Monday, September 15, 2014

The Morning After: Dallas 26, Tennessee 10 (1-1)

Yesterday, the NFL demonstrated loudly and clearly for all who forget that this league is difficult to predict and impossible to figure out.  I can't imagine there are many people who profit off the ability to forecast NFL games correctly (despite the large number who claim to have this ability), because from what I can tell, we repeat the exercise every season of thinking we know more than we actually do - only to admit later that the more we watch, the more it becomes clear that nobody truly knows much about this unpredictable sport.

When it comes to the Dallas Cowboys and their 2014 season which has almost nobody optimistic, the predictions have been based on a few specific gripes.  The most important remains their franchise QB, Tony Romo, returning to health and performance that is expected from a man that they pay more than $1m per game.

However, the rest of the bearish views on the team surround 2 major issues: the defense that they have was one of the worst ever in 2013 and the additions to improve it are largely anonymous and therefore are not expected to have lasting effects and the other issue was whether or not this team would truly ever be able to have a physical, imposing, and yes at times, dominating offensive line that would both protect their QB and open up holes of a running game.

And while the developing story of Romo's search for his top form continues, I think 2 weeks into the season has to have made everyone feel better about the defense sorting itself out under Rod Marinell.  Meanwhile, the offensive line's impact on the first two games has been about as positive as anyone could have hoped, and the way the running game has come out of the gate in 2014 might be the game changer that nobody believed possible.

The Cowboys, as an underdog on Sunday in Nashville, dominated the ball on the ground with force and might and makes everyone imagine the possibility of a personality change with a franchise that seemed allergic to the physical brand of football that Seattle, San Francisco, Baltimore and other powers have used for the last several years.

Have they figured something out?  It is only 1 game and part of another.  It is early for sure.  But, to comprehend 347 rushing yards through 2 games this season is difficult, when we consider that in 2013 they ran for 123 yards, 2012 it was 182, and in 2011, it was 109 through their first 2 games, respectively.

But, now, perhaps through necessity, they have run the ball with incredible proficiency so far.  They lined up and smashed the Titans front which is not a small task.  They had to fight through the adversity of an early DeMarco Murray fumble again, and their first 3 drives ending with 2 sacks and a giveaway.  But, they didn't lose their nerve, nor their objectives.  They simply decided to stay on their script and in the end had their 4th biggest running day of the last decade as the Titans were unable to mount much resistance.

Not only that, but in this space we have discussed the cycle of Cowboys' road disappointments at great length.  The offense consistently underperforms by having no running game, a passing game that is defeated with blitzing, and ultimately putting too much pressure on a defense to keep them in games until it ultimately collapses.  But, yesterday, the Cowboys showed the opposite to be true.  The  running game backed off the Titans blitz, because they did not have the Cowboys passing game in a bind the whole day.  The Cowboys were only predictable on 3rd Downs and then were able to dictate the action, while the defense stayed fresh.  The Cowboys snapped the ball 76 times and dominated the clock with 41 minutes of possession as Tennessee only ran 49 plays.  If you feel that the Cowboys were in control of the proceedings the entire day despite Romo never having to do too much on his own, you feel correctly. They dictated the action and the direction of the contest with 43 running plays to the tune of 220 yards on the ground.  5.1 yard per carry from 43 attempts?  Who are these guys?

Perhaps, they are exactly who they thought they were when they spent big on Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, and Zack Martin to rebuild an offensive line that was in fact offensive for 2011 and 2012.  We certainly are not going to rush to the anointing oils, but this looks like a group that is not perfect, but when firing forward and trying to run the ball, they look more than capable.  And for the entire complexion of the organization, everything changes when you are suddenly able to be the team on the field that can be physically dominant.

We shall see if they can prove it in the weeks to come.  If they can, you may see optimism return to this fan base in short order.  For now, we marvel at what happens when every play seems like a positive gain.

This isn't just about the ground game, however.  What makes this win for the Cowboys feel extra important was the way it appeared to have a total team feel to it.  The special teams were fantastic as Dwayne Harris and Dan Bailey led this crew to their own dominant day.  A nearly blocked punt, a downed punt deep in Tennessee territory, well covered kicks, a nice punt return, and of course, Bailey picking off long field goals like there is nothing to it.  If ever there has been a better kicker in Cowboys history than what Dan Bailey is doing right now, then the margin is slim.  Bailey is as elite as it gets right now when it comes to making long kicks automatic.  He is truly at the top of his game.

The defense, for the 2nd week in a row, was good but with some reservations.  Last week, it was the score margin made it feel like San Francisco was not using too much of their scheme with a 28-3 lead.  This week, they played a QB in Jake Locker who looked discouraged and confused and happy to run off the field at times in the first half.  It is a new coaching staff and scheme in Nashville, and for the time being, it might need more time in the oven - although takeaways and short fields in Week 1 helped them shock the Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium.

