Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Defending Dez Week 4 - San Diego

Our weekly look at how the Cowboys took advantage (or, often, didn’t take advantage) of their best offensive weapon.

Heading into the Cowboys Week 4 matchup with the Chargers, we all knew that Dallas would have to score a significant amount of points to leave San Diego with the win. Phillip Rivers and company had the 3rd highest offensive success rate through three weeks (per, meaning that adjusted for situation, they were getting pretty much whatever they wanted offensively. Conversely, however, the SD defense was yielding the highest success rate in the NFL, meaning, you guessed it, offenses were getting pretty much whatever they wanted against them. Obviously, then, it’s extremely frustrating that the Dallas offense was able to come away with just two first half touchdowns and nothing else all day long.
As Bob pointed out in his Morning After post on Monday, there are times when a game can be summarized best by saying, “their guys made plays when put in position to, and your guys didn’t.” I agree that this game can be characterized in that manner much more than, say, the loss to the Chiefs. Dallas was 3-9 on 3rd down, with three 3rd down drops (one by Dez at a critical juncture of the game). Not much a play caller can do for you there.
However, I do think there are still some interesting elements as far as Xs and Os to look at from this game. The focus of our study (as should be the focus of the Dallas offense) is Dez Bryant, so lets first take a lot at how San Diego chose to handle 88.


RouteAgainst HelpTargetsComp.Yards
Slant/Drag421 (1 drop)12
10-12 Yard Out310 (1 drop)49 (1 TD)
13-15 Yd. Comeback2210
Stop And Go2000
Skinny Post1000
10 yd. stop2000
5-7 yd. stop1000



RouteAgainst No HelpTargetsComp.Yards
Fade2115 (TD)
10-12 Yard Out0000
13-15 Yd. Comeback0000
Stop and go0000
Skinny Post0000
10 yd. stop1000
5-7 yd. stop0000

4115 (TD)

On 90% of the routes he ran, there was some level of help given to the corner covering Dez. San Diego blitzed just 19% of the time, the lowest number Dallas has seen this in this young campaign. Clearly, the objective was to “keep everything in front of them” and keep Bryant from making the big play. As we discussed last week, one way to negate this and keep Dez’s playmaking ability in tact is with inward breaking routes, namely, the dig. The best way to neutralize safety help is to keep that defender from even having a chance to get to the ball. Dallas did this by sending Bryant on a season-high eight digs in this game. They targeted him twice, and if you’d like to see how those targets worked out, check out Bob’s breakdown. The Chargers, unlike the Chiefs, were not pressing Bryant at the line much at all. This somewhat eliminates the other route that can assist in neutralizing the safety, the back shoulder fade. However, if a corner wants to give Dez a clean release, the dig is open for business.  The receiver will press the defender’s outside shoulder hard (even with safety help, most corners react and lose leverage at this point), and if there is a decent throwing lane, this is really tough to stop.  Bob’s hypothesis was accurate; digs have been fruitful for Dez this season. On six targets, he’s got four catches for 66 yards and two touchdowns (note: I classify the score in KC a dig, even though it was really a “mini-dig”. I would still call it a dig rather than a square-in because even though the route broke at 8, there was a route under Dez’s route, which wouldn’t occur on a simple “in” route). Without question, the dig is one of the best ways to maintain Bryant’s big play ability even when the opposition is trying to take it away.
In addition to taking advantage of the dig, the Dallas offense also fed Dez another red zone target, and, how about that? Another DB with a broken spirit and another touchdown. That makes five red zone targets for Bryant in 13 trips this year, resulting in four TDs. Last year, he was targeted 14 times in 50 trips, so while you’d still like to see one just about every trip, they seem to be getting the idea that this is a high percentage option near the goal line.
So, taking advantage of both the dig against conservative looks and Bryant’s ball skills in the red zone are positives. Now, let’s discuss some of the negatives. After all, a team with a highly compensated QB and an elite WR managed two TDs against one of the worst defenses in the league, so the strategy is certainly not above reproach.
As Bryant’s career has progressed, it has become apparent that he is nearly impossible to cover without help. The opposition knows this, and as our tables indicate, they have responded accordingly with consistent safety help. However, since this adjustment, one point of contention from the media and fanbase has been how Bryant seemingly disappears from the game when help is committed to him.  Our data so far this season supports this, as Dez has been targeted on just 16 of 77 routes (20%) when covered with help. The complaint from concerned observers goes something like, “Dez is getting doubled because he’s an elite receiver, but (fill-in the name of another top-flight pass catcher) gets doubled just as much, and his team still finds a way to get him the ball.” 
Why is this? This conundrum is part of the reason I started tracking this data. The old eyeball test has indicated to me in the past that Dez’s route tree is quite limited, and the numbers so far tell us that at times, this is in fact an issue, but maybe not as much as I suspected. The other aspect of Bryant’s usage I have noticed is that he seemingly never runs routes from the slot. Never. As I mentioned after Week 2, even though Bryant is not a “slot” receiver, one way to generate favorable matchups or to free him up is to move him around in the formation. Variations in alignment (for example, bunch formations) make it harder to just throw a safety and a corner on a receiver and call it a day.
So, does the data support this idea that Dallas is less than creative with where they line Dez up? Oh my. Does it ever. Let’s take a look at some of the other top-flight receivers (excluding guys we think of as “slot” types) and how their offenses deploy them. The metric we will use is “percent of routes run from the slot” via Pro Football Focus.

