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.