But, let's give credit where credit is due as the team turned the ball over twice and found a few more sacks.  The optimism of Rolando McClain, Bruce Carter, and Henry Melton making splash plays of impact once again made itself apparent on Sunday.  If this thing is going to work, they will need a few players to rise above the group, and in the front 7 I would say those are your leaders for now.  We must pace ourselves and remember that attrition will play a role, but again, for the 2nd week in a row, the defense seemed competitive.  That, despite Delanie Walker having his career-best day in his 9th year in the league.  Through 2 weeks, if there is a major issue emerging, it would appear to be the ability to corral a talented tight end receiving threat.  With Jimmy Graham on the schedule in 13 days, that should be a focus moving forward.

I know the record books will remember this game as an easy win that was close to a demoralizing rout, but the game nearly flipped late in the 3rd Quarter and could have easily gotten away from Dallas.  Up 16-0 at halftime, the team had to know they had Tennessee in a corner with no real life-lines available, especially with Locker looking so lost.  But, the Titans emerged from the intermission with a FG drive, followed by a Dallas 3-and-out with a sack bringing Romo down for one of 4 Titans' sacks.

Then, the ensuing drive was where Delanie Walker caught a ball by the left sideline and sustained a shot from Morris Claiborne, bounced off him and ran to the end zone with impressive wheels for a big man.  Now, it was 16-10, with half the 3rd Quarter to play.

The next drive was where the game changed.  For much of the day, Tony Romo just didn't look right throwing the ball, and even his longest completion (and only pass play over 18 yards) was a 22-yard gain to Dez Bryant on a crossing pattern where his target was wide open but the pass was at his shoe-tops.  Bryant caught the ball into Tennessee territory, but again the discussion from the broadcasters was that something doesn't look right about his ball delivery.  

From there, a 6 yard gain from Murray to the Tennessee 33 yard line was where the play of the game happened.  It was 2nd and 4, and Romo audibled into a shotgun after he felt a blitz coming from the A-gaps straight ahead.  This audible was a TE screen on the right side as Jason Witten would release his protection assignment, Derrick Morgan, and flow past him into the flat.  This is a rather normal answer to a blitz threat, and uses the defenses aggression against them.

But, Morgan gets to Romo so fast that the throw back to Witten in the flat was rushed and high.  Witten reached back to try to catch it, but in doing so, tipped the ball right into the path of safety Bernard Pollard.  Pollard catches the ball and appears to be one broken arm tackle from giving Tennessee the lead, when Witten is able to reach in and knock the ball loose for what would be rightfully called an incompletion.  The play - in just the blink of an eye - went from a genius offensive idea, to a game-changing defensive "Pick-6", to simply an incompletion that maybe nobody will remember in a few weeks.

But, that is how games are lost in the NFL where the margin sits on the edge of a knife.  And perhaps Jason Witten saved this day with a play that won't even be recorded as a statistic.  On the next play the Cowboys picked up a 1st down on a generous pass interference and 6 snaps later, Romo hits Bryant on a back shoulder fade in the end zone to restore the 13 point lead and overall order to the proceedings of the first Cowboys victory of 2014.  From there, the ground game was supplemented with Cowboys' fans at the stadium taking over Nashville with their voices in a way that should make Arlington jealous.

They won a game that they absolutely had to win in Week 2, with a potentially perfect opponent hand picked for Week 3 in St Louis before the heavyweights come calling shortly thereafter.  If they are to shock the league with a strong 2014, they must get to 3 wins before going to Seattle in Week 6.

But, what a difference a week can make.  Now, we think the defense can stand up for itself and the offensive line can lean on opponents routinely.  Given that we agreed earlier that we assume too much, too quickly in the NFL, we better continue to see what this team is capable of on a week to week basis moving forward before we jump to conclusions.

We now spend the week wondering about Romo and his self-belief, but for the team in general, this looks far more encouraging than any other indicators we have seen since camp assembled.

A road win, with a dominating physical force grinding the Titans defense down over the course of an afternoon.  A defense that was opportunistic and able to get off the field on 3rd Down.  Special teams that tilted the game in the Cowboys' direction.

More of that, please.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Xs and Os - 3 Things From Week 1 To Examine

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 3 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.


Some overall film thoughts:  I really think the Cowboys offensive line was better than I anticipated.  We must consider that it is just one game, but DeMarco Murray had lots of space on Sunday with some pictures that just showed you he had plenty of real estate.  Here are a few:

Look at that above - hat on a hat.  Lots of green for 29 to pick his lane and go.

