If you're a defensive coordinator playing the Dallas Cowboys, your primarily goal is to take wide receiver Dez Bryant out of the game. If you can roll coverage his way so that the Cowboys don't target him as often, you have done your job.
Without Bryant's explosiveness and big-play ability on the outside, the Cowboys are probably a below-average offense. Their running game is lackluster, and Dallas tight end Jason Witten is fulfilling my preseason prediction that he would be the team's most disappointing player.
So when Bryant isn't a factor on offense, what do the Cowboys have? An up-and-down rookie wide receiver? Uh oh.
That means Jason Garrett, Bill Callahan and Co. absolutely must find ways to get Bryant involved, regardless of how much attention the defense gives him. The Dallas brain trusts haven't done that thus far, allowing quarterback Tony Romo to "just take what the defense allows."
Well guess what guys? If you're trying to overcome a horrific defense and you rank 12th in the NFL in yards per play, you might want to consider taking a little bit more than what the defense is giving you. Maybe, just maybe, it's time to stop making excuses for why you can't put the best players in positions to succeed and start getting creative.
When defensive coordinators do force Romo to look somewhere other than in Bryant's direction, they win. Bryant, one of the game's elite receivers, ranks 10th in the league in targets with 89 (8.9 per game), according to Pro Football Focus. As the clear-cut best player in Big D, Bryant should be targeted nearly as often as Houston Texans' wide receiver Andre Johnson, who leads the NFL in that category (11.1 per game).
To give you an idea of how defenses are taking Bryant out of games, let's take a look at the film.
Two weeks ago, the New Orleans Saints did an outstanding job on the fourth-year wideout, pressing him at the line and typically playing with a safety over top of him. There were few plays on which Bryant didn't have a man in his face at the line.
Even when the Saints played zone and didn't press other receivers, they jammed Bryant. It was important to them to not allow him a clean release.
It's smart for the Cowboys to move Bryant into the slot at times, because it can help him get off of the ball (if the Cowboys run natural picks), but the one thing lining up in the slot can take away is the back-shoulder throw.
Later in the game, the chance for a back-shoulder throw was available. New Orleans was again up in Bryant's face.
Even with a safety deep, this is a situation in which the Cowboys need to get the ball to their stud receiver. If the opposing cornerbacks are going to get in his face and turn their back to Romo, the 'Boys need to take advantage of Bryant's superior ball skills by throwing to his back shoulder whenever possible.
Just about the only time that's not available is when Bryant sees something like this.
Yeah, that's probably not a beatable coverage.
With that said, I've brainstormed four ways the Cowboys can get the ball to Bryant more frequently and more effectively.
Throw him more back-shoulder passes.
Use more bunch formations
The Cowboys usually leave Bryant alone outside, which is fine if you're going to take advantage of what that offers. But since Romo doesn't seem too eager to throw to Bryant's back shoulder, and the coaches don't appear too ready to tell Romo to do it, the team could at least benefit from moving Bryant inside.
As mentioned, that can open up new routes, make it more difficult to double him since defenders can't use the sideline to their advantage and allow for Bryant to get off of press coverage more easily.
Another way for Bryant to beat the press is to put him in motion. Using Bryant in pre-snap motion, which is something Dallas doesn't do often, might not only help Romo diagnose the coverage, but it could also make it more difficult for cornerbacks to get in position to jam Bryant.
Use more crossing routes
Finally, the Cowboys absolutely must stretch the field both vertically and horizontally. We always make a big deal about Dallas not attacking downfield, and that's a very legitimate concern, but they ironically don't really stretch the field horizontally, either. They run a whole lot of curls, hitches, quick outs and so on.
Against the Saints, you saw quarterback Drew Brees have all sorts of success on deep crossing routes. They're difficult for cornerbacks to defend in man coverage if they get behind the receiver right off of the snap, but they can also be zone-coverage killers when receivers sit down in open areas.
Utilizing more crossing routes will help the entire Dallas offense, but Bryant could be the main beneficiary.