Thursday, October 29, 2015

Xs and Os - Week 6 - Giants

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, unfortunately, with all the catastrophic moments in this loss to the Giants, there isn't much to "keep it positive" when it comes to the Xs and Os breakdown.  It just happened that way.  But, let's look at the kick return, the Cassel performance from a "here is what went wrong" standpoint, and then a 3rd play that might be a sign of things to come.
1) - The Kick Return TD By Dwayne Harris
I wish I knew more about special teams.  I know just enough to be dangerous, so I rely on a few people who know better to point me in the right direction.  I just thought it was important for me to confess that I haven't spent much time studying kick cover strategies.  
Now, here is the roster of this kick cover group, going back to week 1.  I mention this because there are some changes this week that we should at least be aware of.  
So, the first thing that jumps out is that R1 and L1 are always safeties, but for whatever reason, James Hanna is playing L1 this week.  R4/L4 are Heath and McCray and their job is to get in there and wreck stuff, with a 2nd wave, R5/L5 (Wilber and Gachkar) to help on the tackle.  This, of course, is a speed issue as you should hope your DBs can beat your LBs down the field.  Then, you give the LBs the inside position to allow them to arrive almost simultaneously with the DBs.  R3/L3 usually are another pair of Linebackers and they help keep contain on the edges.  On a middle kick, you certainly want to funnel everything inside.  R2/L2 are another set of safeties who also "set the edge" which leaves the two outside "safeties" (Wilcox and Hanna) to actually play safety and fix anything that breaks, and Bailey which generally stays out of the way.
OK.  Here is what it looks like happened from the end zone view:
It all happens very fast, so let's use a few stills and I can tell you what has been told to me what broke down.

The 3 outside players on both sides are in pretty decent position.  Here they are.  You are ok here, but you are also outnumbered in the middle if you don't rally inside.  The only spot you might want better on the outside is Hanna is getting a little too far upfield.  Look at Wilcox versus Hanna.  Wilcox is still in position to get inside.

So, as Harris hits the hole, you can see how all the cover guys are nearly at the same level.  This is a problem because then once he breaks through that wave, he is pretty much gone.  L4 (Danny McCray) and L5 (Kyle Wilber) are the guys who had the issues from my sources.  It appears Wilber has to get inside his man and McCray can't get blocked into the R5/R4 guys.  He has crossed out of his lane and is actually impeding his own guys, too. 
Now, once that happens, we have the issues where if anything goes wrong, Wilcox and Hanna have to meet in the middle and shut that down before it breaks into the open field.  As you can see below, Wilcox is on the hash and as is likely on his spot, whereas, Hanna is too far off the hash on the other side and Dwayne Harris runs to that daylight.

The first thought here is that Dwayne Harris is a good return man.  The other thought is that the Cowboys had to adjust on the fly to figure out their personnel on the outside spots and asked Hanna (who has really good speed - maybe faster than many safeties) to play Barry Church's spot.  It appears that he was on this kick cover for Barry Church who sprained his ankle in the game and likely was no doubt taken off kick coverage in the middle of the game (he was out there for the opening kick).  Did that cause this?  Well, the insiders tell me to look at 40 and 51 who had to be better here, but 84 could have kept the damage lower if he was more on his spot.  However, a quick look at the lineups all year show that he was doing something he doesn't often handle.
2) - The Cassel Mistake Decisions
As you know, I think Matt Cassel is a tremendous upgrade from Brandon Weeden.  As in, he is the no-brainer choice of the two.  I still look to Tony Romo's return ASAP, and now wonder if the Cowboys should have tried to keep him off the IR-DFR list and maybe he could have returned before November 22, but I admit that being overly cautions with Romo is a good plan.  
Meanwhile, as Cassel tries to get you in the Win Column, it will be important for him to continue to challenge the opponent on a case-by-case basis.  I cannot stress how impossible it is for a backup QB to come in and never make the wrong decision, but it sure seems that if Cassel could take a few more easy throws rather than trying the tough ones constantly (kind of the exact opposite of Weeden), the team might be better moving forward.  
Here is the first one:
This one is WR error as we have talked all week.  Terrance Williams is a good player who has a few instances on occasion where he demonstrates that he might have a ceiling a bit lower than we had hoped.  On this one, like many slants and comebacks, you have some rules that simply cannot be broken because the QB is trusting you.  And when he trust you that means he is throwing the ball when your break foot hits the ground (because at that moment you have the position needed) and leaving the rest of the play up to you to do your job.  
Once Williams does not stay inside Dominque Rodgers-Cromartie and loses the 5 yard race to the sideline - and in this case actually leaves his feet which means he has no way to help tackle the man he just lost the race against, then the play is dead - and the game might be, too.  
Two other thoughts - DRC runs Williams' route better than Williams.  This could be a chance to pile on #83, but it could also be a chance to suggest that they need to burn corners on tendencies more.  Also, Doug Free is getting pushed back into Cassel on this throw, not helping the angle.  
Here is another look from the ALL-22:
I think you could argue - as Cassel did after the game - that he needs to be careful with Rodgers-Cromartie who is well known for having ball hawking skills.  But, beyond that, this is on Williams about 100%.  The other critique is that this is 2nd and 9.  So, take the check down and make it 3rd and 4.  But, really, I have no issue here with the QB.
Next, this one.  
This is a killer.  This has to be a touchdown.  When Williams is at the 20, he has 3 yards on his guy.  Just a horrid throw that either tells us A) his arm is not strong enough, B) the wind in NY is legit, or C) it just slipped out of his hands.  But, this is 100% QB and it is just really, really poor.
You can call it a punt, but that is a TD you can't miss on if you want to win a game like this.  Yuck.
Cassel said it came out of his hand funny, but you could argue that this is about as bad a throw as you will see all year.  The safety had no intention of being involved in this play, but it was just such a duck.  
I like you, Matt.  Please don't do that ever again.
Finally, Cassel violated my #1 rule for QBs on this 3rd one.
Do NOT throw the ball into coverage on 1st down.  DO NOT.
1st down is where we are to be as smart as possible with the ball.  As you can see above, this throw is a high-risk throw into a space deep in the secondary that is surrounded by danger.  On 1st down, I am taking Cole Beasley who has the entire outside of the field to make up a quick 10 yards. 