Again, as his right foot plants, he can see nothing but space here.  Nobody in front of him and tons of space on this zone right.

And that fateful 2nd and 1.  As you can see, Justin Smith is sneaking in on Tony, but there is plenty of space right if DeMarco gets the ball.  GIVE IT TO HIM!  They don't.  But, I believe this picture erases doubt about 29 getting in or at least the 1st down at the 1 if he follows 70 and 68 in.

Optimism is all over on this offensive line for me.  I have other concerns, but it appears they can be pretty good if they all stay healthy.


OK,  Here are 3 plays to examine:

6:44 - 1Q - 1/10/27 - Vernon Davis Touchdown

This one seems like a massive coverage bust of some sort.  Let's try to figure it out.

I will start by saying when nobody can figure out what coverage you are in, it ends up looking like a mess.  But, we have 42-Church as our single-high safety, and it looks like 24-Claiborne and 39-Carr are in man coverage on the edges, with a zone underneath to handle Vernon Davis and the RBs against the 12 personnel of the 49ers.  You often run zone here so Kaepernick isn't compelled to start his "runs like a deer" routine.  The red arrows signify the routes that are about to be run by the 49ers.

The frame below is where confusion sets in.  If they are running a Cover 3-slide, then Carr should release Crabtree to Church once Davis heads his way.  But, Carr sticks on Crabtree the whole play.  So, is he running the wrong coverage?  I don't think so, but I at least want to leave that possibility open here.

But, the frame below also shows confusion between 27-Wilcox and 52-Durant on who has the FB in the flat and who has one of the best receiving Tight Ends of this generation in 85-Davis.  Look at Wilcox who seems completely flat footed and sure that he has the FB in front of him as Davis heads to the sideline right behind him.  Durant is also looking at the FB and we have a big problem when Carr doesn't peel off.

So, since nobody can identify what coverage they are in, let's just look at the issues here below.  Davis is breaking open as Mincey almost gets the sack.  Wilcox and Durant are now facing the QB and are ready to crash in if a scramble develops.  But, what if he throws it?  You can see Church is in CF and can already tell what is happening as he spots Davis.

But, Church can't get there in time.  Wilcox still has no idea what is happening (he is still on the FB) and Davis is thinking he did something right as he can fair catch his first TD of the year.

Here it is in motion.  Yuck.  We will leave it at 95% likely JJ busted here because he thought the play was out of danger in his sector.

7:46 - 2Q - 2/11/33 - Bruce Carter sacks Kaepernick

This one is shown here to demonstrate fine technique on how Bruce Carter made a play that might not have been there had he rushed it.

Frame 1 above shows play-action with a pulling Left Guard to the right tackle.  Linebackers follow guard movement to key plays, and the pulling guard can really help sell play-action.  However, 77-Iupati knows he is actually handling the edge for pass rush.

But, here comes Sterling Moore off the edge on a blitz, so Frank Gore will pick him up below.

However, you can see Iupati above see that nobody else is coming, so below he helps Gore make sure they clean up 26-Moore.

And once his head turns away from Carter, Carter is a blur to the QB.  He timed it perfectly.  If he rushes at the snap, Iupati cleans him up.  But, he waited, and got a free run at the QB.

And below you can see he didn't miss.  Well done.

6:45 - 3Q - 1/10/28 - Justin Smith sacks Romo

You can find a hundred different variations of DL games and stunts as they try to cause the offensive line assignment issues, but this one is basic, yet rarely executed this well.

The beauty of this stunt is that you can't show it very much.  It is merely a change up.  But, if you run your front 4 pass rush one way for most the game and pull this out, it can confound the OL that has assumed there are no issues to consider like this one.

Watch the left side of the screen and see the DE and DT both slant inside their man.  59-Skuta is taking Doug Free inside and Ray McDonald is pushing Zach Martin into Travis Frederick.  This is the design of the "Pirate" stunt that then allows the other DT 94-Smith to come all the way around the corner and blow by Free who is cleary off-guard.

It works best when there is nobody in the backfield with Romo to clean up a free man, so this is 5 on 4.  Free sees no issues to his right, so he keeps with his man, and Smith is able to get to Romo (with some help from Romo stumbling into him) with almost no resistance at all.  Again, we don't see this much and the Cowboys will be ready next time, but this is just a great call at a great moment to defeat the Cowboys protection without having to "beat" anyone 1 on 1.

So, don't say we have never covered the "Pirate" stunt here.  Below, somebody on the internet drew it up for you.

OK, that is all we have for this week.  On to the Titans.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Marinelli Report: Week 1 vs 49ers

Every week in this space we want to attempt to examine the Cowboys defense and get a feel for what Rod Marinelli is attempting to accomplish with his group.  Some of it is clear for anyone that has followed his defenses, but the unclear part is whether or not he has the man power currently available to carry this out.

