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.
Generally, I like to start each post with a positioning statement of sorts on how that week's game developed before delving too much into how Dez Bryant figured (or didn't figure) into the strategic equation. This time around, though, I think it's best to spare you that for the most part. This one has been talked to death, and with good reason, as we are all unlikely to see a collapse of this magnitude too many times in our football fandom lives. In short, I think the Cowboys would've been wise to run the ball a few more times in the second half. But, I disagree with what seems to be the conventional wisdom that more carries for DeMarco Murray would've nearly ensured a Dallas victory. Perhaps it would've increased their chances. I'm just not sure by how much, because (and we seemingly all agree on this) their half-practice-squad defense is just too bad right now.
I would rather spend the bulk of our focus on how good the Dallas offense really was. Because if the defense gets even one stop in the second half, I believe the machine-like offense we saw Sunday at times would've been the headline. And since the purpose of this series is to evaluate the usage and impact of Bryant rather than how bad Cameron Lawrence's recognition skills are, I think it makes sense for us to go ahead and discuss the day the offense had.
For Romo and Co., it was their second-highest yards-per-play total of the season. I don't think it's any coincidence that that number coincides with a season-high tying number of targets for Dez (17) Certainly, there are some games where WR target numbers can be misleading, for example if a team is down big early and fighting to come back. Here, that, um…wasn't the case.
Bryant made the Cowboys target investment worth it, turning in a season-high 152 yards plus a defensive holding call. So let's see how he got it done.
BRYANT AGAINST HELP DEFENSE
|Back Shoulder Fade||2||1||1||6 (TD)|
|10-12 Yd. Stop||1||0||0||0|
|5-7 Yd. Stop||2||2||2||16|
|10-12 Yd. Out||1||0||0||0|
BRYANT AGAINST NO HELP
|Back Shoulder Fade||1||0||0||0|
|10-12 Yd. Stop||0||0||0||0|
|5-7 Yd. Stop||1||0||0||0|
|10-12 Yd. Out||1||0||0||0|
|Double Move||1||1||0||0 (+5 Pen. Yds)|
|16||5||1||16 (+5 Pen. Yds)|
On 51 routes, Green Bay provided safety help on 31% of the routes Bryant ran. They blitzed Romo on 39% of the Cowboys offensive snaps, and these two numbers make sense together. Both are just slightly higher than the season averages they have faced. As you can see, Romo opted not to target Dez heavily when double-covered, instead finding Jason Witten and Terrance Williams in one-on-one situations on those plays. However, Bryant did serious work against safety help, and this was primarily for two reasons: he set up show in the middle of the field, and he was able to use a slight double-move to free himself up for Romo's longest completion of the day. Let's start with the latter for this week's first visual.
2nd Q - 1:32 - DAL 31 - 2 & 4
Dallas leads 19-3 at this juncture, and they're hunting for some insurance. The drive starts with a DeMarco Murray carry that is good for a 6-yard gain. The next play is below:
Dez is at the top of the image with a corner playing him with a slight cushion and a safety over the top. Two things are essential to this play being complete for the big gain. First, the safety is briefly moved away from his deep halves responsibilities by Romo's eye movement. And secondly, this is one of the better deep routes I've seen Bryant run. It may not have been good for a score, but that has more to do with the throw. Dez attacks the corner's inside shoulder, and at about the 38 - the stem of the route - it's over. To me, it looks like the DB thinks he is going to anticipate Dez breaking inward for the dig. Bryant sells it just enough to create separation, but not so much that he loses much speed. He plays the boundary well and hauls in the completion. Again, this is a play where he was essentially supposed to be double-covered.
Another really promising aspect of this contest for the Cowboys offense was the way they were able to get Dez to the middle of the field. This is most easily done by putting him in the slot, which as we've detailed before, is something they don't do near enough. As a reminder, on average, he's in the slot just 10% of the time, far less than his peers. In this game, that number was just 15%, but hey, progress is progress. I'm thirsty over here. In the play below, we see that Miles Austin has motioned from the backfield out wide putting Dez in the slot.
