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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

Can WR Noah Brown be a Surprise Starter in 2018?

Brian Martin

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Could WR Noah Brown be a Surprise Starter in 2018?

With all of the new faces the Dallas Cowboys added to the wide receiver position it's easy to overlook someone like Noah Brown. Everyone is anxiously awaiting to find out what the "new toys" can do, but they tend to overlook an ascending player who's already on the roster. That is exactly what I believe Brown is in his second-year and why he could be a surprise starter in 2018.

Noah Brown didn't have a large offensive role as a rookie in 2017, but he did show flashes of a player whose arrow is trending upward. And now that the Cowboys have revamped pretty much the entire receiver position, Brown has a chance to climb the depth chart and become much more than just a role player.

Noah Brown

Dallas Cowboys WR Noah Brown

There is really no way of knowing exactly where and how the Dallas Cowboys plan to deploy their WRs this season. The only thing we really know right now is that Cole Beasley will once again be the slot WR. Everything else is completely up for grabs, which is why this could be the position battle to watch throughout the remainder of the offseason.

With Dez Bryant, Ryan Switzer, and quite possibly Terrance Williams all gone, someone is going to have to catch passes from Dak Prescott in 2018. Allen Hurns, who the Cowboys signed as a free agent, is expected to replace some of that lost production as either the X or Y WR. But, behind him there's a lot of unknown.

The third-round draft pick Michael Gallup has the skill set to also play either X or Y, and should be part of the equation as well. But, you never really know how these collegiate players will transition to the speed of the NFL.

That is why I believe Noah Brown has a real shot at becoming a starter this season. This is especially true with Terrance Williams recent off the field troubles. I kind of doubt he has a job much longer.

With Williams likely on his way out, Noah Brown moves up the depth chart. I believe he can immediately step in and replace #83's production in the passing game and as a blocker in the running game as well. We got a glimpse of him doing just that last season, which might be why he's getting first-team reps in organized team activities (OTA's).

Jon Machota on Twitter

Second-year WR Noah Brown got a ton of work with the first-team. Lance Lenoir did also

It's easy to forget, but Noah Brown was mostly utilized as a blocking WR/TE last season. At 6'2", 225, Brown is now the biggest and most physical receiver on the Cowboys roster. His blocking ability is what got him on the field as a rookie, but he's no slob in the passing game if given the chance.

Brown is already a solid route runner, but he has been working during the offseason with a WR Guru, David Robinson, to improve this area of his game.

David Robinson on Twitter

@dallascowboys NFL WR Noah Brown has been in the lab 🔬 grinding hard folks! Look out for this kid he is going to be dangerous!!! "Train Like A Pro" @BobbyBeltTX @BenRogers @1053thefan https://t.co/0cDY4BJJit

Now, I may be a little biased since I was a fan of Noah Brown's before the Cowboys drafted him. I actually had a fourth-round grade on him coming out of Ohio, so I was ecstatic Dallas was able to get him in the seventh.

But, despite my favoritism, I can really envision him becoming a surprise starter when the season opens up. He not only has the skill set to do it, but a year in the system could gives him an advantage over these new additions. It could of making all the difference.

Do you think WR Noah Brown be a surprise starter in 2018?


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Star Blog

Creating a Monster: The Dallas Cowboys Offensive Line

John Williams

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Tyron Smith, Zack Martin, Travis Frederick, offensive line

After years of building, drafting, and retooling, the Dallas Cowboys have completed their offensive line. And in the process, they've created a monster. The addition of Connor Williams in the second round of the 2018 NFL Draft has reasserted the Dallas Cowboys offensive line as the best in football -- and it may not be close.

The team has been on this path since 2011 to create an identity for their football team that starts up front on the offensive line.

What transpired in the 2009 and 2010 seasons had a lot to do with the direction the team has taken over the last 8 seasons to ensure they were great up front.

