The NFL officially began keeping track of targets in the 2009 season, and have since supplied that information all the way back to 2006. Targets are the number of passes thrown at a given receiver, irrespective of whether the receiver catches them or not.
Unfortunately, as a stat, targets are far from perfect. For one thing, figuring out who exactly a pass may have been targeted at is decided by the official scorekeeper, which by definition introduces a level of inaccuracy. Secondly, even if a ball is thrown badly, it often ends up going against the record of the receiver who was in the general vicinity of where the ball was thrown, even though he may not have had even the remotest chance of catching it.
Nevertheless, targets are a good indication of which receivers have the quarterback's and the OC's confidence. So today we look at the last seven games to understand how the Cowboys have been distributing their touches. Why the last seven? Because the eighth was the game against the Broncos, and including those offensive fireworks into any type of analysis would likely skew any results. Also, there's the small matter that the Cowboys are 5-2 over their last seven games, a fact that has gone remarkably unreported
Here are the numbers for the passing game for the last seven games:
As you would expect, Bryant is Romo's primary target, and he's getting almost twice the amount of looks the other receivers are getting. Unfortunately, Bryant's 58.2% reception rate has got to be disappointing. Among the 40 players with the most receiving yards in the NFL, Bryant's reception rate ranks 27th for the season. Bryant has nine dropped passes to his name for the season, as well as three fumbles, and those drops clearly impact his numbers. Without the drops in the table above, Bryant would have a reception rate of 68.7%.
A number approaching 70% is usually at the very top of any wide receiver list - that's Bryant's potential, but he hasn't lived up to it over the last seven games.
The stand-out wide receiver for the Cowboys is Cole Beasley. For the season, Beasley has a reception percentage of 70.5% (31-for-44). Among the 88 wide receivers with at least 40 receptions, Beasley ranks third in the league behind only Seattle's Doug Baldwin (72.7%) and San Diego's Eddie Royal (70.8%).
Cole Beasley appears to be taking targets away from Jason Witten. Last season, Witten had 150 targets to Bryant's 138, this season Witten and Beasley combined are slightly ahead of Bryant.
Over the last seven games, two players in particular have tapered off. Terrance Williams started the first five games furiously, catching 16 of 21 targets (76.2%), but his reception rate has dropped below 50% over the last seven games. Miles Austin missed three of the last seven games, but his performance in the other four was a disaster, as he only caught two of the 14 passes thrown his way. Sure, some of those passes may have been bad throws by Romo, but when Romo is able to connect fairly well with almost any other receiver and not with Austin, then something is not right with Austin.
The other thing of note here is the overall distribution of targets. Bryant is the top guy, and there are four guys bunched fairly close together after him: Witten (38 targets), Williams (37), Beasley (33), and whoever is playing running back (38). In the Cowboys' passing game, the running back is a highly effective though hopelessly underused weapon.
Over the past seven games, the running backs have combined for an extraordinarily impressive 86.8% reception rate. Most notably, DeMarco Murray's 88.6% reception rate for the season (39-for-44) is the second best value in the league (min. 20 targets) behind only the Saints' Pierre Thomas.
There was a lot of talk earlier in the season about the Cowboys needing to force the ball more to Dez Bryant. And while that is not a bad thing in principle, the key takeaway here is that the Cowboys' passing game is not predicated on just one or two players, it's much more about spreading the ball around.
On Monday, the Cowboys play a pass defense that looks better on paper than it actually is. The Bears rank 14th in passing yards allowed, which appears okay (and certainly better than the Cowboys who rank 31st). But the Bears defense ranks dead last in rushing yards allowed - teams simply run a lot more against the Bears than they pass. In fact, the Bears have the second fewest pass attempts against (379) and third most rush attempts against (368).
A better measure of the Bears secondary is Yards allowed per Pass Attempt. With 7.8 YPA the Bears rank 27th in the league, four spots below the Cowboys, whose 7.7 YPA is nothing to write home about either.
Even if the Bears find a way to double- and triple-team Bryant or find a way to cover Witten in any form (highly unlikely, given their LB unit), the Cowboys should have enough capable receiving options on the roster to keep the passing game going.
But wait, if the Bears have the worst run defense in the league, shouldn't the Cowboys look to run the ball more than pass it? Ha, that's what you think! Knowing the Cowboys, they'll try to outfox everybody and try to beat the Bears with their passing game.
Who do you think will lead the Cowboys' receivers on Sunday?
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