The Dread Zone

ASSOCIATED PRESS Cowboys' Dez Bryant, a powerful force in the red zone.
ASSOCIATED PRESS Cowboys' Dez Bryant, a powerful force in the red zone.
Posted: October 18, 2013

ATTEMPTING TO solve the problem of the Eagles in the red zone is like attempting to solve the problem of the kind of weather that rolled through the Delaware Valley yesterday. Our happiness is mitigated by the laws of physics, and there is no exception provided to an offense that has long lacked the power personnel to thrive in tight spaces. That the Eagles will enter Sunday's matchup with the Cowboys with one of the poorest performing red-zone offenses in the NFL isn't so much a fixable problem as it is an inevitability of their roster. DeSean Jackson is listed quite generously at 5-10 and 175 pounds. Dez Bryant is 6-2, 222. The end zone is a 30-by-160-foot rectangle.

Who ya got?

Well, the Cowboys have Bryant, and if you are looking for one example of an offensive scheme only being as good as the players at its disposal, this freakish combination of size, speed and body control is a good place to start.

"Sometimes we'll face a bigger receiver, but he doesn't have that top-end speed or we face a receiver with top-end speed but he doesn't have the size," coach Chip Kelly said before practice yesterday. "He's certainly a guy that is kind of unique in his skill set."

The numbers suggest that Bryant has been less productive than Jackson this season: 459 yards compared with Jackson's 589, a 13.5 yard-per-catch average compared with Jackson's 17.3 (Bryant does have one more than Jackson's five touchdowns). But when you zero in on his performance in must-have situations, you get a better picture of his skill set. In particular, the red zone.

The Cowboys enter Sunday's game with an offense that has thrived where the Eagles have stumbled. Of their 22 drives that have ended in the red zone, 64 percent have ended in the end zone, tied with the Bears for the sixth-best percentage in the NFL. Only the Broncos have scored more than Dallas' 14 red-zone touchdowns. The Eagles, conversely, have scored just nine touchdowns from inside the red zone. Only six teams have converted their red-zone trips into touchdowns at a lower rate than the Eagles, who have scored TDs on 47 percent of their 19 trips inside the 20. (Worse: Jets 46 percent, Packers 45 percent, Buccaneers 45 percent, Patriots 41 percent, Steelers 38 percent, Jaguars 33 percent.)

Not coincidentally, Bryant has been one of the most powerful red-zone forces in the NFL this season with five touchdowns originating from inside the 20-yard-line. Jackson, conversely, has five in the last four seasons combined.

This is not a new phenomenon, which suggests that is one that cannot be solved with mere schematic tinkering. Since the start of the 2011 season, the Eagles have the NFL's sixth-lowest touchdown conversion rate inside the red zone. During that time period, these are the NFL's leaders in red-zone touchdown catches: Jimmy Graham (20), Rob Gronkowski (20), Wes Welker (19), Tony Gonzalez (17), Eric Decker (17), Brandon Marshall (16), James Jones (15), Calvin Johnson (14), Dez Bryant (14), A.J. Green (14). The Eagles do not have those kinds of receivers, and their best version of one is on injured reserve. (Jeremy Maclin has seven red-zone TD catches since 2011.)

Under Andy Reid and under Chip Kelly the Eagles' offense is one that is designed to create and take advantage of wide-open spaces. It has the personnel to fit that scheme, with plenty of speed and agility capable of exploiting the aforementioned open spaces. But simple geometry suggests that as an offense moves closer to the end boundary, a defense has less square footage to defend, and the advantage shifts to the team that is best capable of winning tight battles and creating its own elbow room. Play full-court, four-on-four pickup basketball sometime and then switch to five-on-five. You'll feel the difference, particularly if you are a perimeter player. Size, strength and body control are the premiums. They cannot be coached, only drafted, and to be drafted they must be prioritized. The year that the Cowboys selected Bryant at No. 24 was the year that the Broncos selected Demaryius Thomas at No. 22, was the year the Eagles selected Brandon Graham at No. 13 (with All-Pro interior linemen Mike Iupati and Maurkice Pouncey still on the board).

Since the start of last season, Bryant leads all receivers with 18 touchdowns and trails only Calvin Johnson (6-5, 239), Andre Johnson (6-3, 219), Brandon Marshall (6-4, 229) and Demaryius Thomas (6-3, 229).

One draft is not enough time for Kelly to provide himself with the tools he thinks he needs to maximize his offense. In the meantime, the Eagles will attempt to limit the advantage the Cowboys have on their side of the ball in Bryant, with cornerbacks Bradley Fletcher and Cary Williams drawing most of the duty.

Last year, Bryant combined for nine catches, 185 yards and three touchdowns in two Eagles losses to the Cowboys. The year before, he combined for nine catches, 90 yards and no touchdowns in two Eagles wins.

"They will have plenty of times where they've just got to handle that, and we will get help to them and zone over the top of them and use all of the different tools to help when you stop a star receiver," Eagles defensive coordinator Billy Davis said.

But the best receivers do not allow themselves to be stopped - regardless of down, distance or field position - and it is becoming increasingly clear that Bryant is one of them.


On Twitter: @ByDavidMurphy

dmurphy@phillynews.com

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