Last year, we spent some of our time examining the playbook of the 1999 Tampa Bay Buccaneers which has been passed around the football internet a bit and perhaps gives us a look at what the players under Marinelli and Monte Kiffin have preached at them on a daily basis.  I think starting here is a proper place to begin every season:

I enjoy reading that (even though I am sure every team challenges the pride of their players) because it seems like it often matches the profile of the players the Cowboys are using on their defense in these days where they are churning the roster, digging through waivers, and extending minimum offers to those who are in the room.

Let's face it - of the names who participated on the Cowboys defense on Sunday - there are almost no top picks making top pick money.  Morris Claiborne would be the exception (for now).  Everyone else on this defense was either drafted low and had to make their money (Carr, Melton), drafted high and has fallen off (Carter, McClain), or drafted low and still is working to prove the world wrong (Selvie, Church).  It is really a mix of guys who must have chips on their shoulders.

So, in that sense, the Cowboys have the right types of guys to fill this scheme, because the two biggest objectives of the Rod Marinelli defensive philosophy appear to be understanding your role (positioning, technique) and relentless work-rate.  Both of which, as the coach points out, do not require immense talent.

So, as the Cowboys have plugged in names that even those of us who follow this game 365 days a year need an almanac to learn, we do see that they are finding players that fill that profile.  The slow, plodding, stand-and-watch-if-the-play-is-away-from-me types are out.  And the run through the whistle, fly-to-the-ball types are populating the roster.

I thought on Sunday that Jeremy Mincey was a great example of the type of player they are looking for in that regard.  Mincey, 30, was going after the highly-touted left tackle for the 49ers Joe Staley all day long and was close to the QB on several occasions.  I will confess to not knowing Mincey very well as he spent 2006-2013 with Jacksonville and that is a defense I don't spend much time pondering.  But, his debut in white was most impressive, as he was quite noticeable.  He was brought in to rotate at that spot with DeMarcus Lawrence, but we should not assume that the undersized rookie will out-class Mincey upon his arrival.

And then there was new middle linebacker Rolando McClain.  If you are a fan of this team, you know how badly the loss of Sean Lee hurts for 2014.  You also know the "Hail Mary" pass that thinking Rolando McClain can solve this problem since he hasn't been in the NFL since 2012 and when we last saw him he seemed like a rich and talented young man who had no use for football in his life anymore and frankly, football had no use for him.

Then, he spent August giving everyone at camp the impression that he still doesn't like football too much with his spotty attendance record at daily practices.  Was he unable to get his body ready for practices?  If so, how will he deal with the punishment of NFL games?  Surely, there is no chance.

And then we saw some moments on Sunday that indicate he might just need game day to bring out the best in him.  Two are below:

Those are not the best plays in the NFL, so I don't mean to get carried away.  But, Sean Lee cannot do that better than he did there.  He diagnosed, then decisively found the ball and ended the play on interior runs with great routine on Sunday against one of the more powerful run teams in the sport.

Now, for now, he doesn't appear to be a big participant against 11 personnel, and since most teams run that a ton these days,  I am not sure McClain will have as big an impact on most Sundays.  However, if you want to line it up and run right at the Cowboys, I think 55 might be a nice card to have handy in 2014.  And if you want to get really carried away, you can start to visualize how to get McClain and Sean Lee in the same group in 2015.  But, as I said, that is really getting carried away.

Now, it wasn't all good on Sunday.  I will try to breakdown the disappointing 2014 debut of JJ Wilcox tomorrow (or whenever NFL Game Rewind decides to let the coach's tape out), but trust me, Vernon Davis is not supposed to be that open.

And while 7.65 yards per pass attempt allowed is not good by any stretch, it actually is not one of the Top 20 worst YPA surrendered in the last 4 seasons!

The 49ers didn't pass much - as the score suggested - but when they did, there were open players and big plays nevertheless.  To run this scheme (or just about any scheme), they need better corner play from their big 2012 investments - Carr and Claiborne.

Defensive Participation:  Mincey, Hayden, Coleman, Crawford started on DL and played the most.  Selvie 27, Melton 26, Bishop 21, Edwards 15 all rotated in.  Selvie and Melton are working back from injuries.  Carter, Durant, and R McClain played LB throughout, When Durant left with injury Wilber 4 and Hitchens 5 played briefly.  Carr and Claiborne at the corner with Moore as the 3rd with 39 snaps.  Wilcox had a team high 58, and Church 51, with a cameo from Heath 7.  No Scandrick, No Terrell McClain, No Anthony Spencer.


