Our weekly look at how the Cowboys took advantage (or, often, didn’t take advantage) of their best offensive weapon. The whole series can be found here.
Another week, another maddeningly frustrating game for the Dallas Cowboys offense. I don't think many people expected the Cowboys to beat the Saints in New Orleans, but as we in the fanbase yearn for signs that they have the potential to separate themselves from the NFL's Big Middle a.k.a. "The Gaggle," a nice competitive showing in New Orleans would've been acceptable. Instead, Sean Payton and Rob Ryan paddled the Dallas coaching stuff on the way to one of the most lopsided exhibitions of domination you will see in the NFL in a game the Jaguars aren't playing in. The Saints, top to bottom, probably have a more talented roster than the Cowboys do. But the discrepancy is no where near as large as it looked on Sunday night. For the purpose of this piece, obviously, we will focus on what former Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan was able to do to Garrett/Callahan, and more specifically, to Dez Bryant (with the clear implications that those observations make about the relative performance of the current Cowboys defensive coordinator).
We probably should've seen this coming. Rob Ryan had a pretty good seat at Cowboys practices and games last year to make note of how exactly to throw sand in Jason Garrett's offense eyes. Defensively, the Saints are an above average group this year, ranking 12th in Football Outsiders defensive DVOA. Going deeper into that number, they rank 5th in pass def. DVOA, but 30th in rush def. DVOA. Clearly, the Cowboys pass offense is far more productive and efficient than their ground game (by the same metric, their pass O ranks 11th, while their rushing offense sits at 26th). So, rather than saying, "We think we can dial up a night of elite offense through the air, because that's who we are," Dallas decided to try grind the game out against a Saints D they thought they could run on and "keep Drew Brees off the field." The result of that strategy? Dallas faced nine 3rd downs, with an average distance to gain of nine yards. They converted zero. They ran just 43 plays. This would've been a great strategy for a team that can run the ball. But...
That being said, let's take a look at how Ryan shut down the Dallas passing game when they did decide to throw. First, the breakdown of the coverage of Bryant.
BRYANT AGAINST HELP DEFENSE
|13 Yd. Comeback||1||0||0||0|
|Back Shoulder Fade||1||0||0||0|
|5-7 Yd. Stop||1||0||0||0|
BRYANT AGAINST NO HELP
|Route||Against No Help||Targets||Comp.||Yards|
If you've been reading this series, you may think I made a mistake on the second chart there. Nay. On 26 routes, there was a safety shaded to Bryant on every single one of them. This is the first time this has happened this year. The Giants flirted with this, but Ryan was the first to pull it off. The Saints blitzed on just 11% of the Cowboys snaps, which is the lowest rate Dallas has seen all season. Contrary to what you may have been lead to believe over the years, Ryan is a pliable coordinator who is not a manic blitzer. He was comfortable sending 4, dropping 7 and letting Romo/Garrett figure it out. Romo/Garrett did not figure it out.
Bob's Xs and Os piece yesterday spent some time on the "Just Throw It To Dez" argument that follows any Cowboys loss in which Bryant had little impact. The specific play he highlights, the red zone play where Bryant was treated like a gunner on a punt, is clearly not a time when they should be forcing the ball to Bryant. (As an aside, the question of "have you ever seen a team cover a guy like that?" has been asked a lot this week. Well, I have, a lot...at the high school level. You know, the level of play where a team often only has one guy who can really hurt the opposition? The level of play where one coach is often head and shoulders better than the other and knows adjustments won't be made to make a defense pay for this? That level.) And even outside of that crazy double team, there is no question (as our charts above indicate) that New Orleans' plan was to keep Bryant from beating them. There's probably no way Dez comes out of this one with a huge stat line. But, and I know this is simple, two targets is just unacceptable. The problem, as is the case when defenses play like this, is that Romo will have to wait an extra tick to get the payoffs from targeting Dez. Sunday night, he was unwilling to do so. Let's take a look at a couple such plays.