Wade Phillips, Jason Garrett

Former and Current Dallas Cowboys' Head Coaches Wade Phillips and Jason Garrett

The End of 2009

In 2009, the Dallas Cowboys won the NFC East and proceeded to win their wild card game to reach the divisional round for the second time in three years, only to be beaten by the Minnesota Vikings 34-3.

What transpired in that game should have been enough for the Cowboys to address their offensive line in the 2010 draft as quarterback Tony Romo was sacked six times and threw an interception.

On the season, Romo was sacked 34 times, which is more than twice a game. Perhaps the wins on the season and the division title masked the issues the team had up front.

The Debacle of the 2010 Season

The team had lofty expectations heading into 2010. They had been to the playoffs three of the previous four seasons and, despite the drubbing at the hands of the Vikings, were still a formidable offensive team with some star power on defense in DeMarcus Ware.

Unfortunately, it was never to be.

Tony Romo only started six games and was sacked seven times in that span. Cowboys quarterbacks were sacked a total of 31 times, which would be right outside the top ten for most sacks allowed in the NFL in 2010.

Tony Romo went 1-5 in his six starts that season, getting sacked seven times in those six games before giving way to Jon Kitna and Stephen McGee for the final ten games of the season.

Head Coach Wade Phillips was replaced by Offensive Coordinator Jason Garrett after a 1-7 start that culminated in an embarrassing loss to the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field.

More Than a Coach Was Changed

Cowboys Headlines - Cowboys on the Clock: Tyron Smith, #9 Overall

Dallas Cowboys T Tyron Smith (Tom Fox/The Dallas Morning News)

The change in coaching signaled a change in philosophy from a 3-4 defensive minded head coach to an offensive one who was rooted in the glory days of the Dallas Cowboys of the 90's.

Those teams were known for their elite offensive line play that set the tone for the rest of the team. They protected Troy Aikman, who is in the Hall of Fame, and paved the way for the NFL's All-Time leading rusher, Emmitt Smith.

The impact that the offensive line had on the Cowboys teams of the 90's can't be understated.

So in 2011, Jason Garrett's first NFL Draft as the Dallas Cowboys head coach, he convinced Owner and General Manager Jerry Jones that they needed to do more to protect their most valuable asset (Tony Romo) while becoming a team that could run the ball and control the clock.

With the ninth overall pick in the 2011 draft, the Dallas Cowboys selected Tackle Tyron Smith.

That selection was history making. It was the first time in the Jerry Jones era that they had spent a first round pick on an offensive lineman. A span of more than 20 years saw the Dallas Cowboys never invest a first in the offensive line.

Mission Accomplished

With the selections of Travis Frederick and Zack Martin in the first rounds of the 2013 and 2014 NFL Drafts, the Dallas Cowboys offensive line was complete.

Jason Garrett's work to make the Dallas Cowboys in the image of the Super Bowl glory days of the 90's finally came to fruition.

The Dallas Cowboys offensive line led the way for Running Back DeMarco Murray to lead the NFL in rushing. They protected Tony Romo to have the best season of his career, leading the NFL with a passer rating of 113.2.

Everything looked to be coming together for a team that went 12-4, won the NFC East, and beat some notable teams like the Seattle Seahawks along the way.

Then the "Dez Caught It" moment happened and we all came crashing back to Earth.

That season, though it didn't end in a Lombardi Trophy, was still a success as it created a template that could be successful in the NFL. As teams attempt to spread out their formations to throw the ball, the Dallas Cowboys, while still using a lot of 11-personnel, showed the NFL that you can still be a run-first, physical football team and win.

With the template set, all the Dallas Cowboys have to do is to continue to retool.

Dallas Cowboys Have Big Hole on Offensive Line

Dallas Cowboys lineman including tackle Tyron Smith (77), offensive guard La'el Collins (71), center Travis Frederick (72) and guard Zack Martin (70) huddle up in the first half against the New York Jets at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, Saturday, December 19, 2015.(Tom Fox/The Dallas Morning News)

Creating a Monster

Let's review how the Dallas Cowboys have collected this impressive group of humans to block for their football team.

