Monday, August 31, 2015

The Morning After - Preseason Game #3 - Vikings 28, Cowboys 14

We have crossed the 2-year barrier with great ease since the Dallas Cowboys last won a preseason game (August 24, 2013 vs Cincinnati).  It is a rather interesting footnote that they are about to have their second consecutive winless preseason (barring a magnificent Thursday Night performance from Dustin Vaughan and Jameill Showers), but in the end, it just doesn't matter.
The touchdowns do not matter.  The sacks don't matter.  Nothing.  Well, the dumb decisions don't matter, unless you are trying to get a job in the NFL.  And the injuries definitely matter.  But, besides that, nothing really matters.
So, as we try to look through the details of another Cowboys preseason loss, it is ok to cherry-pick a few items you find compelling (good or bad) and leave the rest where it belongs - right next to interesting anecdotes from Oxnard or OTAs as the team builds for September 13th.  The fantastic news is that the calendar turns to September tomorrow and that the waiting is almost over.  Two weeks from this morning, the conclusions drawn from the Week 1 clash with the Giants will be examined closely under the "over-reaction microscope".  But, until then, put the important pieces in bubble-wrap and start the strategic sessions in the film room.
That said, here, we are willing to pass the time by figuring out which 53 players will be in the 2015 team picture, how those players look, and how equipped the Cowboys are to host the Giants in 2 week's time.  Sure, the 28-14 loss to the Vikings doesn't matter, but since we are here, let's look a some items anyway...
- The Cowboys running game has been talked about non-stop since the Cowboys made their DeMarco decision in March.  You have to remember, this team simply could not run the ball from 2010 through 2013, and then magically figured out how to run it so well that they wrecked the league with it in 2014.  So, please forgive those in the audience who are suspicious of the idea that you can put anyone behind this Cowboys OL and dominate.  That might be true, because the OL personnel is certainly impressive, but we might need more than a 1-year track record to get too drunk on confidence.  So, it was important to see some impressive flashes in preseason to calm the nerves from someone in that RB group.  And while Darren McFadden's flashes were actually limited to a small handful of plays - in fact, really 2 plays - it should be noted that those moments did resemble what everyone was looking for.  4 carries in all for McFadden.  A zone left for 6 yards.  2 zone stretches back to the right for 13 and 3 yards.  Then, on the next drive and on his final carry, a beautiful 15 yard play where the Cowboys pulled both guards left and we saw the dominance of 2014 for a brief moment.  I have definitely expressed my position on McFadden and my doubt that he is a big part of the replacement answer, but since he has demonstrated some quality in a preseason where Joseph Randle and Lance Dunbar have yet to really distinguish themselves (and likely won't play in the finale) we better take what we can get.
- The oddest part of this entire camp is that it sure seems like 45-50 of the 53 spots were pretty clear all the way back before the first bag was packed for California.  Now, that sometimes just means this is a good team that has plenty of returning pieces from a contender, so I am not sure it is anything to get worked up about.  That said, as we try to build drama to "cut down" days, there just hasn't seemed to be a whole lot of pressure from below the cut-line during this camp.  I imagine you would prefer several players from that bottom group trying to force you to keep them, but as we look at the long shots at Wide Receiver, Running Back, Offensive Line,  or really anywhere on offense, I am pretty sure the exact 24 offensive players we thought would be on the 53 will be.  Every one of them that we would have picked on July 1 will be on the offense (perhaps with the exception of whether they would keep a 4th tight end instead of a 3rd Quarterback).  I don't ever remember that much stability in any of my 18 training camps, but it sure has kept the excitement level of cuts to a dull roar.  Usually someone rises up, but aside from Gus Johnson, who has that been?  Most of us thought Lucky Whitehead was on the team back in May, because of his return ability.  The drama is not high right now.
