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Film Room: Why Have Cowboys Defensive Backs Failed To Create Turnovers?

Kevin Brady

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Byron Jones

Outside of this week's Tony Romo news, searching for content in the offseason can be a bit of a grind at times. Because of this, I love when readers interact with the site, and give their input on topics they would like to see explored.

Rob K on Twitter

@rjochoa Hey, I know we're well into draft coverage but wanted to get your thoughts on this concept....

Our man Rob (@taserface5) tweeted at fellow Staff Writer RJ Ochoa on April 3rd with a brilliant idea for a post. The Cowboys secondary has struggled mightily creating turnovers these past couple of seasons, and while we sometimes throw our hands in the air and claim they have been unlucky, there must be some reason why they can't seem to intercept passes like other successful teams do.

So, per Rob's request, I went to the film room and analyzed why the Cowboys secondary has had such issues coming away with interceptions.

What I found was reason for optimism about the new-looked secondary in 2017, and the future of our young defensive backs.

Over/Under Throws

First, I documented plays in which the quarterback either over or under threw the pass. For this "assignment," I watched four games from 2016: vs. the Vikings, Packers (playoff game), Buccaneers, and Giants (round two).

In those games, the Cowboys forced three interceptions. They also came away with two other picks which were called back due to defensive penalties. Of those five intercepted passes, just one was ruled to come on a non-interceptable pass by my grading.

The other four were ruled to be of the fault of the quarterback, even if the defensive back/linebacker made a great effort to get to the ball.

What does this mean?

Well, it means that the Cowboys defensive backs did not beat receivers to the ball on 50/50 type throws too often. It means that with the ball in the air, the Cowboys corners and safeties of a year ago struggled to make plays on the ball unless it was damn-near handed to them.

I don't mean this to sound overly negative, but based on the tape, it is simply the truth.

But it also means that even when interceptable balls were thrown, the Cowboys secondary struggled to be in the right position to create a turnover. At times, this was the result of the defensive play call or scheme, on others it was bad luck, but on a few it was because of some poor play.

dal db 2 - Streamable

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Against Tampa Bay here, we see an example of an "interceptable pass" thrown by quarterback Jameis Winston. The Cowboys are in a cover-two man coverage look, with Jeff Heath playing the deep half on the near side of the field.

Looking for the deep post route, Winston overthrows his target and instead hits Heath right in the stomach for an interception.

There's two important reasons that this overthrow results in an interception.

First off, pressure on the quarterback. This was the infamous David Irving game in which he looked like Reggie White, and he's able to create a quality pressure on Winston on this play. Winston tends to struggle with pressure from his blindside, and it certainly affects his throw here as well.

Second, Jeff Heath is at the right place at the right time. He played the ball and route combination well, and was able to be in position to intercept the overthrow.

dal db 5 - Streamable

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Here, however, is an example of the Cowboys missing out on an interceptable ball. Recognizing the slant route underneath, safety Barry Church does a good job of reacting and breaking on the route to come up and tackle if necessary.

Unfortunately, the ball gets tipped and sails over Church's head. Normally, you hope that when the ball is tipped in the air like that, someone will have a chance to make a play on the ball. Instead, Church's awareness to come up and play the underneath route actually works against him.

To be honest, that's just bad luck.

Make A Play

Sometimes, the responsibility is simply on the defender to go make a play. While you may start in a bad position to chase down the overthrown ball, giving all possible effort to track it down and get your hands on it should always be a top priority.

While he was simply in the "right place at the right time" often, safety Jeff Heath also went out and made plays.

dal db 7 - Streamable

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Against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers here, Jeff Heath is positioned at the top of the screen. The Cowboys are in a cover-one look, playing man coverage underneath with Jeff Heath sitting back playing "center field."

His responsibility is simple, don't let anyone behind you.

After taking his drop and reading the coverage, Heath quickly recognizes that Rodgers is pressured and forced out to his right. Seeing this, Heath breaks on the slant-and-go route at the top of screen. Then, he takes an efficient angle to the ball, and comes away with the overthrown pass for an interception.

This is something Jeff Heath excels at. A smart football player who can read/recognizes route combinations quickly, Heath is able to consistently put himself in the right position to make plays.