  • Tyron Smith was the ninth overall pick in the 2011 draft. Though he started out as a right tackle his rookie season, he made the move to the left side in his second year and has been considered one of the best tackles in the NFL since. Back issues have slowed him down, but he's still in his prime heading into his eighth (!!!) NFL Season.
  • Travis Frederick was the 31st pick in the 2013 NFL Draft. A lot of the draft analysts around the league believed that to be a reach at the time when the Dallas Cowboys traded back to 31 to select Frederick. They don't think it's a reach now.
  • In 2014 the Dallas Cowboys, yet again, selected an offensive lineman in the first round of the NFL Draft. It was widely reported that if Ryan Shazier would have been there at pick 16, that he would have been the selection. Shazier's been a great player in the league, but I'm actually glad that they got Martin. He's considered the best guard in the NFL and will probably be so for the next ten years.
  • Right Tackle La'el Collins would have been a first round draft pick had his name not been attached to the murder of his ex-girlfriend. Instead of being a first round draft pick, the Dallas Cowboys, led by GM Jerry Jones, wined and dined Collins into signing a pretty nice deal for a UDFA. After rotating with Leary for a couple of seasons, he's now the RT for the best offensive line in football.

That brings us to the newest addition of what has been coined The OLuminati. 

Heading into the 2018 NFL Draft, the whole world knew -- or hoped -- the Dallas Cowboys would address the left guard spot early on. When the first round came and went, most of us, including this writer, thought they'd likely have to trade up in the second to still come away with a plug and play guard at pick number 50.

So when they landed Connor Williams while staying put at 50, Cowboys Nation erupted with joy.

Connor Williams is strong enough to play on the interior but comes with the movement and flexibility to get to the perimeter and the second level. Though he was good last year, Jonathan Cooper was the weak link because of his movement limitations.

Strike First, Strike Hard, No Mercy

I just watched season one of the YouTube Red production Cobra Kai, which follows the lives of The Karate Kid's main characters Daniel LaRusso and Johnny Lawrence as adults.

Johnny, broke as a joke, relaunched the Cobra Kai karate brand based on the philosophy, "Strike First, Strike Hard, No Mercy." While it's a harsh philosophy to be teaching a bunch of teenagers, it certainly has its place with the Dallas Cowboys offensive line.

This group has the attitude and the ability to ruin days for opposing defenses. They aren't just going to get in your way, they're going to hit you and go through you.

This group of lineman has no weaknesses and if we talk about the signing of Cam Fleming, now you have a guy that played tackle for the New England Patriots during the Super Bowl as your tackle off the bench if you need him.

No weaknesses.

The Dallas Cowboys are going to be able to run inside and outside and to both sides of the offensive line with regularity because of the strength, physicality, and movement ability of their starting five. Opposing defenses aren't going to be able to load up on one side of the line because of a perceived weakness on the other side.

With Ezekiel Elliott running behind them, who's shown the ability to stretch a play outside and make a big run or find a crease in the middle of the line for a huge play, this is the Dallas Cowboys running game that Jason Garrett has been looking for since he took over in 2011.

While they've had success in the past, I have huge expectations for this group in 2018. 1,600 rushing yards for Elliott if he plays 16 games should be the floor. There's no reason he shouldn't flirt with a 2,000 yard season.

Now, whether that leads to a Super Bowl Championship remains to be seen, but we've seen in the past that when the Dallas Cowboys have success in the run game, it usually leads to wins, and lots of them.


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Star Blog

Cowboys en Español: ¿Qué Pasará con el WR Terrance Williams?

Mauricio Rodriguez

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Takeaway Tuesday: What We Learned From Cowboys Loss To Packers
AP Photo / Ron Jenkins

El receptor de los Dallas Cowboys Terrance Williams tiene una tarea difícil durante este offseason: mantenerse en el roster del equipo. El sábado pasado , Williams hizo de esa (relativamente sencilla) tarea, un reto mucho más difícil. El receptor fue llevado a la cárcel bajo cargos de intoxicación pública después de que la policía encontró su Lamborghini estrellado con un poste y abandonado.

