Friday, September 20, 2013

Defending Dez - Week 2 v. Kansas City

Note: I realize it's a little late in the week to be writing about last week's game. Going forward, this post will be available on Wednesday. Also going forward, we will try to work in some pictures and .gifs to illustrate our points as effectively as possible.

   For me, there are few things in the world of sport that bring about more pure enjoyment than seeing a big, physical wide receiver taking over a football game.  Given the dynamic of the day between offense and defense, these are the (non QB) players best positioned to have a pronounced, decisive impact on the game. The alterations in a defensive game plan that (should) have to be made when these players are fully leveraged are substantial.  Of course, football is the ultimate team game, so there are countless variables in that elusive equation that results in getting the most out of your playmakers. However, the starting point of every offensive gameplan should be “How can my best player most impact this game?”

   I’m a fan of Jason Garrett. Thing is, most of the aspects of his that I like are qualities that are impossible to quantify. I like the “tone” he sets, the “culture” that seems to be budding. The elements of Jason Garrett that I am most displeased with, on the other hand, are unfortunately much easier to quantify. Game mismanagement and the way his offense operates, and thus, fails to produce at a high enough level, are simpler to measure. And, wins. Wins.

   When you see Dez at his best, the beloved eye test leaves you with that classic sports fan feeling of “How does anyone ever stop this guy?” However, when observing this offense in sum, there is another Dez-related impression I am left with that has led me to this project. Simply, it seems to me that his potential impact on the game, more often than not, is not being maximized. You may be ready to characterize my view as “just throw it to Dez for the touchdown play again.” Actually, my frustration with his misuse is more about the overall impact it has on the offense than the reduced number of highlight clips. A key component of the “you can’t stop all of these playmakers” offensive approach is actually making the defense try to stop all of these playmakers. On observation alone, it seems to me like these Cowboys make it too easy too often.

   Bryant’s elite ball skills make him a force on deep balls and in the red zone. However, he finished 2012 with 24 deep targets, 17th overall (Calvin Johnson, who finished with the most, had 47). His 14 red zone targets last year ranked him 31st in the NFL. Dallas had an average number of red zone attempts in 2012 (15th), so that doesn’t explain his low usage.. They also finished 20th in touchdowns per red zone attempt, so clearly, something is not working properly.

   The questions I would like to shed some light on are: Why is this happening? Why does it seem so easy to take Bryant out of the game without reaping the rewards of easy chunks of yardage elsewhere, be it on the ground or through the air? Certainly, the below-average O-Line is a large factor here, but no matter the quality of the that unit, Bryant shouldn’t finished the season with the same number of red zone targets as Anthony Fasano ever again (unless Fasano plays for the Patriots.) So, we will track coverages, routes, targets, etc. to gain a better understanding of how teams are defending Dez, based on the hypothesis that Dallas is making it too easy to do so.

   With our preamble out of the way, let’s take a look at how the Garrett/Callahan employed 88 in Week 2, and the chess match that...didn't really ensue.

(For the purposes of our study, I have included the two passing plays where penalties occurred. We are trying to gain an understanding of how teams cover Dez, and how the Cowboys respond, and some penalties are irrelevant. Case by case.)


Route Against Help Targets Comp. Yards
Fade 10 0 0 0
Slant/Drag 3 1 0 0
Back Should Fade 0 0 0 0
10-12 Yard Out 3 1 1 11
Screen 1 1 1 2
Dig 2 0 0 0
13-15 Yd. Comeback 2 0 0 0
Skinny Post 1 0 0 0
23 3 2 13


Route Against No Help Targets Comp. Yards
Fade 9 3 2 (w/PI) 60 (w/PI)
Slant/Drag 2 1 1 5
Back Should Fade 4 4 3 71
10-12 Yard Out 0 0 0 0
Screen 0 0 0 0
Dig 2 1 1 (TD) 1
13-15 Yd. Comeback 1 1 1 13
Skinny Post 1 0 0 0
19 10 8 150

After he was limited by the Giants gameplan in Week 1, I was curious how the Chiefs would attempt to cover Dez Bryant. With a corner that most consider to be one of the better at his position in Brandon Flowers, perhaps Kansas City would feel confident enough to put Flowers on Bryant man-to-man without the help of a safety. I believed before the game that if they decided to defend Bryant in that way, Dallas should attack that matchup until the Chiefs broke.

The Chiefs started the game with the look that Cowboys fans should hope for every week: a corner pressing Dez with no safety help. Brandon Flowers or not, this should be viewed as disrespect at worst and a challenge at best. Early on, it appeared Dallas agreed. Romo targeted Dez each of the first five times that KC gave Flowers no help. The result? Five completions for 119 yards and a 1-yard touchdown (again, including the 22-yard completion in which Dez was flagged for PI.)

Kansas City started to mix in a little help for Flowers, but they didn’t come close to committing to a two-safety shell the way the Giants did in Week 1. They also didn’t back off the one safety coverage after being beat a handful of time. In fact, of the 19 passing plays in which safety help was present, 10 of them came in the second half.  Yet, on those 10 plays, Dez saw just three targets. That is concerning.  The Chiefs blitzed more as the game progressed, but in part, I think the Cowboys are to blame for this. They allowed the Chiefs to cover Dez with one defender for 45% of the game. The three times Romo targeted Dez on a fade with no safety help resulted in: a 38 yard completion, a 22 yard completion negated by a touchy OPI call, and a rare drop that would’ve been a big gainer. I saw nothing to make me think that Flowers could stop that alone. Throw five or six fades against no help instead of three, and I’m betting the blitzing backs off and the rushing attack benefits as well.

Also of concern is the fact that when a defense does commit a safety to Dez, he disappears from the gameplan. We saw this in Week 1, but got a nice consolation prize of a decent day for the ground game. It is certainly possible to deny a WR targets to a certain extent. But three targets on 23 passing plays when showed a two-safety look? I see two possible solutions with this. One, route variation. 19 of 42 routes on the day were fades. It really doesn’t matter who you are, a fade against safety help is a low-percentage play. My eyeball test tells me that Dez is very effective on the dig, able to use his size to wall off safeties trying meet him at the ball, but this route seems to be underutilized. The other solution might be to move Bryant around a bit in formations. I didn’t include this in the charts, but Dez lined up in the slot on just 2 of 43 routes this week. In Week 1, against two safeties on nearly every down, he was in the slot 7 of 48 routes. He is not a “slot receiver,” but Dallas has to find ways to get him to the middle of the field.

They must force him on the defense. This rushing attack is clearly is not good enough to succeed against unfavorable fronts. I’m not suggesting that if a team is able to single cover Dez it will be smooth sailing from there. Much work remains. But the starting point of their gameplan each and every week should be, “how are we going to make this team take Dez out of the game? Against the Chiefs in Week 2, the answer was “we’ll do it for them.”

No comments: