With DeMarco Murray leaving the Cowboys for the Eagles this offseason, many wondered what Dallas' offense would look like in 2015. With the injury to Dez Bryant last week against New York, that question is now an even bigger one, as the team's two top playmakers from a year ago are now out of the lineup.
Bryant means a lot to this team. His size, athleticism and on-field personality make him one of the most dynamic threats at the wide receiver position in the entire NFL. He's one of the few who can sprint past you, run through you or jump over you on any given play.
This is from last week against the Giants. Bryant lined up as the X receiver in a 3x1 set. This deep dig route is a common theme when you watch the Dallas passing game, and it's one of quarterback Tony Romo's favorite routes to throw.
With Bryant out for this game, and for the foreseeable future, the team will rely heavily on third-year man Terrance Williams to pick up some of the load. Williams was a vertical threat at Baylor, and made a lot of plays in that offense because of his ability to run deep posts, digs, comebacks and use his body at the catch point. He's developed into a better route runner and more consistent hands catcher during his time in the NFL. He is in position now to make his mark in Dallas.
This is a play from last year against Minnesota. Williams runs a deep dig route lined up as the X receiver, this time in a 2x2 set. Off play-action, Romo drops back and delivers the ball right into Williams' chest, and he does the rest, splitting the defense and sprinting for a 60-yard touchdown. Williams has had his moments so far in his young career, but he has the ability to really stand out now that he's the top dog in this receiving corps. He'll be a player the Eagles' secondary will need to watch out for on Sunday afternoon.
Another young receiver built in a similar mold to Williams is Devin Street. The second-year wideout out of Pitt was a personal favorite of mine throughout the draft process in 2014, and he showed flashes this summer in the preseason. He had one catch against the Giants, but I would expect an increased role for him in Bryant's absence.
In the preseason against San Diego, Street lined up as the X receiver running, you guessed it, a deep dig and winning down the field to move the chains. The deep dig from the X receiver position, especially off play-action, is a route I would expect to see from Dallas on Sunday afternoon.
While Williams and Street will each see an increased role, we all know who Romo's favorite target has and will continue to be in the passing game: Jason Witten. The veteran tight end has always been a thorn in the side of the Eagles, and he can still make plays in the league, as evidenced by his pair of touchdowns a week ago against the Giants. Let's take a look at those plays.
Witten has always been a threat in the red zone, and in this situation against New York, the Cowboys bring him in motion before the snap. Notice the defender travel with him across the formation. This immediately tips Romo off that the Giants are in man coverage, and with how long it takes that defender (rookie safety Landon Collins) to get across the field, this is like stealing for Romo and Witten, who runs a quick route into the flat and catches a touchdown pass to get the Cowboys on the board.
That shot was against man coverage, but we know how effective Witten has always been at finding soft spots against zone. He has a great knack for understanding where defenders are, what the concepts ask them to do and how to get open for the quarterback. So with 13 seconds left in the game, and down by six points, what do you think happens?
The Giants sit back in Cover 2. Witten runs right at the underneath defender in the middle of the field, hits the goal line and turns back to Romo when he's found the soft spot that he likes, as Romo hits him for the touchdown.
Witten isn't a vertical threat, certainly not at this stage of his career, but he's so good at winning in the short and intermediate areas of the field. It would not shock me at all if the Cowboys decided to become more of a ball-control offense, threatening defenses horizontally along the width of the field as opposed to vertically down the field. That's not just because of Witten, but some of the other pieces in that passing game as well.
Slot receiver Cole Beasley is a really tough cover inside. Built in the same mold as a Wes Welker/Julian Edelman type receiver, his slippery, elusive skill set makes him very effective in the quick game. Quick slants, hitch and especially these pivot routes where he breaks one way, sticks his foot in the ground and then breaks opposite are some of the routes you'll see often from Beasley, whom I would expect won't see a difference in terms of how he's used with the injury to Dez.
The receiving corps is filled out by Gavin Escobar, a former second-round pick at tight end who possesses great athleticism; James Hanna, a former college receiver who has ability to stretch the field; and Lucky Whitehead, an undrafted free agent who earned a spot on the team with a strong offseason. The weapon in the passing game that not enough people talk about, however, isn't a receiver or a tight end. It's running back Lance Dunbar.
Dunbar has really carved out a role for himself as the team's third-down back because of his abilities in pass protection and as a receiver. He finished last week's game tied for the team lead with eight catches, and he reached that mark in a number of ways. On this play, he beats a linebacker after lining up in the backfield and reels off a big play in a mismatch, but he didn't just make plays out of the backfield because Dallas moved him all around the formation against the Giants.
On this play, Dunbar was stacked behind Bryant out wide, where he catches a quick smoke screen and picks up a first down.
And here down in the red zone, he's lined up out wide running that same pivot route we saw from Beasley. Dallas loves empty sets and with a receiver out of the backfield like Beasley you can expect to see them a lot on Sunday afternoon.
If you think that this Dallas offense will struggle to move the ball with Dez Bryant out of the lineup, keep this stat in mind.
Dallas ran 49 plays with Dez in the lineup against New York, and they gained 278 yards for 5.7 yards per play. In the 22 plays with Dez out of the lineup, they gained 160 yards, for 7.3 yards per play. Take that for what it's worth, but just because Bryant's out it doesn't mean the Cowboys will have issues with Romo throwing the ball moving forward.
Last year with Murray in the backfield, the Cowboys' offense funneled through their stretch run game. Dallas wore out opponents with its ability to execute the outside zone paired with Murray's physical running style. With Bryant out, the Cowboys will likely have to rely on the run game once again, but after watching them last week I still thought they tried to impose their will on New York with the ground attack. Randle isn't the type of runner Murray is, so many will question whether or not he can be that type of guy.
Regardless of who the ball carrier is, that offensive line is still extremely talented. Chip Kelly mentioned in his press conference that the three first-round picks, in particular, are going to be a tough test for the Eagles.
Here's an example of that stretch run play against the Giants, and look at all three of these linemen. Tyron Smith at left tackle, Travis Frederick at center and Zack Martin at right guard all execute their jobs at a high level as Randle runs for a first down.
The Eagles' defensive line against the Cowboys' offensive line was very fun to watch in the two games a year ago, and I expect that trend to continue on Sunday. Come back on Friday for my preview of the Dallas defense.
Fran Duffy is the producer of "Eagles Game Plan" which can be seen on Saturdays during the season. Be sure to also check out the "Eagle Eye In The Sky" podcast on the Philadelphia Eagles podcast channel on iTunes. Prior to joining the Eagles in 2011, Duffy was the head video coordinator for the Temple University Football team under former head coach Al Golden. In that role, he spent thousands of hours shooting, logging and assisting with the breakdown of the All-22 film from the team's games, practices and opponents.