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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.