We begin our wall-to-wall coverage of today's Lions-at-Cowboys playoff gae (3:30 kickoff featuring Fish on the 105.3 The Fan pregame show from inside AT&T Stadium) with a look inside the opponent's offense ...
- Joique Bell – 35
- Reggie Bush - 21
- Theo Riddick - 25 Primary Receiving Threats:
- Calvin Johnson - 81
- Golden Tate -15
- Eric Ebron - 85
- Reggie Bush – 21
- Theo Riddick - 25
When the Lions ousted former head coach Jim Schwartz, and most of his staff (including now Cowboys play caller, Scott Linehan, and hired Jim Caldwell to be their head man, they brought in Joe Lombardi from the Sean Payton’s Saints staff to run their offense. When you watch this Lions team play, you can see that New Orleans influence on the scheme. While the numbers have been less impressive (dropping from 13th in 2013 to 22nd in the NFL in total offense), they still have a good group of weapons and a QB with as much natural talent as any in the league.
Here we see Detroit aligned in a 3x1 spread formation, with Calvin Johnson alone on the backside of the formation in a reduced or “Nasty” split on the top of the numbers with leading receiver Golden Tate in the slot to the near side. Pre-snap, Stafford sends RB Reggie Bush in motion wide to the outside of Johnson to the far side, emptying the formation.
The route concept called by Lombardi on this play is the Y-Stick combination. This concept features a stick-route by the TE (or Y), with a quick out by the slot WR, and a Go-route from the outside WR. To the backside is a slant from the slot, and a Go-route on the outside by Bush. This allows Calvin Johnson to get one on one coverage, running one of his signature inside breaking routes, creating a quick and easy throw for Stafford, with the possibility of creating some significant run-after-catch.
Here we see the Lions in another 3x1 formation, however this time Calvin Johnson is aligned inside as the #3 receiver. The route concept here is the four verticals package that we saw when we previewed the Cowboys-Eagles rematch earlier this year. This concept creates a horizontal stretch in the deep part of the secondary, with the idea of completing the ball within the 18-22 yard range. The object here from Detroit is to get Johnson matched up with a LB or Safety in the middle of the field, in a matchup that clearly favors the Lions and lets them attack coverages in the red zone to get seven points.
The concept here should look familiar as we just covered the four verts out of a 3x1 set. However, from an Empty set like this one, they are able to use Calvin Johnson on a drag route, testing the underneath coverage from the defense, as they gain account for the vertical threats. The drag route is a great man coverage beater, which makes it a valuable addition to the 4-verts scheme. The motion to the stack alignment helps Johnson get started with a free release, giving him an even better leverage advantage on the route.
Here is the real staple for the Lions, and the biggest imprint of Sean Payton’s offense on what Lombardi has done in Detroit. This is a deep crossing route, run by TE Eric Ebron, with deep routes run by both Golden Tate and Calvin Johnson. This concept creates a vertical stretch on the defense, and many times will feature a flat route from a back. With the two WRs running off the coverage of the CB and the Safety, the ultra-athletic Eric Ebron has the opportunity to get the ball down-field on the run.
The Lions are a dangerous offense, featuring a plethora of weaponry, and a QB with the ability to make every throw on the board when he is protected. Their best Offensive Lineman is Right Guard Larry Warford, who will be out for this week’s game. The Cowboys defense will need guys like Anthony Spencer, Demarcus Lawrence, and Tyrone Crawford (if he can get well in time for the game), to generate pressure and make Stafford uncomfortable, when he has the propensity to throw the ball to the other team.
*Our "Cowboys 100'' -- a most popular feature -- is here.
*The story on how Garrett, Linehan and Romo are working together to elevate the Dallas offense.
*Here's the Cowboys Crunchtime Podcast.
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*The Cowboys are vowing revenge against one Lion ... and hoping to get inside the head of another.
Our Mark Lane has addressed this before. In anticipation of the national TV pregame shows going nuts on the fact that the Dallas coaching staff, led by Jason Garrett, is moving into the playoffs without (for the most part) new contracts, know this:
When Bill Parcells re-signed with Dallas under the terms of a new deal, the date was Jan. 6, 2005.
When Wade Phillips did the same, it was Jan. 21, 2010.
When Jason Garrett retained the job after an interim period, the date of his new contract was Jan. 5, 2011.
