The Giants employed every resource they had to stop Bryant, seemingly at all costs, which opened things up for other players on the Cowboys offense. That is the reason why Romo didn’t throw more than one incompletion to any receiver other than Terrance Williams, including going 26-of-29 when throwing to Jason Witten, Miles Austin, and DeMarco Murray.
All of those players are quality receivers, of course, but they don’t normally see the space they had to work with on Sunday night. The Giants kept a safety over top of Bryant on nearly every play so that the receiver couldn’t generate big plays, and it worked.
Let’s take a look at how they were able to effectively shut down Dallas' stud receiver.
Stopping Dez Bryant
There was a play early in the game that really caught my attention in regards to how New York was defending Bryant.
Just over three minutes into the contest, the Cowboys faced a first-and-10 at their own seven-yard line. They motioned tight end James Hanna into a fullback position, showing a “Strong Right” formation before the snap.
I track every Cowboys play, and the ‘Boys ran this formation just 23 times in 2012—only once with this “12” personnel of one running back and two tight ends—and they motioned into it on 15 of those plays. They also passed on 12 of them, meaning it’s one of the true “balanced” formations that the Cowboys utilize.
They can both run and pass out of this formation with effectiveness, which is why they often use play-action when running it. Five of their 12 passes from “Strong” formation were play-action looks in 2012—a 41.6 percent rate that demolishes their overall rate of just 10.0 percent. Romo did indeed show play-action again on this play as well.
Cornerback Corey Webster was lined up over Bryant (top of the screen). That’s a huge mismatch that Dallas would normally want to exploit. Webster was targeted only six times on the night, however, allowing three catches for 25 yards, according to Pro Football Focus.
One of the reasons that Webster and the other defensive backs were so effective on Bryant is that they could play really, really aggressively. On this play, Webster was lined up about five yards off of Bryant. The Giants did a good job of mixing up their looks, playing in a press position on one play and with off-technique the next. One of the benefits of this particular look is that the Cowboys couldn’t immediately back-shoulder Bryant since Webster could initially look into the backfield.
By the time Romo showed the fake and settled into the pocket, Webster was right on Bryant’s hip. Like most plays, he had safety help over the top as well. That allowed him to play ultra-aggressively, shadowing Bryant underneath without fear of giving up the big play.
There’s really a humongous difference in a cornerback’s technique when he has safety help. Most understand that safety help takes away the deep ball, but the primary advantage is also stifling short and intermediate routes since the cornerback doesn’t need to respect anything else.
The Cowboys initially had just two players in routes—Bryant and Austin—with Hanna and Murray leaking out later. The Cowboys kept Witten in to block—something he was asked to do on just 9.7 percent of passes in 2012. The ‘Boys really employ the tactic when they want to generate a big play. Witten’s presence as a blocker, combined with the play-action fake and Romo’s eyes locked on Bryant, suggested that this was an attempt to get the ball downfield.
Bryant ran a dig route on the play—10 yards up and in—and Romo seemed intent on getting him the ball. Remember, this play was specifically intended to give Bryant the ball in a catch-and-run situation, so Romo wanted to get the ball to his top target and first read.
Webster was right by Bryant’s side, however, and the pass fell incomplete. It was actually a rather poor decision by Romo to force the ball into coverage because there was also a safety playing over top. He was so deep in an effort to take away a big play that he still wasn’t even in the frame, as can be seen in this clip:
This particular coverage—Cover 2 Man-Under—is one the Giants have used in addition to traditional Cover 2 when playing Dallas. It’s been a really effective combination because you can’t tell which defense they’re in before the snap. Typically, the cornerbacks play in a press position in Cover 2 Man-Under, which utilizes two deep safeties with man coverage underneath. But the Giants have been rotating their cornerbacks up and back, regardless of their responsibility, and it has seemed to give Romo problems.
By playing off, the Giants can look into the backfield yet still sit on underneath routes like hitches and slants. Webster can actually let Bryant get to his hip, as he did on this play, and then aggressively trail him underneath. Knowing they’ve got that help over the top, it allows the cornerbacks to play physically and take chances underneath, removing the Cowboys’ ability to throw these sorts of routes to Bryant.
Preparing for More of the Same
You can bet that the Chiefs and every other opponent will mimic the Giants’ game plan this season. You can say that the Cowboys “took what the defense gave them” on Sunday night, but if all you’re taking is 5.0 yards per passing attempt, there are going to be some problems. The Cowboys have to find a way to get Bryant the ball, and they need to do it in a hurry.
As mentioned previously, back-shoulder throws could work. Even when the cornerbacks play off, they usually still sit on underneath routes and play from a trail position when they have safety help like this. The Cowboys probably could have thrown a late back-shoulder on this play, too, since Webster had his back turned to Romo just a second into the play. A well-timed back-shoulder throw can render the safety useless. Look for multiple attempts to do so against the Chiefs.
If Kansas City decides to press Bryant more often, the Cowboys can go to a bunch look, placing three receivers in a tight area. That will make it easier for Bryant to get off of the line since he can use the other receivers as natural screens.
The most effective way to beat Cover 2 Man-Under, though, might be to attack the field horizontally. You always want to go vertically up the field, but that’s exactly what this defense is meant to take away. It’s going to be really difficult for the Cowboys to continually find success while sending Bryant deep (or in any vertical fashion) when there’s a cornerback on him and a safety over top.
So why not utilize all 53.3 yards the field has to offer from sideline to sideline? By running Bryant on crossing routes, he’ll effectively be in man coverage. The best way to “beat” those deep safeties is to not even attack them; it’s not in a defense’s best interest to have two players deep not covering anyone. By attacking horizontally and forcing the cornerbacks to run across the field, the Cowboys can get them in true man coverage situations in which they don’t really have help.
Whatever strategy the ‘Boys use, it’s clear that it will need to be more effective than the strategy they employed on Sunday night. They snuck out of Week 1 with a win, but they’re not going to keep getting six takeaways. If they can’t find a way to either get Bryant involved when he’s doubled or more effectively capitalize on the attention he’s getting, there could be big trouble in Big D.