- Another week with the feeling that the pass rush ability of the Cowboys will have improved by leaps and bounds over the last 12-18 months.  You may recall in 2013, as the team was switching to the 4-3 for the first time in about a decade, the pass rush was all about Jason Hatcher, what was left of DeMarcus Ware, and George Selvie pulled off the couch.  Since then, the Cowboys have tried to design a way to build a defense around what Rod Marinelli wants.  That, of course, is a defense that can apply pressure with 4, and zone up behind it.  We have talked at great length about this idea and process, but what we haven't done until this August is see it actually happening.  I think if there is a major story to report in August of 2015, it would be that the Cowboys defensive line looks the part of a strong and capable pass rush against their opponents so far.  I think much of that was built around 2 inside players who both had resumes of different qualities in the fast rising Tyrone Crawford and the expensive and controversial Greg Hardy.  But, let's not lose sight of the edge guys who both seem to have the quality that any pass rushing end better have - the secondary acceleration.  Most rushers have an initial move - we will call that the first 2.5 seconds of any play where they are trying to get to the QB before he gets the ball out - but, what we are talking about here is the next 2.5 seconds.  When the QB looks, then tries to buy more time or even thinks about running.  Does your DE have the twitch to round up any escape plans before they materialize?  This seems to be Randy Gregory's forte.  He is getting sacks from that secondary phase as sometimes guys get chased into him.  That is not an insult, but his initial moves need refinement and development - which we expected.  But, I am not sure anyone expected him to have sack opportunities every week because if any QB decides to wander to his side of the field looking to extend the play, 94 is there to shut that idea down in a real hurry.  And, you aren't running away from him.  So now, with DeMarcus Lawrence having some of those same qualities on the other side, if you combine those types of players on the edge with bulls in the middle that guards cannot handle 1-on-1, well, you can see how this might go.  QBs better get the ball out.  It almost looks like the Cowboys designed a pass rush for guys like Aaron Rodgers who live off of that secondary phase of each play.
- Is this the year that Cowboys' fans put Special Teams Coach Rich Bisaccia in the crosshairs?  Well, 2 weeks in a row of special teams disasters is not helping things.  You can imagine after those issues in San Francisco that special teams was emphasized all week long on the practice field.  The guys were scolded, they returned to basics, they used time and reps to sort things out and the point was made that we better see better on Saturday Night against the Vikings.  So, when Cordarrelle Patterson motored 107 yards for a rather easy-looking touchdown on Saturday against what sure appeared to be the #1 kickoff cover team, I can only guess that Jason Garrett and Bisaccia had a moment to compare notes again.  This is absolutely the type of thing to turn a great season into a good one, or lose a division title or home field advantage.  Special Teams are vital in today's NFL where the margins are so small and honestly, it is fair to wonder if this is going to be a weak link in 2015.  You can live with modest returns from your side, but you cannot live with massive returns allowed.  A punt blocked for a TD last week and a kickoff return for a TD this week actually means some good things for Bisaccia.  You can believe that when it comes down to those final roster spots, there will be no dissenting voice when it comes down to making sure that special teams ability is the one true tie-breaker.  It must be and now that emphasis will be made.
- Beyond those initial thoughts, the questions of camp are rather bland.  We wondered if anyone could take the 5th WR spot from Lucky Whitehead (No) and whether Devin Street would demonstrate that he is a clear blue-chip prospect (Not yet).  We wondered if a clear 3rd tackle would emerge to calm our nerves about swing tackle (No).  We wondered if there was a dark horse at RB who you would put on the active roster (I love Gus Johnson, but I doubt it).  We wondered if any of the reserve QBs would dazzle us enough to make us think there is something behind Romo more than warm bodies (No).  Defensively, would anyone emerge to really challenge Nick Hayden inside (Not really) and would the Cowboys cut a notable player of the DL (doesn't look like it)?  Would they have to let a good DB go (Orlando Scandrick cleared that up) and would all four of the safeties be safe?  Basically, all of these questions are less than what you would call compelling lead stories on the NFL Network.
The Cowboys are a good team and good teams have quiet camps - save for the occasional fight - and with the exception of the horrendous Scandrick story, this month has been properly under the radar nationally.  Now, the Cowboys survive Thursday by keeping the prominent 20 players at the top of the roster off the field.
