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Eagles defense studies Cowboys’ most successful formations…

You may have seen a write-up a year or so ago on this subject by Jonathan Bales, the founder of the Dallas Cowboys Times who is obsessed with film study of Cowboys football.  I thought I’d try to put a new wrinkle on it and try to guess how the Eagles are identifying the most likely offensive formations they will face on Saturday, based on the degree of success Dallas has had with a particular formation in a given game situation.

Not having the great Doug Free available at full strength will influence a lot of the Cowboys’ formation choices.

Bales has analyzed a few of the Cowboys’ tendencies when running plays from certain formations and with specific personnel packages.  For example, he noticed the Cowboys average nearly three yards less per play in “Empty Set” formations (as compared to all other formations), are much more successful with tight end Jason Witten in a route, and run a strong side dive play out of “Double Tight Right Strong Right” 71.6 percent of the time, including 85.7 percent when motioning into it.

Let’s just look at the Cowboys’ top 8 most-successful formations. Their playbook has a total of 37 formations which Bales analyzed. For sake of time and space, let’s look at the eight most productive:

  • 3 Wide I



12 passes (60 percent)/8 runs (40 percent)

5.25 yards/attempt

3.63 yards/rush

3 sacks (25 percent), five passes 10+ yards (41.7 percent), 1 pass 20+ (8.3 percent)

  • Ace


24 passes (82.8 percent)/5 runs (17.2 percent)

11.46 yards/attempt

2.00 yards/rush

12 passes 10+ (50 percent), five passes 20+ (20.8 percent), two negative runs (40 percent)

  • Double Tight I


10 passes (24.4 percent)/31 runs (75.6 percent)

6.30 yards/attempt

6.71 yards/rush

One sack (10 percent), two passes 10+ (20 percent), one pass 20+ (10 percent), four negative runs (12.9 percent), eight runs 10+ (25.81 percent), one run 20+ (56 yards)–3.2 percent

  • Double Tight Left/Right Ace



14 passes (38.9 percent)/22 runs (61.1 percent)

6.0 yards/attempt

3.27 yards/rush

One sack (7.1 percent), three passes 10+ (21.4 percent),  two passes 20+ (14.3 percent), three runs 10+ (13.6 percent),  five negative runs (22.7 percent)

  • Double Tight Left/Right I



3 passes (4.7 percent)/61 runs (95.3 percent)

10.33 yards/attempt

4.93 yards/rush

One pass 10+ (33.3 percent), one pass 20+ (33.3 percent), six runs 10+ (10.4 percent), two runs 20+ (46, 32 yards)–3.5 percent

  • Gun 3 Wide Pro



    52 passes (91.2 percent)/5 runs (8.8 percent)

    4.04 yards/attempt

    2.20 yards/rush

    Four sacks (7.7 percent), 12 passes 10+ (23.1 percent), two passes 20+ (3.9 percent), one negative run (20 percent)

    • Double Tight Left/Right Ace



    14 passes (38.9 percent)/22 runs (61.1 percent)

    6.0 yards/attempt

    3.27 yards/rush

    One sack (7.1 percent), three passes 10+ (21.4 percent),  two passes 20+ (14.3 percent), three runs 10+ (13.6 percent),  five negative runs (22.7 percent)

    • Twins Left/Right



    24 passes (41.4 percent)/34 runs (58.6 percent)

    7.79 yards/attempt

    4.77 yards/rush

    Three sacks (12.5 percent),  five passes 10+ (20.8 percent), three passes 20+ (59, 69 yards)–12.5 percent, five runs 10+ (14.7 percent), one run 20+ (2.9 percent), three negative runs (8.8 percent)

    Now you have a pretty good idea what Eagles players are looking at tonight as they strive to recognize the formations Dallas will throw at them on Saturday— and the probabilities of success and direction each play run from those formations will produce.

    Just a few observations to come after a short break…

    Okay, break over.. so my biggest concern for the Eagles defense is minimizing TE Jason Witten’s effect in many of the money formations shown above…

    Jason Witten is an all-around player. He’s a very good pass receiver, but it’s not just short area. He’s down the field also – he can make a play 20 yards down the field as well as five and be a ball control tight end.

    Witten averaged 10.3 yards per reception last season, and only two tight ends, San Francisco’s Vernon Davis and San Diego’s Antonio Gates, had more catches go for 20 or more yards

    While Witten is a dangerous threat on every snap, he’s been particularly good on third down. 

    “He’s Tony Romo’s outlet, especially on third downs,” Dallas LB SteveTulloch said. “When he’s getting pressure, he definitely looks to Witten.”

    Last season, Witten had 18 first-down receptions on third down. That number was tied for ninth in the NFL and first among tight ends.

    “I think having a reliable tight end is an important aspect for a quarterback,” Romo said about his relationship with Witten. “He’s got to make a bunch of different reads in his route a lot of the time, and you have to trust him as if it was you running the routes.”

    To counter the Witten effect in many of the formations shown above, Castillo will load up the box on those sets.  On some pass plays, Castillo will move a DE closer into the formation, then blitz a safety off that side.

    Another wrinkle Castillo will show: JB calls it “The Amoeba”… Mike Patterson and Cullen Jenkins will be the only two “down” linemen, and DE’s Jason Babin and Trent Cole will become like ILB’s that move around and try to confuse the Cowboys’ blocking assignments… and then by rushing inside or looping outside or stunting off each other, they will try to disrupt Romo’s rhythm and take Witten out of the equation.

    As for that Twins Left/Right formation where the Cowboys stack their WR’s to one side, Castillo will break an old Eagles pattern and bring both CB’s to that side. He used to leave a CB backside and have his free safety come down on that extra WR… oh the times they are a changin’…