So while some of his interception total comes from luck, his awareness and closing speed are also very important.

dal db 6 - Streamable

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Here we see Heath in a similar situation as the last clip. Once again playing the "center field" role, Heath reads the quarterback's eyes and breaks on the route quickly and efficiently.

Once getting to the spot, he is able to dive for the football and come away with the pick.

So while some of the interceptions/pass breakups came as the result of a little "luck," recognizing and reacting to throws and routes plays a huge part as well. And, unfortunately, not all of the Dallas defensive backs had the awareness, closing speed, or ball skills to make those plays.

The Situation Matters

Let's compare two plays. One versus Aaron Rodgers and another versus Sam Bradford.

dal db 4 - Streamable

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First, we see Aaron Rodgers deliver a picture perfect pass to Randall Cobb on a hitch route outside of the far numbers. Recognizing the hitch is going to be thrown, Barry Church breaks on the ball and gets himself in a decent position to intercept the pass.

However, two things go wrong. For one, Rodgers is really good. Like, really good. And he puts the ball right on the money here.

Next, Church simply doesn't have the closing speed to make a play on the ball here. He is now in Jacksonville, and the Cowboys have a chance to draft a defensive back that can go make that play next year.

dal db 8 - Streamable

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Next, we see Sam Bradford get his pass intercepted on a similar throw. Rolling to his right, Bradford looks to his receiver on an out route to the near side. Linebacker Anthony Hitchens rolls with Bradford, and does a good job of staying underneath the route, remaining in position, and making a play on the ball.

Once again, there's a few things that work together for this play to end in a pick.

First, Sam Bradford isn't as good as Aaron Rodgers. On this play, he throws the ball a bit behind his target, allowing for Hitchens to have a chance to intercept the pass. Also, because of the defensive play call, Hitchens was already in a better position to pick off the pass than Church was the play before.

The Verdict

The Cowboys lost four defensive backs through free agency this year, but in terms of creating turnovers, they shouldn't miss a beat. And, to be honest, they might even improve.

At safety, Jeff Heath has been a magnet for the football, and displays superior ball skills, awareness, and closing speed to JJ Wilcox and even Barry Church at times. Now, with a chance to draft a defensive back or two, I expect the Cowboys secondary to begin to improve in 2017.

A few years from now, we might be talking about a secondary with two first round picks and two mid-round steals dominating the league in Dallas.



Die-hard Cowboys fan from the Northeast, so you know I am here to defend the 'boys whenever necessary. Began writing for a WordPress Cowboys Blog, and have been with ITS since 2016.

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Star Blog

Travis Frederick’s Return Named Cowboys Biggest Reason For Excitement

Kevin Brady

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Dallas Cowboys 2019 Offseason Preview: Center

Overall, Cowboys Nation feels to be in a positive mood during this year's offseason. Despite early angst over lack of action at the start of free agency, and concern over the Cowboys' draft strategy, most within the fan base seem to have high, yet realistic, hopes for the 2019 season.

Most seem to believe the NFC East will be a two team race, with the last two champions battling for the crown once again down the stretch of the season. Others can see the potential for a dark-horse candidate in Washington, but still believe the Cowboys roster has the edge.

So while Cowboys fans may not think they need a singular reason to look forward to the Fall of 2019, Bleacher Report's Brent Sobleski gave them one this week.

Every NFL Team's Biggest Reason to Look Forward to 2019 Season

NFL Brent Sobleski @@brentsobleski Twitter Logo NFL Analyst The offseason can be as thrilling for NFL fans as the regular season. Player movement constantly refreshes rosters-whether through free agency, the draft or trades. Significant changes inject excitement into franchises, personnel and fanbases. A one-time league doormat can become the league's "it' team simply through a string of acquisitions.

Brent identified the biggest reason for each team to look forward to 2019, with the return of center Travis Frederick being the Cowboys' submission. There's no question that when healthy, Frederick is one of the best centers in the game, and anchors an offensive line many still consider to be at the top of the league.

