How Dez Bryant won his one-on-one matchup with Josh Norman
Washington Redskins cornerback Josh Norman versus Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant was one of the marquee matchup of Thanksgiving, and there were certainly plenty of fireworks between the two during and after Dallas’ narrow win, including a post-game scuffle and a continuation of the barbs in front of the media.
But how did that matchup play out on the field?
Bryant caught five passes for 72 yards on seven targets, with only three of them and 32 of those yards coming against Norman. Remember, tracking a receiver doesn’t mean you will stay with him throughout the entirety of his route, only that you will be the guy facing him by alignment each play. If you run zone coverage on the play you may well quickly pass him off to another coverage defender, even if you followed him across the field to line up in front of him.
It was against Bryant that the Redskins first started using Norman to track No. 1 receivers this season, after being torn open in the first game against Pittsburgh by Antonio Brown. The Steelers knew they could just line up Brown on the opposite side of the field and go after Washington CB Bashaud Breeland, leaving Norman effectively a spectator on the other side of the field.
Washington put Norman on Bryant one-on-one in the fourth quarter of the first game this season, and from that point on they have been using him to track top receivers. In the first game, Norman was targeted twice when he was covering Bryant, and he broke up both of those passes.
Just working from the stats in Thursday’s game, it looks like Norman got the better of the encounter, but this is why grading is so important – stats can lie.
Statistics are black and white, there is no nuance to them. They deal in what the result of the play was without any context. An incompletion is an incompletion, regardless of whether the receiver dropped the pass, the QB overthrew it, or the defender was in lockdown coverage and there was no room to fit the ball in.
A snap without a target is a snap without a target, whether you stuck to your man like glue or you were toasted and the QB just didn’t see it.
Norman statistically may have gotten the better of Bryant, but the tape and grading show something different. One of the incompletions was a dropped pass from Bryant, a ball you would expect him to bring in. There’s certainly an argument to be made that Norman’s coverage on the play made it tough to catch and that he “forced” the drop, but there is no ready-made excuse for this play:
There is nothing to save this play. Norman gets completely turned around and lost by Bryant on a deep route before Bryant cuts inside to the middle of the field – where there was no help. Bryant’s efforts didn’t amount to anything in the stat sheet, however, as the ball was thrown elsewhere underneath.
This is the necessary context that black-and-white statistics can miss. The stat sheet on that play shows nothing between those two players. If anything, it gives Norman a slight win – it’s a passing snap with no target coming his way. But there were multiple plays in which Bryant had Norman beat but never had the chance to take advantage of it and put stats in the box score.
Of the three catches Norman did allow to Bryant, two of them moved the chains and the other picked up nine of the necessary 10 yards on first down.
It may not have been a great night for Bryant fantasy owners, and the stat sheet might look like Norman got the better of the matchup between the two, but throw on the tape and you find a very different result. Bryant was too much for Norman to handle this time, and deserved the win even if he didn’t get the stats.