Decoding Callahan: Sorting Out the Red Zone

There is one very impressive story to tell about the Cowboys offense that has carried over from the Denver game.

Sunday was another odd day at the office in the sense that they won and rolled up an above-average day as far as yardage is concerned, but they also used their punter as many times before halftime (6) as he had been used all year in any full game.  Jones ended up punting 9 times to end 15 drives, with 2 others ending in interceptions (albeit one as a desperation hail mary) and only points in 3 others.

So, 368 yards is good, but it doesn't meet with the football premise that you need 7 points for every 100 yards you accumulate - which would have put them at a points expectancy number of roughly 26 - in a game where they scored 17.

It makes you wonder how Chip Kelly and other offensive minds are going to throw all of our numbers in the trash and make us recalculate what success means based on the number of drives and the number of snaps in a game being multiplied so that 368 yards doesn't mean near when it comes in 75-80 plays  as it would if it was applied to 60-65 offensive plays which are numbers we are accustomed to.

When you look at the success rates of Yards Per Play, you quickly see that this was not very good on Sunday.  In fact, since setting all sorts of high marks in the Denver game (54 plays, 522 yards, 9.67 yards per play), the Cowboys have come back to earth against the Redskins (50 plays, 213 yards, 4.26 ypp) and then the Eagles game (75 plays, 368 yards, 4.90 ypp).  6 yards per play is ideal and most teams would live with 5.5, but dropping below 5 yards a play in the last few weeks will not please the coaching staff after the show in Denver.

And we discussed what happened in this game to a certain extent in yesterday's piece. Teams at this time of year have many games of data and film to study and the Cowboys are putting a fair trend out there.  And they are finding that the way to deal with the Cowboys with most effectiveness is simply to design the game-plan around blitzing.   3 teams have decided to blitz Romo at least 15 times in their games (which we would call a strong amount) and 4 teams have not.  The offensive production stats are rather staggering in that those teams that let Romo stand back and try to defeat your coverage have been gutted at a rate of 6.45 yards per play (1,568 yards on 283 plays) and those who have decided to have less coverage, but more blitzing pressure have held up very well for 4.83 yards per play (899 yards on 186 plays).  It is clear that the key for the Cowboys offense the rest of the way is dealing with pressure.

This is why a bye week can be so helpful, as many coaching staffs will keep everyone around during the bye to simply perform a day or two exercise known as a self-scout.  Jason Garrett would, for instance, take the defensive coaching staff and have them design a game plan to attack the offense of the Cowboys, and the offensive coaching staff would study reels of the Dallas defense.  It is vital a team knows how other teams perceive them, and for now, I would think that Dallas is looking down its schedule and is trying to figure out which teams believe in blitzing heavily versus those that just want to "get there with 4".

One thing that is difficult for me to calculate is what I hear plenty of in a week like this.  It is the idea that "if the Cowboys faced a better QB they would have lost that game", because so much of what is done in football is game-specific.  Did the Cowboys dial back the aggressiveness in the Eagles game a bit because they saw Nick Foles struggling on the other side of the field?  Absolutely.  Heck, they even punted on their first drive from Eagles' 36, showing a real conservative leaning - something there is no chance they do against Denver.  That is why I think it is silly to complain too loudly about 17 points and the yardage in involved in this game.  If Dallas had to get to 24 points or 400 yards in this game, I have no doubt they could have, but they conformed their plan to the circumstances which is the only real objective in a game - to give yourself the best chance to win.  And they were ahead double digits for most of the 2nd half and played the game in an advantageous point position all day.


There is one very impressive story to tell about the offense that has carried over from the Denver game and could propel them deep into January if they can keep this going.  They appear to finally have discovered some things in the red zone and their ability to cash in for touchdowns on a far more regular basis than we have seen in the Romo/Garrett run to date.

This has been a continuous thorn in their side for years.  Red Zone efficiency seems like a number that should fluctuate from year to year because of sample sizes and the like, but you know who is there at or near the top of the list every single year?  Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, and Aaron Rodgers.  Those teams repeatedly find a way to rank above 60% it seems - Manning with 2 different franchises - and to come away with 7 points around 2 out of 3 trips into the red zone.  That is how a team in the NFL gets to 10-12 wins a year.   They must punch it in.

Below is a chart showing the 5 year trend for the Cowboys, and their very disappointing NFL rankings in 2011 and 2012, which may show you why they are falling just short of the playoffs in one easy statistic and why 2013 is so exciting so far.



Year TDs-Drives TD % Rank Pts Per RZ Drive
2009 26-50 52% 14th 4.48
2010 28-47 59% 9th 4.89
2011 25-51 49% 20th 4.55
2012 25-49 51% 20th 4.78
2013 17-25 68% 3rd 5.36

As you can see, they appear to have stumbled upon something.  The red zone trips are all pretty flat in that the Cowboys always seem to get to the red zone about 50 times a year.  And for the most part, their TD rate is right around 50%.  But, this year, they are on pace for a year that could result in 57 red zone trips and 38 touchdowns.  That number of 38 touchdowns would be measured as "elite" and if we like to say that the lights in Miles Austin's eyes kept them out in 2011 and the tip of Dez Bryant's finger kept them out in 2012, then what would an increase of 13 more touchdowns do to help the cause in 2013?