After the season. After the season. After the season.
Fish has reported that Rod Marinelli's connection with best friend Lovie Smith will be a player in his possible desire to go to Tampa Bay, and that inside Valley Ranch, the thought is that Matt Eberflus is ready to advance. When it comes to retaining Scott Linehan and most others, if it comes down to finance, that's not a Jerry Jones problem. CowboysHQ.com has even expanded the thoughts here by learning that personnel boss Will McClay is unlikely to leave this offseason (though his time to be a GM someday will likely come.)
So breathless reports aside ... there is nothing new about good teams being plucked of talent. And there is nothing new about the Cowboys letting their coaches coach -- and then working to re-up them.
And then there were 12.
The NFL Playoffs are here and for the first time in five years, the Cowboys have been invited to participate. In an intersection of narratives, Dallas might be the hardest team to put a finger on in the tournament. On one hand, teams without playoff experience rarely have success in the tournament. For a team with a head coach with a storied history of game management errors, the inexperience factor looms large. On the other hand, no team has greater motivation from the “no one believes in us” mantra. Often cited, rarely true… the great team that no one believes in resides in Valley Ranch as an entire nation of media and fans alike dismiss Dallas’ worthiness to be considered on par with teams such as Seattle, New England and Green Bay.
That’s where statistical measures enter the picture. On the year, Dallas has proven more than worthy of being considered a top team. While, for the most part, the defense has done just enough, a potent offense has carried the burden to a 12-4 mark. Two separate 6-1 streaks on the season lay proof to that. However it is the play during the last month of the season that proves Dallas is ready for the biggest stage. Dallas’ 4-0 mark in response to entering the month in a tenuous-at-best situation shows their mettle. Not only has the team registered 165 points over those four games, but the defense has been playing as a Top 10 unit by many measures over the same stretch. When people talk about a team playing above their normal levels during the playoffs, this is what the precursor looks like.
We all know the infamous take originally attributed to Henry Du Pré Labouchère, "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics." In sports, though, statistics are how we measure performance beyond just the wins and losses. In football, where sample sizes are so small, and the mean so cluttered, it behooves us to try to analyze things that have a higher correlation to winning than previous wins.
Fortunately, over the past several years, many statisticians a million times smarter than the author of this piece have spent countless hours devising formulas that they use to judge the quality of teams beyond the normal statistical measures. These advanced metrics allow us a glimpse into which teams are winning based on quality play, which ones are winning because of inept opponents and which ones have a horseshoe crammed up their chimneys.
Here’s a look at where Dallas stands at the end of the regular season, as well as their Wild Card foe the Detroit Lions.
DVOA stands for Defense-Adjusted Value Over Average. It basically measures how much better a team (or player) is than the average team (or player) against the same opponent in the same game situations. Weighted DVOA puts more weight on the team’s recent performance, rather than weighing all games equally. Which makes sense, in regards to future success, how a team has played over the last six games is much more important than how they played Week 1.
Dallas’ W-DVOA has been surging over the past several weeks. As the season moved along, Week 1 became less and less influential in describing the team that is playing now. That game’s DVOA is now “weighted” at only 9%, While Weeks 14-17 will be weighted at a full 100%.
DVOA has never liked Dallas as much as it does right now. Their formula clearly sees Seattle (who has now won the DVOA crown three years running, first team since 92-94 Cowboys) and New England as the upper echelon, and Green Bay, Baltimore, Denver and Dallas as the next tier of contenders. Four weeks ago, Dallas’ Weighted DVOA was at 5.9%, while Detroit’s was at 5.8%. Clearly, Dallas ended the season on a much better level than the Lions did.
|Off Yds / G||Off Pts / G||Def Yds / G||Def Pts / G|
|Off Yds / G||Off Pts / G||Def Yds / G||Def Pts / G|
Dallas’ D has allowed just under 20 points per game in December. Prior, they were giving up 22.8 a contest. That’s an entire scoring drive difference per matchup. Their yards-allowed-per-game has dropped from 364 to just 328. Both of those totals extrapolated over the course of 16 games would rank Dallas’ D as Top 10 in each category. The Detroit D on the other hand has resided there all season, in the Top 5 as a matter of fact.