I don't fully understand why the NFL decided to mess with the cutdown days so much in the last decade.  We used to have several dates with teams to saw down their numbers, but then teams wanted longer to evaluate and more importantly, to have bodies to survive camp without damaging their roster too much.  But, now, when nobody in the entire league wants to play anyone in the final week of preseason, we make them cut 15 players before this final game.  Simple question, wouldn't it make more sense for these 480 players who are being cut by NFL teams by tomorrow to be able to play in that final preseason game?  Then, they may audition for the league in the one game where the teams already don't want to use their established players?  Allow them to get their ability on film one last time when teams need them most?  Instead, they cut down to 75, scratch the first 20 and that means that many reserves will have to play a huge chunk of the night - which of course risks them from Week 1 action.  It really is a flaw in the way the NFL goes about its business these days, but since the status of Tom Brady's availability for a game that is 10 days from now is still in doubt, I suppose they aren't worried about things that make them look like they know what they are doing.
Regardless, we prepare to see the names today of the first round of cuts for the Cowboys and proceed through the final week of preseason.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Cowboys Roster Report - August 27

Congratulations, football fans.  You have made it to the 14 day mark.  In 14 days, the NFL will kickoff its next season with real football of great significance when the Steelers visit the Super Champion Patriots (with or without their QB) for the NFL's kickoff.  This means we are 17 days from the Cowboys hosting the New York Giants.  It is finally within sight.
But, the teams still have plenty of work to accomplish in that they have 2 more games and countless more employment decisions to work through to determine who makes it to the final 53.  September 1 - next Tuesday - will be the cut down day to 75 players and then September 5 - next Saturday - is the day teams drop to 53.
Since the last time we did this study on August 11th, the Cowboys have been pretty busy. It is a bit of a simplistic misnomer to claim that the team simply drops from their original 90 players to 53.  In reality, every day the scouting staff is trying to find the right 90 players and if someone is an "easy cut", then shouldn't we just cut them today and bring in someone else to examine?  32 teams are cutting players periodically, perhaps the discard in Houston or Atlanta is better than player #89 on the list in Oxnard.  If you spend time at training camp, you can often see the team working out men who hope for just a chance to suit up.  It is quite amazing to consider the full player pool that teams cast their nets into to fill out their roster.
Anyway, since August 11th - just 2 weeks ago - the Cowboys have signed 9 new players and waived 10 - because one of their new players, Brandon Smith, was then waived 9 days later.  But, since we last did this chart, the Cowboys have bid farewell to Chris Whaley, Jason Wilson, Ray Vinopal, George Farmer, Lache Seastrunk, Deontay Greenberry, Reggie Dunn, and Cody Clay.
New to the chart below are Ben Malena, Michael Hill, David Porter, Rod Sweeting, Dakorey Johnson, Clyde Gates, Phil Bates, and Carlif Taylor.  All of them will go directly to the longshot column for now.  So let's see how the chart looks, divided into 3 categories - "Made the Team", "On the Bubble", and those who are the "Longshots".
PositionAlready Made TeamOn The BubbleLongshots
QB(2) Romo, Weeden(2) Vaughn, Showers
RB(4) Randle, Dunbar, Clutts, McFadden(1) Johnson(3) Agnew, Malena, Hill
TE(2) Witten, Escobar(2) Hanna, Swaim(1) Barden
WR(5) Bryant, Williams, Beasley, Street, Whitehead(6)  Jenkins, Porter, Harwell,  Goodley, Gates, Bates
T(2) Smith, Free(2) Weems, Gibson(2) Wetzel, Dill
G-C(5)  Leary, Frederick, Martin,  Collins, Bernadeau(2) McDermott,  Patrick
DT(4) T Crawford, Hayden, T McClain, J Crawford(2) Bishop, Coleman(1) Taylor
DE(4) Lawrence, Gregory,  Hardy, Mincey, Russell(3) Boatright, Gardner, Edwards(1) Obada
LB(6) Lee, Wilber, Brinkley, McClain, Hitchens, Wilson, Gachkar(2)  K SmithNzeocha(4) Brown, Baggs, Glaud, Johnson
CB(5) Carr, Claiborne,  Jones, White, Patmon(3) Steeples, Ross, Sweeting
S(4) Church, Wilcox, McCray, Heath(1) Scott
ST(3) Bailey, Jones, Ladouceur(2) Hornsey, Kreiter
Totals46 + 21426
(Bold names in the middle column are my picks for the team that I have added to the 46 players on the left if I had to pick the 53 this morning).
