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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 am currently a college student. Lets get going.

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6 Comments
  • Russ_Te

    A few speculations, because this is ultimately a matter for the Turnover Gods… ;^)

    – Turnovers are cyclical, and the cycle always seems to skip over Garrett’s teams

    – Marinelli in particular, preaches bend-don’t-break coverage schemes with only limited blitzing. So they do not teach aggressive, attack style defense – and that mentality may sink in on the level that DB’s don’t go after balls as much, and regard their first job as deny the catch or make the tackle.

    If that’s real it’s hard to fault it, because Marinelli gets hustle & more out of less talent than maybe any DC. You can trade that out for Rob Ryan, and then you end up with Rob Ryan…

    – OC’s, QB’s and the passing game are just more precise than it was in decades past. Your top rated passers of all time are QB’s either still playing or recently retired. A lot of that improvement has been fewer errors & being smarter with ball placement. They had more INT’s in the old days, and DB’s looked better because of it. And the college level is sending the NFL a much more evolved passer nowadays – Dak being the new gold standard for it.

    – A dominant DE would cure many ailments…

    • https://kevinrobertbrady.wordpress.com Kevin Brady

      Thanks for reading, Russ. I agree on all points, especially about the DE. This team so desperately needs someone who can create pressure and spark plays on the defensive side of the ball.

  • Russ_Te

    Here is a new topic Kevin:

    Romo, in or out at the Hall of Fame?

    ;^)

    • Russ_Te

      I lean out, but Dan Fouts had a very comparable NFL career and lower career rating (see below).

      He got in 6 years after retirement.

      • Kevin Black

        I think the NFL at large will lean out, but I’d lean in. He kept the Cowboys relevant for years while going 8-8 a lot of times with talent that shouldn’t have been able to win 4 games, much less 8.

      • https://kevinrobertbrady.wordpress.com Kevin Brady

        I have to lean out as well. As much as I love the player and person, I can’t see the NFL voters putting him in without the rings.

Star Blog

Neutral Perspective: Dak Prescott is NOT a 1-Man Army

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Neutral Perspective: Dak Prescott is NOT a 1-Man Army

It doesn’t take a lot to cause an overreaction in the NFL, and fans and the media alike can be very fickle. Thus, when the Dallas Cowboys were beaten by the Carolina Panthers in week one the discussions surrounding their title credentials began, and even more so because Dak Prescott and his Cowboys offense was only able to score 8 points. He left the stadium still looking for his first touchdown pass of the season and wondering what went wrong.

By all accounts, Prescott wasn’t great, and his quarterback rating of 81.1 reflects that. His performance left the fans concerned and some asserting there were no shades of the Prescott of 2016. Nonetheless, a quarterback has to be helped by his offensive line, and allowing him to get sacked six times shows that improvement is needed up front.

In week 2, against the New York Giants, Prescott started the game with a booming 64-yard touchdown pass to WR Tavon Austin on the first series of the game. It was a play four whole quarters of football in the making and made fans explode in celebration following the lackluster performance against CAR. Prescott's rating jumped to 95.4 and he wasn't sacked during the contest. Even still, he threw the ball for 10 fewer yards than in week 1 and was 1.5% less on his completion percentage too.

Prescott’s best defense is the Cowboys' lack of stand-out wide receivers. The loss of Jason Witten and Dez Bryant – neither of whom has adequately been replaced – is the biggest cause of this perceived fall from grace. Those departures have undeniably created a problem, but one that many great quarterbacks over the years have managed to overcome.

While the doom and gloom felt by Cowboys Nation after week 1 has abated some with a victory over New York, for a franchise that has enjoyed the often wow-worthy play of Tony Romo, Dak Prescott has a way to go yet, to say the least.

Dak Prescott's Top 10 Plays of the Dallas Cowboys' 2016 Season

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The current situation is difficult for the Cowboys, but there are also psychological mitigations. One of these is their presence in a division with the reigning Super Bowl winners, the Philadelphia Eagles.

This has long since put the Cowboys on the back foot in the futures betting markets, with an average moneyline price of +210 that makes them the least likely team to win the NFC East division. Unlike betting on individual games themselves, the futures market is a starker reflection of a team's form, rather than the more reactionary moneyline prices on individual games.

