Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Xs and Os - La'el Collins vs Khalil Mack

ARLINGTON, TX - AUGUST 26: La'el Collins #71 of the Dallas Cowboys tries to protect Dak Prescott #4 of the Dallas Cowboys as he is hit by Shilique Calhoun #91 of the Oakland Raiders in the second quarter of a preseason game at AT&T Stadium on August 26, 2017 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
Tom Pennington/Getty Images
ARLINGTON, TX - AUGUST 26: La'el Collins #71 of the Dallas Cowboys tries to protect Dak Prescott #4 of the Dallas Cowboys as he is hit by Shilique Calhoun #91 of the Oakland Raiders in the second quarter of a preseason game at AT&T Stadium on August 26, 2017 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
As our trek through the preseason continues, we take our weekly look at the tape.   It was obvious that this week we should look at La'el Collins at right tackle as he tries to tangle with Oakland's Khalil Mack.   Unfortunately, this is one of those weeks where we really wanted to see the All-22's to get a complete look at the evening Collins had against the fantastic talent and NFL Defensive Player of the Year.

Mack is a nightmare to deal with and has 30 sacks in his 3 NFL seasons.  Last year he also had 5 forced fumbles and a nice interception, as well.  He is a handful for everyone, so a player like Collins who has never played right tackle would certainly have quite an evening to see where he stands as they prepare for the season.
That seemed like an obvious opportunity to take a look at some views off the TV copy.  Not ideal and only a few replays, but let's make the best of what we have to work with.
Collins played the entire 1st half and most of his work was against Mack - although not all of it.  I must confess I watched the game on a 24 hour delay and was subjected to some reviews from others before I jumped in.  Trusted football mind Evan Silva's review really caught my eye:
Silva has a very defendable position.  If you play half a game and commit 3 penalties there is almost no other way to characterize a performance than "rough go".  3 penalties is an excellent season for some, so you don't want 3 in 26 snaps.  
But, I still planned to break down this Collins vs Mack showdown (for better or worse) and see what the tape said.  I left it thinking Silva's review was both true and false.  Let's grab 12 GIFs and take a look:
Collins (#71 Right Tackle) does an excellent job of forcing Mack wide and then riding him past the QB and beyond danger.  Mack has to win on speed and often does.  But, this is fine work by Collins to get his feet moving and just use Mack's momentum against him.
Here is another example of the same concept.  Get your kick steps to get you into a good spot and posture, and then just allow Mack to choose a route and don't give up the edge.
In run blocking, you might think they found another Tyron on the edge.  He moves so well and then walls off the defense.  He is a monster and will not struggle in run blocking at all.  A very prototypical tackle in a zone scheme.  You will continue to be pleased on the ground.
This is Khalil Mack, people.  He mirrors him, frustrates him, and then pushes him off with attitude.  Right tackle is going to be fine, in my opinion.
Not the same play, but a similar concept.  He has a bit of a habit to grab the opponent and therefore will get called for the occasional hold, but love the way he finishes these sequences.  
2nd quarter.  Look at him stone Shilique Calhoun.  The Raiders have a nice rotation, but Collins doesn't even give up a shoulder.  Sternum to sternum.  Great work.  
Now Bruce Irvin with a spin move.  La'el has no issue.  Good feet and confident technique.  
Here we have another run play where they pull him into space.  He doesn't really get anyone here, but he gets in the way of the defense and helps cut a path for the ball carrier.  Well done and again, this is one of his best attributes.
Now, about those 3 penalties - all in a span of 7 plays and 6 minutes of football.
Here he gets the hands in the face of Calhoun.  Both are very tall humans going at it, and it looks like he does get the head with his right hand.  Innocent mistake, careless, and needs to be cleaned up.  But, when I see penalties I am looking for a man who is getting beat looking for a last resort.  I don't see anything here that says Collins had to do this.  Big difference for me.  
There it is again.  The right hand.  And he has Mack blocked.  He is not getting beat.  There is no reason to do this.  But, you are right in front of the official.  You will get flagged.  Clean that up. 
Penalty 3 is the one where he is holding because he got beat.  James Cowser beats him and Collins gets his arm in that holding position before falling on top of him.  Pretty legit holding maneuver there and the only one where it looks like he does it because he was losing for a moment.  Perhaps he underestimated the least recognizable of the players he faced, but again, that was the one moment all night where I saw him lose for even a moment.
All in all, I loved what I saw.  I saw competence and excellence from a player who is figuring things out but also has already been paid handsomely because the Cowboys know he is going to be something, too.
I did not see a "rough go", but in Silva's defense (and others) 3 penalties is 3 penalties anyway you rationalize it.  Clean that up and the Cowboys have another blue-chip potential player at right tackle.  Doug Free was very good for a decade, but penalties and athletic mismatches caught up to him.  Collins will not face many athletic mismatches.  He is going to be very good very soon, in my estimation.  
He will need to be, because starting Week 1, most every team attacks the right tackle with speed rushers. 

