Great Expectations: What to Expect From a Healthy Dez Bryant

After a disappointing injury-riddled, season, the Cowboys hope to return to playoff form. But to get there, they will need a healthy Dez Bryant to pick up where he left off in 2014. Joseph Ferraiola reviews the elite qualities we saw from the WR in 2014 to show how a healthy Bryant is capable of propelling a team to the playoffs. 

The Dallas Cowboys offense will need more than a healthy Tony Romo to be successful in 2016; getting the 2014-version of Dez Bryant represents another crucial factor. A strong showing from the Cowboys offense in 2014 was followed up by poor results this past season. This is best depicted by their one-year drop from 5th to 31st in points scored. A lot of that had to do with their franchise quarterback, Romo, injuring his non-throwing shoulder in Week 2 against the Philadelphia Eagles, but it also stemmed from the absence of Bryant for parts of the season. The star wide receiver fractured his foot in Week 1 against the New York Giants. He returned from injury a few months later, but didn’t play at 100 percent. Bryant later revealed in an interview with Rob Phillips that he didn’t trust his surgically repaired foot and that most of his issues upon his return to the field were mental. Though he was held out of football activities during the spring, Bryant has been cleared for training camp.

With a healthy Romo throwing to a healthy Bryant, the Cowboys offense should return to their 2014 form.

One of the ways Bryant found success two seasons ago was taking advantage of the loaded boxes from opposing defenses attempting to contain Dallas’s running game. All that did was allow the 6-foot-2, 220-pound wideout to face single coverage and bully opposing corners. With a trio of Ezekiel Elliott, Alfred Morris, and Darren McFadden running behind an elite offensive line, Bryant should once again find favorable matchups downfield this year.

In an intense divisional matchup late in the 2014 season, the Cowboys’ offense faced a 3rd and 7 in Eagles territory while leading 28-24 with almost 13 minutes left to play. The winner of the game would control their destiny for the playoffs, meaning this was one of the more important 3rd downs not only of the game but of the season.

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Dallas lines up in 11 personnel with receivers Terrance Williams, Cole Beasley, and tight end Jason Witten at the top of the screen. DeMarco Murray is in the backfield alongside Romo, and Bryant is all alone at the bottom of the screen. The Eagles have a single deep safety with their corners each playing press-man coverage. As the ball is snapped, the safety back peddles closer to the end zone. Bryant releases off the snap with a stutter step and runs a vertical route along the sideline. He gains a bit of separation at the start with his fake, but is able to gain more still using physicality.

Romo is quick to recognize that the safety is too deep to get to the sideline quick enough and that Bryant has beaten the man coverage. The result is a throw that hits Bryant just on time, giving Dallas a two-score advantage in what was for all practical purposes a must-win game.

Another key part of Bryant’s game is his ability to make contested catches with defenders draped on him, like this catch against the Indianapolis Colts.

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Dallas has 21 personnel on the play and lines up in an i-formation. Indianapolis has seven defenders in the box. Safety Sergio Brown (#38) begins to creep in and looks to be the eighth man in the box until he bounces back to his position just before the snap. When the ball is snapped, Brown moves to the middle of the field in what looks to be a single-safety look. The other safety is responsible for the tight end on the play.

This leaves Bryant on the bottom of the screen in single coverage against Greg Toler (#28).

Bryant beats Toler, and the only way for Toler to prevent Bryant from an easy touchdown is to hold him. Using his excellent strength, Bryant is able to free himself of Toler to gain separation into his route toward the end zone. Romo looks the safety off with his eyes and throws a dart to Bryant, who is able to make the contested catch by high-pointing the ball for the touchdown.

One of the reasons Bryant is one of the most fun players to watch is his athletic ability. Bryant possesses a rare combination of size, strength, and speed that he puts on display against the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2014 in London.

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The Cowboys have 12 personnel with two wide receivers in a doubles formation. The Jaguars have their two corners playing about six yards off the receiver opposite of them with two safeties in the middle of the field. The one shaded left is nearly five yards deeper. Once the ball is snapped, the two linebackers on the left side perform a cross blitz and the other linebacker is responsible for Witten (#82), who runs a corner route. The opposite tight end, James Hanna (#84), runs a vertical route and takes the defensive end along with him deep into the secondary. The two corners and safeties have all dropped into zone coverage. Terrance Williams (#83) runs a go route to draw the corner into the deeper portion of his zone, ultimately clearing space for Bryant who is the primary target on the play. Bryant runs a short drag route across the field with a lot of space to work with and Romo hits him in stride.

The safety on the right side dashes to Bryant as he receives the ball, but Bryant gets to the outside, bursts past him, and sheds a tackle in the process. Along the sideline, Bryant uses his speed to easily run past two more Jaguars defenders. With the goal line 10-yards away, Bryant is able to shake and muscle through four defenders en route to the score.

While 2014 currently stands as the best season of Bryant’s career, 2016 has the potential to be a similarly productive year if he’s able to stay on the field. A healthy Romo, combined with an elite-level offensive line and talented running backs, can only help take pressure off the star receiver. If Bryant has fully recovered, he should be able to do the things we’re used to seeing him do on the football field: using his physicality and athletic ability to take over a game.

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All film courtesy of NFL GamePass.

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