Run Plays30
Pass Plays24
Avg Starting PositionO18
3rd Down Conversions7-12, 58%
4th Down Conversions0-0, 0%
Yards Per Play5.9
Yards Per Pass Attempt7.6
Red Zone TDs - Drives2-3, 67%


First, a reminder of what a splash play is: 

What is a splash play? Well, for purposes of this blog I believe a splash play will include the following: A sack, a pressure that forces a bad throw, and big hit on the QB, and a batted ball that may lead to an interception opportunity. Again, you can see how this leads to subjectivity, but a subjective breakdown is better than no breakdown at all, I have decided. In addition, a splash play will include tackles for loss, a big hit for a short gain, or a stop which is an open field tackle where a player is pulled down on 3rd down short of the marker because of an exceptional effort from a defender. An interception is clearly a splash play, but so is a defended pass that required a great effort. A major hit in the secondary could be a splash play, but I believe that the outcome of the play will determine that. Sorry, defensive backs, but standing over a guy who just caught a 15 yard pass because you think you hit him hard will not generally pass the test on this blog. So, stop doing it. 
I am trying to be careful about handing out too many splash plays per game. I am trying to be picky, but too extreme in either direction. When I log a splash play, I will put time of the game on the chart so that if you want to review the same game and challenge my ruling, you are welcome to do so. Also, if multiple players deserve recognition on a single play, we will try to see that as well. 
Basically, we are trying to assign a value to making plays on the defense. We don't want to just see sacks and interceptions. We want to see broader definitions of splash plays to assign credit to those who help the Cowboys get off the field in important situations. These rankings will not deduct for negative plays at this point. There are simply too many occasions where we are guessing, and for now, I want to avoid that for this particular idea.  
A splash play is a play that makes a major difference in the game. And by keeping it all season long, we will see which defenders are play makers and which are simply warm bodies. We already have our thoughts on both categories, but let's see if we can dig a bit deeper and actually have numbers to back up our claims.
SPLASHES vs San Francisco - Week 1

2-11:362/8/O42Mincey/MeltonHeavy QB Pressure
2-9:323/1/D37WilcoxHolding Drawn
2-8:221/10/D32R McClain/CarrTackle For Loss
2-7:502/11/D33CarterQB Sack on blitz
2-7:003/20/D42MinceyHolding Drawn
2-2:481/10/O47R McClainRun Stuff
3-15:001/10/O20CarterPass Batted Down
3-14:542/10/O20DurantRun Stuff
3-14:163/10/O20ChurchPass Broken Up
3-7:442/10/O47CrawfordQB Hit 
4-13:201/10/O36HaydenTackle For Loss
4-7:122/6/D22R McClainRun Stuff

This is likely the spot where we repeat the number from Monday's Morning After piece: 
 The tempered enthusiasm on the defense would be based on not taking the ball away at all, and the Cowboys have now lost 17 games (Kansas City - 2009) in a row when they generate 0 takeaways.
Not all splash plays are created equal.  This team will need about 32 takeaways to win the division (I assume), so clearly that is the emphasis every week and how this defense will be judged.


1. MLB Rolando McClain 2.5
2. LB Bruce Carter2
3. DE Jeremy Mincey1.5
4. S JJ Wilcox1
5. LB Justin Durant1
6. DE Tyrone Crawford1
7. S Barry Church1
8. DT Nick Hayden1
9. CB Brandon Carr0.5
10. DT Henry Melton0.5
Team Totals                 12

Career Totals
2013 Totals
2011 Totals


Pass Rush/Blitzing REPORT

This segment of the defensive study is simply to find out how well the Cowboys are doing at getting pressure on the opposing QB.  We have spent a good part of the offseason talking about Monte Kiffin's philosophy that, like so many of the great 4-3 schemes, is based on using blitz as a weapon, not a necessity.  If you use the blitz as an ambush weapon that is always threatened but only used at the perfect times, you can often get free runs at the QB.  If, on the other hand, you must use the blitz because your normal pressure is not getting it done, then the offense usually is waiting for you and prepared - so even 6 rushers don't accomplish much.

I think the Bruce Carter sack was a perfect example of proper technique as he delayed his run for a split second, the 49ers looked elsewhere, and then he snuck in and popped Kaepernick on the delay.  Well done on a 6-man blitz.


Yesterday, we unveiled the new drive progression + passing charts for Decoding Linehan. Today, we display the new opposing passing charts, featuring performance against the pass rush. The key in the bottom end zone defines how many rushers came on that particular throw. Each line entails the spot where the ball was thrown from, trailing to the (general) point where it was caught. Which down these rushers came during can be found in the Pass Rusher Totals near the bottom.


1-6:441/10/O34Kaepernick to Boldin, +375
1-6:031/10/D29Kaepernick to Davis, +294
2-12:591/10/O20Gore run, +204
2-2:003/8/O49Kaepernick to Johnson, +215


2-7:502/11/D33Carter Sack6

Just one.  Durant almost had an interception, but that was not allowed after review.


