(Note: I intended to provide season totals of the route breakdowns this week, but that will likely have to wait until the bye week.)
Week 8 at Detroit provided us with another confusing week of offensive strategy from Garrett, Callahan & Co., a story which has been treated as tertiary to the endgame theory second-guessing and the "Should They Cut Dez For Screaming" debate. It will probably not surprise you that I'm far more concerned about what happened in the game (on the field) for the first 58:46 than either of those stories. Embedded in the conversation about the offensive struggles, though, is the question that brought about the existence of this series: Are the Cowboys getting enough out of Dez?
This discussion, clearly, was highlighted by the contrasting performance of Calvin Johnson. This left a lot of people posing questions about why the Cowboys can't get similar production from Dez despite the opposition having the same intention of eliminating Bryant from the gameplan. Now, we will get to some of the ways in which Dallas might have been able to get a little more from Bryant in a moment. But first, let's be clear: Calvin Johnson is a better player than Dez Bryant. And while on the whole, perhaps not a better quarterback, Matt Stafford has a considerably bigger arm than Tony Romo does. Megatron is the best at his craft, but there are only a handful of guys who could get as much out of him as Stafford does. He will absolutely throw you out of a game from time to time, and overall he's an inconsistent player at this point. But Detroit protects him very well, and when on, (especially against a depleted secondary) he is a problem. The point is: Romo and Bryant are not capable of doing what Stafford and Johnson did Sunday.
I also believe that on both sides of the ball, the Dallas coaching staff did very little to aid their club in this quest to watch wits. Defensively, the Cowboys didn't blanket Johnson with as much coverage as you might have expected, as SI's Doug Farrar details here. And offensively, while the disparity in targets between Johnson and Bryant has been the most quoted stat, I'm more interested in the situations the coaching staff put each receiver in. Dallas, again, failed themselves by being too committed to "trying to establish the run". Despite not having DeMarco Murray, Dallas ran the ball on 15 of 24 first downs (62.5%). Detroit's split was 20 of 39 (51%). On second down, Dallas ran it 10 of 19 times (52%), while Detroit rushed on 8 of 26 snaps (30%). Neither of these teams can run the ball very well. One of them knows it. This insistence on unsuccessful running plays affect them in the passing game, because they end up putting themselves in situations where they have to throw.
Now, for the route breakdown.
BRYANT AGAINST HELP DEFENSE
|Back Shoulder Fade||1||1||1||5 (TD)|
|10-12 Yd. Stop||2||0||0||0|
|5-7 Yd. Stop||1||0||0||0|
|12 Yd. Out||2||1||1||50|
|22||6||3||72 (2 TDs)|
BRYANT AGAINST NO HELP
|Route||Against No Help||Targets||Comp.||Yards|
|Square In||1||1||0 (1 PI)||0 (6 PI YDS)|
Although the Cowboys offensive line has been serviceable for most of this season, they struggled against a good front four in this game. This affected what Detroit did in coverage as the game went on. Bryant ran four fade routes in Dallas' first four drives, and on three one of those four plays, Romo took a shot. He ran eight total, so only four more came after those three hits (and one of them was an end zone that doesn't require Romo to stand in the pocket). Basically, by the second half, the Lions seemed pretty convinced Dallas wasn't threatening them deep. Their safeties would creep up and take away the dig, which has been Bryant's most productive route this season. One such example is below:
1st Q - 0:42 - 3rd & 10 - DAL 20
Bryant is split left at the bottom of the image. Even though this is a single high look, I still classify this as "help" because that safety is only responsible for half of the field. At the snap, he comes downhill a few yards and looks not the least bit worried about anything deep. He jumps the route and doubles Dez. Without the threat of being able to beat a defense deep, double coverage becomes very tough to shake. On the backside, Witten also draws a double. Beasley seems to have beaten his man down the seam, but the clock in Romo's head is ticking, leading to an incompletion.
For our second set of visuals we go to the red zone. As we've discussed in previous weeks, the key to Dallas scoring touchdowns rather than field goals is the proper use of Bryant's skill set. Before this year, his number of targets in this part of the field was far too low, as was their red zone TD scoring percentage. After Week 8? Dallas is second in league to only the Broncos at 69%. That'll do.
Before we marvel at the highlight reel play Dez made, let's first briefly look at the play prior.
2nd Q - 0:55 - 2nd & GL - DET 5
Dez is the outside receiver in a bunch formation at the top of the screen. I have long crowed about wanting to see more bunch from this offense, so it feels a little odd to complain about it...but I just do not understand this route combo at all. We have seen Dez dominate on the simple fade or back shoulder fade so many times (and we're a play away from seeing it again). Why trick it up? Bryant takes his fade release, but his alignment is so far inside and there are so many other defenders in this area, it makes this an easy cover. The distance he has to run and the angle he has to take give the safety enough time to be a factor in taking away Bryant's front shoulder. The back shoulder adjustment is not really an option either because Beasley's defender is in the lane. As you watch that ball travel, think: where exactly is Romo going to put this ball? It just doesn't make a ton of sense.
Fortunately, the Dallas O did not let this deter them from going back to Dez, only in their more traditional sense this time.
2nd Q - 0:51 - 3rd & GL - DET 5
For our final visual this week, we'll take a look at a scoring play that Dez had his fingerprints all over despite not being the target.
4th - 11:43 - 1st & 10 - DAL 40
Dez is split left at the top of the image with Beasley in the slot next to him. The Cowboys are in empty with four WRs and Witten all headed out into routes. Detroit brings five, and the LDE is unblocked. There is a single high safety responsible for anything deep. At the snap, the safety opens his hips to Bryant as Dez presses upfield, and that's really all it takes to render him useless in helping on Williams. Romo does a great job of getting this ball off with pressure in his face, and Williams adjusts the angle of his route perfectly. This is a case of your quarterback and your biggest offensive threat generating and subsequently making a defense pay for one-on-one matchups.
All in all, while you'd like to see Bryant more involved in the game plan any time he finishes with just seven targets (I count pass interference no-plays, if you were wondering), I really don't think that's why the Dallas offense sputtered this week. The pass protection and therefore the quarterback just weren't really up for the challenge agains this Detroit front four, which will always make it tougher for your primary receiver to see the number of targets you'd like. That, coupled with the dogmatic commitment calling sub-optimal plays paerticularly on second down, let to another average day from this offense we perpetually expect much more out of.