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.
The term "must-win game" is certainly one that is is overused and misapplied these days, which you might think would lead to a diluting of the intensity of contests that actually fit that bill. Week 16 at Washington indicates that is not the case. Much attention has been paid to the final, game-winning drive the Cowboys offense put together with their season on the line, and rightfully so. Especially given the fact that we now know that march was engineered by a quarterback with a back so injured it would require season-ending surgery. However, the Dallas offense was below average to poor for most of the day, although we also now must consider how much of a factor Romo's health was there as well. Through the first three quarters, Romo was 8-15 for 86 yards, with 1 TD (which we will discuss in a moment), and 1 INT. In the final frame, Romo was 9-12 for 140 yards and the final, decisive touchdown. Again, given the information we have, incredible.
Dez Bryant was more of a factor in this game than he was in the Week 6 win over the Redskins, but not by much. In that first game, Jim Haslett elected to to provide DeAngelo Hall safety help on 16 of 27 routes Bryant ran, limiting Bryant to 5 catches on 8 targets for 36 yards. He was actually much more effective on those routes in which he was "double covered" than the 11 when he was left in single coverage, partially because that coverage often coincided with blitzes that were getting home before routes could properly develop. Let's see how Washington decided to play Dez this time around.
BRYANT AGAINST HELP DEFENSE
|13 Yd. Comeback||1||1||0||0|
|10-12 Yd. Stop||2||0||0||0|
|5-7 Yd. Stop||3||0||0||0|
|10-12 Yd. Out||0||0||0||0|
BRYANT AGAINST NO HELP
|Fade||3||1||0||0 (+5 DEF HOLDING|
|13 Yd. Comeback||2||2||1||11|
|10-12 Yd. Stop||0||0||0||0|
|5-7 Yd. Stop||0||0||0||0|
|10-12 Yd. Out||0||0||0||0|
|15||7||3||41 (+5 DEF HOLDING)|
A near 50/50 split. Hall was covering Bryant for much of this game, and again, did a really solid job of it. Dallas only tested the 'Skins deep with no safety help once, and got a defensive holding call out of that play. On average, Bryant is targeted about 10 times a game, so his 12 in this game is not extraordinary. However, for a 12 target day, this is a relatively sub-par return on investment. Romo missed a couple of times, and Bryant had one really bad drop on a dig route on which he had created separation and the throw was on target. In general, an average to below-average game for the Cowboys best offensive weapon. The running game was able to find some measure of success, though, which we should always remember is related to the way a team decides to cover Bryant.
Despite not having a great game, Bryant did make a couple of big plays that helped the Dallas offense do just enough to keep this team's playoffs hopes alive for another week. Both of our visuals this week come from the same second quarter drive. We will start with a play on which Bryant didn't necessarily have to do a ton, but one on which the design was executed perfectly and the desired results were achieved.
2nd Q - 6:08 - 2nd & 6 - WAS 46
After stalling on their previous drive, Dallas now trails Washington 7-6. As we have discussed many times before, the Cowboys do not use playaction near enough in general, as Romo ranks near the bottom of the league in every year that stat has been tracked. Certainly there are times when play fakes can't be leaned on (although no one has told the Eagles or Redskins this), and Washington's aggressive defense is adept at taking this element away from offenses. However, Dallas did dial it up a few times Sunday, and one of those calls lead to the completion we see below.
Dez is split out to the right with Jason Witten tight on the same side. Washington gives a two-safety look, with their corners playing seven yards off. Romo play fakes from the shotgun, which is something the Cowboys have started to do more of late. The safety doesn't really bite on the play fake, but it appears DeAngelo Hall does. Hall might just have straight cover two responsibilities, which would mean turning Bryant lose was the right play, as he needs to cover the flat. However, if that is the case, then the deep safety plays this very poorly by drifting to the middle of the field to help on Witten who is being covered man-to-man. Bryant stutter steps a little bit right when he gets level with Hall, which ties the whole concept together. Whether a blown coverage, a play design that simply matched up well with the called defense, or a combination of both, this was perfect execution all the way around. Romo slides right and steps up which allows him to drive this into the hole in the coverage rather than airing it out and hoping Bryant can get past the recovering safety (unlikely to be a completion given the angles).
That played worked out exactly as it was drawn up. Our second visual…did not.
2nd Q - 4:46 - 3rd & 9 - WAS 14
After that huge completion on the playaction deep ball, DeMarco Murray gained just a yard on first down, and an incompletion on a second down Dez target brought up 3rd and 9. In my view, a touchdown was absolutely necessary here. I have no data to back this up, but I think settling for a field goal on a drive when you complete a big play like the one above is more debilitating to the overall flow of your offense than kicking a field goal on a drive full of smaller gains. Either way, suffice to say that given the final score, every point was important.
Now. Clearly, no one feels great about the Cowboys chances Sunday night without their quarterback available to do things like what you see above. However, Week 7 at Philadelphia was one of Bryant's biggest games of the season, and it was by far the most effective he has been attacking the middle of the field. 101 of his 110 yards came on digs, square-ins, slants, and drags. Save for the dig, those are not difficult throws to make. I do not think the Eagles have the secondary to slow Bryant down, plain and simple. They do, however, have the front seven to affect the pocket, so this game may come down to the Cowboys offensive line giving Kyle Orton enough time to let Bryant and Co. go to work. Bryant had 17 targets in that Week 7 win over the Eagles, tied for his season-high. For the Cowboys to realize their goal of winning this division, I think it takes the same type of focus on getting Bryant the ball in the middle of the field with room to run.