Chaz Green and Orlando Scandrick have been taken off the chart.  They will not count on the 53 now because of injuries.  Also, Greg Hardy and Rolando McClain will not count immediately because of suspensions.  So, for the original 53, you can take them off, too.
Mark Nzeocha, the draft pick LB who has yet to really make an appearance is more of a practice squad consideration at this point.
Technically 46 (but 48 with the suspensions are locked up).  I confess that of the 26 "Longshots", I may be misreading a few of the new signings, but until I get a better handle on those new 8 names, I will leave them over there.  Let's just say a big game against Minnesota may not be a horrendous idea for those guys.
Let's go position by position:
QB - You likely have heard my riffs about the 3rd QB spot.  For what it is worth, I think Showers is the most interesting of the 3 men behind Romo.  I can't tell you how impressive his interest and willingness in special teams work generally is to the front office. He literally is doing anything he can to stay.  With Weeden and Vaughan, there are strengths, but also considerable weaknesses.  But, Weeden has the Cowboys affection, so he is safe.  For me, I think if you really like Showers, you would prefer the practice squad, but you also realize that if you try to slide him through, he might get grabbed.  This is a tough call, but I think PS for Showers is my call right now.
RB - I moved McFadden off the bubble, because let's be honest - they aren't cutting him for now.  They believe he can really make a difference this year and until they have a better option, I am not going to argue.  There are simply no upgrades.  Gus Johnson has separated himself from the others, but I also think his ultimate home is the practice squad in 2015.
TE - Again, this is one of the real either/or decisions of camp.  James Hanna is a NFL player for sure and if the Cowboys don't employ him, somebody will.  But Geoff Swaim has been featured plenty in the preseason and they like what they see.  Swaim is under contract through 2018, Hanna through December.  That might make the difference, but in this case, it might not be either/or.  It might be both.  They could keep 4 Tight Ends and dedicate the back 2 to special teams.
WR - I think Lucky Whitehead is in and off the bubble.  The other 6 WRs who are in the longshot column are going to have a tough time convincing the team to keep 6.  PS is a real option for a few - especially TCU's Porter.
T - You have your 2 starters.  But, is the best reserve tackle La'el Collins or Zack Martin?  If so, do you dare keep only 2 tackles?  No.  Darrion Weems or Gibson stay.  Weems on the 53 and Gibson to the PS seems likely.
G-C - Easiest spot on the team.  The 5 are clear and easy.
DT - It is pretty clear now that the Cowboys see Jack Crawford as the best replacement for Tyrone Crawford at the 3-technique (leaving Greg Hardy out of the discussion for now). I think Jack has flashed quite a bit at every opportunity this year and has made the team after trying to find the right fit positionally.  Hayden and Terrell McClain are both on at the 1-tech spot and I believe the final spot will go down to Davin Coleman and Ken Bishop.  Personally, I would lean towards Bishop because I love his style and motor, but Coleman does offer a little more flexibility.
DE - I think Ryan Russell has made the team since we did this last.  That leaves Ben Gardner and Lavar Edwards fighting for the last spot.  If Gardner can prove he is a special teams option, the edge goes to him.  Otherwise, this is a photo finish.
LB - 7 Linebackers are in.  But, Rolando McClain being suspended makes it 6 on opening day.  Keith Smith is interesting for sure and squarely on the bubble.  I see he is being used on all special teams so they might go heavy there to save him.
CB - With Orlando Scandrick's news hurting the team, this is a real job opportunity for the next man up.  Tyler Patmon and Corey White are on the squad for sure and now, you wonder if there is a spot for one of the long shots through special teams.  Is that Joel Ross or Rod Sweeting?
S - The two starters and the two special teams leaders in McCray and Heath.  I think all 4 are locks.
ST - Bailey, Jones, Ladouceur.  Easy as can be.
For reference, here is a chart I have used since 2007.  It is the final 53 man roster for the Cowboys based on the numbers they have used at each spot.  Of course, you should be aware of the scheme affecting this as when they went from 3-4 to a 4-3, the DL/LB numbers were impacted.  Otherwise, this might be useful if you choose to try to make your own roster.

