Prior to the Dallas Cowboys' huge Week 12 victory over the division rival New York Giants, I published four ways the team could get wide receiver Dez Bryant more involved on offense. The tactics included back-shoulder passes, bunch formations, pre-snap motions and crossing routes.
And guess what? Head coach Jason Garrett must have read that article, because the 'Boys drastically altered the way they utilized Bryant on Sunday.
After catching only four passes for 22 yards in the team's season-opening game against the Giants, Bryant hauled in a season-high nine catches for 86 yards on Sunday, despite a lot of double coverage from New York.
Bryant lost a bunch of yards on a fumble and also caught a pass on the final drive that was—perhaps—incorrectly ruled incomplete, so his impact on the game was even greater.
To give you an idea of how the Cowboys implemented Bryant in a way that allowed him to beat the Giants' Cover 2 looks, let's take a look at the film using NFL Game Rewind.
If you've been a regular reader of mine here at Bleacher Report, you've probably noticed that I harp on the importance of play-action passes just about every week. I explained my views on play action at WFAA Sports prior to this week's game:
Want jaw-dropping evidence that the Cowboys don’t embrace analytics and are unwilling to adapt to new information? Last year, Romo ranked last in the NFL in play-action percentage, attempting a play-action pass on just 10.0 percent of his dropbacks despite totaling a 109.1 passer rating on those passes.
In 2013, Romo ranks last in the NFL in play-action percentage, attempting a play-action pass on just 10.3 percent of his dropbacks despite totaling a 121.2 passer rating on those passes.
All kinds of success on play-action, yet the rate has increased 0.3 percentage points? With that sort of improvement, we’ll only need to wait just over 37 years until the Cowboys reach THE LEAGUE AVERAGE in play-action percentage.
Oh, but the Cowboys can’t run the ball, you say, so why use play-action? First, Romo’s ridiculous play-action success is reason enough to increase the rate. But more important, play-action efficiency isn’t correlated with rushing success.
Defenders play situations, not past rushing efficiency, so the Cowboys don’t need a strong running game for play-action to work. If they implemented more of a scientific approach to decision-making over the faith-based approach they currently utilize, they’d probably know that.
Well, the Cowboys obviously placed an emphasis on improving their usage of play action during their Week 11 bye, because Pro Football Focus (subscription required) indicates that quarterback Tony Romo showed play action on 15 dropbacks on Sunday.
Romo was highly successful on those passes, completing eight for 111 yards, a touchdown and 7.4 yards per attempt. On straight dropbacks, he totaled only 5.35 YPA.
That's been a trend for years, and it appears the Cowboys are finally trying to exploit it.
Bryant was a big part of their play-action plans on Sunday right out of the gate. On the first play of the game, the Cowboys lined up in the "Ace" formation. That's a balanced, double-tight look from which the 'Boys have historically passed the ball around two-thirds of the time.
Bryant was lined up near the top of the screen, but notice the position of safety Antrel Rolle. The Giants appeared to be in Cover 3 on this play—the two cornerbacks and safety playing with deep-third responsibility—which means that Rolle would have had the underneath zone on Bryant's side of the field.
When Romo showed run action on the play, though, Rolle trickled up toward the line and was late to drop into his zone. Again, defenders play situations, so when you show a run fake on 1st-and-10, the underneath defenders will attack the line.
By the time Romo turned to throw the football, Rolle was out of position and unable to help underneath. Working alone against cornerback Prince Amukamara, Bryant made an easy catch on a comeback route for 11 yards.
Later in the game, the Cowboys faced a 1st-and-10 at their own 14-yard line, lining up in "Double Tight Right Ace." Bryant was lined up to the boundary (bottom of the screen). Also take note of linebacker Keith Rivers.
Bryant got a clean inside release off the ball while working on Amukamara. The Cowboys again showed play action, drawing Rivers and the other linebackers near the line.
Bryant didn't run a quick crossing route on this particular play, but the effect was the same.
Running an in-breaking route on a play-action pass, Bryant was afforded all sorts of room over the middle with which to work. If the Cowboys continue to work Bryant over the middle and use run action to draw defenders away from that area, they're going to be successful.
Near the end of the third quarter, the Cowboys again used Bryant on a crossing route—this time of the more traditional underneath variety.
Lined up outside of wide receiver Miles Austin, Bryant immediately cut inside underneath Austin after the snap. Two steps into his route, Bryant had seven yards of separation.
When teams want to press Bryant at the line, these sorts of route combinations from tight formations can be the Cowboys' best friend.
The play of the game for Bryant was one on which the Cowboys combined two aspects of the receiver's usage for which I've been calling: slot alignment and a back-shoulder throw.
The Cowboys faced a crucial 3rd-and-7 at their own 23-yard line. With 3:56 remaining in a tie game, Dallas had just given up a touchdown to the Giants and desperately needed to keep its offense on the field. It lined up in "Gun Trips Left" with Bryant in the slot.
In almost every other case in the past, Bryant has typically been isolated opposite the trips alignment, so this is a new wrinkle from Dallas.
The Giants placed Rolle on Bryant and pressed the wide receiver off the snap. Rolle's press was relatively effective, but in playing press man, the Giants were susceptible to picks.
The Cowboys executed this play beautifully, running Austin underneath Bryant in such a way that Rolle briefly collided with Amukamara. The play was completely legal because the defenders ran into one another, which is inevitable if you continually play press man against bunch formations. That allowed both Austin and Bryant to get open.
Romo threw a back-shoulder pass to Bryant, who came down with the catch for 19 yards. If the Cowboys can consistently get Bryant matched up with a safety who gets out of position because of a well-designed route combination, the wide receiver is going to win that battle almost every time.
As much as Dallas has traditionally failed to fully capitalize on Bryant's elite skill set, it did an outstanding job on Sunday against the Giants.
If the 'Boys continue to find creative ways to get Bryant open against all sorts of coverages—using him on play-action crossing routes and back-shoulder throws from the slot, for example—the offense's enormous potential will finally be realized.
Their first challenge in showing consistency with this creativity comes in just a few days, when the Oakland Raiders come to Big D on Thanksgiving. The Raiders haven't defended the pass well this year, allowing the eighth-most passing yards and seventh-most passing touchdowns while securing the seventh-fewest interceptions in the league.
Bryant is going to have dream matchups no matter who is covering him. Raiders starting cornerbacks Mike Jenkins and Tracy Porter both check in below 200 pounds.
Even with a safety over the top, it's going to be extremely difficult for the Raiders to match up with Bryant physically.
Look for the explosive wide receiver to rack up yards and be a force in the red zone.