Monday, August 28, 2017

The Morning After - 12 Items from Oakland

Dallas Cowboys  Ezekiel Elliott (21) runs for yards against Oakland Raiders Jelani Jenkins (53) during the 1st quarter of action of the Dallas Cowboys vs Oakland Raiders preseason game at AT&T Stadium in Arlington on Saturday, August 26, 2017. (Irwin Thompson/The Dallas Morning News)
Irwin Thompson/The Dallas Morning News
Dallas Cowboys Ezekiel Elliott (21) runs for yards against Oakland Raiders Jelani Jenkins (53) during the 1st quarter of action of the Dallas Cowboys vs Oakland Raiders preseason game at AT&T Stadium in Arlington on Saturday, August 26, 2017. (Irwin Thompson/The Dallas Morning News)
Not that the outcome will be long-remembered or that the whole exercise makes sense when a serious injury occurs, but we still got another chance to watch the 2017 Dallas Cowboys in action once again before September 10th.  The 4th preseason game provided another look at quite a few portions of the squad we have been examining all through August.  It also provided a team that I think will likely win its division across the field in the Oakland Raiders and some of their special players and the challenges they present.  With all of that in mind, let's work our way through some of the good and the bad in an observation-filled "Morning After" that goes in a dozen different directions:

  1. It was certainly wonderful to look at this offense once again with Dak Prescott at the helm.  If you include what we saw last week without Ezekiel Elliott and then what we saw this week with the RB that may-or-may-not be in tow when they play the Giants, it is clear that this offense is prepared to remain one of the heavyweights in the whole league at moving the football, controlling the clock, and putting up points.  I really appreciate their style and their balance and their disposition.  The best part is dominating 1st down which not only shortens your 3rd downs, but often prevents them altogether.  This is not easy.  Many teams in this league make offense look incredibly difficult.  But, because of the enormous amount of talent this team has assembled on that side of the ball, they are a thing of beauty.  On Saturday, they unleashed all of their personnel groupings and all of the different looks that are built on keeping the defense in a bind that is next to impossible to predict what is coming next.  I was quite impressed in their action what they can do.  They will be a handful again in 2017.
  2. Defensively, I do not have as many nice things to say about the preparedness for 2 weeks from now.  Derek Carr looked a little off, yet still carved up the Cowboys defense in almost an entire half of football.  Carr and his weapons made the Cowboys zones look rather silly in their 2 touchdown strikes that had the defense looking at each other in that unfortunate "I thought you had that guy" way.  Both touchdowns looked like the corner let their man go into a zone where the safety was late arriving and in this league that will get you beat.  And, like in the playoffs last year, a long touchdown pass can erase the 10-minute drive you just marched down the field.  If you are a ball-control offense, the last thing the defense can do is leak big plays in the pass game.  They generally have done well in preventing that, but this is a new secondary and with that is the first and most important question they will be asked - can you prevent the home run?  If the answer is "no", then the question will be repeated by any opponent all season long and the center-field safety (or 2-high) will need to be examined quickly. 
  3. James Hanna and Geoff Swaim can really fit and change how this offense looks.  If you look closely at 2016, this thing was invincible through the trip to Pittsburgh and then the offense fell off.  Swaim and Hanna are not "fantasy tight ends" and likely never will be.  But, boy do they make the offense more balanced and less predictable.  Hanna missed 2016 and Swaim lasted to the Pittsburgh game.  When they were gone, it was pretty much Jason Witten and a little bit of Gavin Escobar who never allowed for that balance because of his inability to block.  Rico Gathers may be special at some point, but the true teeth of this thing is the ability to run 12 or 13 personnel with tight ends that scare the pants off the defense as "extra OL" and then it turns into play-action passes.  We saw that Saturday night and we will see it more this year.  Everyone wants a smaller offense because fans like the idea of Ryan Switzer and Cole Beasley out there together as impossible matchups.  That might work, too.  But the ground and pound possibilities of 12 and 13 personnel are what Jason Garrett and Scott Linehan live for.  Expect more of that in 2017.
  4. Cooper Rush is looking more and more like a Dallas Cowboy.  How much of one?  Would they really trust him to be their #2?  I still don't think they would ever do that, but he is making them have the conversation which is way more than anyone already imagined.  Good for him.  He was basically assured that he made the team already - which makes everything else pure gravy for a player that really had a rough 2016 at Central Michigan at times.  He completed less than 60% of his passes in the MAC and threw 16 interceptions in just 13 games.  Who knew that he would look this good at any point of his NFL career.  But, here he is.