So, what are they doing differently?  Well, his number is 88.  I asked my Dez Bryant-obsessed football brain, Jake Kemp - who writes a weekly column on the Cowboys use of Bryant that was inspired by them not using Bryant - to break down what he thinks is going on in the red zone this year.  He is what he wrote back:

In 2012, Dallas made 49 red zone trips, on which they scored touchdowns just over 50% of the time. This clip ranked 20th in the NFL, right between St. Louis and Indianapolis. In fact, the Colts (21st) were the only team that finished behind the Cowboys in this category and still managed a playoff berth. The Top 5? Green Bay, New Orleans, New England, Washington, Baltimore. Four playoff teams and a team who's coach was in exile. The most frustrating aspect of this for fans is that it seems that Dez Bryant has become a nearly unstoppable force in area of the field, yet was being underutilized.  
Last season, Dallas targeted Bryant 14 times in 49 red trips. This means that on 28% of their drives that made it inside the opponent's 20, they threw the ball to their best receiver, and 72% of the time, they didn't. These 14 throws resulted in 9 catches and 4 TDs. His 14 targets tied him for 35th in the NFL, along with Jason Witten and Miles Austin, among others. It also put him 1 behind then-Dolphins TE Anthony Fasano, despite the fact that MIA has 10 fewer red zone opportunities than DAL. 
Through 7 games in 2013, Bryant has been targeted 10 times in 25 trips, which pushed the rate to 40%. On this set of 10 throws, we have 6 completions, 5 TDs, and a defensive pass interference on the defender covering Bryant (Cary Williams in PHI). That's a 70% success rate. Five of these throws have been on either fades or back-shoulder fades, the route which makes it most likely Bryant will see single coverage. These have resulted in 3 TDs, a completion that should've been a TD in Kansas City but Bryant broke his route short of the goal line, and an incompletion on well (read: questionably) defended ball against PHI.  
If form holds, Bryant will finish the year with somewhere around 22-26 red zone targets, which would've been good for a top 5 spot in 2012.
Whoa.  Once Jake mentioned that Anthony Fasano was being used more than Bryant in 2012 in the end zone, I think I would have a coach's meeting and find out why that is even possible.  You can follow his weekly series here and I think you will enjoy it.

If they can continue to cash in on 2 out of 3 drives for Touchdowns in the Red Zone, then I am confident this team will win the NFC East and they can then be a tough out in the playoffs.  That is really the story of the NFL.  Touchdowns versus Field Goals.  The defense is allowing 13 TDs on 23 red zone drives against, but if you take away Peyton Manning's 6 out of 7, it falls to 7 out of 16.  This is a pretty good trend to follow.


Run-Pass 23-50
Starting Field Position D31
1st Down Run-Pass 12-22
2nd Down Avg Distance to Go 7.60
2nd Down Run-Pass 9-14
3rd Down Avg Distance to Go 5.56
3rd/4th Down Run-Pass 2-14
3rd Down Conversions 5-16, 31%

Look at the low average yards to go on 3rd Down (5.56).  That is staying ahead of the chains, although on all 3rd Downs, the Eagles would send the house so the conversion rate was still not where it needs to be.


Here are the passing charts to see what was being accomplished on Sunday.  Intern Tim has made some pleasing to the eye charts for us to see.

Blue is a completion. Red is incomplete. Yellow is a touchdown, and Black is an interception. The passes are lines from where Romo released the pass to where the pass was caught. This shows you his release point and where he likes to throw when he slides in the pocket.

1ST HALF PASSING CHART -  (Red incomplete, Blue Completion, Yellow TD, Black INT)

As I look at these charts, you can see that early, Tony Romo was looking down the field more and the Eagles increased their blitzing as the game developed.  When you look at the 2nd half, the throws get shorter and shorter. 

2ND HALF PASSING CHART -  (Red incomplete, Blue Completion, Yellow TD, Black INT)

See the difference from 1st half to 2nd half?  But, Romo used underneath throws to move the chains.  If he can hit on this many short passes, it will chase teams out of blitzing after a while.  This is much better than the Kansas City game.  

Dez Bryant Passing Chart -  (Red incomplete, Blue Completion, Yellow TD, Black INT)

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 - New York Giants: 5 Run/7 Pass - 42% Run
Wk 2 - Kansas City Chiefs: 3 Run/9 Pass - 25% Run
Wk 3 - St. Louis Rams: 8 Run/2 Pass - 80% Run
Wk 4 - San Diego Chargers: 6 Run/4 Pass - 60% Run
Wk 5 - Denver Broncos: 3 Run/8 Pass - 37% Run
Wk 6 - Washington Redskins: 5 Run/4 Pass - 55% Run
Wk 7 - Philadelphia Eagles: 5 Run/9 Pass - 35% Run

2013 Totals: 64 Drives - 35 Run/43 Pass - 44% Run
* This statistic doesn't count the 1-play kneel down drives.

2011 Total: 181 Drives - 79 Run/102 Pass - 44% Run
2012 Total: 173 Drives - 76 Run/97 Pass - 44% Run


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.

