The Cowboys face the Redskins on Monday night in their home opener, and there are a lot of intriguing matchups and things to watch for this one. For Dallas, the biggest uncertainty is the injury situation. Dez Bryant, Felix Jones, Phil Costa and Tony Romo are all questionable, with some more likely to go than others.
Whenever the ‘Boys play a division rival, I like to take a look back at some of the pre and postgame notes from the previous season. If you have time, you should definitely review my 2010 Week 1 Redskins Manifesto, Week 1 Redskins Film Observations, and Week 15 Redskins Film Observations. There is a lot of cool information in those posts which is relevant to Monday night’s contest. Here are my DOs and DON’Ts for Dallas this week against Washington. . .
Do Run Up the Middle at London Fletcher.
This is the same “DO” I suggested Week 1 of last year, and the same “DO” the Cowboys failed to accomplish in that loss. You can see below the Cowboys ran primarily to the left side of the line, away from right tackle Alex Barron. While I think Dallas needs to run far more counters and tosses, there are some creative ways to run up the middle other than pounding it from “Double Tight Strong.”
DO Run More Draws From Spread Formations
One of the ways to run up the middle without pronouncing run via the formation is calling draws from spread formations. In 2009, the Cowboys ran too many draws (this despite being “good” at executing them—that is, Jason Garrett simply dialed them up too often). That season, they called 121 draws, averaging 4.51 yards-per-carry.
In my post on the Cowboys’ 2010 draws, I noted they increased that average to 4.73 yards-per-rush despite being far less effective overall on the ground (they ran 77 total draws, which was probably a primary factor in the increased efficiency).
It is also worth noting the Cowboys gained 5.09 yards-per-carry on draws from spread formations, compared to only 3.56 from tight formations. That gap (shown below) was even greater in 2009 (note that the 2010 numbers in that chart are through just five weeks). When the defense is prepared to defend a pass, whether it is due to personnel or the formation, they are less effective against the run. Thus, when an offense comes out in passing personnel, lines up in a pass-oriented formation, initially shows pass following the snap, then hands the ball off. . .it works.
Part of the reason spread draws can be effective is that they are sometimes run on third down. Many of you know I love third down runs because they are superior to passes on 3rd and 1 to 3rd and 5 and, shockingly, just as successful as passes on 3rd and 6 to 3rd and 10. These are not the results of a small sample size contained just to Dallas, but rather representative of league-wide statistics from years of data. Garrett seemed to consider this information, in 2010, increasing the number of draws the offense ran on third down from 10.7 percent in 2009 to 18.2 percent last year.
DO Double Team Brian Orakpo.
Whether it is on draw plays or, more importantly, in pass protection, limiting Brian Orakpo will be crucial for the ‘Boys. He is far and away the Redskins’ best player, and he can change the complexion of this game if the Cowboys are not careful.
For this reason, Martellus Bennett would be seeing a lot of snaps on Monday night if I was the coach for Dallas. Jason Witten is a fine blocker, but with Miles Austin out and Dez Bryant possibly down as well, Witten needs to be a factor as a receiver. Besides, Bennett is actually a better blocker than Witten. Plus, Bennett’s presence will allow for the next “DO”. . .
DO Pass Out of Run-Heavy Personnel Groupings and From Run-Oriented Formations.
In my analysis of the Cowboys’ pass rates from specific personnel packages, I wrote the following:
In much the same way that weak side runs can be optimal for an offense, so too can passing the ball out of “untraditional” personnel groupings (or, on the other hand, running the ball from pass-heavy personnel packages). There’s a reason the ‘Boys have found a ton of success when passing out of “running” formations (and with “running” personnel).
The passing success of the Cowboys out “running” formations is equivalent to the success teams have when running the ball on 3rd down. There is nothing inherently efficient about running the ball in these situations. Rather, the success comes from your opponent’s expectations.
Similarly, passing out of “running” formations isn’t an inherently superior strategy to passing with four wide receivers on the field. Instead, it works because of the defense.
Think of it like this. . .let’s say passing the ball out of a four-receiver set receives a hypothetical score of 80 points (this total is arbitrary and independent of a defense). Passing the ball out of a double-tight formation, on the other hand, is intrinsically worth just 60 points.
So, why would a team choose the latter scenario–a “sub-optimal” strategy? Because the strategy is only “sub-optimal” in theory. In practice, the defense makes substitutions to be able to effectively defend each formation. To counter the run against the double-tight formation, they knowingly decrease their ability to thwart the pass.
Thus, they may receive a pass defense score of 75 against a four-receiver set, but just 50 against double-tight. In that case, passing the ball out of double-tight yields a 10 point advantage for the offense, compared to just a five point advantage when throwing the ball out of the “passing” formation.
When analyzing Garrett’s personnel-based play-calls, we see that he is generally improving. When the Cowboys implement two tight ends, two wide receivers and a running back, they are generally a balanced team, passing the ball 58.6 percent of the time. This is down from a 71.9 percent pass rate in 2009.
Garrett is also calling more passes from run-oriented personnel packages (such as two tight ends, one receiver and two running backs), and less passes from pass-oriented personnel groupings. The only exception is the one tight end/four receiver package, which the Cowboys implemented only 25 times all season.
I’d still love to see the Cowboys run the ball more in three-receiver sets and pass more out of 2 TE, WR, 2 RB (one of those “2 RB” is usually a fullback, by the way). If Garrett finds a way to efficiently run the ball without a fullback on the field and continue to throw the ball well out of two-tight end looks, the Cowboys will take huge strides in becoming a much more unpredictable, and potent, offensive football team.
If you are as strangely interested in play calling theory as me, here is another analysis on why Dallas should pass out of double tight formations more often.