2nd Q - 4:24 - 2-8 - DAL 9
Here we see one the few plays where Romo utilizes playaction (and one of the even fewer times it didn't lead to a positive play). After the play fake, he is staring down his eventual target, Terrance Williams. The protection is not great, but Dallas is not trying to go deep here. Look at Dez at the top of the image as Romo is readying to release this pass. In addition to keeping a safety over the top of him on every route he ran, Bryant was also pressed at the line of scrimmage on all but two plays. However, there are ways to make a defense loosen this up. Bryant gets an aggressive outside release to open the DBs hips, then breaks to his slant. Sure, there is a safety over him, but that safety can't do anything about this save for making an open field tackle after a 15 yard gain. I've been saying this all year: when you get a two-deep look to take away Bryant's deep threat, slants and digs. Slants and digs. If Romo looks back to Bryant and puts this in front of him, it's a chance for a big gain. Is it risky this close to your own goal line? Of course it is. But that's a risk I'm willing to assume to keep from getting embarrassed.
As far as the deep ball goes, the Cowboys did actually execute a perfect cover 2 fade route late in the game which we will focus on in our final image. But first, let's take a look at another similar instance when they opted not to take the risk on a tight throw.
3rd Q - 0:28 - 3-21 - DAL 37
Trailing 35-17 at this point, Dallas needs a score on this drive or it's likely over given the day Brees and Co. were having. As I've mentioned in previous posts, having to throw deep balls into two-safety looks is not something you want to make a habit of, because it's very tough. You'd rather methodically move down the field using the middle of the field and then make the defense pay for overcommitting to Bryant by finding other receivers deep. But at this point of the game, on 3rd and 21, that isn't really an option.
Bryant is at the bottom of the image, and again, we see him pressed with a safety over the top. He makes an interesting adjustment to his fade route here. Rather than pressing the corner's inside shoulder then "fading" toward the sideline, he pressed outside then works underneath him. And it works. By yard 5 of this route, Bryant is open, and the safety is still pretty far away. Now, that is a very tough throw, a lot tougher than another 5 yard stick route to Witten. But with Beasley in the slot next to Bryant attacking the deep safety with a post route, I think you have to look back to Bryant and take a shot here. Again, the protection is not spectacular, but it isn't that bad. This is a play where I need Romo to make a play. Dez did his part. Beasley did his part. Instead, it's a punt, and the game is basically over.
The things is, I know Romo can make that throw, because he did it two drives prior.
3rd Q - 1:23 - 2-5 - DAL 35
Down 35-10 here, the Cowboys are rightfully in desperation mode. When they came to the line of scrimmage, Bryant was outside as the Z receiver and Cole Beasley was in his normal spot when they go empty, in the slot next to Dez. Romo called for the two of them to flip, putting Bryant in the slot (which we will address at the end of this post). Bryant is still pressed, though, and there is still a safety to deal with. However, Romo delivers a perfect "cover 2 Fade;" over the corner and under the safety (even though this is 2-man and not "cover 2," the concept holds the same as the corner is in a trail position). That is a very difficult ball to complete, but I have a top 5 WR and a highly compensated QB for a reason.
It looks even more impressive from the end zone view, as you really gain an understanding for the matter of inches they are working with here.
I understand the difficulty of the throw. And like I said, in a game like this, this isn't what you what to hang your hat on. But you have to try it a few times a game.
The more frustrating part of Dez' usage in this contest for me was not the lack of deep balls, but just the overall lack of creativity in trying to free him up and counter what Ryan was doing. I first mentioned this after the Denver game; Dallas has to do more to move Bryant around formations and make it harder to take him out of the intermediate game. Right now, he is running just 10% of his routes from the slot. If you want to get him involved in a game plan when the deep ball isn't much of an option, that number should be double that or more. He is far behind every other elite "outside" receiver in the game in this regard. Larry Fitzgerald? 48.5%. Brandon Marshall? 48.8%. Calvin Johnson? 25%. AJ Green? 21%. Dallas is the only team in the NFL that takes their best receiving threat and essentially leaves him in the same place (sans a side flip) all game. I don't have data on league-wide motion-usage or bunch formations, but I can assure you they are outliers in that regard as well.
For next week's bye week post, I will compile the season totals for the route breakdowns and see what we learn from that. What I know is this: if the Cowboys are going to win this division and get to the postseason, they cannot afford another game in which their best player has no impact.