  5. Jaylon Smith had some much better hop and explosion at times on Saturday, but also had some disconcerting signs - including Jamie Olawale running away from him on a long run down the sideline.  We need to stay conservative in our expectation levels early.  In other words, even with the Anthony Hitchens news, expect Justin Durant to be the decision early.  Pushing Jaylon into a spot before he is ready is ill-advised.
  6. Chaz Green was the starter at left guard.  He gave up a sack there as Treyvon Hester blew by him on a stunt and then hurt his ankle in some limited action at left tackle.  I really have a hard time buying him as anything more than a reserve at this point of his career.  And, because this is actually his 3rd season since his draft, the clock is ticking on his ability to do that.  Durability is the most important ability and it seems that, like his college career, that sabotages his actual ability when he gets on the field.  And, giving up one sack at left guard is more than Ron Leary did there all last season, so those interior spots have to be nearly perfect in pass protection to get the grade.  I am still assuming Jonathan Cooper is their choice there, until I see otherwise.
  7. Anthony Hitchens is hurt badly, but not as badly as we first feared.  I am a big fan of Hitchens and I think he is a real underrated force on this defense.  He is smart, he is committed, and he has a great motor.  He also gave them a lot of cover at LB and if he is out until November and if Damien Wilson gets a call from the NFL for his absurd incident in July with the firearm, this team gets real thin at LB real quick.  Real quick.  Keep an eye on that.  
  8. Last year at camp, I spent a lot of time predicting the breakout season of David Irving.  I think that went very well in 2016 and now we move on to a player who has already broken out a bit as a rookie, but I expect another big step forward this year.  Maliek Collins looks so good at the 3-technique.  Like possibly so good that he was the 3-tech that they thought Tyrone Crawford could be when they signed him to that deal.  Collins destroys run plays and then beats guards in pass rush.  3-tech is important in this defense and I think the 2nd year man from Nebraska is going to be wonderful this year after a very nice rookie campaign.  He had 13 splash plays in 2016 (9th on the team), but I think he can make a run past 20 this year.
  9. Is there a chance Lance Lenoir - undrafted out of Western Illinois - can actually make this team?  I still highly doubt it because the numbers game is just so harsh in this league, but man he pops in every single game and he plays a ton of special teams.  Practice Squad for sure, but he is at least raising some eyebrows.
  10. OK, La'el Collins time.  I want to make our Wednesday film session about him versus the amazing Khalil Mack.  I didn't watch the game until yesterday and had noticed some trusted national twitter voices making claims that he played poorly.  I expected the worst and aside from a few dubious penalty calls (which he needs to clean up anyway), I thought I saw everything I had hoped to see in the positive direction.  He is going to be pretty good, in my opinion, and a step up from Doug Free soon.  That doesn't mean there won't be some bumps in the road as right tackle is so difficult to play with awesome opponents and exposure to refs every game.  He will get flagged and he will give up a sack at times.  But, overall, I think he can be a positive very soon.  I really like his skillset and his disposition.  And I question whether those national voices actually watched the game or just heard about the 3 flags.  Because Mack didn't get anything done against him and those flags were pretty soft.
  11. This team is so good at play-action passes and have a chance to turn it into an art form this year.  Those rollouts offer very high-percentage looks for their QB in space and cut the field in half, with the linebackers already vacated because of the run fake.  Unfortunately, part of play-action is also the RBs being alert for blitzers who keep coming.  That will continue to be an issue and it looked like Elliott and Alfred Morris could have been better on Saturday Night on picking up the DB headed for the QB.
  12. I was a real big Terrell McClain fan, but his durability prevented me from getting too upset when the Redskins put a big deal on his plate (4 years/$21 million/$10.5m guaranteed) at the age of 29.  Instead, they gave Stephen Paea a much smaller deal (1 year/$2 million) and if he continues to patrol the middle at that 1-technique like he looked Saturday, I think he has a real chance to play on 1st and 2nd down quite a bit.  I know the Cowboys have big plans for Cedric Thornton, too, but Paea is as strong as an ox for a smaller DT and really shows up on tape well.  That might be the personnel departments latest find at real cheap prices for a run stopper in the middle.  
One more game on Thursday against Houston in which they should scratch everyone in their top 25-30 names, and then we get this roster down and get on with business.  
We are almost there. 

