We recently studied the Cowboys’ success in 2009 running draw plays. We discovered that, although Dallas is a superb draw-running team, the frequency with which the team ran the play caused their draw efficiency to decline as the season progressed.
In fact, the Cowboys actually averaged over a full yard less per carry on draws than on all other runs. To regain the effectiveness of the draw, we concluded that the Cowboys must run less of them in 2010. In doing so, defenses will be less prepared to defend them and the Cowboys can then reach the Nash equilibrium (the point where the average yards-per-carry will be maximized).
We decided to conduct a similar study on counter plays, with the results shown above. Counter runs utilize misdirection–a running back either hesitates or starts one way before changing direction and receiving the hand-off. Offenses will sometimes even pull linemen to the backside of the play to really confuse a defense.
Notice the incredible success the Cowboys had on counters last season, particularly Felix Jones. Since counters are finesse type runs, it is logical that Jones received the most carries on counter plays and also gained the most yards. His 10.0 yards-per-carry is absolutely ridiculous, particularly with a sample size as large as 22 runs.
Barber also performed fairly well on counters, perhaps because defenses were less inclined to expect a misdirection play with him in the game as opposed to Jones. Thus, Barber’s counter average was higher than his yards-per-carry on other runs.
Tashard Choice’s low average means nothing because the sample size of just three runs is much too small to draw meaningful conclusions.
When comparing the overall counter stats with the numbers from the other types of runs (shown to the right), you can see just how effective the Cowboys were running counters in 2009. They averaged 2.9 yards-per-carry more on counters than other runs, particularly because the opportunity for a big play is so much greater.
Notice the Cowboys had a significantly higher percentage of big plays on counters as well. In fact, when running counters Dallas was 1.5 times as likely to run for 10+ yards, 3.5 times as likely to run for 20+ yards, and an incredible 6.9 times as likely to run for 40+ yards as compared to all non-counter runs.
It is worth noting that the percentage of negative plays on counters was higher than on non-counters, but this is to be expected from a finesse, misdirection sort of play. Counters are generally run in situations when an offense is less likely to be debilitated from a negative play (such as 2nd and 5 as compared to, say, 3rd and 2).
Still, the Cowboys were only 1.5 times as likely to lose yardage on a counter as compared to a non-counter, so the risk was well worth the reward.
Ultimately, Dallas would be well-suited to significantly increase the number of counters they run in 2010, especially with Jones. It may also be smart to replace some of the draw plays with counters, particularly because the two types of run plays are generally called in similar situations.
The Cowboys are thought of as one of the best draw-running teams in the NFL. A lot of their success is due to the footwork of Tony Romo. His quickness and athleticism allows him to effectively fake slant passes before handing the ball off to either Barber, Jones, or Choice.
As we progressed through the 2009 game film, we noticed that defenses began to become accustomed to this fake and (it seemed) were able to more efficiently defend the Cowboys’ draw plays. We sorted through our database to uncover the offense’s draw statistics and what we discovered is below.
Before we tallied the final numbers, we wanted to eliminate any draw plays that could be considered “give up plays”–those draws on 3rd and long that the Cowboys ran simply to gain field position and punt. There were actually only two times all season that Dallas ran a draw on 3rd and 7 or more and these two plays were discredited.
The Cowboys ran 121 other draws for 547 yards last season (4.51 yards-per-carry). This average is well below the 5.52 yards-per-carry the Cowboys maintained on non-draw plays.
But why would the Cowboys’ average be so low on a play which they are thought to run better than just about any other team in the league? One possible explanation is the frequency with which Dallas runs draws out of the formation “Double Tight Right Strong Right.”
Remember in our study on Double Tight Right Strong Right, we noticed the Cowboys ran a strong side dive out of the formation 71.6 percent of all plays and 85.7 percent of the time when motioning into it. The success of the dive decreased as the season progressed. Dallas averaged a stout 7.8 yards-per-carry over the first five games but, as defenses became accustomed to the formation, the Cowboys were only able to manage 4.4 yards-per-carry on these dive plays the rest of the season (including just 3.2 against all teams except Oakland).
Of the 116 dive plays they ran out of Double Tight Right Strong Right, 23 of them were in the form of a draw. The Cowboys gained just 87 yards on these plays for a per-carry average of 3.78 yards.
While this isn’t particularly efficient, the sample size of 23 plays is not enough to significantly alter the overall results of the overall draw plays. Even if we disregard these Double Tight Right Strong Right draw plays, the Cowboys still averaged only 4.69 yards-per-carry (460 yards on 98 runs) on the remaining draws.
Ultimately, it appears as though the Cowboys’ poor average on draw plays is due more so to dialing up the draw too often than to them simply not being an effective draw team. There is no doubt that draws can be extremely useful, but perhaps offensive coordinator Jason Garrett could maximize their effectiveness by calling them just a bit less often in 2010.
In the case of the Cowboys’ draw plays, the old euphemism holds true: you really can have too much of a good thing.
In the first four parts of our Grading the ‘Boys Series, we provided in-depth statistical analysis and grades for the offensive linemen, running backs, and cornerbacks. Today, we take a look at the safeties.
As was the case when grading the cornerbacks, we have to be very careful when interpreting the statistics we gather from our film study. For example, despite generally being superior tacklers, we might expect the percentage of missed tackles to be higher for safeties than cornerbacks because the latter is forced to attempt less open-field tackles.