Después de salir bajo una fianza de $369 dólares, T-Will está bajo investigación y enfrentando un futuro muy incierto en su carrera en la NFL.

A pesar de despedirse de Dez Bryant en abril, el cuarto de los receptores está repleto de jugadores listos para competir por puestos en el roster. Williams, quien no ha podido practicar debido a su lesión en el pie, no estaba en una buena posición para competir por su puesto antes del incidente.

Ahora, con una posible suspensión de por medio, la administración seguramente considerara despedirse del receptor de cinco años.

Vaya que Williams no es indispensable. Durante el Draft, los Cowboys seleccionaron a los wide receivers Michael Gallup (Colorado State) y  Cedrick Wilson (Boise State). Semanas antes, el ex-Jaguar Allen Hurns llegó a Dallas. Eso sin mencionar a Cole Beasley y a un puñado de receptores jóvenes como Noah Brown y Lance Lenoir quien han volteado cabezas en los entrenamientos.

Francamente, no es nada descabellado pensar que aún sin el incidente, Williams no estaría entre los tres titulares en la semana uno. Para Dallas, una ofensiva con Gallup, Hurns y Beasley como titulares podría resultar muy efectiva.

A pesar de destellos por aquí y por allá, Williams no ha podido demostrar una consistencia que avale su titularidad. Una semana hace una recepción increíble, a la siguiente es incapaz de salirse del campo para parar el reloj o para utilizar sus manos a la hora de atrapar el balón.

Eso sin mencionar que cuando se le pidió ponerse en los zapatos de Dez cuando este estaba lesionado en el 2015, Williams no pudo hacerlo. Tal fue el caso, que cuando Bryant volvió a caer en el 2016, Brice Butler tomó su lugar.

Tanto Gallup como Hurns pueden ser receptores "X." Williams, lamentablemente, no.

¿El defecto de una ofensiva sin Williams? Sinceramente, lo único que podría salir mal para los Cowboys si se deshacen del veterano, es que Dak Prescott perderá a tres de sus objetivos que ha tenido en su carrera en una sola temporada: Bryant, Witten y Williams.

Sin embargo, todas las contrataciones de nuevos WRs se han realizado para construir la ofensiva amigable para Dak, ¿no es así? Cowboys Nation debe confiar en el plan de la administración.

Incluso antes de ser arrestado, Terrance Williams estaba en Dallas simplemente por su contrato. Por ser apenas su segundo año, para los Vaqueros (desde un punto de vista financiero) no es viable cortar al receptor.

Una suspensión de la NFL podría hacer las cosas un poco más sencillas, pues si está suspendido, el equipo puede olvidarse del dinero garantizado y decirle adiós sin dudarlo. La NFL no ha mostrado ser muy consistente a la hora de asignar suspensiones, pero cualquiera que haya escuchado las declaraciones de Williams y visto el video imagina que una suspensión llegará inevitablemente.

Si es suspendido, Williams seguramente no vestirá la estrella en el 2018. De otra manera, las cosas se complican. Pero si el equipo llega a un punto en el que no están interesados en traer a nadie al equipo y no están preocupados por el tope salarial de la temporada, no veo porque se quedarían con él si prefieren utilizar el puesto de roster en cualquier otro jugador.

Terrance Williams tenía una oportunidad de oro para competir por la titularidad tras la partida de Dez Bryant. Lamentablemente, parece que soltó el último balón que pudo haber soltado.

¿Crees que Williams esté en el equipo este 2018?

Tell me what you think about "Cowboys en Español: ¿Qué Pasará con el WR Terrance Williams?" in the comments below, or tweet me @PepoR99 and let’s talk football! If you like football and are looking for a Dallas Cowboys show in Spanish, don’t miss my weekly Facebook Live! show, Primero Cowboys!


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