Criticism, from experts and fans alike, always intensifies after a defeat, and starting the season off at 1-1 isn't always enough to overcome said criticism. So too will the moneyline price of the Cowboys besting the Eagles lengthen, although the rewards for keeping faith in the Cowboys to do that – if they somehow do – will be all the more greater if they proceed to underachieve.

NFC East Preview 2018 | T2F Podcast

On this episode, we are joined by Jon Cassel, a lifelong Philadelphia Eagles fan, to discuss each team in the NFC East (Dallas Cowboys, Washington Redskins, New York Giants, and Philadelphia Eagles) going into the 2018 season. SUBSCRIBE to T2F for more football content! SUPPORT us through Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/Time2Football Follow us on social media!

Dak Prescott Needs Support Like Never Before

The likes of Cole Beasley, Michael Gallup, Deonte Thompson and Allen Hurns aren’t going to be reaching the Hall of Fame, but they are more than capable of helping Dallas score more than 8 points in a game. Take away the opening-drive shot from week 2, the only TD pass Dak has thrown in 2018, and the Cowboys scored just 13 points against the Giants. It's hardly confidence inspiring, yet.

There have been numerous points so far where the Prescott of 2016 would have found the receiver, but for whatever reason, those throws just aren’t being made with any consistency right now. That is especially bad considering the breathing room that is given by an elite level running back, which can be found in the form of Ezekiel Elliott.

Zeke got the ball 15 times for 69 yards against CAR and 17 times for 78 yards against NYG, both of which have to be less than he would have liked. Yet, the Panthers were out to stop him, specifically, and the Cowboys offensive line couldn’t cope, which allowed Elliott to lack effectiveness and their quarterback to be put to the ground half a dozen times. The opening drive against the Giants certainly helped alleviate pressure on Prescott, but it's clear that the defense beat the Giants, overall.

These, however, are problems that an offensive coordinator needs to overcome, and Scott Linehan didn’t cover himself in glory either.

Ultimately, above all else, there seems to be a bit of disunity within the offense. The receivers feel unloved, the running backs face a lot of defenders on each play, and the quarterback must improve his accuracy.

These situations are where you need creative play calling and a unique approach.

Dak Prescott & Ezekiel Elliott: Top 5 Moments of The 2016 Cowboys Season

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Spirit of 2016 Can Still Make an Impact

With every defeat, the next game is hugely important, in the mind if not on paper. If the Cowboys can step up and convincingly rack up some wins, then – as ever – it will start to go quiet.

One aspect that sometimes goes overlooked is the defense. Conceding 16 points against Carolina and 13 against New York should usually be more than low enough to secure a win. Thus, if the Cowboys keep up that level of performance, then they should win a lot more games than they lose. But that's because most offenses in the NFL are capable of scoring 20-or-more points a game. With the Cowboys defense performing as they have been thus far, the onus is on the offense the close out games.

There's a reason the quarterback position is regarded far above all others, and Prescott needs to carry the team with him to keep that winning feeling in the Cowboys’ locker room.

He needs to give the opposition’s defensive line more to think about, and make them fear the pass as much as Elliott’s or his own rushing ability. That will give his receivers more confidence and Elliott more space. If his offensive line isn’t doing its job then he and Linehan need to think of ways to get the ball out quickly and on target.

Doom and gloom often surrounds any first loss of a season, but if Prescott and Elliott can work together as they did in their first win of the season, then it’s going to be very hard to beat them, especially if their defense keeps playing to such high standards as they have.

Regardless, the Super Bowl is anything but a lock at this point, and the problems need to be fixed quickly, before "distant" becomes mathematically "impossible."



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Can WR Brice Butler Help Improve Cowboys Passing Game?

Brian Martin

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Can WR Brice Butler Help Improve Cowboys Passing Game?

In a somewhat confusing move, the Dallas Cowboys decided to re-add Wide Receiver Brice Butler to the roster in order to get something more out of the passing game, which to be honest has been pretty putrid in the first two games of the 2018 season. Something needed to be done, but I'm not sure that Butler is the answer.

I'm going to agree with my fellow Staff Writer, Jess Haynie, in saying that the Cowboys decision to reunite with Brice Butler makes no sense. Jess is actually much more polite than I would've been when I initially found out about this transaction. I personally hate the move and I'm not afraid to say it. But ultimately, it wasn't my decision to make and the only thing that really matters here is whether or not Butler can help improve the passing game?

