In his first game action since going down with a back injury at the end of the 2013 season, Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo went 4-of-5 for 80 yards and a touchdown against the Baltimore Ravens on Saturday.
Romo looked comfortable in the pocket, and outside of a couple minor miscues, he looked like his old self. I really liked what I saw from Romo in new offensive coordinator Scott Linehan's system, as he showed play action well, looked off defenders better than I've ever seen and made a very serious effort to get the ball into the hands of wide receiver Dez Bryant.
Romo's first throw of the game came in a difficult 2nd-and-19 situation with the Cowboys backed up to their own 8-yard line. The team lined up in "Gun Tight End Trips Right Empty"—a version of a five-wide look.
Romo had lots of time to throw, which was true on all of his dropbacks. The Ravens rushed four defenders, although this was a zone blitz with one of the linebackers rushing and a defender who lined up on the line pre-snap dropping into coverage. Romo had both Cole Beasley and Jason Witten open underneath and could have hit either one in rhythm, but he decided to hang onto the ball and step up in the pocket.
This is a great sign for Dallas, as Romo's target was Bryant, who ran a crossing route from the slot. Both of those things—a crossing route and a slot alignment—were underutilized by Dallas last year in regards to Bryant. I love what I've seen from Linehan in terms of getting the ball to Bryant thus far in 2014 (both on Saturday and in practice) and Romo's willingness to give up the sure thing to allow Bryant to get open was a thing of beauty.
Romo hit Bryant in stride, and the wide receiver did his thing to break tackles and secure a first down. "Forcing" the ball to Bryant is going to be more high-variance than hitting players like Beasley and Witten underneath, but that sort of upside is exactly what the Cowboys need from their offense this year.
Romo's worst throw of the night came a few plays later on the drive. On a 1st-and-10 from its own 40-yard line, Dallas lined up in "Gun Tight End Spread Right." Bryant was lined up on the same side of the formation as Witten, both on the boundary (short side of the field).
As Romo dropped back, he did a wonderful job of looking away from Bryant. From Romo's limited action, it has been apparent that Linehan has really reinforced in Romo the need to manipulate the safety with his eyes.
Romo threw quickly once he locked back in on Bryant, who actually ran a poor route on the play. You can see Bryant is just about one yard or so from the sideline on this go route, giving Romo very little room to fit the ball in.
Nonetheless, Romo underthrew this pass. Because he manipulated the safety so well, Romo had Bryant streaking down the sideline without a safety over top. He could have—and should have—led Bryant up the field, but the wide receiver was forced to reach back quite a bit to make the play. Bryant still caught the pass because he's an absolute freak (it was wiped away by a holding penalty), but this was a poor throw from Romo—not devastatingly bad, but still not good.
Romo made up for it on his second and final drive, however, connecting with Bryant on nearly the exact same play. The 'Boys were lined up in "Gun Tight End Trips Left" on a 2nd-and-8 from the Ravens' 31-yard line; Bryant was isolated to the boundary.
Bryant ran another go route, and Romo again looked elsewhere as he dropped back.
That moved the safety, giving Romo plenty of options in terms of ball placement. Bryant was again "covered," in that he wasn't open in the typical sense, but any time the wide receiver is running one-on-one with anyone, that's a situation the Cowboys need to exploit.
Romo's pass didn't lead Bryant in stride, but it was an elite throw—and better than the previous go route—in two senses. First, it had more air under it, allowing Bryant time to get underneath it and make a play. The first throw was more of a line drive on which Bryant didn't have as much time to use his superior ball skills to outduel the cornerback.
Second, this throw was near the end zone. Leading Bryant and trying to hit him in stride would have been a fragile approach since Romo would have had to be perfect with the throw; he would have had to hit Bryant before the back of the end zone.
Instead, he underthrew Bryant just the perfect amount—an intended underthrow—and it allowed Bryant to do what he does best. It was a subtle difference from his first go route to Bryant in the game, but an important one.
Overall, Romo (and Bryant) looked great against Baltimore. Just as important, you can tell just how much of an impact Linehan is making on the offense. His ability to get Bryant in favorable situations—and the ability of both Romo and Bryant to execute—is a great sign for the Dallas offense this year.
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