Can the Cowboys’ Secondary Gambit Work?

Where are my cornerbacks?!

The draft is done.  Dallas followed a blueprint — fix the pass defense.  Can it work?

When Dallas won championships two decades ago, the passing defenses and rushing defenses ranked in the top 10 every year.  Other factors matter — the defense has to have some balance;  one of Dave Campo’s 5-11 squads had the top rated pass defense in the league, but the 31st worst rush defense.  Look at last year’s Rams.  Their passing defense was top 10, but their rush defense was dreadful.

You also need your offense pulling the cart.  In ’07, Wade Phillips improved the defense modestly, and finished 13-3, in part because the offense was 2nd in the league in scoring.  The following year, their passing metrics improved, but that offense sputtered.  Tony Romo missed a month and was shaky when he returned.  The offense became a turnover machine, losing four games where it coughed up four or more turnovers, and finished the season – 11.  The special teams gave up several big returns and scores.  All of these inflated the scoring defense numbers.

Here are Dallas defensive rankings the last nine years:

’03 —  2nd scoring,   1st pass,  3rd rush
’04 — 27th scoring,  21st pass, 10th rush
’05 — 12th scoring,  11th pass,  13th rush
’06 — 20th scoring, 20th pass,  10th rush
’07 — 13th scoring, 13th pass,  6th rush
’08 — 20th scoring,  5th pass, 12th rush
’09 — 2nd scoring,  20th pass, 4th rush
’10 — 31st scoring,  26th pass, 12th rush
’11 — 16th scoring, 23rd pass,  7th rush

2003 saw the last superior Cowboys defense, and that was the last time it could stop the run and the pass in elite fashion.  That was the last year Darren Woodson was still in form, and he combined with a young Terence Newman and a young Roy Williams in a plus secondary.  Woodson’s deep ball skills let Williams play in the box, where he thrived.  Newman was flashy out of the box.  Between ’04 and ’07, he ranked 2nd among NFL corners in average YPA.  Then, he turned 30, and the groin pulls began…

That wasn’t a perfect unit.  Mario Edwards so-so game manned the right corner, but the secondary could handle one decent performer when the other three were above average.

Matt Johnson, defensive
man of mystery.

I don’t think the 2012 unit has that kind of depth.  It seems stronger at corner, with four good players for perhaps the first time ever in team history.  However, the safeties don’t yet match up to Woodson and Williams, unless Matt Johnson has a major surprise for us all.

Consistency will tell.  Orlando Scandrick had a strong 2010, but a down 2011.  Mike Jenkins has been up and down the YPA map.  He was top 10 in 2009, bottom 10 in 2010 and middle of the road in 2011.

The team isn’t counting on them as much this year.  Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne figure as the starters outside the numbers.  Carr had a career-best 6.6 YPA in 2010 and was very effective stopping the deep ball.  Claiborne has the pressure of hearing his name mentioned with Deion Sanders’.

Even if the rookie wobbles a bit, as his college teammate Patrick Peterson did in September and October of last year, these two offer the real chance of an upgrade.  Dallas has finished 20th or lower in pass defense every year since ’09.  The Cowboys have not had consistent health in that unit since 2007.  In 2010, Wade Phillips’ meltdown year, both Mike Jenkins and Terence Newman had YPAs around 10.0.  The teams cornerbacks had an average YPA of 9.5 that season, worst in the league.

That means that nearly every time a pass was thrown at a Cowboys corner, the opposition came inches away from a 1st down.  Think Eli Manning, and you get the picture.

That’s no way to live.

Rafael Vela

Rafael Vela

Senior Analyst Cowboys at Sports Talk Line
Started covering Dallas Cowboys @ in '95 and '96. Two more stops along the way and here I am. Senior Analyst for
Rafael Vela

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  • Taylor

    We should wait until the season starts before giving up on the season.  These young O-line guys may be just fine.  Kowalski showed some, as did Arkin before getting hurt.  As much as I liked Kosier, he was broken, Holland was fat, poorly conditioned and couldn’t move.  We have the bookend tackles, so a good start has been made.