3rd Q - 10:30 - DAL 43 - 2 & 8
Dallas is now leading 26-10 after Green Bay scored on their opening drive of the possession, and did so rather quickly. The motion from Austin leaves Witten as the inside-most receiver, and it is his route that frees Bryant up just long enough to exploit the middle of the field. Fighting over or under a Jason Witten release is no small task for a DB, and this is a route combo the Cowboys have come to favor. They used it heavily in the Philadelphia game, and I'm hoping that if Week 17 against the Eagles matters, we'll see it plenty more in that matchup. Despite his issues with fumbles, I'll take my chances with Dez Bryant catching the ball in stride in the middle of the field if you can get him just a little bit of separation using alignment and confusion.
Other times, Bryant is able to get the necessary separation inside using only his footwork and his reputation as a deep threat, as he did on what should have been the biggest play of the game for Dallas.
4th Q - 3:57 - DAL 18 - 3 & 12
Now the lead for Dallas is just 36-31, and judging by their posture, it seems the Cowboys know they have to score to secure this win. After a poor deep throw to Bryant on first down and a sack of Romo on second down, the Cowboys face a 3rd and 12. Bryant is at the top of the image, with Beasley in the slot next to him. A slant is typically not the type of route you can expect to pick up 10+ yards on unless a tackle is broken or missed. What this means is that Dez has to have the awareness to take an angle that will make him an option for a conversion here, and he does just that. He presses the outside shoulder of the corner, who (properly) is worried about Dez getting behind him for something bigger, even though he has safety help. This release from Bryant gets the DB to open his hips, which Dez recognizes as the time to make his break. Despite an impressive recovery from the corner that allowed him to tackle Dez immediately, the chains are moving. This is a veteran play in the fourth quarter with the game on the line. This is not to say that Bryant has it all figured out at this point by any means, but this is technician stuff, and Romo clearly knows this.
Unfortunately, that drive was abruptly ended by a Romo interception on a packaged play in which Tony went for the kill shot when the kill shot wasn't really all that available. Since Bob focused heavily on that play earlier this week, I will close with a brief look at the Tramon Williams interception on the next drive, the one that effectively ended the game.
After the game, Cole Beasley took the blame for what transpired, which was big of him, because I really don't think this was on him. It was the right thing to say publicly, but my initial thoughts combined with the conversations I have had with people far more knowledgeable about this stuff than I am make me think that Beasley was just taking a bullet for this QB. The play is below:
4th Q - 1:24 - DAL 29 - 2 & 1
After a 9-yard completion to Beasley on an route, the Cowboys are trying to quickly move down the field to score as they now trail 37-36.
Beasley is in the right slot, with Terrance Williams outside of him at the bottom of the image. The slot corner is playing Beasley on his inside shoulder, and there is a safety over the top. The real mystery to solve here for the offense is what the outside corner over Williams will do. The inside alignment of the slot corner indicates he knows he will not be responsible for the flats; that he has help out there. The pre snap position of the safety (and then his immediate hard back peddle) indicate that the safety is responsible for the deep half. Add those two things up, and you can surmise that Tramon Williams - the DB over Terrance Williams - will be sitting in the flat. Beasley sees this, and that's why he throttles his route down. He knows Williams will be waiting out there. Now, Tramon Williams does a fantastic job of disguising his intentions, as he back peddles and makes it briefly look like he plans to run with his man. But he was never going to go with Terrance Williams. Beasley made the proper read, Romo didn't.
And now, we head into Week 16 at Washington knowing that the blitz is coming, and Dez Bryant will see a TON of single coverage. That one-on-one defending will be provided in large part if not exclusively by DeAngelo Hall, who has really performed well against Dez previously. This might be the type of game where Dez has to fight through some very physical coverage to make the Redskins pay for their aggression.