2007: 26 Offense/24 Defense/3 Specialist
2008: 25 Offense/25 Defense/3 Specialist
2009: 25 Offense/24 Defense/4 Specialist
2010: 25 Offense/25 Defense/3 Specialist
2011: 26 Offense/23 Defense/4 Specialist
2012: 25 Offense/25 Defense/3 Specialist
2013: 24 Offense/26 Defense/3 Specialist
2014: 24 Offense/26 Defense/3 Specialist
Ok.  46 are locks (not including Rolando or Hardy).  Let's add the final 7 names as of this morning:  Hanna, Swaim, Weems, Gibson, Bishop, Gardner, and Smith.  Of course, the fact is the Cowboys will sign a handful of players in early September that will make their 53 that are on another roster right now, but using the info we have, those are my 53 as of this morning.
Set me straight with your comments below.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Special Teams - Punt Team

It seems rather fitting after Sunday that I continue the special teams series that we started last week with a closer look at the punt teams for the Dallas Cowboys.  I say extra fitting, of course, because the Cowboys demonstrated just how badly poor special teams can ruin a game for you.  Honestly, the Cowboys defense was pretty solid on Sunday in San Francisco, but the 49ers had 3 huge punt returns on the first 3 Cowboys' punts followed by a free touchdown on a blocked punt in the end zone.  It absolutely affected every component of the game with the Cowboys giving up massive amounts of field position, points, and ultimately were not competitive in a game - mainly because the special teams were absolutely outclassed.
Now, in fairness, Week 2 of the preseason is simply more preparation for Week 1.  That means that they are hypothetically not rehearsing punt coverage with the preferred 11 players on special teams, but rather they are trying to find out who can do it and who can't.  Hypothetically, we can shake off some of those disasters by concluding that they were able to identify many weak links who were auditioning to make the roster because they were exceptional on special teams, but, of course, we could also conclude that they are having a hard time finding 11 good candidates - meaning they may have to populate their punt and kickoff teams with mediocre ST players if they can't find 11 good ones.  And that is where games can be lost.
What I thought would be a good idea today would be to actually discuss what positions are needed for a punt coverage team and what type of players are used to fill each of those spots.  You absolutely do not just plug anyone into these spots for very obvious reasons - such as you are going to be chasing down DeSean Jackson, Devin Hester, or yes, Jarryd Hayne.  So you better have players who are big and strong enough to battle against block attempts, but fast and mobile enough to go down and corral any ideas of a long return.  So, you don't want to be too extreme in either direction.  If you put out 9 speedsters on your punt team, then you will certainly suffer blocked punts.  But, if you put 9 stout defenders out to insure your punt is not blocked, you run the risk of having guys who are not good at tackling a dazzling return man in open space.  Decades of experience go into selecting players for this job, so let's examine how the Cowboys handled this last season in Week 1 (ironically, also against the 49ers).
Here is the very 1st punt of 2014.  In theory, everyone is still healthy and available, so this would be Special Teams Coach Rich Bisaccia's first string punt coverage unit pictured below:
Punter: 6-Jones
PP: 38-Heath
LGunner: 17-Harris
RGunner: 37-Spillman
LWing: 84-Hanna
RWing: 89-Escobar
RT: 59-Hitchens
RG: 51-Wilber
LS: 91-Ladoucuer
LG: 53-Lawrence
LT: 54-Carter
The Cowboys utilize a very traditional punt formation.  It has punter #6 Chris Jones 15 yards deep behind deep snapper #91 LP Ladoucuer (LP is the 3rd longest tenured Cowboy, behind Jason Witten and Tony Romo).  Then, in front of Jones and roughly 6 yards deep is the personal protector #38 - Jeff Heath.  His job, is to clean up any major threats that break through to the final line of defense.
Then, there are two wing players.  On the punter's right is 89-Gavin Escobar and on the left is 84-James Hanna.  They are lined up 1 yard behind the line of scrimmage and often overlap the tackle on either side to close down that inside gap.  They are there to protect the flanks, of course, but the #1 rule is "do not get beat to the inside".  In punt protection, the punt team is banking on the idea that the snap and punt can happen in 2 seconds flat (or less), so if they can simply make a blocker run around them to the punter (15 yards back), it will be next to impossible to get to their destination before the ball is gone.  Basically, do not let anyone run a straight line and come untouched.  Those are the only guys who can block a well-exectuted punt.  As you can see, these players consist of 2 tight ends and a safety.  All guys who can strike the balance between running and physicality.