Wk 1 - Colin Kaepernick: 1/2, 37 Yds, 1 SACK


Each week we monitor how often the Cowboys will send pressure on passing plays.  Week 1 showed an aggressive defense trying to get the ball back to attempt to generate a rally.

Pass Rushers Against San Francisco - 21 pass rush/blitz situations:

Wk 1 - SF: 9/21 - 33.3%

2013 Totals:  140/673 - 20.8%
2012 Totals:  134/551 - 24.3%

And, here are the full season numbers to date:

Pass Rushers3 Rush4 Rush5 Rush6 RushTotals
1st Down04 -
4 -
08 -
2nd Down1 -
4 -
1 -
1 - 14%7 -
3rd Down3 -
5 -
1 -
1 -
10 -
4th Down00000
Totals4 -
13 -
6 -
2 -

SUMMARY:  In general, the defense was not too bad on Sunday.  I warn us all to slow our roll about how good it was because I think we all have to assume that the 49ers decided to get a bit more vanilla as the game went on and not show off too many new wrinkles and ideas to future opponents as long as they were ahead 28-3.  

The 49ers are a very strong team and they play a physical brand of football.  It looks like Tennessee, St Louis, and New Orleans all believe more in 11 personnel and stretching your defense horizontally and vertically.  This means more need for the nickel back (Scandrick?) and less need for the MLB.  It will put a larger premium in getting a pass rush going and being able to tackle in space.  Personally, with Durant's health in doubt, I would love to see more Ro McClain on nickel downs until he proves he can't do it, but I am sure they want to ration his snaps to keep him available.  

I also think we need to continue to watch Tyrone Crawford who looked promising at times and ways to use him with Selvie on that left side.  If they can get Melton playing more and Selvie back to 2013 form, you can see how they are optimistic that they may not have as much "top end" talent on the front, but they seem to have 6-8 defensive line options that are good enough to consider as a workable DL rotation.  

In other words, they are anonymous, but Marinelli might be building something right under our noses that he is not upset with.  I am sure he wishes they would have thrown several new bodies at him back at the draft, but if this line can hold its own, they might surprise some people.

Of course, we can reach no conclusions after Week 1, besides the idea that they weren't bad at all as a group.  They need sacks and takeaways to supplement flashes of reasonable play.  

Now, let's see more.  

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Decoding Linehan: Week 1 - San Francisco

Welcome to another season of our in-depth blog breakdowns of the Dallas Cowboys.  On Tuesdays (or so), we lift the hood on the Scott Linehan-Jason Garrett-Tony Romo-Wade Wilson-Bill Callahan offense, and then on Wednesday (or so), the defense of Rod Marinelli-Monte Kiffin will get a similar treatment.

Our effort is to dig a little deeper and try to analyze what we think they are trying to accomplish each week, how well that objective went, and what we can learn from that moving forward.  As I have said a million times, this is not intended for the beginner, but we also try to keep it simple enough that the beginner can figure it out if he finds it interesting enough.

If not, carry on to another place as there are many more traditional ways to follow the Cowboys.  But, if you think this might be for you, you might want to read the first post of this series that ran last week and will serve as a bit of a tour guide for this entire project.  You can read that here and I think it might really help you as you attempt to break down personnel groupings and other terms that are quire common here, but uncommon around your water cooler (most likely).

Week 1 - 49ers

Now, on to the 49ers game.  First, just know that all of this effort and research can be helpful most weeks, and then others - in which they go Fumble-Field Goal-Interception-Interception-Interception in the first half - all of the raw numbers don't really illuminate much.

Below is a list of the 11 times the Cowboys have turned the ball over 4 times or more since Jason Garrett and Tony Romo joined forces back in 2007 - thanks to the ProFootballReference Game Finder:

As you can see, aside from that miracle in Buffalo - against a very bad Bills side - you don't turn the ball over 4 times and win. You simply cannot pull that off against a good team, especially one that is good enough to be favored at your place (at least it was technically your place, until they bought all the tickets).

The 49ers game showed some interesting things from this offense. 15 carries for 87 yards from under center for this new running game should have us pretty fired up about the possibility of lining it up and running it at a stout front like San Francisco and how that might apply moving forward. I didn't see much chaos in those zone stretch plays and very few negative plays in general from the running game. They, of course, get the fumble returned for the TD on their ledger, but overall, the running game at 5.8 a clip under center and 5.47 overall is strong to quite strong.

