Dez Bryant put together a strong finish to the 2012 NFL campaign, recording his best season as a pro. However, the talented wide receiver cannot rest on his laurels ahead of the new season. There are three things Bryant must improve to be even better in 2013.
Those three things include consistency and beating press coverage on the outside. Bryant also has to get better at adjusting his patterns behind the blitz.
Beating Press Coverage on the Outside
Beating press coverage on the outside is one of the two primary areas in which Bryant must improve. A play from his dismal outing against the Seattle Seahawks in Week 2 shows Bryant's struggles against press techniques.
Bryant is up against 6'4" 221-pounder Brandon Browner. The Seattle cornerback is rolled up tight to the line, in a clear press alignment.
Because Browner is playing with inside leverage, Bryant will have to break his route to the outside and attack the sideline. That is the plan, at least.
It quickly becomes unravelled when Bryant fails to win at the line and successfully shed the initial press. Browner gets his hands on Bryant, who struggles to release.
Because he has failed to shed the initial contact, Bryant has not gained sufficient separation from Browner.
He has allowed the Seahawks cover man to take away the inside and pin him to the sideline.
That gives quarterback Tony Romo very little room to aim for. Romo is forced to try to drop a pass over Browner's head, up against the sideline. Not surprisingly, this extremely difficult throw lands incomplete.
By taking away the inside, Browner had forced Bryant to the outside. But the Cowboys flanker still could have won on the sideline if he had successfully navigated the initial press.
Instead, unable to get separation, Bryant allowed himself to be pinned to the sideline and gave his quarterback nowhere to throw.
Bryant's problems escaping press continued against the Chicago Bears in Week 4. This time he could not get free from the attention of veteran Charles Tillman.
Bryant is faced with a standard press look from Tillman on a 3rd-and-5.
Again, he struggles to escape coverage at close quarters once the inside is taken away.
Bryant tries to counter by adjusting his route with a comeback, but he does not get far enough away from Tillman.
Again, Bryant has asked Romo to be incredibly accurate on a tough throw to the sideline. This time Romo delivers the pass, but Bryant cannot bring it in.
On both of these plays, Bryant was faced with a familiar look. Browner and Tillman each played him with a press look and took away the inside.
With a cornerback rolled up tight on him and playing inside leverage, Bryant can struggle to gain separation. Contrast these two plays with an example of Bryant facing off-coverage techniques.
The play comes against the Cleveland Browns from Week 11. Bryant is given a reasonable cushion and will take advantage by running a quick-slant inside.
Because of the lack of pressure on his initial break, Bryant can run this simple in-breaking pattern and make an easy catch.
He can then use his speed and frame to fight through defenders for an 11-yard gain.
Given room in his initial alignment, Bryant is able to work the middle as well as any receiver. But to be a more complete pass-catcher, Bryant must improve his ability to adjust his routes to multiple pressure and coverage looks.
Adjusting His Route to the Blitz
This is an area in which Bryant has often struggled throughout his three pro seasons. The 24-year-old had a major issue adjusting his route to the blitz against the Bears in Week 4.
The Bears are showing a seven-man-pressure front and will bring five on the rush. As the primary outside receiver, Bryant should adjust his route and run an in-breaking pattern to beat the zone-droppers.
This would be the hot read Romo is looking for. All it requires Bryant to do is run his route behind the pressure.
He has two choices. Bryant can drop inside, in the gap between Tillman and Brian Urlacher. That is the quick, short throw Romo needs to escape the blitz.
The wrong move for Bryant is to continue to the outside on a vertical pattern Romo won't have the time to find.
Sadly, Bryant runs a vertical. He does not adjust to the inside, which Romo is expecting and Tillman has now read.
With Tillman naturally positioned to cover the hot read, he is in place for an easy interception. Bryant is not there to impede the cornerback's view and make a simple catch to prevent the turnover.
Tillman would snare the pass and return it for a touchdown. Bryant's failure to recognize the pressure and the coverage cost the Cowboys big time.
As he progressed during the season, Bryant showed some improvement in this area. Against the Washington Redskins in Week 12, Bryant manages to identify a gap in zone coverage, away from pressure.
Notice the big cushion the Redskins have inexplicably given Bryant on the outside. This gives him all the room he needs to break to the middle.
Bryant will attack the inside against Washington's nickel set. The middle linebacker will naturally drift to the three-receiver side, creating an open zone on the inside.
Bryant quickly finds that space and sits down in the open zone. He has given Romo an easy target to escape the five-man pressure brought by the Redskins.
This was a simple but vital sight adjustment by Bryant and the Cowboys that avoided negative yardage.
Bryant has shown some improvement in key areas of his game. The next step must be to put it all together more often.
During his 92-catch, 1,382-yard 2012 season, Bryant managed five games of over 100 yards. But the spread of those games shows a receiver who has not yet mastered consistency.
According to stats provided by NFL.com, Bryant managed just two 100-yard efforts in his first nine games. The breakthrough in his season came against the Browns and Redskins in Weeks 11 and 12.
Bryant produced consecutive 145-yard performances in those contests. But he then went three games below the triple-digit mark, including two in which he failed to reach 60 yards.
He then caught nine passes for 224 yards against the New Orleans Saints in Week 16. Yet Bryant was held to just four catches for 71 yards in the season finale against the Redskins.
This is a receiver with as much physical talent as any player at his position in the NFL. But Bryant has to be more of a factor on a weekly basis in 2013.
Of course, the key to that consistency is a more refined overall game. That includes making it difficult for defenses to simply press him at the line and take away the inside.
It will also involve getting better at making pre-snap reads and adjusting to defenses.
A more technically sound Bryant can be even better in 2013 and produce his finest season yet.
All screenshots courtesy of Fox Sports, ESPN and NFL.com Gamepass
All statistics courtesy of NFL.com