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Xs and Os - Jaylon Smith's 12 Snaps

Dallas Cowboys outside linebacker Jaylon Smith (54) celebrates next to Dallas Cowboys defensive tackle Stephen Paea (55) after tackling Indianapolis Colts tight end Jack Doyle (84) on a third down play forcing them to punt during the first half of a preseason game at AT&T Stadium in Arlington on Saturday, August 19, 2017. (Vernon Bryant/The Dallas Morning News)
Vernon Bryant/Staff Photographer
Dallas Cowboys outside linebacker Jaylon Smith (54) celebrates next to Dallas Cowboys defensive tackle Stephen Paea (55) after tackling Indianapolis Colts tight end Jack Doyle (84) on a third down play forcing them to punt during the first half of a preseason game at AT&T Stadium in Arlington on Saturday, August 19, 2017. (Vernon Bryant/The Dallas Morning News)
The object of the exercise on Saturday night was to let Jaylon Smith return to game action and then quickly move on to the next one.  

I acknowledge that.  So, let me say at the top that it is unfair to then scrutinize his every move.  If the threshold of success was to merely participate, then we don't need to look at the 12 snaps more closely and see what we can see.  
But, since I love to look at video every week and pick the topic that seems most interesting to you the studious video-watching Cowboys fan, I kept coming back to the idea that I would rather do this than break down Kellen Moore/Cooper Rush again.  Rod Smith for RB was another interesting idea, but let's carefully and gently look at Jaylon's night.  My hope is we look back at this in November and see how far he has come.  Maybe that will be a great problem to have.
OK, I expect more video in this post than words, so let's get started.

Drive 1 

1st and 10:
Not much to see here.  Middle zone in a pass drop.  Drops 5 yards to cover No. 85 in the middle.  
2nd and 3:
Same job as last, but this time he gets near the action on the right.  This is generally the job of the Mike LB, to patrol the underneath and then rally to the ball.  You often hear sideline to sideline.  We also use the numbers and the hash marks as landmarks to measure range.  The best are said to be able to cover sideline to sideline.  Incredibly rare to actually have that ability.  
3rd and 3:
Here, on 3rd down, you will often see the LBs up closer to the line as they "sugar the A-Gaps" which is a fancy way of saying they are faking a blitz-look on either shoulder of the center and then will quickly peel out (most of the time, sometimes they really are blitzing those A-Gaps).  This time, Jaylon is the "rat in the hole" which means the Cowboys are in man coverage elsewhere and he is able to rove the shallow area (the free safety is doing the same in the deep area) in a form of the Cover 1 which we see so much on 3rd down.  The Colts know this and have a half-hearted rub-route which the Cowboys stop short of the sticks and bring on the punt team.