Dallas had a chance to finish the year in the top spot but failed in their passive-aggressive way they ended the Washington game (which also cost Ton Romo a completion percentage mark above 70%). Meanwhile Detroit ranks as the worst third-down offense of the playoff teams.
Meanwhile, at long last the Dallas D was able to surpass its 2013 self on third down defense. Again, a matchup of one of the league’s best against one of the league’s worst shapes up.
Toxic Differential is a metric that started with Super Bowl winning head coach Brian Billick when he was the offensive coordinator during the Randy Moss era in Minnesota. It’s used to measure a team’s ability to create and prevent both turnovers and explosive plays. Toxic Differential is calculated by adding together a team’s turnover differential (takeaways - giveaways) and its big play differential (big plays for - big plays against). Various sites have various definitions for what constitutes a big play. As they have the most comprehensive ranking, we’ll roll with SportingCharts.com’s definition of 10+ yards on a running play and 25+ yards on a pass play. As SportingCharts says, “Over the last 10+ seasons, a majority of teams that have won the Super Bowl finished the regular season in the Top 10 for Toxic Differential.”
Dallas’ turnover differential in the last four weeks has been +9, while their big play differential has also been +9. Here’s a look at the six NFC teams and what they’ve accomplished for the season, and in the last four games.
|Team||Toxic Differential 2014||Toxic Diff Last 4 Weeks|
Seattle sets the pace, with Dallas and Carolina close behind. It’s no surprise that these teams along with Pittsburgh are the hottest in the league entering the playoffs.
I was first introduced to the Aikman Efficiency Rankings via O.C.C.’s article on Blogging The Boys back in September. In it, (available here) he references an interview that Jim Colishaw did with Cowboys DC Rod Marinelli. Marinelli stated that the only two stats he pays attention to are turnovers and the Aikman Efficiency Rankings. Let that sink in; if our DC holds it in such high regard, it should be part of The Notebook!
Head to the BTB article for a full breakdown of the Rankings, but as a synopsis, the rankings take into account the following seven categories: Total points scored (not including returns & safeties), turnovers allowed/forced, Red Zone Efficiency, Yards per play rush, adjusted yards per play pass, total first downs and third down conversion percentage. That’s a pretty fair summary of true indicators of performance.
The Aikman Efficiency rankings give Dallas a clear advantage, though both teams are ranked in the Top 10.
We all know that it is a passing league, while running the football undoubtedly has an effect on the passing game, and more importantly how the opposition defends it. In the end, though, passing success is what leads to team success.
There are generally two stats that are easily calculated that seem to have a high correlation to predicting future success; Passer Rating differential and Adjusted Net Yards Per Passing Attempt differential. Both are calculated by simply finding the difference between what your offense achieves in each category and taking away what your defense gives up. Teams with the larger differentials are more likely to have future success (read: wins) than those teams with smaller, or negative differentials.
In statistics, this relationship between wins and PRD is called a correlation. The strength of the correlation is measured by the "correlation coefficient". The correlation coefficient measures the relationship between two variables. This coefficient is often referred to as "r²" and is expressed as a number between 1 and -1. The closer the r² number is to 1 or -1, the stronger the relationship between the two variables. The closer it is to zero, the weaker the relationship.
R² between PRD and wins in 2013 was 0.71, an astonishingly high correlation. It is almost as good as scoring differential (0.89) at predicting the W/L record of an NFL team.
|Rk||Tm||G||Off Passer Rating||Def Passer Rating||Differential|
|1||Green Bay Packers||16||109.9||82||27.9|
|5||New England Patriots||16||97.5||84||13.5|
|9||San Francisco 49ers||16||86.3||79.5||6.8|
|11||Kansas City Chiefs||16||92.2||86.4||5.8|
|14||New Orleans Saints||16||97||92.9||4.1|
|17||New York Giants||16||92.2||89.4||2.8|
|18||San Diego Chargers||16||93.4||91.3||2.1|
|24||St. Louis Rams||16||84.9||91.8||-6.9|
|29||Tampa Bay Buccaneers||16||75.2||97.4||-22.2|
|31||New York Jets||16||75.1||101.5||-26.4|
Dallas’ strong end to the season has catapulted them to second overall in passer rating differential. Four weeks into the season they were 15th, they were as low as 13th after the loss to Arizona. Now, they own one of the most elite differentials in one of the most correlative categories.