  • Greg_cooper1968

    Okay fellas, I can honestly say I haven’t read all of the comments. On paper our secondary is an instant strength, INSTANT. However, I saw where a couple of them made mention of the offensive line; most notably guard and ESPECIALLY center. I am worried to death that Costa will have his ass moon-walked into Romo’s lap. What about Nagy (a bit undersized but tough and smart and will get even stronger this year) or even Kowalski who by the way, played sparingly there if I’m not mistaken last year and did pretty good. I just don’t know about Costa…
    What do you fellas think?

  • fiverings37

    after all the $$$$ invested, it had BETTER work.

  • Pmkaram

    Raf, not to get too far ahead at this time, is the team looking at gettin and compensatory picks next year,like for Bennett? Does anyone know yet?

    • Milkshaker

      Unlikely, due to the number of free agents we signed. 

      Awarded picks are also based on how many much a lost player plays for his new team, which is impossible to know until the end of the season.

  • desus32

    Dominant level corner play can tweak how the Safeties line up. If one corner can be trusted to play w/o help over the top for most of the game regardless of the match-up, the other CB can be given help on every possession or a single high Safety can shade in another direction. This will also create greater blitz options up front and it can domino down. I don’t expect Claiborne to be at Revis’ level but what the Jets do on D should be the template for how the Cowboys play on that side of the ball.

    Also, whether or not you respect Parcells may dictate how much weight you give this comment, but during his pre-draft special on ESPN he said that based off how today’s offenses operate in the NFL that he’d essentially play 3 CB “types” on every down and only have one Safety playing. He mentioned that this would give the defense the versatility to play the pass while – if your CB’s are in the template of guys who can support the run – not giving up a lot on the ground. I found this comment interesting, and even more so after the Cowboys drafted Claiborne and adding him to Carr, Jenkins, and Scandrick. Oh, and when talking about prototypes in this draft (i.e. players with the ideal size/height/weight/athleticism/skill set to play a position) Parcells called Claiborne a “super prototype”.

  • Jarhead

    the secondary will be vastly improved, ho-hum safety play or not.

    i just hope this draft yields more than one great player…..

  • hardwater

    To me what this draft/FA has done is dramatically upgraded the secondary, left the interior O-Line as a weakness, and added potentially solid depth, along with improved special team players, with maybe an eventual starter or 2 in addition to Claiborne. Since the Cowboys had no depth and special teams were nothing special if most of these guys stick that would be a successful draft. JG and Stephen Jones seem to have a plan they are following but Cowboys still need at least another good draft next year. Jerry’s optimistic bluster has covered up the fact that the Cowboys have been many players away from a playoff team. Problem is, the core stars are getting old and time is short. If all stay healthy next year and this draft works out Cowboys could squeak in as a playoff team but likelihood is 7-9/8-8 and wait another year.

  • Leswung

    ” Tony Romo missed a month and was shaky when he returned”
    Raf, can u explain a bit why JJ always say Romo is the MVP of the team but do not really spend money/draft in protecting his MVP. What’s the use of having the best targets but your MVP is always “shaky”?

    • GoodbyeNewman

      He drafted Tyron Smith, paid for Livings and Bernadeau, and gave Free a contract extension. Maybe you don’t love the players, but he’s certainly made an investment in the OL.

      • jrcowboy49

        The OL transformation is incomplete. OC and OG still are weak and blitzes up the gut will kill Romo!

      • JimmyJohnsonSB

        Livings and Bernadeau are DOWNGRADES from last year’s tandem of Kosier and Holland.  Bringing them in was not an investment in Tony’s protection.  And we still don’t have an NFL Center.

        • Cowboy78

          Not with the condition that Kosier was in, one more year older and injury prone, Holland has trouble keeping the weight off.  With that said, I would call the move a wash not a downgrade.  It is a wash because they should be servicable and the other linemen will be in a competition churn to see who is best out the the bunch.  At the very least it will be the same as last year with the potential to be better. 