Next, we have the 5 up front.  They are not the offensive line, because they are not going to sprint 40-45 yards down field with any effectiveness.  Rather, these 5 are going to consist of linebackers and tight ends.  In the Cowboys case last year, it was 4 linebackers and a long snapper.  59-Anthony Hitchens, 51-Kyle Wilber, 53-Cam Lawrence, and 54-Bruce Carter.  Here, you see that basically anyone who is on the roster who is not a star player at tight end or linebacker is going to be vital in covering kicks and punts.  These guys all weigh 230-250, can run at a decent level, and of course, tackle for a living.
Clearly, getting the punt off is priority #1, but that is only the start of the play.  The last two guys we will mention are only responsible for priority #2, which is get downfield and make a play on the return man - or preferably, prevent any return from happening by getting down there so fast that he is tempted to fair catch the ball.  These are the "gunners".  In this particular game, it was 17-Dwayne Harris on one side and 37-CJ Spillman on the other.  These two guys are picked for being fast players who are also quite physical for their size.  Orlando Scandrick often does this job as do other defensive backs.  Sometimes, there are wide receivers that handle this as well (like Harris and Sam Hurd), but honestly, most wide receivers are awful tacklers so they will always lean towards the DBs.  These two guys have to battle their tails off because the return team will put 2 guys on each of them to give their return man a better chance at having a moment to find some space, since all of the other cover guys have to wait for the kick to cross the line of scrimmage.
So, the 9 guys (added to the punter and the deep snapper) are exclusively from the following position groups:  RB, TE, WR, LB, S, CB.  And in those groups, if you are dressing but aren't starting, you almost must be on cover teams.
How good has this group performed for the Cowboys in recent years?
SeasonNet Punt AvgNFL RankNFL Net AvgTotal Punts
Here are the numbers the special teams coach is examining.  Net average.  How many yards of field position is the ball moving when the Cowboys punt?  You can see that in 2014, they punted fewer times than ever before and moved the ball the furthest each time of any of the last 4 seasons.  No big returns and finally we're over the league average in making sure they gained 39.8 yards each punt.
Next, here are the opponents return results - which tells us how well the Cowboys do at covering punts.
SeasonReturn AvgRet-YardsNFL RankNFL Avg
This chart shows the Cowboys opponents return results for the last 4 seasons.  The rank is the Cowboys' ability to limit long returns, meaning that they were the 20th best in 2014 at limiting returns.  As an example, New Orleans allowed only 24 returns last season for only 99 yards.  4.1 a return for the Saints and massive amounts of hidden yardage.
But, as you can see, in a full season, the Cowboys allowed only 240 yards last season.  That is only 15 yards per game in punt returns.  So, when you look at Sunday when they allowed 105 yards on only 4 punts (26.3 yards a return!!!) in one preseason game - AND a blocked punt for a touchdown, you can understand a grumpy coach.
If you, like me, are just curious enough to want to know who was at fault on Sunday, here was the group that allowed the first two punt returns of significance:
Punter: 6-Jones
PP: 38-Heath
LGunner: 23-White
RGunner: 26-Patmon
LWing: 40-McCray
RWing: 44-Clutts
RT: 56-Smith
RG: 51-Wilber
LS: 91-Ladoucuer
LG: 57-Wilson
LT: 52-Gachkar
So, Jones, LP, Heath, and Wilber were the same.  7 newbies.  Which is normal year to year in special teams.
Here is a not-so-fun-fact about the Cowboys special teams.  Since 1998, they have had 10 punts blocked and have only blocked 3 of their opponents.  You don't want to be minus-7 in that category because you are absolutely giving games away.  Can you name the 3 punts the Cowboys have had blocked in regular season games during the Jason Garrett era?
They all seem to happen early in the year.
Sept 11, 2011At NY JetsLoss, 27-24
Sept 16, 2012At SeattleLoss, 27-7
Oct 12, 2014At SeattleWin, 30-23
Incidentally, the Cowboys have no blocked punts under Garrett of their opponents.  The last time they got their opponent was in 2008.  And because I consider us friends, I have provided proof of that moment right here.  Carlos Polk (you remember him, right?) blocked it against, who else, the 49ers.