Connect with us

Star Blog

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

Kevin Brady

Published

on

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

Check out this video on Streamable using your phone, tablet or desktop.

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

Check out this video on Streamable using your phone, tablet or desktop.

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

Check out this video on Streamable using your phone, tablet or desktop.

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

Check out this video on Streamable using your phone, tablet or desktop.

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

Check out this video on Streamable using your phone, tablet or desktop.

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

Check out this video on Streamable using your phone, tablet or desktop.

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.

ADVERTISEMENT

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.

Advertisement
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

Will Terrance Williams be Back with Cowboys in 2018?

Brian Martin

Published

on

Will Terrance Williams be Back with Cowboys in 2018?

Each offseason tough decisions have to be made by teams around the NFL, and the Dallas Cowboys are no exception. Teams have to decide who to promote, who to demote, and who to cut ties with altogether. For the Cowboys, Terrance Williams fits into one of those three categories, but which one?

It was plainly obvious that the Dallas Cowboys wide receivers all had an extremely disappointing 2017 season.

Everybody has their own opinion as to why this happened, but one thing is for sure, the Cowboys coaching staff will definitely look at ways to get more out of their receiving core. The one player who I think could be affected most by whatever decision the coaching staff ends up making is Terrance Williams.

Williams didn’t do much to make a case for keeping his starting job in 2017, let alone sticking on the roster.

To say he had a disappointing season would be an understatement.

Williams finished the 2017 season with just 53 receptions for 568 receiving yards and absolutely zero touchdowns. The Cowboys were likely hoping for more production from someone they just signed to a four-year, $17-million contract extension back in March [2017].

Now, you can make the argument Williams took a team discount in order to stay in Dallas, but that doesn’t carry much weight when your production leaves so much to be desired. This is especially true when there might be somebody on the roster who can do just as well, and possibly be an upgrade.

Noah Brown

Dallas Cowboys WR Noah Brown (AP Photo/Ron Jenkins)

Yes, if you haven’t guessed it yet, I’m talking about Noah Brown.

I know I’m not alone here, but I think Noah Brown could easily replace Terrance Williams’ production. I understand that there’s not much evidence to back up that statement based on Brown’s rookie season, but he has all the tools required to succeed.

This is really all about potential, and Noah Brown simply has more upside than Terrance Williams.

We all know what Terrance Williams is as a receiver, and what he brings to the table for the Cowboys offense. I believe Noah Brown can do all the things Williams does and has the potential to be even better.

I already think Noah Brown is a better blocker, something the Cowboys coaching staff really values about Williams. I also think Brown is a better pass catcher. He is a natural hands catcher and has a large catching radius, something Williams obviously isn’t (body catcher).

Right now, Williams is only better than Noah Brown in a few areas. He is slightly faster, he’s more advanced as a route runner, and has more experience. That’s about it.

This will obviously be a tough decision for the Dallas Cowboys coaching staff to make. But, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if we see Terrance Williams playing somewhere else when the 2018 season kicks off.

Do you think Terrance Williams will be with the Cowboys in 2018?

ADVERTISEMENT

Continue Reading

Star Blog

Are the Dallas Cowboys Building a Championship Defense?

Sean Martin

Published

on

Are Dallas Cowboys Building A Championship Defense? 3

Three of the four teams remaining in the NFL playoffs — a win away from the Super Bowl — ranked within the top four defensively in yards per game allowed this season. The other is the defending-champion New England Patriots, who of course were expected to reach yet another AFC Championship game, thanks to Tom Brady and Bill Belichick.

Somewhere between this field, losing their 2017 hopes at a deep playoff run to injuries, suspensions, and just poor execution at times, are the Dallas Cowboys. The Cowboys ranked eighth in yards allowed per game at 318.1 this season.

On the surface, all this provides hope that typically springs eternal around the league through the offseason.

It has been far too long since the Cowboys defense matched the skill level of the team’s offense, but Rod Marinelli’s unit (not exactly by design) outplayed that of Scott Linehan’s at times through this 9-7 campaign.

