, this play is over before it started and it all goes to Mincey against Jason Peters.  Hopefully, if this study has helped anything, it is to demonstrate to the fans of this team what a player and front-office find Jeremy Mincey has truly been.  He is a guy who helped win some games last year and  beat some elite tackles for sacks without help and should not be marginalized this season as a key part of the rush.  He is just a quality pass rusher in this league who is never going to be elite, but if he is your #2 off the edge?  Look out.
Sack #24
Look for the Fire Zone blitz.  How do we see that?  Edge blitzer from one side (32-Scandrick) and opposite side DE drops into zone (99-Selvie).  See?  5 coming, 6 dropping into a 3-3 zone behind it.  This is a Cowboys favorite, and on this odd 4th and 3 where the Colts have already pulled Andrew Luck, it was doomed.  Scandrick - a very solid blitzer his whole career - gets credit for the sack here and the ball finds big Selvie.  Another fun thing on this play is to see 90-Lawrence running around like the athlete he is.  That man has some twitch to his athleticism that will be fun to watch develop.
Sack #25
I like how the Cowboys poured it on last year against Jacksonville or Indianapolis late in the games when both teams were clearing the benches.  The idea that you play vanilla against a beaten team is great in high school, but this is the NFL and today's reserves are tomorrow's starters.  Get them ready.  Here is a 5 man pressure again that is a fire zone from the right with Cam Lawrence and Kyle Wilber both coming and dropping is Selvie again who is playing some man against that tight end off the RT.  Hasselbeck pulls the ball back down and that is enough time for my favorite reserve pass rusher these days, Wilber, to destroy the poor RB and get a sack off the blind-side.
Sack #26
Tyrone Crawford, ladies and gentlemen.  Just watch 98 on the 3-technique against Washington LG 77-Shawn Lauvao who switches him inside the the center 78-Kory Lichtensteiger and Crawford splits that plan and runs down Robert Griffin with great ease and ruins another play for an opponent.  Crawford is going to break out this year and then everyone will know his name.  But, by studying 2014, you already know how good he is.
Sack #27
Sort of a 5-man pressure, even though Bruce Carter doesn't really rush.  But, he does occupy the LG, 77, again.  Although, I don't think he was supposed to do that, as you can tell 29-Helu looks annoyed that he fell for that trap.  Helu was ready for Carter, but when the LG moved over, that left Helu, a tiny RB, against the huge 97-T McClain, while reserve 68-Tom Compton was trying (poorly) to play LT which Mincey just destroys.  Washington was just a really poor team in this meeting all the way around.
Sack #28
#28WAS4/3:182/10/18497-T McClain
The final sack of the regular season brought on another easy touchdown as 97-Terrell McClain is engaged in another T-T stunt where the first guy in is just the diversion, but since they can't stop him, he runs all the way in for a sack/fumble.  79-Kenneth Boatright was close and on the scene, and then Anthony Spencer makes his final significant play as a Cowboy with a look-what-i-found touchdown.
So there you have it.  One final look next week at the playoff sacks and then we can put this project to bed and look forward to new sacks.  Here are the 28 sacks from 2014 in a handy chart for you to browse:
#2TENN2/0:532/10/13451-Wilber/ 69-Melton
#3TENN3/11:453/12/29455 - McClain
#4NO4/7:454/9/41NA58 - J Crawford
#5NO4/2:131/10/48469 - Melton
#6SEA1/12:302/9/335TEAM SACK
#16JAC4/3:201/10/46653-C Lawrence
#19PHI2/14:261/10/31498-T Crawford
#21PHI4/12:481/10/20498-T Crawford
#26WAS2/4:253/11/50498-T Crawford
#28WAS4/3:182/10/18497-T McClain
28 sacks in all.  9 sacks from bringing more than 4 rushers.  3 from "big blitzes" all year (bringing more than 5).
8 sacks on 1st down, 7 on 2nd down, 11 on 3rd down, and 2 on 4th down.
As you could see, plenty of Henry Melton early, but down the stretch, it was all Mincey and Crawford.
Next week, we wrap it up with Detroit and Green Bay in the playoffs.