Brandon Marshall – 49.0%
Larry Fitzgerald – 41.1%
DeSean Jackson – 29.5%
Calvin Johnson – 28.6%
Andre Johnson – 25.8%
Roddy White – 25.9%
Steve Smith – 21.3%
A.J. Green – 16.0%
Julio Jones – 11.3%
Dez Bryant – 6.4%

In Week 4, Dez ran one of his nine routes from the slot. On the year, 10 for 156, two or three a game. Andre Johnson, by contrast, has run 39 of 151 with an inside alignment, almost 10 a game. Bryant is so clearly the outlier, the number some examination. Does an additional seven routes a game with a receiver aligned one way rather than another change the outcome of a game? Unlikely. But if How To Shut Down Dez can become a book with multiple volumes, then it will be easier for him to get open and easier for his teammates to get open when he’s not.

If help is provided on Bryant, and a team with a weak pass defense decides Witten deserves the same treatment, the Cowboys have an obligation to produce. Especially against teams with just average to below average pass rush. This falls to the supporting cast. Even with Austin out, you need your top-half-of-the-draft guys to win one-on-one matchups against replacement-level defenders. And when the supporting cast players do win their matchups, you need your veteran QB to find them. One of the more talked about plays from the loss in San Diego was the deep throw (shock!) down the middle to Witten that Eric Weddle made a play on and Witten didn’t.  Dallas trailed 23-21 at this point, facing a 3rd and 8 from their own 44. Romo had just completed two consecutive passes to Cole Beasley, the first of which was negated by a Ron Leary hold. The sideline view of the play is below.

San Diego brings four, meaning if you don’t have an 82 or an 88 on your jersey, you have single coverage. From the right slot, Beasley runs a textbook square-in route that allows him to shed his defender. The protection is solid enough. If Romo sees Beasley and hits him in stride, this is at minimum a first down and possible a big gainer. You can see Beasley’s frustration as he looks back to the QB. Again, it sounds ticky-tacky to criticize the team for not going deep enough and then point out how open another receiver was when they do. But Witten was not creating separation from Weddle on this day. When I crow about not always letting double coverage eliminate a deep route from consideration, I am not talking about Jason Witten. The fact is, these types of routes are the reason you employ Beasley’s skill set. The debate this week was whether or not Witten could have caught this pass given Weddle’s coverage, but in reality, this play is on Romo. From the end zone view, it looked like he wanted Witten from the jump.

And while I’m arm-chair quarterbacking, let’s take a quick look at another play at a less critical moment of the game where it appeared Romo locked in on Witten and produced a sub-optimal outcome. This play came on the third drive of the game, on one of the four passing plays where Bryant did not have a help defender committed to him. It’s 2nd and 10 from the Dallas 20, with the Cowboys trailing 7-0. The Chargers send five, but Romo finds witten for seven yards setting up a 3rd and 3. They completed a seven-yard pass, why am I complaining? Again, this is nitpicking, but this is also a QB who is compensated to be one of the best in the game, and we’ve seen him play at that level before, so, that is why I’m complaining. The sideline view is below.

Bryant runs a deep comeback. With no safety help, his defender is basically giving him the space needed to complete anything to Dez other than a fade. With the man over Witten blitzing, I understand that he is the hot. But Romo never looks anywhere else. I know it’s a very difficult throw. But with a just a little of that old Jedi magic, Romo is sliding forward in the pocket and drilling this ball to Dez for the first down. But that wasn’t even on the table, as you can see form the end zone view.

The drive stalled on the next play because Romo was sacked. But on the whole, this offensive line (so far) looks better than last year’s unit. For this offense to be successful, Romo will have to trust his line. He will have to trust his receivers. Without question, I understand why he doesn’t. We’re asking for a lot to expect a guy who has been criticized for being careless his whole career to up the carelessness. However, the reality is, that is the only way this club maximizes it’s potential and ends the mediocrity.

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