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.
After the drumming they received at New Orleans in Week 10, the Cowboys had a much-needed bye week to not only heal up a bit, but perhaps more importantly, to put their ailing offense under the microscope. Dez Bryant had as little of an impact on the game in the Superdome as any other this season, as he was targeted a season-low two times. I said it in the piece following that game, and really, this sentiment is the reason I started writing this post: if the Cowboys played another game in their remaining six in which Byrant had as minimal of an impact on the contest as he did in New Orleans, they will not be seeing the post season.
It is both maddening and satisfying at the same time, but it appears the Cowboys coaching staff heard the many criticisms of their recent offensive game plans and responded after the bye. Perhaps fan/media commentary has nothing to do with this. Perhaps it is just a matter of their internal investigations into their game plans thus far turned up the EXACT same solutions that many have been crowing for for some time. If you have been reading this blog weekly, or listening to any forum where I have an opportunity to interject my opinion on this matter for the past couple of years, you know that I have been using my tiny pulpit to scream about the need to vary Bryant's alignments in their formations. I have outlined time and time again why this is an issue, but in summation: Dez is their most dynamic, best offensive weapon. He is going to see a safety over the top of him just about every play. One way to negate the impact of that extra defender is put Bryant in the slot (or even tighter to the formation in bunch/stack). This at the very least makes a defense constantly have to think about how to take him out of the game. Before Week 12, Bryant was running just below 10% of his routes from the slot, far and away an outlier among his brethren of "elite" "outside" receivers. In this game? 19% (second to only the 25% of slot routes he ran in the Denver game). That might not seem like a lot, but mixing in 4-6 more routes a game for Dez from different alignments has an impact on the entire offense, not just on plays on which he is targeted. All three of our visuals this week will focus on routes Bryant ran from inside, but first, our overall route breakdown.
BRYANT AGAINST HELP DEFENSE
|5-7 Yd. Stop||1||1||1||5|
|13-15 Yd. Comeback||3||1||1||15|
BRYANT AGAINST NO HELP
|Route||Against No Help||Targets||Comp.||Yards|
|Back Shoulder Fade||2||1||1||18|
|13-15 Yd. Comeback||2||2||2||26|
Bryant ran 41 routes, and saw safety help on 78% of the time. This is roughly near the season average, but it's somewhat curious because in the Week 1 matchup with Dallas, New York opted for a 2-man look that left Bryant with a safety over him on just north of 90% of his routes. As you can see, two-thirds of Bryant's yards on the day came when the Giants decided to walk a safety up to the line of scrimmage and essentially leave the DB over him in man-to-man coverage, which didn't go so well. Obviously, there were some rough patches of play in this game for Dez. I found it interesting that on the first play of the game, Dallas goes playaction and immediately targets Bryant (the use of more playaction, along with the need to target Bryant more in the red zone, have been the other two causes I have lobbying Valley Ranch for; they have obliged on the red zone front thus far). After that catch on the opening play of the game, Bryant dropped an easy catch on a square-in, a poorly thrown deep ball he couldn't make a play on, and then the interception that bounced off of his hands. Let's start there.
1st Q - 5:50 - 1st & 10 - NYG 36
Miles Austin motions wide right, putting Bryant in the slot in between Austin and a flexed Jason Witten. This means he now has slot corner/safety Antrel Rolle over him. Not that Prince Amakamura is anything special, but Antrel Rolle cannot handle the physicality of Dez, especially in close quarters. As you can see there is a safety over the top of Witten/Bryant/Austin. Dez basically bench presses Rolle at the stem of his route, and has solid, easy separation when the ball is thrown. Romo puts it on the money, and Bryant simply cannot close the deal. I suppose you could make the case that the hit he surely about to take resulted in a loss of focus, but I'm not sold on that from the video. To me it looks more like he is too concerned about getting upfield rather than getting hit. To be sure, you're going to see more contact running these types of routes from the slot. However, we have seen Dez absorb big contact and hang on to the ball in the middle of the field, so I don't think it's a play that he can't make on a regular basis.
Next let's take a look at another play the Cowboys were unable to finish, but one that I think we will see again very soon.
4th Q - 9:23 - 2nd & 10 - DAL 13
Again we see Bryant in the slot, this time at the top of the image on the left side of the formation. The Cowboys again use playaction, but they are trying to hit a deeper completion here than the comeback they started the game with, and they are unable to protect Romo long enough. Which is a shame, because this is a route combo I have not seen Dallas run with Bryant in the slot, AND I LOVE IT. At the bottom of the screen Terrance Williams is running a deep corner. At the top of the image, Miles Austin has a deep dig. From the slot, Bryant runs a deep post that basically creates a "levels" concept with Williams. As soon as Bryant crosses the dropping linebackers face, he is open with room to run were Romo able to hit hiim. Unfortunately, the pressure has already gotten to Romo. But with Williams pressing upfield like this, running Bryant "behind" him from the other side of the field could result in a big play. And, it's not something that would be possible with Bryant split out from the other side of the field, as the distance would be too far (it turned out to be too far on this play even from the slot). I can almost guarantee that we will see this play again: Bryant running a post across the field into an area vacated because of other deep routes.
For our final visual, why don't we look at one Dallas was able to complete, and in fact, one of the more critical completions on the day.
4th Q - 3:56 - 3rd & 7 - DAL 23
A tie game with under four minutes to play. Third and long after a false start. Only one third down conversion up to this point (dating back to the start of the Saints game, actually). Your star receiver has had a drop turn into an interception, as well as a fumble that nearly cost you the game. Garrett/Callahan put Bryant in the slot, and Romo targets him. If that is not trust, if that is not believing that "everyone is on the same page," I don't know what is.
We see Bryant in the left slot at the bottom of the image, with Miles Austin outside of him. Before we get to the route combo, the question must be asked: what the hell are the Giants doing? One has to question the wisdom of going with one safety here, but assuming they are going to play just one safety, why is he shaded to the single receiver side of the field rather than the Witten/Bryant/Austin side? Odd.
Bryant and Austin mesh right off the snap, essentially creating a pick. Typically on this sort of combo, you will see the inside receiver go behind the route of the outside receiver. Bryant goes in front, and while I'm not sure if that was by design or not, it worked to create the needed confusion and separation. Interestingly enough, though, it actually worked better on Austin's defender, as Rolle does a decent job recovering. However, because Austin ends up with a nearly free release to the middle of the field, that oddly placed safety comes downhill hard to try to break up the slant to Austin. And now, there is no one to help Rolle, and perhaps more importantly, no one to make Romo think twice about throwing this ball. And that throw. Back shoulder throws are tough no matter where you try to execute them, but throwing it 20 yards downfield is a significantly more difficult pass than throwing it on the five yard line. This is a stellar convergence of play design, play call, and execution, and it put the Cowboys in position to get out of New York with a win and keep their division title dreams alive.