Drive 2

1st and 10:
Look at all the LBs fly downhill as they are sitting on run on 1st and 10.  You may notice this posture on most 1st and 10 plays which is why this is the down where 90% of play-action passes happen.   Here, he has 75-Mewhort on him as guards get to the 2nd level to take on dive-bombing LBs and Smith circles around him to force the cutback.  
Here we get another view and you can see if you circle toward the sideline, you are leaving a hole inside that needs to be filled as well.  Smith goes to the outside of the right guard and has play-side pursuit in the B-Gap that Gore sees rather quickly.   But, DeMarcus Lawrence defeats his block so soundly that the LBs actually didn't really factor in much until Hitchens is in on the play after the cutback.  
2nd and 9:
Here #54 is on the run fake. Orlando Scandrick's blitz ends the play off the edge when it turns into a pass.  
3rd and 9:
Here is a 3rd down where the Cowboys want to stop the play before the sticks and the TE is in Jaylon's zone underneath.  It is a crosser so the target needs to be headed off by the outside corner and Scandrick is doing his job nicely which allows Jaylon to close the deal.  Outside the numbers and several changes of direction for Smith after starting tight with the A-Gap.  If there is any moment to suggest that he is headed back in the right direction, this is a real good sign.  

Drive 3

1st and 10:
Into the second quarter we go.  Here is a 1st down pass where Jaylon has middle/shallow and deals with an underneath play with solid movement again.  I was hoping to see a little man-coverage with 54, but the Cowboys clearly weren't worried about that in Game 1.  
2nd and 4:
On this play, they put Jaylon into action as he is dive-bombing the outside lane with 90-Lawrence opening up space for him with a slant of his own.  Jaylon is right on the play and 23-Frank Gore does a fine job of diverting his direction to at least keep the play alive for a quick moment.  Once this happens, Smith turns into backside pursuit and you can see 96-Maliek Collins making this run a short one as well.  This is what we want to see. 
I really like watching Jaylon on this play, with a small qualifier.  We should remember that straight line speed is the smallest issue for a guy returning from a major injury.  It is cutting and changing direction that are the real hurdles.  He certainly looks stiff there.   This is the flash that he is known for and although he comes close to over-running the ball and that first lateral step is the issue, overall I liked this quite a bit.
3rd and 1:
If there was a poor play from Smith, this would likely be it.  As the Mike, you can't get beat inside on 3rd and 1.  I wish we had the end zone view, but I don't believe he can allow himself sealed off by #67 there.  
1st and 10:
This is demonstrating that the Colts had almost no success on the ground against the Cowboys.  Jaylon is coming downhill and flashes at the snap and then stalls a bit trying to get off his block, but 96 and 93 are there quickly and it is over before the LBs can get home.  
2nd and 13:
Without my beloved All-22's, we can only wonder what took Smith so deep here, but he is off the screen the entire snap, so let's save our commentary here a bit.
3rd and 5:
Once again, he is the rat in the hole (rover for the shallow area) and you see some reluctance from his legs to smoothly move him to the ball as his turn seems a bit wide, but all in all no big deal.
So, there you have it.  12 snaps and we looked at each of them.
I would say that there was some good.  He definitely knows where to be.  He now knows a little more about trusting that leg.  Can he move like he once did?  Not yet.  Did they play him too early?  I would have to say now after several more looks that I am not as concerned as I was on Saturday night.  
He did labor and run a bit differently than I remember at Notre Dame, but given that we are watching with no intimate knowledge of the medical situation, let's continue to be patient.  
I would say overall that 54 in a Cowboys uniform is no longer a fictional idea.  It has happened.  Whether he plays more next week or they slow-play things is anyone's guess.  But, I am pretty interested in what happens next.
Let me know what you thought down below.