This defensive rebuild in Dallas began with the admission that this group had reached their ceiling in the offseason, as the Cowboys let long-time starters like CB Morris Claiborne, CB Brandon Carr, S Barry Church (now with the Jaguars), and S J.J. Wilcox go in free agency.

Are Dallas Cowboys Building A Championship Defense?

Dallas Cowboys CB Jourdan Lewis, CB Chidobe Awuzie, S Xavier Woods (AP Photo / Ron Jenkins)

For a team with Super Bowl aspirations, looking to turn over an entire secondary in a division featuring Carson Wentz, Eli Manning, and Kirk Cousins as quickly as the Cowboys did was a risky move. Their confidence in hitting on draft picks paid off though.

The Cowboys’ bright future is predicated on the likes of CB Chidobe Awuzie, CB Jourdan Lewis, and S Xavier Woods.

With two young starters at cornerback, the sky truly is the limit the this Cowboys defense. And they’ll play in support of an offense with more than enough talent to return to form in 2018.

As it stands now under Rod Marinelli, the Cowboys defense is built to keep everything in front of them, and get bodies to the football. This coverage-friendly approach could be taken to new heights with Lewis and Awuzie on the outside, along with Anthony Brown finding a home in the slot. All three cornerbacks have excelled at using their speed, length, and technique to get their hands on passes.

Are Dallas Cowboys Building A Championship Defense? 1

Dallas Cowboys DE DeMarcus Lawrence

Of course, games are won in the trenches, where the idea of the Cowboys defensive line ever rising to the level of their offensive line was laughable until recently. Whether it’s with the franchise tag or a long-term extension, sack-artist DeMarcus Lawrence looks to be an all-important member of this entire team moving forward.

A healthy Lawrence was a nightmare for opposing right tackles in 2017. He earned a national spotlight each week on his way to the quarterback 14-and-a-half times. Making it look easy at times, Lawrence is a refined rusher with the speed and power to win inside and out.

The RDE position remains a sore spot in need of talent as this Cowboys defense looks to take the next step, but there’s hope for the likes of Randy Gregory, Charles Tapper, and Taco Charlton to get the job done, along with veteran starter Tyrone Crawford.

With Crawford at RDE for much of 2017, running the ball against the Cowboys front was a tall order. His ability to capture the corner against left tackles came as a pleasant surprise to many, and once in position, the defensive captain chased down plenty of plays.

Tyrone Crawford wasn’t the only pleasant surprise on the Dallas Cowboys defensive line this season.

Rookie Taco Charlton looked like an entirely different player to close a first year in Dallas that began with completely uninspiring results. Charlton — having the physical traits to play at the next level — was never a question out of Michigan.

He may never be a player to take over games for a defense, which the Cowboys couldn’t have expected to find at DE selecting 28th overall, but an improved player at DE and DT could be an incredibly valuable asset for the Cowboys in 2018 and beyond.

This leaves the Cowboys linebacker corps, where we find the best example of young potential on the entire defense. Amazingly playing in all 16 games, LB Jaylon Smith is in line to take a massive step forward in year two.

Smith closed his season looking enticingly close to the player he was at Notre Dame, an encouraging sign as the Cowboys look to become less dependent on Sean Lee on this side of the ball.

Lee and Smith paired together would give the Cowboys a middle-of-the-field presence to rival the best in the league. Both players have exceptional range and awareness to run down plays from sideline to sideline.

Anthony Hitchens, an impending free agent, is another valuable piece at LB with his ready ability to play all three positions at a relatively high level.

Are Dallas Cowboys Building A Championship Defense? 2

Dallas Cowboys LB Sean Lee

Stefon Diggs racing to the end zone with no time left to send the Vikings to the NFC Championship game will be the lasting image of this past Divisional Round weekend, an offensive play that will live on forever.

A closer look at these games and the teams that survived them reveals a collective trust in defenses, a trust the Cowboys could be blissfully close to with their own young defense.