Adjusted Net Yards Per Pass Attempt, or ANY/A, comes in third when it comes to correlating to victory with an R2 coefficient of 0.69. What exactly is ANY/A?
ANY/A: Adjusted net passing yards per attempt = (Passing Yards + (Passing TDs)*20 - (INTs thrown)*45 - Sack Yards) / (Passing Attempts + Sacks)It’s basically a formula that takes into account sacks and interceptions in qualifying how efficient a team is in the passing game. Nothing exemplifies Dallas’ dominance over Philadelphia like ANY/A. Romo’s was 9.09, Sanchez’s was 4.03. Basically, for every drop back in the game, Dallas was getting 5 more yards per play than Philadelphia. Remember that when you look at the total differentials of each team over an entire season. Here’s how the team’s square up in this metric.
|Rk||Tm||ANY/A For||ANY/A Allowed||Differential|
|1||Green Bay Packers||8.4||5.5||2.9|
|6||New England Patriots||6.9||5.9||1|
|14||New York Giants||6.7||6.3||0.4|
|15||San Francisco 49ers||5.6||5.2||0.4|
|16||Kansas City Chiefs||6||5.8||0.2|
|19||San Diego Chargers||6.4||6.5||-0.1|
|20||New Orleans Saints||6.8||6.9||-0.1|
|24||St. Louis Rams||5.5||6.3||-0.8|
|28||Tampa Bay Buccaneers||4.8||6.7||-1.9|
|30||New York Jets||4.8||7||-2.2|
Here, Dallas is right on the precipice of the elite. In third, Dallas trails Green Bay and Denver b a healthy margin, but they enjoy a similar cushion over their wild card foe Detroit.
DVOA is a metric, devised by Football Outsiders, which measures success on each play as compared to league average based on "a number of variables including down, distance, location on field, current score gap, quarter, and opponent quality.” The metric is outputted in “percentage points better than average”.
|COWBOYS||Offense DVOA||Defense DVOA||ST DVOA||Total DVOA|
|LIONS||Offense DVOA||Defense DVOA||ST DVOA||Total DVOA|
DVOA is the lone metric used here in the notebook that incorporates special teams play. Detroit’s special teams have been awful, and that is most likel attributed to several missed kicks over the course of the season.
Expected Points Added (EPA)
The value of a football play has traditionally been measured in yards gained. Unfortunately, yards is a flawed measure because not all yards are equal. For example, a 4-yard gain on 3rd down and 3 is much more valuable than a 4-yard gain on 3rd and 8. Any measure of success must consider the down and distance situation.
Suppose the offense has a 1st and 10 at midfield. This situation is worth +2.0 EP. A 5-yard gain would set up a 2nd and 5 from the 45, which corresponds to a +2.1 EP. Therefore, that 5-yard gain in that particular situation represents a +0.1 gain in EP. This gain is called Expected Points Added (EPA). Likewise, a 5-yard loss on 1st down at midfield would create a 2nd and 15 from the offense’s own 45. That situation is worth +1.2 EP, representing a net difference of -0.8 EPA.
Basically what your looking at in the above interactive chart is that teams with Good Offenses and Good Defenses exist in the upper right quadrant. The further to the right, the better your offense, and the further “north” the better your defense.
Detroit has the advantage on defense by a lot, but not as much as Dallas’ advantage on offense. Hover over each team in the interactive table above from AdvancedFootballAnalytics.com. For more information on this metric and it’s friend, Win Probability Added (WPA), I strongly recommend heading over to their website and checking out the glossary.>
The picture should be pretty clear. Over the course of the season, Dallas’ offense is a much more finely tuned engine than Detroit, but the Lions defense is just as elite. The difference comes in the way that Dallas defense ended the season on an upswing, while Detroit is sporting the same offense, even with the return over Calvin Johnson.
We'd love to invite you to "The Maverick Bar,'' owned by our own Mike Fisher, where the gang will get together for the 3:40 p.m. kickoff and gather 'round the 30 screens -- including the 200-inch screen.
C'mon by for one of the 12 specialty Texas burgers and try one of the 80 beers ... including Texas craft beers! See you at The Maverick Bar!
"I feel about as good as anybody else at this point. It's win or you go home, so suck it up and get ready to play." - Cowboys middle linebacker Rolando McClain.