The pass protection was passable. Tyron was not very good, but overall, that is a difficult team to deal with (albeit without key members of their front 7) and the Cowboys survived pretty well, despite the 3 San Francisco sacks. The Niners were content to sit back and rush 4 or less on 98% of the Cowboys pass plays, given that they were up by 4 scores for most of the afternoon. There will be more difficult days for pass protection down the road, but that OL look organized and capable for what we saw. Of course, the games conditions require us to place quite a bit of context on all of our conclusions.

The team was beaten because their QB was massively outplayed. This won't happen often with Tony Romo, but on Sunday, he imploded about as badly as we can recall. The mental busts were uncharacteristic and one must hope that it was a rusty Romo and that is all. As we spoke about at length on Monday, if it is a trend then the Cowboys will be doomed for years of cap jail. They have put many, many eggs in his basket and he has 95 of the 96 games left on his contract extension. We have to assume this is an aberration and not panic at this juncture.

Now, the game turned on a sack. This sack was a result of mass confusion. But, it also is something we have studied for a long time around here.

Let's go back to the 2010 season when the Cowboys played in Houston. This is the first time I can remember a real discussion about these Run/Pass QB options that the Cowboys and the entire league runs being a topic of conversation. I recommend you review the entire post from that week, but if you simply watch and listen to this video, you can kind of get the picture of what is going on:

So, as Kubiak breaks down, Romo and the WR are the only guys who know it is not a run play. That is the basis for "giving Romo more control of the offense". When we were kids, the QB called the plays at the line quite a bit. They would call their own plays and that was a pretty cool thing to hear about and it made you think that they were coaches on the field. Then, in the 1990s, they weren't calling their own plays because things had become too advanced - we were told. So, now the offensive coordinators would call a play and the QB would obey most of the time.

Now, this advance that is common place is all over the league and for sure this particular playbook. If you are looking for it, you see it several times a game - the packaged play where it has many variations in a decision tree type format for the QB. The team knows they are running a particular play, but they are simply carrying out their task and are not to worry about what the QB decides on his way up the decision tree.

The play above shows how it works beautifully. Romo catches the safety sneaking up to stop the run so he finds Roy Williams in space and the touchdown makes everyone celebrate this innovation.

However, it comes with terrible consequences some times when the QB thinks he sees something and you wonder why you ever gave the QB the chance to impact a game with a sudden rush of blood to the head.

You could easily make the case that the play below cost the Cowboys the season. And, it is the same decision tree where this is a called run where Romo checks into the backside pass to Miles Austin and leaves Clay Matthews to either fall for the run fake or be unaccounted for on the pass rush. This might remind you of Justin Smith on Sunday - because it is identical in many ways - zone stretch right with backside throw to the left. If you have time, you can read all about that fateful day. It is a real amazing scenario from Week 14 of last year.

So, the QB takes a run play and turns it into a pass which he has the power to do. In the case above against Green Bay and the case below on Sunday, the run game was having great success and gaining confidence. Of course, the play above was late in the 4th Quarter and the one below was very early in this contest.

2nd and 1 from the 2 yard line and the 49ers are already up 7-0. The Cowboys broke the huddle in 23 personnel (2 RB, 3 TE) and they were going to ram it in or at least get the 1st down. But, the play clock went down and they called timeout.

During the timeout, they decided to go Shotgun 11 (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR) and spread out the Niners. That is not a bad plan because it might make the running opportunity easier. But still the call was the zone run right with Murray and a lighter defense because of the Cowboys putting Beasley, Williams, and Bryant back out there.

Another frustrating element of this is the play clock is down again. The play clock is the one consistent enemy of this offense and it appears to not matter who is coordinating. They are never in their stance with :12 left. It is always :05 or less it seems. That doesn't help and there is no excuse coming out of a timeout.

Anyway, clearly Romo wants the Dez back shoulder fade on the left, but he has to see the corner pressing and the safety lingering. Dez is doubled. Meanwhile, you can see the 49ers not sure how to line up on the other side and the safety is trying to move the LB off of Beasley as this is all happening.

Now, Romo doesn't give the ball to DeMarco and Tyron blocks down to the right (check Tyron's movement above in the Green Bay game). Tyron is going to get blamed for Justin Smith running free to Romo, but that is what the play calls for. Romo knows this. Tyron is supposed to - on both plays - dive right to cut off his inside gap and to keep anyone from breaking into the zone block right. If Justin Smith is going to get DeMarco, he needs to go outside Tyron and chase down Murray from behind. That is unlikely. But, if Romo keeps, Smith is not accounted for so the ball has to get out quickly. Once Romo hesitates, the play is dead. And look at DeMarco and how annoyed he appears to be after the play.