          Kosier and Holland had reached their ceilings, they were only going to get worse.  TC will show if they are taking a huge gamble in this approach with the OL.  If they are wrong, it could cost them big; but if they are right then they can move foward with upgrades to the OL next year, with fresh cap space and newer prospects.  They just could not fill all the needs they had in one year.  I doubt they are finished with fixing the OL, they just want to get it to servicable and get the Defense back on its feet.

          • hardwater

            Jerry is a gambler by nature and he’s absolutely gambling interior O-Line and Romo’s health and effectiveness on 2 retreads and 4 not NFL ready newbies. Quite a gamble indeed. I’ve said before I would rather he bought one of the excellent FA centers, drafted DeCastro, and THEN focus on defense (starting with a 2nd rounder mind you) so he at least had a mostly completed and possibly elite offense. I like Claiborne a whole lot but if the O-Line gamble doesn’t work out we are likely another 8-8 team assuming Romo doesn’t get injured (again) in which case at 4-12 we will have a nice draft pick in 2013.

        • Samoyed

          I prefer to wait and watch both Livings and “Mac” before I label them anything.  And, with Callahan’s reputation in tow, I’m more inclined to lean towards “upgrade” than anything.  But, it seems awfully premature to go one way or the other without some tangible on-the-field proof on the matter.  I’m more more inclined to give it the old “wait and see.”     

        • truecowboyfan

          Its hard not to like Kyle Kosier. But the truth of the matter is that Kosier was a liability on the line last year. Even in his prime, he was always an underpowerd player who was susceptible to the bull rush. Nagging foot and knee injuries made him even more prone to being overpowered, especially when he could not get his body in “text book” position, such as when dealing with line stunts and twists. The bottom line is that he had a lot to do with the consistency in which the pocket collapsed and the inconsistency in creating a push in the running game. Kosier lined up next to another underpowered player, Costa, was a recipe for disaster. Lining these two up next two Nagy, yet another underpowered player, at the beginning of the season was just plain stupid!

          I am almost certain that both Livings and Bernadeau will be much more powerful and stout than last year’s guards. This should keep a cleaner pocket for Romo and will help in the running game. That’s an upgrade, imo.

        • Ware94

          If you are right about them being downgrades then this team has more problems than just bad OL players. The GM, the Head Coach, the new OL coach & the scouts disagree with you. I’m guessing that the club has some faith in the young OL players. Way more than the fans do. Kosier was playing on a bad foot last year & regressed because of it. The two new guys better be better than Holland. I think they will be.

        • Smooth

          what happened to players improving from year to year. Also lets find out what can happen with these young guys with a full offseason of competition

  • Tim

    Raf, can you talk to your people close to the Cowboys and see what they think about Mike Jenkins covering the receiveing TE’s?  It looks like he’s got the size and movement skills to handle the bigger guys.

    • jrcowboy49

      Mike Jenkins is scared to tackle the big guys!

  • I fear that the success or failure of this draft class will rest largely on how much value we get out of Matt Johnson.  I expect Claiborne to be a stud.  Crawford has a pretty good shot to be a long term keeper.  As a TCU fan, I’m very familiar with him and feel very good about his chances to be something special.  Now, I’m a little worried about Wilbur, but I can understand why the Cowboys selected him.  Needs plus value made the pick mandatory. Further, our late round selections of Coale, Hanna, and McSurdy are classified as low risk/reward players in terms of value.  IMHO, anything we get from a player drafted in the 5th round or later is gravy.  I have no issues with these picks.  But, that leads me back to Johnson.  In the 4th, we passed up a ton of more well known talents to draft this guy.  Was this a pure “needs” pick?  Or, did Dallas find a hidden gem?  Of course, I’d love to think he’s our next Cliff Harris and Charlie Waters.  Yet, out of every draft pick this year, Matt Johnson worries me the most.  He needs to be more than a special teams ace.  In fact, he needs to show us something this year.  Why? Because of who we passed up to draft him, Matt Johnson must become a starting safety in 2013..or 2014 at latest.  That’s a pretty tough order for the kid.  But, due to his draft position, anything less will be a failure.  To me…Matt Johnson is the big question mark…the enigma…of this draft class.  How I feel about the Cowboy’s front office will be tied largely to the fate of a little known player from a little known school…in a position of desperate need.  Jerry, Jason, Rob, you gotta hit on this one.  I hope you do. 