Then he gets the ball placement wrong, challenges DRC again, and the third pick is due to a rush of blood to the head.  Take the easy throw underneath once in a while.  Especially on early downs.   
And use Cole Beasley.  He is a real weapon underneath and Cassel didn't really go to him much at all on Sunday.
Overall, Cassel was good and moved the offense.  He just has to not panic into throws - especially on 1st down.  
Here is one more.  It is the 4th down throw to Hanna.  I am guessing we were all upset with his decision to throw the ball there, but the Giants clearly were trying to keep everything in front of them.
As you can see on many of these throws, Cassel is looking to his frontside (right) way more.  But, man, Darren McFadden looks in so much better spot if you have to check down.  Is he going to get to the sticks? Not sure.  Does he have a much better chance than Hanna?  I am sure.  Yes.

Easy for me to say, but a check down to McFadden on the other side might extend the game.  But, like the play earlier where Beasley was open, they are both to his left.  He is not seeing that very well when the rush is on.
3) - Just Another Extra Point
This is the extra point after the Harris TD.  You may know it as the moment before Greg Hardy loses his mind on the sideline.  So, 15 seconds after the kick return and 15 seconds before the tirade this happened:
3 things to look at above.  1) Tyrone Crawford jumping over the center and getting tipped head over heels.  2) Greg Hardy pancaking the poor guy who tried to block him.  and 3) Byron Jones is absolutely going to block a kick soon.  He is too good and too athletic not to do so.
Hardy is certainly controversial.  But, he can destroy the guy in front of him just about anytime he wants to do it.  
Not much to learn here, just want to make sure you are aware of it.
Let's close the book and move on to the Seahawks.  

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Marinelli Report - Week 6 - Giants

Our defensive look at the New York Giants game is an interesting one to say the least.  In many respects, the defense played one of their very best games of the year surrendering just 289 yards and seems to spend much more time around the QB and getting off the field. 
At most, the defense was responsible for conceding just 13 points and you could understand some level of short tempers when the offense and special teams were giving up points - a sure recipe for disaster.   The defense played hard and in many respects deserved a better fate than they received on Sunday - but that is football.  It is a team game and you win and lose because of your cumulative level of quality.
There are things going better on this defense since the arrivals of Rolando McClain, Greg Hardy, and Randy Gregory (although Gregory was hardly seen on Sunday), and the reasons for optimism should be present.  However, as it pertains to Sunday, there were some disconcerting elements of the game that we should consider.
For instance, of the six biggest plays the defense has conceded in 2015, three of them were on Sunday.  So, yes, they didn't give up many yards in total, but they did give up 3 plays on Sunday that would be considered major explosives.  A 44-yard pass to Rueben Randle on a 3rd and 5 from deep inside Giants territory - something that surely would have resulted in Cowboys points if they can force that punt; a 39 yard run to Shane Vereen later in that same drive, and a 38 yard pass to Dwayne Harris across the middle in the 2nd Quarter against a blitz.   And there surely would have been a 4th in the final Quarter had Rueben Randle not bobbled a beautiful pass and allowed Byron Jones a chance to break it up. 
So, while the defense played pretty well and gave up fewer than 300 yards on Sunday, we certainly cannot throw roses at their feet if they are allowing several big plays and of course, not generating enough game-changers of their own. 
Certainly, two different 3rd down sacks were wonderful, but to go yet another game without a takeaway is starting to become absurd.  Here is the latest demonstration of how serious things are starting to become:

