Throughout the week following the Cowboys' 20-19 Week One loss to the Giants, in which the Dez Bryant was targeted only five times, gaining eight yards on one first quarter catch, the narrative has revolved around whether the Cowboys do enough to generate touches for their star wide receiver.
While many can say "they need to feed the ball to number 88", and others including those around the team can say things like "If Dez is the read, then Dez is the read," my goal here is to attempt to demonstrate ways in which the Cowboys offensive staff can put Dez in position to be the read.
Before we get into the X's and O's let's take a look at some numbers from Week One. I studied the coach's tape and charted each route that Dez Bryant ran in the game, along with his alignments, and the coverage he faced.
|Routes||# of Snaps||..||Coverages||# of snaps||..||Alignment||# of Snaps|
|Corner||2||Cover 2||7||#1 Standard||23|
|Deep In||3||Cover 4 (Double)||1||#3||2|
|Deep Out||2||Double - Bracket||4|
|Deep Over||5||Double - Buzz||1|
|Go||21||Double - Fist||2|
|Out N Up||1||Single||16|
|Grand Total||44||Grand Total||44||Grand Total||44|
To summarize, Dez lined up as a traditional outside WR in a standard split about half of the passing snaps, while being moved around to other spots for the other half. He ran a total of 26 vertical routes including 21 "Go" routes, and faced single-coverage a total of 16 times while seeing true double-teams on eight snaps and 2-man or man-coverage with two deep safeties another eight times.
The most striking number among these is the 26 vertical routes. In a game in which it was clear the game plan was to help Dak Prescott protect the football by throwing underneath, Scott Linehan clearly decided that the best use for Dez Bryant was to run him deep down the field to stretch the coverage and open up room for capable receivers but lesser play-makers. In fact, on many of these 26 vertical routes, it was very clear that Dez was not even a part of the progression that the quarterback was reading to determine who to throw the ball to.
This is where I believe the coaches didn't do enough to help their offense maintain explosiveness while still protecting the ball. There are ways to get the ball to Dez with out throwing up a 50/50 ball deep down the field.
Let's look at some ideas that could be in the game plan to get the ball to number 88.
For the next few chalkboard images lets assume the Cowboys are in their base 11 (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR) personnel featuring:
X - Dez Bryant
Z- Terrance Williams
Y- Jason Witten
H- Cole Beasley
R- Ezekiel Elliott
In this example, Dez aligns in a traditional outside or #1 receiver position to the strong side of the formation. Notice also that I have the deep free safety shaded distinctly to Dez's side of the field. Just before the snap he takes a short "divide" motion back towards the core of the formation which brings him into a bunch with Witten and Beasley. As the ball is snapped, Bryant runs a shallow cross or "drag" route which when combined with Witten's dig route, creates a HiLo Crossers concept, also known as the "drive" combination.
This combination is a base concept that's in every NFL, college, and most high school offenses, designed to put underneath zone defenders in a bind and create space for easy throws. Using the bunch set as I have here also makes the shallow cross a very effective man-coverage beater because the corner responsible for covering Dez will have to run through Witten and the man covering him as well as Beasley and the man covering him. This natural rub or pick should give Dez plenty of separation and make the read a very easy one for Prescott.
The post route from Williams is included to keep a deep safety from trying to drive downhill early to cut off Dez or Witten. Similarly Elliott's flat route to the left should pull any curl-flat defender to the outside leaving additional room for Dez to catch and run in case of zone coverage.
This is a perfect example of a way that a scheme can be designed specifically to get the ball to a specific player, while testing multiple coverages in the deep, intermediate and short areas of the field, and giving easy two-man reads to your rookie quarterback.
Here we are showing Dallas in a very basic 2x2 formation with the closed side to the left. Dez is lined up in his traditional #1 wideout split to the open side of the formation. At the snap of the ball, he will take an inside release and work up the field to 12 yards, and run a dig route. Cole Beasley lined up in his typical slot position runs a seam route, which combines with Dez's dig to create a "dagger" concept.
With this two-route concept, you can accomplish two things, you can get Dez on the move across the field against a CB who in moves coverages will be playing him with outside leverage, and at the same time Beasley's seam route should force the free safety to keep his depth and prevent him from driving down hill and across Bryant's face.
This combination is also very effective against cover two as the Mike linebacker will run with Beasley up the seam, leaving the middle open for Dez crossing the field. The angle, or "Texas" route from Elliott out of the back field will give Dak a third option in the middle of the field in case the defense plays Cover 3 and the linebackers sink underneath Dez's dig route, getting Zeke the ball on the move in space is never a bad fall back option.
The Slant-Flat combination on the offense's left from Williams and Witten, is included to give Prescott a quick escape valve in case of early pressure, and provide a man coverage beater option for the young QB should Dez
Again we've designed a scheme that is designed to get the ball to Dez, but provides multiple alternative options should the coverage truly dictate that the ball go somewhere else.
In this example, Dallas is in 12 (1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR) personnel, which means that Geoff Swaim is replacing Cole Beasley as the "H".
Here Dez starts out as the #1 receiver to the right side of this 2x2 formation. However, the motion by Zeke Elliott out wide now puts Dez Bryant in the slot as the #2 on the three receiver side. The slant from Dez combines with the shallow cross from Jason Witten to create the "follow" concept which is a staple of this Cowboys offense, which we have dressed up with alignments, personnel and motion to keep the defense on their heels.
The "Go" routes by Williams and Elliott are designed to widen and stretch the defense vertically to keep them from compressing down too tightly on the two-man route underneath. However, depending on the defense's response to Elliott's motion, Prescott could decide to take advantage of a mismatch against a linebacker one on one on the outside with Zeke down the field.
If you add two of these plays to your 15 play script to open the game, and another to your 10-15 plays to open the second half, you've given yourself a great chance at getting your best player going strong early in the game, and when combined with the typical 5-7 targets he gets throughout the rest of the game, you're set up to get him 8-10 targets, which with a weapon like Bryant gives you massive upside.
In addition to these plays for Bryant, I wanted to share a constraint play that could result in an explosive play for the Cowboys. This is designed to take advantage of defenses that over-react to the Jet Sweep looks that Dallas shows on a weekly basis with Lucky Whitehead.
On this play, Lucky will be the "Z" receiver in the Cowboys 12 personnel group.
When the Cowboys show Jet motion from Whitehead to a side of the field with no wide receivers, the film shows that opposing corner backs will come downhill hard early in an attempt to shut down the edge on the sweep play that Dallas has been so effective with.
On this play I have Lucky running Jet Motion from right to left, while the offensive line, along with Prescott and Elliott execute a fake inside zone play. However, on this play, rather than settling in the flat as he typically does when he doesn't get the ball on the Jet, I am sending Lucky deep to the sideline on a "wheel" route. We have all seen the type of on field speed that Whitehead possesses, and with the running start from the motion he will have a full head of steam as he attacks the corner to that side who will have no shot at reacting to turn and run with the route.
After executing the fake, the first place Prescott will look will be to find the deep safety, if he has reacted to the play fake and come down hill towards the line of scrimmage the throw to Whitehead will no doubt be wide open. If the safety didn't react to the play fake, and has turned to meet Whitehead on the sideline, Dez Bryant should have a leverage advantage on the skinny post to the opposite side.
If both of these routes are covered, Prescott will look underneath to Witten in the flat, before escaping the pocket.