Friday, October 11, 2013

Defending Dez Week 5 - Denver

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

Heading into Week 5, we all knew that for the Cowboys to have any chance of being the first team to best Denver this season, they would have to have their best offensive performance of this young campaign. If you've been reading this piece for the past few weeks, then you're aware of my opinion that to get to optimum output, the Dallas offense has to take more intermediate and deep shots through the air. They had to get Dez more involved, even if the opposition was committed to taking his playmaking ability out of the game. 
Appropriately, the insanity of the statistics that this game produced has been discussed at length this week. Even in this era, it was a display of offensive firepower unlike many of us have ever witnessed. Romo threw for over 14 yards per attempt, which is just insane. For context, through the first four games, he was averaging 6.7 yards per throw, well below his career average of 7.9. Many of us were clamoring for Dallas to up the aggressiveness, despite Romo's career high quarterback rating. In Weeks 1-4, the Cowboys attempted a total of nine deep passes (traveling more than 20 yards), just over two a game. 
The most intriguing item of discussion heading into this game was whether or not Dallas would feel prompted by the Broncos scoring prowess to embrace a more "wide open" disposition on offense. Clearly, that occurred. Romo took 6 deep shots, and only 15 of his 35 passes travelled less than 10 yards in the air. The productivity came from a nice mix of finding a way to keep Bryant involved despite Denver's efforts to take him away, and other components of the offense winning one-on-one matchups that The Dez Threat generates. Let's take a look at the route breakdown.


RouteAgainst HelpTargetsComp.Yards
Fade1121 (+1 DPI)79 (+20 PEN)
Slant/Drag63368 (-28 HLD PEN)
Deep Post1000
13-15 Yd. Comeback3000
Stop And Go1100
Corner20 0
Back Shoulder Fade0000
10 Yd. Stop0000
Screen Block1000

2984 (+1 DPI)167  (w/DPI)


RouteAgainst No HelpTargetsComp.Yards
Slant/Drag1112 (TD)
Deep Post0000
13-15 Yd. Comeback0000
Stop and go0000
Back Shoulder Fade1112 (TD)
10 Yd. Stop1000
Screen Block0000

Denver elected to provide help to the corner covering Bryant on 80% of the routes he ran. Outside of Kansas City, this is just about par for the course thus far this season. But as we've discussed in weeks previous, that shouldn't necessarily take Dez out of the equation. And this week, it didn't. Romo found Bryant on three drag/slant routes to the tune of 68 yards (28 negated by a DeMarco Murray hold). As a reminder, on routes like digs, slants, and drags, it doesn't really matter if the defense provides safety help. This is one of the best ways to take advantage of Dez's athleticism in the open field, and the Cowboys did plenty of that Sunday.
Another way to try to create favorable matchups for this offense is to move Bryant around the formation, putting him in the slot, for example. Coming into this game, this was the list of "percentage of routes run from the slot" for a collection of ten of the best receivers in the game (excluding slot guys, obviously).

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%

This week, Bryant ran 10 of his 39 routes from the slot, a clip of 25.6%. Although he was only targeted once, this is still a positive as it forces the defense to constantly consider how to cover Dez. In turn, even if Bryant isn't catching passes from the slot, anything to make it easier for the offense to stay in attack mode should be utilized.
In addition to moving Bryant around the formation, another aspect of his usage that we're keeping track of around here is how Dallas employs Dez in the red zone. Last year, he was targeted 14 times in 50 trips. As a result, the Cowboys scored touchdowns on just over 50% of their red zone trips, which ranked 20th. This year, Dez has 8 targets in 19 trips for SIX TOUCHDOWNS, including three targets for two scores in this game. As a result, Dallas has upped red zone TD% to 63%, good for 6th in the NFL.

I have included the first of the scores below.

Bryant is lined up tight to the left. It is a basic, oft-used in the red zone mesh concept with Terrance Williams. Bryant goes underneath Williams, but the Denver defense does a great job of passing their receivers off to one another, so Bryant is never really what I would call open. So, Romo displays extreme patience, and throws an amazing ball to Dez for the score. This throw is of particular interest to me because in the last couple of years, we have seen teams at the NFL level heartily embrace the "back shoulder fade," especially in the red zone. Mostly because when thrown well, it's pretty much impossible to defend. The idea of that throw is to "throw the receiver open." However, you rarely see a back shoulder throw on a crossing route. Just a brilliant display from Romo here.

As we have mentioned many times, the benefits of Dez Bryant's deep threat extend well beyond the plays on which he is targeted deep. The attention paid to him, of course, provides more space and better matchups across the board. Despite this strategic weapon, just three of Dez's 35 targets through the first four games came on deep throws (9%). By contrast, in week 5, three of his 11 targets came on deep balls (27%). These three targets yielded a 79 yard completion and a 20 yard pass interference penalty.
The 79 yard completion came on Cowboys penultimate offensive drive; the drive that resulted in Dallas taking a 48-41 lead with just over seven minutes to play. After the aforementioned Murray holding penalty negated the 27 yard completion to Bryant on a drag, the Cowboys found themselves facing 2nd and 16 from their own seven yard line. The visual is below.

On the left side of the play, Bryant takes a fade release while Cole Beasley runs a quick 5-yard out from the slot. We're starting to see that Beasley has really quick feet and is capable of getting open on these types of routes, which he does here. The safety is already pretty deep, and he's slow to react to Beasley's break because of the Threat Of Dez. A nice pitch, catch, and turn upfield results in a 10 yard gain and it's now 3rd and 6 from the 17. 

On the very next play, Bryant is again slit to the left with Beasley in the slot next to him. They run the exact same concept on their side of the play. Except this time, the safety is thinking, "no way am I letting Cole Beasley convert this 3rd down and keep this game alive." Bad decision, coach. He comes downhill hard, Bryant gets a good release of the line, and Romo lobs it to him deep for a 79-yard connection. 

This is art. Force the defense to constantly consider which of your threats is most pressing, and you can likely find a favorable option on every play. It won't always be high-flying, and it won't always result in 48 points. But if this offensive line can protect at a level that is even average (as they thus far seem able to do), Dallas has an obligation to make teams prove they can stop their various threats through the air. While the term "moral victory" is indeed a silly one, the idea of proving to yourself that you are capable of taking what you want offensively is not. Now, we must wait and see if the Cowboys carry this same level of offensive aggression into games where perhaps the best offense in history is waiting for them on the opposing sideline.

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