Since they were one of two teams to participate in five preseason games this year, we got plenty of chances to watch the Dallas Cowboys in action. While the end results of those games might be effectively meaningless, the team’s approach to them is not.
We actually learned quite a bit about Dallas in its five exhibition games, headlined by the attacks of defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin and offensive coordinator Bill Callahan.
Will the Cowboys improve upon their 31st-ranked 3.6 yards per carry from 2012?
Time will tell if their running game actually improves, but one thing is for sure: It will be different. I track Cowboys plays each year, and take a look at how their running plays were dispersed in 2012:
- Bootleg: 0.5%
- Counter: 2.5%
- Dive: 57.2% (3.27 YPC)
- Draw: 14.8% (4.36 YPC)
- End-Around: 1.5%
- Power: 18.2% (2.95 YPC)
- Sneak: 0.5%
- Toss: 4.3%
- Trap: 0.5%
That’s a whole lot of running right up the middle and without much success.
That’s changed under Callahan, with the Cowboys attacking the perimeter on a frequent basis. In addition to generally being more effective running outside, the Cowboys should continue to do it just because their two best run-blockers from 2012—Tyron Smith and Jermey Parnell—play there. I tracked Cowboys backs as averaging 4.47 YPC with Smith at the point last year—second only to Parnell at 5.06 YPC.
DeMarco Murray will be a huge part of the Cowboys’ running game. And that’s the way it should be; Murray is a near-elite runner who has simply been unlucky with injuries in the past.
Dunbar is the clear-cut No. 2.
While we’re still uncertain on his early status, Dunbar proved he’s very much capable of playing behind Murray. He showed off his 4.4 speed—a trait that I’ve shown to be the most important predictor of success for running backs—and displayed versatility as a pass-catcher. Should Murray go down, Dunbar should be the lead back.
Kiffin was really brought into Dallas for one reason and one reason only: to generate more takeaways.
He’s actually in a really, really good position because the ‘Boys are pretty much guaranteed to force more than the 16 takeaways they had in 2012. That would likely happen even if Rob Ryan were still here just because they probably won’t get so unlucky.
But I also think Kiffin’s scheme is structured in a way that promotes turning over the ball.
The cornerbacks can usually keep their eyes on the quarterback, which is really important when you have playmakers like Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne on the outside. Kiffin’s one-gap scheme should allow for more pressure up the middle, leading to some easy picks for the Cowboys’ top-notch cornerbacks. Actually, I’ve shown that pressure is by far the most important factor in getting takeaways.
The Cowboys love what they have in first-round pick Travis Frederick, and he’s set to start at center. Outside of him, though, the ‘Boys might not see much production from their 2013 rookie class.
Second-round pick Gavin Escobar is still behind James Hanna on the depth chart. Third-round selection Terrance Williams will work as the No. 3 wide receiver, but he’s unlikely to see more than 40 targets. Mid-round secondary members J.J. Wilcox and B.W. Webb look like they won’t see much playing time, and the same goes for fifth-round running back Joseph Randle.
When all is said and done, there’s a chance that sixth-round linebacker DeVonte Holloman could make the biggest rookie impact in 2013. Let’s take a deeper look at Holloman...
While I thought undrafted linebacker Brandon Magee should have been retained and that he played better than Holloman against the run this preseason, there’s no doubting that Holloman was a playmaking machine.
He picked off two passes, one of which he took to the house, and was always around the ball. Holloman ended up making a tackle on 10.2 percent of his snaps, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required). Just for fun, consider that Magee checked in at 19.6 percent.
Right now, it looks like Justin Durant will start for Dallas. Durant is a nice fit in Kiffin’s 4-3 scheme, but Holloman deserves to get some playing time.
There’s a big difference between risk and uncertainty, and the Cowboys have long confused the two. Holloman might be an uncertain play right now, but that doesn’t make him a bigger risk than one of the veterans.
Last year, Dallas ran play action on only 10.0 percent of its passes, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required). That was the lowest mark in the NFL by far. The gap between Tony Romo and the next-lowest quarterback—Eli Manning—was larger than that between Manning and the next 11 quarterbacks.
You might argue that the Cowboys shouldn’t have used play-action since they couldn’t run the ball, but it doesn’t matter, for two reasons. First, running efficiency isn’t actually correlated with play-action efficiency, i.e. rushing doesn’t “set up” play action. Of the top 10 quarterbacks in play-action passer rating last season, five played on teams ranked in the bottom 10 in the NFL in rushing efficiency.
Second, Romo was outstanding on play-action passes—8.6 yards per attempt and a 109.1 passer rating, per PFF (subscription required)—and that alone is reason enough to increase the usage rate. We didn’t see them in the preseason, so let’s hope that Callahan has something up his sleeve for the regular season.
Free had to wait for Jermey Parnell to return from an injury before he could be kicked inside to guard, but he looked good there in his limited time.
Free is weak for any position, but his skill set fits better in Callahan’s zone-blocking game than it would have in the Cowboys’ old man scheme.
I still think Free should have been released, but let’s see what he’s got as an interior lineman. His athletic deficiencies can at least be covered up a bit inside.
Last year, Dallas ran 24 screens—15 to wide receivers, one to Jason Witten and only eight to running backs.
Yup, eight running back screens in 16 games.
That’s really remarkable, especially for a team that was struggling to run the football and protect the quarterback. Screen passes can help with both of those weaknesses; offenses can effectively “run” the ball with screen passes, and they also hold back pass-rushers.
We saw nearly as many screens during the preseason as we did in 2012. When you consider how well the Cowboys’ running backs catch the ball, there’s just no reason not to increase the screens significantly in 2013.
Bryant is one of the top two or three receivers in the NFL, and a case could be made that he’s (gulp) the best. Actually, I already made that argument, citing Bryant’s youth as a reason to think that he’s not even close to his ceiling.
Take a look at Bryant’s first three seasons in the league compared to Megatron (via the link above). There are some differences in team strength at play, but the numbers are interesting nonetheless.
This preseason, the Cowboys showed they’re willing to feed Bryant the ball way more than they have in the past. He’ll be the focal point of the offense, and there’s a chance he'll approach 170 targets.
I’ve said it before and I’ll probably end up confirming my hunch at season’s end: Jason Witten isn’t an elite player. He had a record-setting 110 catches in 2012, but that’s primarily because the Cowboys were down so often and Witten saw a lot of late-game targets; actually, he had only six catches when the ‘Boys had a lead.
Despite all of the receptions, Witten’s yards per route decreased for the fifth consecutive year. Don’t get me wrong—he’s still a quality player—but the idea that he’s an elite pass-catcher is mistaken.