I’m extremely bullish on wide receiver Dez Bryant’s long-term prospects, and extending his deal should be a no-brainer for the Cowboys. I’d currently rank Bryant as the third-best receiver in the NFL, behind only Calvin Johnson and Josh Gordon.
There are a million reasons to like Bryant’s game, so I’m going to concentrate less on why he’s the Cowboys’ best player and more on why and how Dallas can find ways to maximize the effects of his talent in 2014.
One thing the Cowboys have already accomplished that should help Bryant this season is hiring offensive coordinator Scott Linehan. Whether Linehan is creative enough to get the most out of this offense as a whole remains to be seen, but he sure has shown the ability to get the ball into his No. 1 receiver’s hands.
Linehan was the offensive coordinator in Detroit from 2009 to 2013, and during that time, Calvin Johnson averaged 1,448 yards per season. Megatron is certainly an other-worldly talent, but it’s difficult for any receiver to consistently beat double-teams in the NFL as Johnson was forced to do in Detroit. Linehan helped to make that a possibility.
In studying some of Linehan’s tactics to get Johnson open and combining them with Bryant’s particular skill set, I came up with six ways the Cowboys can get the best out of Bryant in 2014.
The first task I’m listing here—for Romo to throw more back-shoulder passes to Bryant—is atop the list because it has the potential to be so effective. Bryant has such incredible body control and ball skills that if you put the ball anywhere in his vicinity, he seems to come down with it more often than not.
Plus, back-shoulder throws can be a natural answer to both double-coverage and the press. It’s really difficult for a safety to get over toward the sideline to defend a back-shoulder throw, and almost impossible for a cornerback playing in man coverage to locate the ball and make a play on it.
As I’ve explained in the past, a lot of defenses like to play Cover 2 Man-Under against the Cowboys to limit Bryant’s effectiveness. The coverage utilizes a safety over top of the X and Z receivers with man coverage underneath. One of the only throws that can consistently beat it is the back-shoulder variety.
Put Bryant in the slot.
There seems to be this unwritten rule that slot receivers should be small and quick. Why? In studying Linehan’s usage of Johnson, I noticed that the receiver was quite often moved into the slot.
So I went to Pro Football Focus (subscription required) to check the data. While Bryant ran just 11.5 percent of his routes from the slot in 2013, Megatron was all the way up at 26.9 percent.
Of receivers who ran at least 50 snaps from the slot last season, only two—Cordarrelle Patterson and Keenan Allen—recorded more yards per route than Bryant.
You can expect the Cowboys to move Bryant all around the formation this year as Linehan did with Megatron. It will be interesting to see how often the Cowboys put the receiver into motion, too, as an additional way to diversify the locations from which he runs routes.
Not only can sending Bryant into motion help to stop double-teams against him, but it can also aid in getting off of press coverage.
Use bunch formations.
Yet another way to get Bryant free from press coverage is to use more bunch formations—those with multiple receivers lined up in close proximity. When offenses run formations like “Tight Trips,” cornerbacks can’t come up to the line to press because they can run into one another after the snap.
When offenses line up in bunch formations, defenses often check to a zone coverage to limit the possibility of their defenders getting picked underneath. Now, man coverage isn’t a bad thing if you can get it—obviously the goal is to get Bryant matched up one-on-one with a defender—but defenses that play a cornerback in man on Bryant will typically have a safety over the top, too, in which case a true zone can be more advantageous.
Run crossing routes.
One of the biggest mistakes the Cowboys have made with Bryant, in my opinion, is their route selection. We so often see Bryant and other Dallas receivers running vertically on routes like comebacks, hitches, curls, and so on. That’s fine—the goal is to move up the field and into the end zone—but you can’t do it all the time. It’s really easy to double-team a receiver when he runs right into safety help.
For that reason, crossing routes can be the Cowboys’ best friend when trying to get Bryant isolated. Instead of stretching the field vertically, Dallas can stretch it horizontally to avoid safety help. Crossing routes can be particularly effective against Cover 2 Man-Under or other types of man coverage because 1) you can get a cornerback in a natural trail position on Bryant and 2) he won’t run into zone help underneath.
The first goal should be getting Bryant isolated downfield, but sometimes coverages make that a near impossibility, in which case stretching the field horizontally can work wonders.
Make Bryant the No. 1 priority at all times in the red zone.
Finally, the Cowboys need to do everything in their power to get Bryant involved as much as they can in the red zone. This is obvious, but I’m talking about a whole different level of involvement—not just “let’s get Bryant the ball,” but rather “Bryant is our No. 1 option on every passing play, and we’ll move away from him only when there’s no way to get the ball in his hands.”
Simply put, Bryant is the game’s top red zone wide receiver.
For the Cowboys to have a successful 2014 season, they need to score at a high rate when they reach the red zone. There are multiple ways to accomplish that—running well near the goal line and utilizing the tight ends more frequently among them—but the best way is to give Bryant as many opportunities to score as possible.