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Is The Cowboys Passing Game Firing On All Cylinders?

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Dez Bryant‘ lack of second half receptions has garnered a lot of headlines over recent days. Most of the discussion has centered around the purported lack of trust between Romo and Bryant, Bryant’s perceived lack of work ethic, Romo apparently becoming gun-shy after five years of slinging it, or any other click- or ratings-generating topic.

But the more interesting question, at least for me, is what are the opposing defensive coordinators doing about it? For now, they’re still covering Bryant like a number two wide receiver for the most part, but will they continue to do so if Bryant doesn’t get any looks in the second half of ballgames?

The question is relevant because the Cowboys already have another player regularly running routes on passing downs who isn’t getting the ball this year: Martellus Bennett. After the break, we take a closer look at how the Cowboys tight ends are being utilized in the passing game

If you’re going to send a guy out on a passing route, even if he’s only a decoy most of the time, you’ve got to throw him the odd ball or two to keep defenses honest about how they cover him, otherwise that guy loses his value as a decoy. And a decoy that is recognized by the opponent as such isn't a good thing to have in an NFL that lives and dies by creating and exploiting favorable matchups.

Over the last couple of years, the Cowboys tight ends have stayed in to block on about half of their snaps, and went out on passing routes for the other half of their snaps: In 2009, the TEs ran passing routes on 44% of their snaps, 46% in 2010 and 46% so far this year. More importantly though, over the same period, when Cowboys tight ends ran a route, they were thrown at on about every fifth route, or about 20% of the time. Here are the splits for 2009 & 2010:

Year Player Total Snaps Pass Routes Run Block Pass Block %Routes Targets Receptions "Looks"
2009 Witten 1088 545 465 78 50% 137 108 25%
Bennett 513 204 256 53 40% 33 18 16%
Phillips 198 48 126 24 24% 10 8 21%
1799 797 847 155 44% 180 134 23%
2010 Witten 1077 554 432 91 51% 123 94 22%
Bennett 495 181 257 57 37% 44 33 24%
Rucker 12 6 4 2 50% 0 0 0%
Chandler 53 16 30 7 30% 3 1 19%
1637 757 723 157 46% 170 128 22%

What's interesting here, apart from the percentage of pass routes run, are the "Looks" the tight ends have gotten. "Looks" in this case are passing targets divided by number of passing routes, and indicates how often a ball was thrown their way when on a passing route. The overall numbers are very stable for the tight ends overall, with 23% Looks in 2009 and 22% in 2010. That Witten would be a little more involved in the passing game is only natural, but his Look-percentage is roughly the same as that of the other tight ends.

This year, the numbers show a wider spread:

Year Player Total Snaps Pass Routes Run Block Pass Block %Routes Targets Receptions "Looks"
2011 Witten 360 199 140 21 55% 44 31 22%
Bennett 155 69 69 17 45% 7 5 10%
Phillips 148 42 78 28 28% 8 7 19%
Rucker 10 1 8 1 10% 0 0 0%
TOTAL 673 311 295 67 46% 59 43 19%

Like in 2009, John Phillips continues to get a lot more run blocking snaps than snaps in which he goes out on passing routes. Martellus Bennett on the other hand is still clearly the second tight end on the team, and continues to notch about a third of the passing routes that Witten gets, roughly the same as in previous years. But this year, Bennett isn't getting a lot of Looks anymore: he's only been targeted on 10% of his passing routes, the lowest value in his four-year career.

For comparison, below are the same stats for the Patriots, who arguably have one of the best TE tandems in the league.

Year Player Total Snaps Pass Routes Run Block Pass Block %Routes Targets Receptions "Looks"
2011 R. Gronkowski 425 213 174 38 50% 38 29 18%
Hernandez 244 148 92 4 61% 38 27 26%
D. Gronkowski 50 6 27 17 12% 0 0 0%
TOTAL 719 367 293 59 51% 76 56 21%

The percentage of pass routes (51%) for the Patriots TEs is slightly higher than for the Cowboys TEs, but with a Looks-percentage of 21% they receive roughly the same amount of consideration in the passing game overall as the Cowboys TEs have had in previous years. The key difference is that the Patriots target both TEs frequently, whereas the No. 2 tight end for the Cowboys isn't getting a lot of looks.

I don't know whether Romo is avoiding Bennett this year, whether Garrett isn't calling enough plays for Bennett or whether Bennett himself is at fault somehow - and it doesn't really matter. The fact is, the Cowboys have a guy on the field on passing plays who apparently isn't being involved in the plays all that much.

I’m not a big Xs and Os guy, but if the Cowboys line up in their preferred 12 formation (two tight ends, one running back, two wide receivers), and one tight end isn’t going to get the ball (Bennett) and one receiver won’t get the ball in the second half (Bryant), that leaves only three eligible receivers (one WR, one TE, one RB) against a whole bunch of defensive backs and inside linebackers who now have the option of either double covering almost every receiver, or bringing extra men in the pass rush.

One of the things Tony Romo has traditionally done well is to distribute the ball to a large number of receivers. At a minimum, this has forced opposing DCs to at least account for every receiver in their coverage schemes. If two potential receivers are out of the equation - for whatever reason - that equation becomes dangerously unbalanced, and not in the Cowboys’ favor.

Obviously, that does not sound good. It's doubtful the Cowboys will be able to maintain a successful passing attack when one of the receivers is being kept out of the passing game. It's almost certain they won't be successful with two potential receivers not involved in the passing game.

So when you tune in to the game this afternoon, watch for how the Cowboys distribute the ball through the air. The injury-depleted Rams secondary should be just what the doctor ordered to get the passing game firing on all cylinders again.