Tons of shotgun at Philadelphia, but with no DeMarco Murray, I think they knew they weren't fooling anyone.  They ran the ball, but they decided to spread out the defense and thus make it more difficult to blitz.  And, again, let's not lose sight of the fact they were ahead for the entire day.

Wk 1 - NYG: 44 Shotgun/71 Total Plays -  61.9%
Wk 2 - at KC: 46 Shotgun/60 Total Plays -  76.6%
Wk 3 - STL: 28 Shotgun/59 Total Plays -  47.4%
Wk 4 - at SD: 33 Shotgun/56 Total Plays -  58.9%
Wk 5 - DEN: 39 Shotgun/54 Total Plays -  72.2%
Wk 6 - WASH: 23 Shotgun/50 Total Plays -  46%
Wk 7 - at PHI: 53 Shotgun/73 Total Plays - 72.6%

Season Total - 266 Shotgun/423 Total Plays -  62.8%

2011 Total - 445/1012  43.9%
2012 Total - 565/1038  54%

Here is the breakdown by groupings:

And now, a look at the efficiency of each personnel grouping.

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.

Totals by Personnel Groups:

Package Plays Run Yards Run Pass
11 1 6 1-6 0-0
12 13 35 9-31 4-4
13 4 11 4-11 0-0
21 0 0 0-0 0-0
22 0 0 0-0 0-0
23 2 1 2-1 0-0
S01 9 56 2-2 7-54
S02 4 21 0-0 4-21
S11 34 195 5-17 29-178
S12 6 40 0-0 6-40
S13 0 0 0-0 0-0
Other 0 0 0-0 0-0
Totals 73 365 23-68 50-297

* - Knee Plays are not counted in play calls.

Totals by Personnel Groups on 3rd/4th Down:

Package Plays Yards Run Pass FD/TD
11 0 0 0-0 0-0 0/0
12 0 0 0-0 0-0 0/0
13 0 0 0-0 0-0 0/0
21 0 0 0-0 0-0 0/0
22 0 0 0-0 0-0 0/0
23 1 0 1-0 0-0 0/0
S01 3 2 1- -4 2-6 1/0
S02 0 0 0-0 0-0 0/0
S11 12 72 0-0 12-72 4/0
S12 0 0 0-0 0-0 0/0
Other 0 0 0-0 0-0 0/0
Totals 16 74 2- -4 14-78 5/0

Pass Rushers Against Dallas - 48 pass rush/blitz situations in Week 7:

Wk 1: NY Blitzed 13/49: 26%
Wk 2: KC Blitzed 19/46: 41%
Wk 3: STL Blitzed 10/25: 40%
Wk 4: SD Blitzed 8/41: 19%
Wk 5: DEN Blitzed 10/40 25%
Wk 6: WAS Blitzed 17/31 55%
Wk 7: PHI Blitzed  22/48 46%

Season Blitz rate vs Dallas 99/280: 35.3%

Pass Rushers 3 Rush 4 Rush 5 Rush 6 Rush
Short (0-5 Yds To Go) 0 1 1 1
Second Level (5-10 Yds To Go) 0 5 3 0
Open Field (10+ Yds To Go) 0 1 2 0
Totals 0 7 6 1

Pass Rushers 3 Rush 4 Rush 5 Rush 6 Rush
Short (0-5 Yds To Go) 0 2 3 1
Second Level (5-10 Yds To Go) 0 1 3 0
Open Field (10+ Yds To Go) 1 0 1 0
Totals 1 3 7 1


10 -
69 -
31 -
4 -
6 -
62 -
27 -
5 -
5 -
31 -
26 -
3 -
1 -
0 0 0-0 0-0 0/0
Totals 21 -
162 -
84 -
12 -
1 -

Thanks to John Daigle and Tim Krajewski for their work on the charts and graphs.


SUMMARY:   Again, I hear plenty of consternation about the inefficiencies of the Cowboys offense rearing their head in the post-Denver world of expectations, but in neither of the subsequent games has the offense faced vital "you must convert or else" situations because in each game they held a considerable lead when the game was on the line.  I would never argue they have everything figured out, because it is clear they don't.  But, I would argue with those who are really freaking out about this offense.

The offensive line is clearly better, they are figuring out how to treat Dez Bryant as the ultimate trump card, and they have solved (at least for now) their perennial issues with the red zone.  Yes, they need better balance and that could back off the pressure with a healthy DeMarco Murray, but as they approach the half-way mark, it is important to understand that they are making key strides.  Cole Beasley and Terrance Williams have swung the balance of this offense to a point where they need to be passing the majority of the time to exploit the simple truths that most teams don't have enough competent defensive backs to deal with all of the Cowboys' weapons.  In the last few years, the OL could not stand up to this test, but the interior improvements with Leary-Frederick-Waters are significant in pass protection and should be utilized.

Detroit will require points and production, but it is coming against a defense that will likely try to play coverage and "get there with 4", so this might be a favorable matchup for the Cowboys offense.