"A full year with wide receiver Amari Cooper and re-signing Demarcus Lawrence to a long-term deal are both reasons for the Dallas Cowboys to be excited. However, the return of Travis Frederick to man the middle of the offensive line is far more pertinent."

Frederick missed all of the 2018 season after being diagnosed with Guillain-Barre syndrome, a rare disease that I am not nearly qualified enough to discuss. What I do know is that it can be very serious, and it kept Frederick out for the entire year.

The Cowboys offensive line suffered during the early part of 2018, largely due in part to Travis Frederick's absence. Yes, Joe Looney filled in and played as well as anyone could have hoped for, but the disconnect in communication across the offensive line was clear without their usual center. Especially during the first couple months of the season.

If Frederick is fully back and healthy, his presence alone will take the Cowboys offensive line back towards their peak. Combine his comeback with a healthy Zack Martin, and a now bulked up Connor Williams, and the interior of this line has the chance to be special.



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3 Dallas Cowboys Who Could Make Pro Bowl Debuts this Season

John Williams

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Snap Judgments: Cowboys' Linebacker Depth Stands Out in Win

Every year, the Dallas Cowboys send quite a few players to the Pro Bowl. This year, the Cowboys sent eight players to the Pro Bowl with Leighton Vander Esch and Byron Jones being selected to their first Pro Bowl squad.

There is a lot of talent on this year's roster and the Cowboys will likely send someone to the annual all-star game that hasn't been there before. Here are three I think will make a push for Pro Bowl recognition in 2019.

Chidobe Awuzie, Cornerback

In the first half of the season, Chidobe Awuzie got picked on a bit. His coverage was always pretty good, but he allowed a ton of receptions. Awuzie allowed the ninth highest passer rating in coverage, the 12th most receptions, the 10th most yards, and tied for the sixth most touchdowns allowed weeks 1-9 of 2018.

In the second half, including the playoffs, Awuzie was much better and showed a higher level of comfort. His passer rating allowed dropped 50 points and was the 17th lowest in the league among corners who played at least 197 coverage snaps. He allowed fewer receptions, yards, and touchdowns in the 10 games over the second half than he allowed in the first eight games of the season.

Awuzie is one of the tougher players on the team. He plays with a similar edge that DeMarcus Lawrence does on the defensive line.

After spending part of his rookie season injured and rotating in, Awuzie found his stride in the second half of 2018 and was one of the Cowboys better cover players. Going into his third season in the NFL, the Cowboys 2017 second round pick looks to be an ascending player that could make some noise for postseason awards.

Tony Pollard, Running Back/Kick Returner

The Dallas Cowboys went into the 2019 NFL Draft looking to find a gadget player they could use on offense, but just as important, they wanted a player who could contribute in the return game. They got him in Rookie Tony Pollard.

Over the course of three seasons and 87 returns, Pollard averaged 30 yards per kick return and returned seven kickoffs for scores. In 2017, Pollard averaged an insane 40 yards per return. He's an incredibly dynamic player with the ball in his hands and though he wasn't used much on punt returns, shows an ability to make people miss and read his blockers.

As Stephen Jones said, "he's got a little Alvin Kamara to him." As a ball carrier, Pollard averaged 7.7 and 7.1 yards per carry over his final two seasons at Memphis. He was dynamic as a receiver as well averaging more than 12.4 yards per reception over three seasons in college.

With Ezekiel Elliott, the Dallas Cowboys may not give Pollard enough snaps and touches to have an Alvin Kamara like rookie campaign (120 carries for 728 yards, 8 touchdowns and 81 receptions for 826 yards and 5 touchdowns), but if he's given half that workload, plus what he could do on returns, he'll make noise for Pro Bowl consideration.

Jaylon Smith, Linebacker

It was a bit surprising to go back and look at which linebackers made the Pro Bowl and not see Jaylon Smith's name. As good as Rookie Leighton Vander Esch was, Jaylon Smith might have been better. By standard metrics -- tackles, interceptions, tackles for loss -- Vander Esch totaled more. Advanced metrics like defensive EPA (expected points added) and playmaking EPA, favored Jaylon Smith's season.

