Bryant is one of the game's elite wide receivers, possessing a skill set that's truly rare. Earlier this week, I detailed why I thought the Cowboys were turning a corner with Bryant, using him on play-action passes, in the slot, on crossing routes, and giving him back-shoulder throws.
On Thursday, we saw a little good and a little bad from Dallas in how it used its star wide receiver.
From the Slot
It's advantageous to place Bryant in the slot at times is because 1) the cornerbacks covering him typically aren't used to playing in there and 2) it's more difficult for them to press Bryant. Whereas cornerbacks can use the sideline to their advantage when playing out wide, Bryant has more room to get a clean release from the slot.
After a slow start, the Cowboys used Bryant in the slot on a big 3rd-and-7 at the Raiders' 29-yard line. Down 14 just before halftime, it was a crucial play for Dallas.
The formation was "Gun Trips Left," one from which the Cowboys pass the ball all the time. Bryant faked a move to the outside before crossing the defenders face easily.
Romo hit him in stride and Bryant was off and running for a 25-yard gain. So often we think of slot receivers like Cole Beasley who are small and shifty, but the big boys can excel inside as well.
Quarterback Tony Romo threw just one back-shoulder pass to Bryant on Thursday, but it was an important one. Down by a touchdown midway through the third quarter, Dallas lined up in "Tight End Trips Right" on a 1st-and-Goal from the 4-yard line.
Offensive coordinator Bill Callahan actually called a run to the left on this play. You can see how the offensive linemen and tight end Jason Witten came off the ball with their pad levels down, suggesting the 'Boys were supposed to run a stretch play.
On most runs, though, Romo has the freedom to pull up and hit Bryant. He did that on this play, likely because cornerback Mike Jenkins was on the wide receiver.
I explained in my game plan for Dallas that this would be a situation to exploit since Jenkins stands just 5'10", 198 pounds. Romo did it well on the back-shoulder throw here.
Romo showed play-action early in the game on a 2nd-and-6 from the 36-yard line. The Cowboys were in "Ace," which is a formation from which they love to pass the ball.
Running back DeMarco Murray actually didn't carry out the fake on the play, which is fine because the Raiders were blitzing. When a running back has pass protection duties and the defense blitzes, he no longer needs to honor the fake. So, even though this was a designed play-action pass, the effect wasn't really generated.
You can see Romo faking a handoff to no one. The Raiders were in Cover 1 on this play, which is man coverage underneath with a single-high safety. The Cowboys didn't properly block this up, so there was a defender right in Romo's face when he turned to throw.
The Cowboys lost 10 yards on the sack, likely putting a bad taste in Callahan's mouth. The 'Boys called only one more play-action pass on the day, which was an incomplete deep look to wide receiver Terrance Williams.
After that, Callahan seemed like he had enough.
But why? Because the first two play-action passes weren't successful?
Keep in mind that Romo has unbelievable on play-action passes during his career. He has a 119.5 passer rating this year, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), after generating a 109.1 rating in 2012.
And league-wide, play-action passes are much more successful than straight dropbacks and underutilized by many teams. But not to the extent of Dallas, which still ranks third-to-last in play-action usage in 2013.
Thursday's outing suggests that nothing changed for Dallas last week. The Cowboys likely saw something in the Giants' defense that made them think play-action would be successful, but perhaps they didn't recognize the big picture.
Either that, or they overreacted to a sample size of two unsuccessful play-action passes. Either way, it's a really bad sign.
Bryant's Future Usage
On Sunday, for example, Bryant wasn't actually used from the slot very much, and the back-shoulder throw was Romo's decision, not designed. I re-watched the game and charted Bryant as being targeted nine times on the following routes:
- Crossing Route (2)
- Curl (2)
- Quick Screen (2)
- Skinny Post
- Back Shoulder
Again, none came on play-action.
While play-action passes are a way to make the offense as a whole more efficient, they could really propel Bryant as well. The fact that the Cowboys haven't recognized and rectified a situation as simple as that suggests maybe we shouldn't be so optimistic about Bryant's future usage.
It's not like Bryant hasn't produced, but you have to keep in mind that he's an elite player. He's going to put up numbers no matter what, so his partial effectiveness isn't a sign that his play is being optimized.
Until Dallas shows it is willing to implement the data to take advantage of its elite wide receiver's potential dominance, it's difficult to be bullish on the Cowboys' chances of reaching the playoffs and making a run.