    • GoodbyeNewman

       I agree on Matt Johnson being the key to this draft. If we hit on him, I think we’ll look at this draft as a big success.

      He tests out athletically as well as any safety in the draft, and is a proven playmaker. I’m optimistic. We’ll see.

    • truecowboyfan

       I don’t think I see Matt Johnson as being the key. After investing a 1st AND 2nd round pick on Morris Claiborne, I think he is clearly the key to the success of this draft. If he turns in to the pro-bowl caliber CB, capable of being on an island with the best WRs in the game, then I think this draft will be looked upon as a reasonable success.

      • Samoyed

        I guess my point is that Morris *has* to be a success.  If he’s not, then we’re boned.  I’m assuming he will be.  And, I’m also asserting the notion that the draft will be graded more on the hit-or-miss qualities of the later picks than anything Claiborne does.  It may not be fair, but I strongly suspect that this is how it will be perceived.  And, if you think about it, it doesn’t take a whole lot of evaluative acumen to make that trade.  You could even call it a “no-brainer.”  So…accordingly…the “brains” of the draft will rest with everyone else.  Matt Johnson could well be the tipping point for how everyone perceives the 2012 draft in the distant future.  He was…by far…the most unconventional pick of the bunch.  If you hit on it, then it’s like throwing a bomb.  If you miss, then it’s like a interception.  The media and fans tend to be more forgiving of teams who miss on picks everyone thought would hit.  We’re all in it together there.  But, if a team drafts a nobody from irrelevant university with a valuable pick…and whiffs?  Blood in the water.  So…meet Matt Johnson…tipping point for the 2012 draft.

  • sidarc

    The only thing that concerns me is the the “Philadelphia Experiment” that the Eagles went through last year. They had 3 very solid corners and bad safety play, hence they were attacked relentlessly in the middle of the field. The blown coverages and lack of faith in backside help ended up making their top notch trio of CB’s look average at times on the outside as well.

    We need to cross our fingers and hope that Ryan can get the most out this crop of safeties because teams have little trouble in finding and exploiting weakness.

    • Interesting point, though the Eagles D had a lot of trouble up the middle in general early last year.  Teams were running up the gut, and passing like crazy on their linebackers. 

      • The “wide nine” and bad LB play contributed to this as well.  Let’s hope the Cowboys have the proper tools and circumstances to not suffer the same fate.

      • truecowboyfan

         Agreed. Eagle linebackers were horrible last year. Cowboys have Sean Lee in the middle, who appears to be a pro bowl caliber player, and is very good in coverage. Bruce Carter may prove to be even better than Lee in coverage, at least in man-to-man.

        • Jimmer

          Agreed. Like our chances with Carter/Connor – way better than Brooking/James.

  • nickdrumsalot

    I’m just crossing my fingers that Mike Jenkins doesn’t blow up, get traded or hold out. But he’s the oldest CB on the roster now and that’s never good. I want him on the roster and I think he can compete with Carr to be the best CB this year, even if Mo’ takes it the next.

    • He’s in a contract year.  He sees what veteran corners are making.  

      He’s going to bust his ass to play well this year.  That should work to Dallas’ benefit. 

      • Jarhead

        that would be the smart course of action, but sometimes players let ego get in the way. and sometimes they let agents whisper too much trash in their ear and forget to think for themselves.

      • aggiecurt05

        How do you envision playing time working out?  Scandrick might not be a star, but I would like to think he’ll play more than a standard 4th CB.

  • Krazy Cowboy

    Morris Claiborne,Brandon Carr,D.Ware & Sean Lee with Robb Ryan we gone shut this mother down!