Tony Romo #9 of the Dallas Cowboys looks for an open receiver against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Cowboys Stadium on December 16, 2012 in Arlington, Texas.
Since I began tracking defensive alignments, Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo generally struggled when defenses showed a different look than what they were playing. That is, when defenses lined up conservatively and then blitzed or showed a blitz and backed out, Romo had issues adjusting. It’s never really mattered whether or not defenses blitzed Romo; if they didn’t disguise their look, he’d beat them.
This year, we’ve seen a bit of a shift from Romo. Specifically, he’s performed slightly worse against the blitz than normal, but he’s improved at finding receivers when defenders disguise their intentions. Take a look at the numbers (N/N means the defense didn’t show blitz and didn’t come, N/Y means they didn’t show blitz but then rushed five or more defenders, and so on).
N/N: 215-for-327 (65.7 percent) for 2,595 yards (7.94 YPA), 17 TD, 9 INT, 13.1 percent off-target, 4.7 percent sack rate – 95.8 passer rating
N/Y: 60-for-90 (66.7 percent) for 684 yards (7.60 YPA), 3 TD, 2 INT, 10.0 percent off-target, 3.2 percent sack rate – 91.2 passer rating
Y/N: 48-for-65 (73.8 percent) for 422 yards (6.49 YPA), 0 TD, 1 INT, 7.7 percent off-target, 7.1 percent sack rate – 84.3 passer rating
Y/Y: 56-for-86 (65.1 percent) for 568 yards (6.60 YPA), 2 TD, 4 INT, 10.5 percent off-target, 7.5 percent sack rate – 72.2 passer rating
In terms of passer rating and YPA, Romo has been at his best when defenses have played conservatively. Romo doesn’t generally make too many mistakes on his own; you have to force the issue. Interestingly, Romo’s numbers when defenses have blitzed from a conservative look (under the N/Y category) have improved considerably over the second half of the season. I published Romo’s performance against the blitz after the Cowboys’ first meeting with the Eagles, and at that time he had just a 63.0 passer rating when defenses lined up in a base look but then blitzed.
Defenses have adjusted by disguising their looks more against Romo, but it hasn’t mattered. Since Week 10, Romo has posted this line against conservative alignments that rush at least five defenders: 30-for-41 (73.2 percent) for 368 yards (8.98 YPA), 3 TD, 0 INT, 124.8 passer rating. Not bad.
So what’s the most effective way to attack Romo? Since the quarterback is playing at such a high level over the past month, I think defenses need to blitz him more often than normal. They’ll become more susceptible to big plays, but Romo simply isn’t making the same mistakes he committed early in the year.
Even when defenses don’t blitz, they’d probably be smart to show it. Notice that Romo’s 73.8 percent completion rate when defenses show blitz but back out is extremely high, yet he’s totaled only 6.49 YPA on such passes. That suggests Romo has read blitz and then gotten the ball out quickly, completing a lot of slants and other short routes that haven’t gone for many yards. Showing blitz but then backing out is probably a good third-down strategy against Romo because defenses can force the quarterback to unleash the ball quickly but still get in position to make the tackle.
Of course, Romo seems to be beating all types of defenses of late; his passer rating in December is 106.5.
Jonathan Bales is the founder of The DC Times. He writes for DallasCowboys.com and the New York Times. He's also the author of Fantasy Football for Smart People: How to Dominate Your Draft.