DO Use Unique Alignments, Motions and Shifts To Make Blocking Orakpo Easier.
This is another “DO” from 2010, and it worked well for the Cowboys. Prior to the Week 1 matchup, I wrote the following:
Utilizing double-tight sets is advantageous for Dallas because it doesn’t allow the Redskins to make a strength call–that is, they can’t set their defense based on the Cowboys’ alignment. If that’s the case, Orakpo will probably line up on the right side of the defense (the quarterback’s blind side) where most weak side linebackers are most comfortable. Thus, Dallas can run double-tight sets (such as “Ace”) with Bennett on the left side of the formation so he’s already in position. If Orakpo chooses to line up on the left side of the defense in “neutral” offensive formations, the ‘Boys can simply switch Bennett’s alignment.
If all of that doesn’t work, the Cowboys can utilize motions and shifts to put themselves in optimal situations. Let’s assume the Cowboys line up in “Double Tight Right Ace,” for example.
In that case, Orakpo will line up over Doug Free on the right side of the Redskins’ defense. A simple motion of Bennett to that side, however, would put the Cowboys in a perfect situation to block Orakpo. The ‘Skins wouldn’t switch their strength call, and Dallas would have their best-blocking lineman and tight end on Washington’s top rusher.
For this reason, I think you will see the Cowboys use a lot of two-tight end formations, as well as motion Bennett around the field quite often. Specifically, I think you’ll see both Bennett and Witten line up at receiver with Bennett eventually motioning into a traditional in-line tight end spot. The Cowboys ran that look quite often last year against the ‘Skins, calling “3 Wide Strong Right Liz 26 Power” rather frequently.
This week, you might see a variation of this play with John Phillips in the game rather than a true fullback. If Dallas can establish any type of success with this sort of play, it is a great look from which to run play-action passes later in the game.
DO Target Josh Wilson.
This one is pretty simple, as cornerback Josh Wilson is a rare weakness on a Washington defense that is very underrated. Even if Bryant plays and the Redskins place DeAngelo Hall on him, there will still be ways to get Bryant matched up on Wilson.
The Cowboys can run bunch formations, for example, that may force the Redskins to make “Banjo” calls. A “Banjo” call (Washington probably has a different name for it) is when a defense audibles out of man coverage due to receivers being lined up close together, as the defenders would likely get picked if they stayed in their man-to-man assignments.
If Washington calls Cover 1 (man coverage with a free safety deep) and Dallas lines up in “Trips Left,” for example, the ‘Skins might audible to Cover 3. In that scenario, Bryant would draw someone other than Hall if he runs any sort of crossing route. Look for Dallas to line up in ‘Trips’ with Bryant lined up outside, then run him underneath the other receivers on slants, digs, and other crossing routes.
DO Run Double Moves on DeAngelo Hall.
Whether Bryant plays or not, the Cowboys can still attack Hall. He is a playmaker, but also one of the most overrated cornerbacks in the league. He gives up as many big plays as he makes because he jumps routes more than anyone not named Asante Samuel. I’m in the business of making very specific predictions in this article, so here is another—look for Dallas to run slants in the first half, allowing Hall to become impatient before they attack him with a “sluggo” (slant-and-go) in the second half.
DON’T Respect Anyone But Santana Moss Deep.
Cover 1, Cover 1, Cover 1. It will allow the Cowboys to blitz often in an effort to force bad decisions from Rex Grossman, yet still maintain help over the top against Washington’s only big-play threat. The counter-argument against this is that Grossman will make mistakes regardless of the defense, so if you play it safe and increase the number of plays on which he must not be an idiot, he will screw up eventually.
That isn’t the M.O. of this new Cowboys team, though, and it certainly isn’t the philosophy of Rob Ryan. In addition, the Cowboys are the better team and will benefit from running a lot of offensive plays. The more time the defense spends on the field, the less time the offense has the ball, decreasing the odds of their superiority winning out due to a smaller sample size of plays.
DON’T Place Bradie James on Tim Hightower or Fred Davis.
James has been splitting time with Keith Brooking lately, and I would make sure neither of them are placed on Hightower or Davis (Washington’s newest receiving threat and one who could create much larger problems for Dallas than fellow tight end Chris Cooley). When the Redskins are in two-tight end sets, James or Brooking should be covering Cooley with Sean Lee and Gerald Sensabaugh matched up on Hightower and Davis, respectively.
DO Run A Lot More Screens.
In last season’s opener, the Redskins blitzed or showed blitz on a ridiculous 60.9% of snaps, confusing the Cowboys offense quite a bit. You can bet that will happen again, and the screen game could be Dallas’ best friend this week.
Kevin Ogletree will start regardless of Bryant’s status, and his biggest contributions might be in the form of smoke screens, particularly on third down. Also look for DeMarco Murray to get some targets as well. By the way, you can expect plenty of screens to follow playaction looks, as always.
DO Throw the Ball Downfield.
When the Cowboys aren’t screening, they should be taking some shots down the field. I’ve already shown there exists at least somewhat of a positive correlation between pass length and passing efficiency, and Tony Romo is one of the most highly-rated downfield passers in the NFL. Take a look at these numbers through most of the 2010 season. . .
O.J. Atogwe is an above average safety who has some play-making ability, but Laron Landry is stiff in coverage, in my opinion. The Cowboys can avoid Atogwe regardless of the coverage by simply throwing the other way if the Redskins are in Cover 2, or looking him off if they blitz and he is in the middle of the field. Either way, the Cowboys’ passing game plan should be screen often, use Witten in the intermediate passing game, and use play-action to set up some shots down the field. And as I explained the other day, playaction will be effective if the Cowboys run well, not necessarily often.