Grading Cowboys @ Jets: Performances Of Note

On Sunday, the Cowboys bettered the Jets in many statistical categories: Time of possession (33:53 to 26:07), total yards (390 to 360), passer rating (101.9 to 88.7), ANY/PA (8.5 to 6.0) and others.

But on the stats that Garrett and the Cowboys pay closest attention to (TO ratio and fourth quarter performance) the Cowboys came up short.

Over the last few days, we've collectively analyzed the reasons for the fourth quarter collapse, but that's not what this post is going to be about. At the end of the day, some players did their job well, some others did not. Today, we look at how the individual efforts on the team graded out. To do that, we'll be using the Pro Football Focus player grades. Some of these grades will be obvious, some others less so.

For those of you unfamiliar with Profootballfocus.com (PFF), below is a summary of what they do. Follow the links provided for more information.

PFF have a unique way of grading players. They look at game tape, assign a grade for every play and then ‘normalize’ the data so that the average player for a given position is graded at zero. The higher the positive grading the better the performance and vice versa. In their own words:

"The grading takes into account many things and effectively brings "intelligence" to raw statistics. For example a raw stat might tell you a Tackle conceded a sack. However, how long did he protect the QB for before he gave it up? Additionally when did he give it up? If it was within the last two minutes on a potentially game tying drive it may be rather more important than when his team is running out the clock in a 30 point blow out." For a more detailed summary of how PFF grade check out their explanation here.

Sam Monson from PFF illustrated their approach with a few examples in an interview from last year:

"In our opinion [our approach] is at least a step change above what anyone could get by simply "tracking results". We can give you two examples:

1. A cornerback is beaten badly on a post route and the wide receiver drops the ball in the end zone. Tracking the result gives this as an incompletion against the cornerback (a positive) whilst we will mark this down as a significant negative.


2. A QB throws a perfect strike over a linebacker to hit his open slot receiver on an out. Once more, the wide receiver drops the pass and it cannons off his chest to a Safety who catches the ball even though he'd initially made a bad job of the coverage. The QB gets a INT listed against his name and the free safety gets an undeserved INT against his. How is tracking this result more accurate?"


Clearly there are limitations as to what is shown on TV. The biggest issue is that of not being able to see downfield coverages on untargeted defenders and we accept this as an inherent error in what we do. That said, nobody outside the teams has access to this either so should we stop our "more accurate" analysis on the basis that it's not 100 percent perfect?

PFF assigns each player both an ordinal ranking (e.g., a player ranks 10th out of 100 players at the same position) and a relative value (e.g., a given player is a +10 or a -10). Using the PFF data therefore allows us to evaluate all the Cowboys players relative to each other and relative to their NFL peers at the same position.

The average grade, or what could typically be expected of the average player, is zero. A negative grade denotes a below average performance, a positive grade denotes an above average performance.

Importantly, these are grades, not stats. Looking at any given play, you yourself might arrive at a different conclusion on occasion, but the benefit PFF offer is that they consistently apply the same grading system to all NFL players and NFL teams.

Without further ado, let's jump into the grading.

Offensive Line

According to PFF, the Cowboys offensive graded out at a combined -1.4, which makes the O-line's performance average relative to their NFL peers. Not bad, considering the Cowboys were playing basically three rookies on the line and were going up against one of the best defenses in the league.

The graders at PFF assign the blame for five QB pressures to the O-line, but don't assign any sacks or QB hits to the O-line. As a result, the line's pass protection grade is positive with +3.1, an above average performance. The line struggled in run blocking as evidenced by the Cowboys 2.5 yards per rushing attempt, the lowest rate in the NFL after week one.

Bill Nagy (-5.3) did not have a good night on Sunday, and today reports surfaced that the Cowboys are looking at potentially playing Derrick Dockery at left guard:

Rookie Bill Nagy was pushed back several times in the run and passing game. While he plays with good technique, size and strength is a problem for him and the Cowboys - especially when they are already playing with an undersize center in Phil Costa and a smallish right guard in Kyle Kosier.

A lot of the Cowboys difficulties in the run game came from the interior of the line not getting the push needed. Here's how the Cowboys' O-linemen graded out individually.

Free Nagy Costa Kosier Smith
  LT LG C RG RT
Overall +3.3 -5.3 -0.9 -0.3 +1.8
Run Blocking
+0.9 -5.2 -0.6 -1.2 +1.5
Pass Protect
+2.5 -0.4 -0.5 +0.6 +0.9

On a more positive note, both tackles graded out above average in both pass protection and run blocking. Doug Free got the highest grade of any Cowboys player against the Jets.

Defensive Line & OLB.

If you were to look at the traditional stat lines for the defense, you'd probably come up with the same old, same old: DeMarcus Ware two sacks, Spencer surprised with one sack and the whole DL with once again did not have any.

But if your preferred storyline is all about how Ware is the only one able to bring some pressure, you may not have been watching the game very closely. According to PFF, Jay Ratliff had one QB hit and two pressures, Jason Hatcher had a hit, a pressure and three stops, Kenyon Coleman had a pressure and a stop and even the seldom-seen-kid Sean Lissemore had one pressure and one stop in only eight snaps. And the guys up front also held the Jets to 45 yards rushing, or 2.8 yards per pop.