Cowboys Stats & Graphics on Twitter

Overall playmaking EPA rank among all NFL defenders: 5. DeMarcus Lawrence 7. Jaylon Smith 58. Leighton Vander Esch

Jaylon Smith didn't rack up the tackles like Vander Esch, but he was far more impactful over the course of the season. That's not to diminish Vander Esch's contribution to the Cowboys success in 2018. It's important to show Jaylon Smith his due, though.

Smith recorded four sacks, two forced fumbles, four passes defended to go along with his 120 combined tackles in 2018. And that was just his second full season back from the devastating knee injury he suffered in college.

Another season removed from the injury should make Jaylon Smith more confident and more explosive in 2019, which should lead to another outstanding season for the Dallas Cowboys Middle Linebacker.

✭ ✭ ✭ ✭ ✭

Don't let anyone tell you that Pro Bowls don't matter. They do. Sure, All-Pro awards are the more highly coveted recognition, but to the players and to their agents, Pro Bowl selections matter. It's not as exclusive, but in a league with 1,696 players being one of 88 is still a really nice honor. To be a Pro Bowl player mean's you're in the top 5% of NFL players.

Obviously, we'd all prefer none of the Dallas Cowboys play in the Pro Bowl. Because that would mean they'd be preparing to play for that elusive sixth Lombardi Trophy. The Cowboys have always provided quite a few participants to the Pro Bowl game, but if the participation was zero in 2020, it wouldn't be all bad.



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Will “Rumored” Position Change Help Keep LB Sean Lee Healthy?

Brian Martin

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Will "Rumored" Position Change Help Keep LB Sean Lee Healthy?

Rumors and speculation. That's the point of the offseason we have reached with the Dallas Cowboys and the rest of the NFL. That's not necessarily a bad thing because it means players are staying out of trouble, but it's still a slow time nonetheless.

Today, I'd like to dive into some of the rumors and speculation surrounding the Dallas Cowboys right now. I thought I'd start off with Linebacker Sean Lee, and his "rumored" position change heading into the 2019 season. I think it's something worth discussing, as it is just about anything involving General Lee.

If rumors are correct, the Dallas Cowboys are considering a position change for Sean Lee in 2019. He's been their starting weak side linebacker (WILL) pretty much ever since they went to a 4-3 defense, but could be making a move to the strong side (SAM) to replace Damien Wilson. If true, this is interesting on so many different levels.

Sean Lee was initially moved to WILL in the Cowboys 4-3 defense years ago in order to hopefully protect him from the reoccurring injuries he was sustaining year after year. The thought was he would be better protected by not having to fight through so much trash or take on as much contact on the weak side. This was true to some degree, but unfortunately the injury bug continued to bite.

Jason Garrett, Sean Lee

Dallas Cowboys LB Sean Lee

With that in mind, it seems strange the Cowboys are considering moving Sean Lee to SAM since it's considered to be a more physical position to play than he's use to. There is a lot more physicality and contact involved playing on the strong side, which you would think would make him more susceptible to the problem that's plagued his entire career, injuries.

The thought process of having Sean Lee switch to a more physical position seems like a strange one on the surface. A player who has struggled to remain healthy his entire career moving to play a more physically demanding position seems odd, but not if you were to look beyond the obvious.

Yes, the SAM LB position is more physically demanding, but doesn't receive a lot of playing time in the Cowboys 4-3 defense. Damien Wilson only played 30.72% of the defensive snaps in 2017 and 27.93% in 2018. Playing less snaps could actually play in Sean Lee's favor and potentially keep him healthy. That would make the move a win-win for No. 50 and the Cowboys.

A healthy Sean Lee playing SAM would be an upgrade over Damien Wilson. It would also give the Dallas Cowboys arguably the best starting 4-3 linebackers in the entire NFL. You may disagree, but I challenge you to find a better starting trio. I don't think it's possible.

Of course, all of this is just a rumor we are forced to speculate about right now, but it's still interesting to discuss nonetheless. I don't know how all of this will play out in the end, but I can't really think of any reason why Sean Lee shouldn't get the first crack at replacing Damien Wilson as the strong side linebacker in 2019.

Maybe, just maybe this will be the move that will finally keep him healthy.

What do you think? Do you like the idea of Sean Lee making a position change?



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