With all of the questions surrounding the Cowboys receivers, Butler's addition just adds another one. Unfortunately, we are two games into the 2018 season and the receiver position still remains the biggest unknown. No one has really stepped up their game and with the exception of Tavon Austin's touchdown catch last week, there hasn't been any big plays in the passing game.

I don't really know how Brice Butler is supposed to improve things. Is he supposed to be the "go to" receiver now? Is he any better than what the Cowboys already have on the roster? Or, will he end up being more of a progress stopper? Like I said, he just adds more questions to be answered.

I for one don't see any upside in adding Butler. Yes, Quarterback Dak Prescott has a bond with him, but nothing ever really materialized there when #19 was here previously. He showed flashes, like he has at all of his stops in the NFL, but his inconsistencies couldn't convince the coaching staff to play him more. So, what's changed?

Brice Butler, Cole Beasley, Dez Bryant

Dallas Cowboys WR Brice Butler

The obvious answer here would be the subtraction of Dez Bryant and Jason Witten in the passing game. That's quite a bit of production missing that has yet to be accounted for. But again, I am still not buying into the Butler addition as a solution.

I know it sounds like I'm slamming Brice Butler pretty hard, but there was a time when I wanted to see him on the field more. Like many of you, the past few seasons I wanted to see him receive a promotion over Terrance Williams, but unfortunately that never happened. But, that was then and this is now.

Personally, I would much rather see Allen Hurns, Tavon Austin, or Michael Gallup be worked more into the offensive game plan. I just feel that we have already seen what Brice Butler has to offer and it just wasn't good enough for him to stick around before. It's time to move forward, not back.

There is a reason Butler was a free agent. I mean, he wasn't even good enough to stick with Arizona Cardinals, who probably have more problems at WR than the Cowboys. But who knows? Maybe I'll end up being wrong and he'll finally play up to his true potential and talent. Wouldn't that be great?

Now, this is just one person's opinion, but I just don't see Brice Butler improving the passing game for the Dallas Cowboys. I think the only way that happens is if Dak Prescott reaches the next phase in his development. Until then, I don't see things improving much. But, that's an article for another time.

How do you feel about the Dallas Cowboys reuniting with Brice Butler?



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Despite Seattle’s Record, Sunday Is No Cakewalk For Cowboys

Kevin Brady

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Cowboys Blog - 2016 Contract-Year Cowboys: DT David Irving 2

As Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson threw a game-ending pick six on national television Monday night, all of Cowboys Nation was suddenly giddy.

Somehow, the team which looked completely lost and inept offensively to open the season was now staring down a chance at a 3-1 start if they could take care of back-to-back winless teams.

The first of those winless foes being the Seattle Seahawks.

Though the last 5 years or so have conditioned us to believe that Seattle is a defensive minded, physical football team, more recent history suggests they’ve fallen off quite a bit. No longer are prime Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor patrolling their secondary, or are waves of top tier defensive linemen cycling through during the game.

Now, the Seahawks are defined by a shaky offensive line, a lack of playmakers on the perimeter, and Russell Wilson hero-ball.

It’s an odd, and typically ineffective formula for winning games, but it’s the one the 0-2 Seahawks are currently stuck with.

Despite all of this, however, Sunday’s game will be an important test for the Cowboys. Though they were favored by 3 points last week, this game is the first time in 2018 that Dallas is truly “expected” to win. Ironically, they come in as Vegas underdogs, but it’s difficult to find informed football analysts who are on Seattle this Sunday.

This, of course, has more to do with how poor Seattle has played to open their season, but they’ve still been incredibly competitive in both losses, losing both games by just one possession.

Going to Seattle and getting a win is a task teams have dreaded for years, even before Russell Wilson and the Legion of Boom brought the Seahawks back to relevancy.Earl Thomas, Seahawks

Now when you add in factors such as this being Seattle’s home opener, and that they will be desperately fighting to avoid a potential season-killing 0-3 start, this is shaping up to be a very tough test for the Cowboys.

The young Cowboys need to handle their business the next two weeks and take advantage of 0-2 conference foes. These games will be huge down the stretch for potential playoff tie breakers and give them a chance to “fatten up” before entering the more challenging parts of their schedule.

Like two match ups with the Philadelphia Eagles, and running the rest of the NFC South gauntlet during the later months of the year.



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