How Dez Bryant won his one-on-one matchup with Josh Norman

The box score might indicate that Norman got the better of Bryant in Dallas' victory -- but the PFF grades say something different.

| 7 months ago
(Fort Worth Star-Telegram)

(Fort Worth Star-Telegram)

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.

| Senior Analyst

Sam is a Senior Analyst at Pro Football Focus, as well as a contributor to ESPN and NBCSports.

  • OverseasRedskinsFan

    I’m gonna be bias, but idc. Dez dropping a pass is not a win for him. Also, is that GIF the only play where Dez burned Norman? If so, that changes next to nothing. He definitely got him, but it was one play. Furthermore, I don’t think because Dez almost caught 3 first downs he won the matchup. Another thing, stats can lie about a lot of things. However, they can’t lie about the overall outcome. Getting 3 catches for 33 yards is NEVER a win. It seems like there was only one other play in which Dez got Norman, but this isn’t 1-on-1s in practice. Norman got help from the rest of his team and was fine. That doesn’t change his entire performance. Whatever, I’m done ranting and Dez didn’t win this matchup.

    • J Burnett

      You’re right about one thing – stats can’t lie about the overall outcome:

      31 – 26

      Oh, and:

      Dallas 2 Washington 0

      I don’t blame you for seeking consolation wherever you can find it, though.

      • OverseasRedskinsFan

        I said I’m bias, not retarded. I said this when Norman played OBJ—Norman lost the battle, but won the war (because he made OBJ cry and he won). I won’t flip flop, I think Dez won the war. However, I don’t see how he won the battle. I definitely think you could say he played better than the stats indicated. Actually, I think he played better than the stats indicated. That doesn’t mean he won the battle though. The war of this game? Sure. The battle of on-field performance? No, not at all.

    • Izach

      I agree, saying Dez won this match up is a stretch anyway you slice it.
      Sure that one play looks bad but like you said the editing job is good, because before Dez made that move the ball was on the way out, if anything it’s a loss for Dez for not getting open early enough for his QB to see.
      I get Normans a talker and some ppl do t like him, but that’s not a reason to ignore facts or worse, try to alter theme to fit a narrative.

      • Robert Ruffin

        Nah. The play in question was very clear. Dak came off him early without any pressure to dictate that he do so. Typical of a young QB that does not quite yet trust the deep passing game. He will learn from it and Dez will start to put together monster stat sheets.

    • etyb

      Fellow ‘Skins fan here. You’re wrong. Bryant was getting open against Norman all day, it ain’t his fault his QB simply didn’t see him. If you don’t think moving the chains is important, then I gotta question how familiar you are with the sport.

      Norman’s a good player but he hasn’t been living up to his contract this season.

      • OverseasRedskinsFan

        I keep hearing that he kept getting open all day, but have yet to see another video of him getting open, besides the one displayed.

        I’m not saying first downs aren’t important. I think they’re a legitimate statistic to help bolster Dez’s case. However, they’re not even half as important as touchdowns, of which Dez had 0. Which, as a Skins fan, is something we should know very well with our crap red zone %age.

        If I see two more clips of Dez getting open, but not getting the ball. I’m willing to say Dez won the battle.

      • OverseasRedskinsFan

        Also, I just checked Dez’s Twitter, where he said “All through the week I will post film of how Norman got exposed”. Like everyone else, he’s posted one video.

        And about his contract. You’re the first ‘Skins fan I’ve met who’s unsatisfied with his performance. Everyone else loves him. I agree that he’s not playing the top CB in the league, I’ve never thought he was because I thought—and still think– Pat Pete is better, but he’s a top 5 CB and has made plays for the Redskins while being reliable in coverage. He’s not perfect, he’s not Darelle Revis in his prime, but he’s one of the best corners in the league in the eyes of many.

  • James

    Reminded me a lot of the games Norman had against O’Dell Beckham. Can’t penalize Dez for the qb not seeing it.

  • crosseyedlemon

    Granted Norman looked terrible in that video clip but why not post a view that includes the battle along the line of scrimmage. This is one of those editing jobs that ignores the context of what was actually transpiring.

  • BITW44

    Odell Beckham was nearly put on the trade block because of Josh Norman. And while he does have an explosive attitude, I think we all see now that Norman is just as big a culprit.

    • crosseyedlemon

      I suppose a guy who would vote up his own comment could know a thing or two about mental health issues.

    • McGeorge

      Since when was OBJ nearly traded?
      Where did you read that?

      • crosseyedlemon

        There were plenty of online bloggers speculating that Beckham “could” be traded if he didn’t get himself under control but of course we saw this same wild speculation back in 2011 when Suh was behaving badly with Detroit. The media rarely lets an absence of facts prevent it from trying to create controversy.

        • McGeorge

          Online bloggers speculating = almost happened??

          Well if thats what it takes …

          I speculate that Aaron Rodgers is a malcontent and the Packers will dump him. He’s going to the Jets for:
          Darrel Revis, Markus Gilchrist, Mohammed Wilkerson, and Buster Skrine.

          The Packers are also throwing in a 2nd round draft pick and some cheese.

          Sounds credible, right?

  • Keith Williams

    One play where Norman gets turned on 19 opportunities and the conclusion is Norman lost. okay….

  • Jerry Rogers

    Don’t forget Dez’s block on Norman to spring Beasley for the first down to ice the game. He knocked Norman off his feet and onto his back. Norman looked like an upside down turtle, all four limbs waiving air.

  • Raskalion

    It’s clear Norman is playing inside tech, and just gambles on out because he knows he’s passing it off inside. This is not man. Not quite as bad as you say it is, because if that throw is completed, it’s would of been on the deep third safety. Not on Norman. Next time, check the all 22 instead of the network clip.