The Cowboys end up settling for 3 instead of a physically dominating 7 and the afternoon was never the same. It was a day of repeated Romo poor decisions, but this is the one that bothered me the most. Yes, I want Dez to get chances in the red zone - many, many. But on this one, he has to see they are sitting on it and to give this OL a chance to prove that they can help DeMarco get a yard or two.

QB power in the offense is a very wonderful tool, as long as the QB sees everything properly. If he sees it wrong, games are lost. In this case, I am sure he would agree that this is not the type of mental busts that the team should have to overcome.

Offensive Participation: All hands on deck for the offense. OL played all 73 snaps together, Smith-Leary-Frederick-Martin-Free. Romo - Murray - Bryant - Williams. Reserve snaps: Beasley 47, Street 20, Hanna 15, Escobar 10, Harris 9, Dunbar 4, Parnell 4, Clutts 1. - Courtesy Pro Football Focus Participation Charts.

1 snap for your Fullback. 10 for your 2nd round tight end. 4 for your secret weapon Lance Dunbar. We shall hold off on any snap judgements for several weeks, but that is not the type of work load we had in mind for any of the above.


Run Plays23
Pass Plays40
Avg Starting PositionD18
1st Down R-P15-17
2nd Down Avg to Go6.3
2nd Down R-P6-15
3rd Down Avg to Go5.4
3rd/4th Down R-P1-9
3rd Down Conversions5-9, 56%
4th Down Conversions1-1, 100%
Yards Per Play6.1
Yards Per Pass Attempt7.6
Red Zone TDs - Drives2-4, 50%


Last season, intern Tim created (outstanding) passing charts in order to display release points from the pocket. This season, we're attempting to track both passing and drive progression. For instance, if you were to start at the first yellow line (D27) and work your way up, you would be tracking that possession from beginning to end. The dotted-lines are incompletions (and noted if separate events occurred). Large gaps between throws are mostly YAC or carries.
DRIVE STARTERS - The 1st play of each drive can often reveal the intent of a coach to establish his game plan. How committed is he to the run or pass when the team comes off the sideline? We track it each week here -

Wk 1 - San Francisco: 5 Run/5 Pass - 50% Run

2013 Totals: 176 Drives - 84 Run/92 Pass - 47% Run
2012 Total: 173 Drives - 76 Run/97 Pass - 44% Run
2011 Total: 181 Drives - 79 Run/102 Pass - 44% Run

* This statistic doesn't count the 1-play kneel down drives.


Shotgun snaps are fine on 3rd Down and in the 2 minute drill. But, we track this stat from week to week to make sure the Cowboys aren't getting too lazy in using it. They are not efficient enough to run it as their base, and with a 15%/85% run/pass split across the league, there is no way the defense respects your running game. When shotgun totals are high, the Cowboys are generally behind, scared of their offensive line, or frustrated.

Wk 1 - San Francisco: 41 Shotgun/63 Total Plays - 65% 

2013 Total - 566/945  59.8%
2012 Total - 565/1038 54%
2011 Total - 445/1012 43.9%


(Before you study the data below, I would recommend that if the numbers for the groupings are unfamiliar, that you spend some time reading a more expanded definition of the Personnel Groupings here.)

* - Knee Plays are not counted in play calls.

Plenty of things to like above as they really found production in yardage in most spots.  Run from under center were particularly promising and the work on 3rd Down was pretty solid.


Wk 1: 1/5, 9 Yds, 3 INT, 1 FD

We wanted more play-action in the Cowboys offense.  I refuse to back off that claim because it is a tool that needs to be used.  But, wow.  That was certainly not the start of the Linehan will employ more play action when he throws 5 passes and 3 are picked off from the run fake pass.


Pass Rushers Against Dallas - 40 Pass Situations vs San Francisco

Wk 1: SF Blitzed Dallas 1/40 - 2.5%

2013 - Season Blitz rate against Dallas offense 210/616: 34%


3 -
14 -
0017 -
2 -
12 -
1 -
015 -
1 -
7 -
008 -
Totals6 -
33 -
1 -
Thanks to John Daigle for his work on the charts and graphs.

SUMMARY:  It is next to impossible to classify this game without making all of the commentary about the 4 devastating giveaways.  The QB played brain dead most of the day and the game was a glorified preseason game for most of the afternoon.

Linehan wanted to run a balanced under-center offense with run to set up the play-action game that was going to be predicated on being able to stand up to the 49ers powerful front.  Those missions were accomplished pretty well and there were some wrinkles that were new, with deployment of Dunbar being noted, as well as Dwayne Harris being motioned over to running back.

We need to temper our conclusions in these early weeks, in hopes that the franchise QB returns, the level of competition equalizes a bit, and everyone finds their roles.  But, aside from the blowup at QB, there was a lot to like from the offense.

Which, of course, is like asking Mrs Lincoln how she liked the play.

On to next week.