Here's how the front five (with the most snaps) graded out:

Spencer Coleman Ratliff Hatcher Ware
  LOLB LE NT RE ROLB
Snaps 61 22 52 42 62
Rating
+0.1 -1.2 +0.5 -1.0 +2.9

Hatcher's grade took a hit from the two penalties called against him (one declined), but he recorded a +1.5 grade against the run. Three more guys took snaps on the line. Sean Lissemore impressed once again with a +1.7 grade on only eight snaps, Marcus Spears was in the game for 14 snaps and graded out with a +0.1 and second year man Josh Brent spelled Ratliff for 9 snaps and graded out with a -0.3. Victor Butler was largely invisible in his 11 snaps, did not notch any stats of note and came in with a -0.7 grade.

Secondary

While the Jets came up short in the run game, they did put up 315 passing yards. A big part of the reason for that is the Cowboys' injury situation at cornerback. Newman didn't play at all, Scandrick was out early and Jenkins was hobbled all game. here's a look at how the secondary acquitted themselves.

  • Mike Jenkins (48 of 65 snaps, +1.4 grade): Looks like the Cowboys got back the 2009 version of Mike Jenkins, a guy who comes out and plays hard and with a lot of confidence - not the timid 2010 version. Jenkins was targeted four times and allowed one reception for two yards, according to the PFF stats. The last time Jenkins graded out higher was in week 1 last year. 
  • Alan Ball (57/65, -1.0): Ball was singled out frequently as he was targeted 10 times and allowed six receptions. He gave up three long receptions to L.T. (32 yards), Burress (26 yards) and Holmes (17 yards), which hurt his pass coverage grade. But he did make four tackles, more than any other defensive back. 
  • Abram Elam (65/65, -1.5): Elam gave up two passes on four targets, one of which was a 33-yard pass to TE Jeff Cumberland in the third quarter.
  • Gerald Sensabaugh (63/65, -2.3): All three passes targeted Sensabaugh's way were completed for a total of 63 yards. Neither Sensabaugh nor Elam were big factors in the run game, each recording three tackles.

Other players of note

Dez Bryant (+1.8) stood out for his early game heroics, and received a good grade despite fading later in the game. 

Sean Lee (+1.4) seemed to be all over the field and was involved in so many tackles that nobody seems to be able to agree on just how many tackles he actually made. ESPN gives him 12 (10 solo, 2 assists), Stats Inc give him 11 (9, 2), and the Cowboys coaching tape stats give him 15 (12, 3). PFF loved him against the run, but downgraded him against the pass, where they saw nine out of ten passes completed against Lee. But what may be more interesting than these stats is Lee's snap count. Lee was on the field for 55 of 65 snaps. By contrast, Keith Brooking had 29 and Bradie James only 24. So far, the consensus has been that Brooking is the one vacating his spot for Lee. The snap count from the first game indicates that the answer to who Lee is replacing may not be as clear cut as had been widely assumed.

Felix Jones (+1.3) didn't have a good day as a runner, but was solid in the passing game and received very good grades as a blocker.

Jason Witten (-0.7) graded out as the second best receiver on the team (+1.1), but received negative grades for his run blocking and pass blocking. This is something that bears watching. Witten has been a dominant blocker for his entire career, but seemed to struggle with blocks a little in the preseason and appears to have carried that over into the first game of the season. Hopefully, this was just a fluke.

Tony Romo (-2.9) received his lowest grade since the Vikings playoff game despite putting up a very good 101.9 passer rating.

This is the nature of these grades. Mistakes or missed opportunities can often outweigh what more traditional stats would suggest is a good performance. In Romo's case, it's a fumble, an interception and a sack or two that factor into the grades much more than his completion percentage. For a receiver, dropped passes or a low catch rate can spoil what would have been a stellar performance in fantasy points. A tight-end or running back who misses a few key blocks can put up gaudy stats but will still end up with a negative grade.

Football is a highly complex game. No single stat will do it justice. But taken together, traditional stats, efficiency stats and even grades like these help paint a clearer picture of how and perhaps why things happened the way they did.

Top Ten Players

At the time of writing, PFF had graded 11 out of 16 games. With that in mind, here are the Cowboys players who rank within the top ten at their position after the first game of the season:

WR: Dez Bryant (8th)

OT: Doug Free (2nd), Tyron Smith (8th)

RB: Felix Jones (9th)

3-4 OLB: DeMarcus Ware (3rd), Anthony Spencer (8th)

ILB: Sean Lee (6th)

CB: Mike Jenkins (11th - close enough to 10th to include here)

ST: Danny McCray (2nd), Victor Butler (7th), Jesse Holley (7th)

P: Mat McBriar (3rd)

What's encouraging about this list is that apart from perhaps Ware and McBriar, you may be looking at the nucleus of the Cowboys roster for the next five to ten years right here, and it is very encouraging to see the Cowboys youth movement bearing fruit.

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