For this reason and others, it is also unreasonable to compare statistics between cornerbacks and safeties. Comparisons can be drawn between players within a position, however, as long as we are aware of the possible limitations to such comparisons.
Below are the results of the 2009 Cowboys’ safety play and the corresponding Dallas Cowboys Times grades.
- Chart Key: TA=Thrown At, Rec=Receptions Yielded, PD=Passes Defended, Yds/Att=Yards Per Attempt Thrown At
- The best stats are circled in blue, the worst in red.
- Some of the stats were provided by Pro Football Focus.
- The final chart details our own custom statistic, the Dallas Cowboys Times Pass Defense Rating. It incorporates the factors we believe are most valuable in evaluating the success of a safety. The amount of points a player scores in each category is less important than the difference between his score and the average score. For example, a point total of 20.0 in a category where the league average is 5.0 helps a player more than a score of 100.0 in a category whose league average is 90.0.
- The final grade is weighted 2:1 in terms of pass defense versus run defense.
- Ken Hamlin
Pass Defense: C+
Let’s start off with a grade for which we are sure to receive a lot of flack. We have been stating from season’s end that Ken Hamlin’s 2009 play was not as poor as people made it seem.
There is no doubting that he is not a ball-hawking safety. Would you like to have a player like that on your team? Of course–but only if he doesn’t sacrifice his ability to prevent the big play. Some safeties, i.e. Antrel Rolle, are considered “playmakers” because they get a lot of picks or have a lot of bone-crushing hits, yet they allow a multitude of big plays. A true playmaker, though, is able to do these things without conceding long touchdowns.
Hamlin is not an incredible playmaker, but he is also not a liability in the secondary as many fans believe is the case. He is a cerebral player who has done an admirable job of setting up the defensive coverages and forcing defenses to earn every yard they gain. Sometimes it can be a good thing to not hear your free safety’s name called too much. In a way, Hamlin is a bit of a sensei master in the secondary–leading the troops without overexerting himself. We are only partially joking about that.
While Dallas could certainly benefit from a free safety who is a “true playmaker,” those players are few and far between. Hamlin isn’t going to solely win the Cowboys football games, but he also won’t lose them. He’s not an All-Pro sort of safety, but he’s also not one who should be released.
Run Defense: A-
Let the ridicule begin. An “A-” in tackling for Ken Hamlin? Really?
You bet. Hamlin missed just four tackles (8.0 percent) all season. In comparison, Terence Newman led all cornerbacks by securing 91.5 percent of his tackles. Thus, Hamlin was statistically the most consistent tackler in the secondary in 2009, despite playing a position that is arguably the hardest from which to make tackles.
Pass Defense: C
Sensabaugh has the worst Dallas Cowboys Times Pass Defense Rating of all three safeties, but that is to be expected since he is targeted more frequently at strong safety. Still, his 67.4 completion percentage against is much too high.
Like Hamlin, Sensabaugh did not make many big plays on the season, securing just one interception. Unlike Hamlin, however, Sensy conceded a few easy scores. He allowed five touchdowns (compared to just two for Hamlin), a stat which we do not even factor into our Pass Defense Rating.
Run Defense: C+
Sensabaugh’s missed tackle percentage of 15.6 percent was nearly twice that of Hamlin’s, despite generally playing closer to the line of scrimmage and thus obtaining more “easy tackle” situations. He also secured just eight more tackles than Hamlin despite this difference in pre-snap alignment and playing more downs.
- Alan Ball
Pass Defense: B
Ball registered a worse score on our Pass Defense Rating than Hamlin, so why are we giving him a better grade? Well, Ball’s inexperience led team’s to target him frequently. In fact, he was thrown at on 6.53 percent of all snaps, nearly three times the rate at which opposing quarterbacks tested Hamlin.
Despite this, Ball allowed the lowest completion percentage of any safety at just 45.0 percent. He also led the safeties in yards-per-attempt against and passes defended percentage. It is not a stretch at all to label Ball the closest thing Dallas has to a “ball-hawk” at the safety position.
Run Defense: D
Ball struggled quite a bit against the run. He missed nearly 1/4 of all tackles, a rate almost triple that of Hamlin. His tackle-per-play average was also the worst among the three safeties.
Final Safety Rankings
1. Ken Hamlin: 82.3 (B-)
2. Alan Ball: 78.3 (C+)
3. Gerald Sensabaugh: 75.7 (C)
The Cowboys’ safeties are obviously not future Hall-of-Famers. We believe Hamlin is unfairly ridiculed due to his lack of takeaways (and we realize we are the only ones who view him as underrated), but he is no Ed Reed.
Should the Cowboys address the safety position early in the draft? If the value is there, yes. Perhaps Texas safety Earl Thomas will drop down to pick #27.
If the Cowboys do not see good value in the first round, however, there is no reason to panic. There are a wealth of intriguing second round safety prospects that should present adequate value for Dallas in round two, such as Georgia Tech’s Morgan Burnett.
Further, we believe Hamlin is still a starting quality safety. He is certainly not irreplaceable, but it is unlikely that a rookie free safety, outside of Thomas or Tennessee’s Eric Berry, could step into the starting role and immediately perform better than Hamlin.
Assuming the team passes on a safety in the first round, expect Hamlin and Sensabaugh to be the Cowboys’ opening day starters and to force more turnovers in 2010.