In the last decade, every year has a different story.  But, this year, the story that isn't being talked about enough because of the QB situation, Dez Bryant's injury, and the week to week Greg Hardy drama is a very simple football story.  The Cowboys have now tied their worst takeaway performance over the course of a year in just six games.  With 10 games to play, the idea that the Cowboys might set a franchise low for weeks without a single takeaway seem well within reach.  3 times in the history of the Dallas Cowboys have they had 6 games in a single season without a takeaway:  1989, 1994, and 2004.  With 5 already in the bag, they seem assured of a rather dubious low in 2015 - a year where they absolutely could not afford for this to happen.  With Tony Romo and Dez Bryant unavailable, this was to be the year that the defense carried the mail.  
And on this most vital of fronts - the statistic that most correlates to winning of any single number in football - the Cowboys are coming up empty.   By the way, of the 53 games since 2000 that the Cowboys have 0 takeaways, they are 10-43.  Since 2010 - the first year of Jason Garrett, they are 1-20.  It is a rough stat to overcome.
Here is this week's version of "The Cowboys Almost got a Takeaway", which will be the 10th such occasion in these 6 games (according to my unofficial count).  It is Byron Jones just about kicking himself an interception.
It seemed convincing enough at real speed, but after further review, they ruled the ball touched the ground in the process.  But, despite the close call, it feels like now is a great time to discuss Byron Jones.
Above, I mentioned a moment in the game where the Cowboys needed a play from a safety.  Enter the rookie from UConn.  If Randle catches this clean, Jones is not going to be able to save the day, but his arm on the ball certainly arrived to make sure Randle doesn't double-catch this one:
It was just last week that I received another bunch of emails and comments from Cowboys fans who were waiting to see the 1st round pick begin to pay dividends.  And he delivered with a game where he made several big plays and came very close a few other times.  
Jones is part of a group of youngsters who we have all labeled as potential "Blue-Chip" players.  Byron Jones, Randy Gregory, and DeMarcus Lawrence are all heavy Cowboys investments who were to help insert top-level talents into a defense that has been mostly retreads and try-hard guys who filled out the lineup in much of 2013 and 2014.  Surely, if you can add these players around a healthy Sean Lee and Greg Hardy, the sky will be the limit in 2015.
Well, with Gregory - like Lawrence last year, health has not cooperated.  But, hypothetically, each week he will get better.  Lawrence has flashed nearly every week, but just isn't getting home.  I think DeMarcus can be a very good edge rusher, but he has to get to the QB more often.  1 in 6 weeks is not what they were hoping for - they likely thought he would be a cinch for 8 sacks this season.  I know I thought that would be possible.
But, now Jones arrives and gets better each week.  I still don't know whether he is a corner or a safety in 2016 and beyond.  But, for now, it appears that he might just be a great football player that has the talent to do whatever you need.  He could be your best corner or he could be your best safety.  He is around the ball a lot (is that because opponents are challenging him?) and seems close to turning a game with a big play.  He also looks likely to block a kick before too long.  
In other words, I think Byron Jones is on his way to a heck of a career.

As mentioned above, Byron Jones made a majority of the big plays on Sunday for the defense as he checked in with 3 splash plays - all 3 where he knocked down passes from Eli Manning.  Manning is looking to get the ball out quick, so he is going after the coverage he thinks he can take advantage of, and Byron was more than able to fight back in his homecoming game.
Overall, it is a low number of splashes, but that likely has more to do with the game flow where the defense played only 9 minutes in the 2nd half as the Cowboys offense was on the field the entire half.  

As you can see here, the numbers indicate many good things about the defensive performance against the Giants.  The defense was able to get off the field on 3rd Down (3-11, 27%) and was able to minimize damage in the red zone drives.  They were also able to keep the yards per play to a minimum.  
But, in the end, the 0 takeaways tell the story.  
It really stinks to lose a game when you can't really name a player on the opposing offense that you thought had a really great game.  But, again, it is a team game and the way the Cowboys lost this one will sting for a bit.

The Giants offense consists of making short passes to allow for yards after catch and occasionally take a shot down the field.  The Cowboys were decent on this for the most part, but were burned on a couple big ones that could have made the margin even worse.  
As many know who read this, the Cowboys do not believe in blitzing much and certainly not as a necessity.  With each week, they are rushing 5 or more less and less.  They tried it 3 times in this game and actually were burned twice.  So, what little they blitz, expect even less.



A team that doesn't like to blitz tries 3 of them and then gives up explosives twice on those three plays?  Well....
Here is another handy pie chart to demonstrate how often the Cowboys bring how-many rushers:

Well, this is simple.  The defense is showing strides and talent.  They are not showing results in the takeaway department so we will continue to ask more of them.  I am not one of those people who say "you can't blame the defense" in a week where so many other things happened.  
Each unit is judged on their own merit.  You can play well in a loss and horribly in a win.  It is a team sport.
On this occasion, the defense has been really solid and looking the part.  But, when you are 1-20 when your defense does not create a single takeaway, well, we know what we are looking for each week.  
Get the ball.  Must get the ball.  And until they do, anything else may not matter soon.  They have tied their worst seasons in 0 takeaway games in the last decade by October 25th.  That simply must change and to do so, players might have to add another level to the intensity.
I may sound like a broken record.  But, that seems fitting since they are about to break a record.