The Cowboys are likely losing one of the smarter minds behind their defense in recent years, with Matt Eberflus ticketed for Josh McDaniel’s staff, and are still in need of a secondary coach after not retaining Joe Baker. In a league where better talent typically prevails though, the possibility of the Cowboys building a championship defense for next season and beyond may not be far off.

With defenses in Jacksonville and Philadelphia providing the hope that both teams can pull off the impossible and reach the Super Bowl on Sunday, will defensive potential be enough for Dallas to get through this long offseason and start the even longer path back to their first NFC Championship game in 21 seasons?

Tell us what you think about “Are the Dallas Cowboys Building a Championship Defense?” in the comments below. You can also email me at Sean.Martin@InsideTheStar.com, or Tweet to me at @SeanMartinNFL!

ADVERTISEMENT

Continue Reading

Star Blog

Can Rico Gathers Make Cowboys Offense More “Dak-Friendly”?

Brian Martin

Published

on

Rico Gathers, Rams

The Dallas Cowboys unfortunately face all kinds of questions heading into the 2018 offseason. Right now, there are no answers to those questions, which means we’ll just have to sit back and take a wait-and-see approach. But, one question that absolutely has to be answered is how to make the Cowboys offense more Dak Prescott friendly.

Offensively, the Dallas Cowboys had an extremely disappointing year in 2017. Suspensions and injuries are the main culprits for the disappointment, but the Dallas Cowboys haven’t really changed things much in the scheme or personnel to help Dak Prescott succeed.

The sad truth is, the Dallas Cowboys are still operating as if Tony Romo is the starting quarterback. It’s pretty much the same personnel and scheme, but it really doesn’t suit Prescott.

It’s time for that to change. Unfortunately, this isn’t something that will happen overnight.

The Cowboys spent years putting together the personnel to help Romo. Just when they thought they had the missing piece — by drafting Ezekiel Elliott, Romo sustained a back injury, pretty much ending his career.

Anyway you look at it, the offensive personnel needs to improve in order to make this team more “Dak-friendly”.

Enter Tight End Rico Gathers.

Rico Gathers

Dallas Cowboys TE Rico Gathers

The Dallas Cowboys have invested two years in Rico Gathers’ development, but with the exception of a few flashes in preseason, they haven’t benefited from the fruits of their labor. The 2018 season should be Gathers’ coming-out party.

We all witnessed what the Cowboys offense looks like when they are forced to rely on the passing game. Dak Prescott struggled to find any kind of consistency throwing the ball — with the options he had at his disposal in 2017 — while Ezekiel Elliott served a six-game suspension.

Defenses decided to take Prescott’s favorite target out of the equation by bracketing Cole Beasley in coverage. Then, they also devoted extra attention Dez Bryant‘s way, making it difficult to get him the ball.

The only other option left really was Jason Witten on simple check downs.

And that is what the future Hall of Famer has been reduced to.

Jason Witten is no longer the threat he once was. Yes, he is still a reliable target, but his age is starting to catch up to him, which has unfortunately robbed him of some of his athleticism. We will no longer see Witten stretch the field down the seam, or run many routes further than 10 yards.

That’s why I think Rico Gathers could be a difference maker in 2018, especially for Dak Prescott.

Prescott needs more than an outlet receiver at the TE position. No offense to Jason Witten, but that’s pretty much what he has become at this point in his career.

Rico Gathers on the other hand is not only different from Witten, but also provides a different skill set than any other TE on the Cowboys roster. He’s a big target with athleticism, who cannot only move the chains, but stretch the field and break tackles in the open field.

Gathers’ sheer size alone creates mismatch problems against smaller defensive backs and linebackers, but his athleticism should allow him to create separation, something which fits into what Prescott needs from his receivers.

There is no reason why the Dallas Cowboys coaching staff can’t find a way to incorporate Rico Gathers’ unique skill set into the offense. They may not truly trust him to be an every down player, but that’s not happening anyway, not with Jason Witten on the roster.

If it was me, I would have a few packages in the playbook specifically designed for Gathers. I not only think this will help him grow as a player, but help the Cowboys offense become more “Dak-friendly”.

Can Rico Gathers make the Cowboys offense more “Dak-friendly”?

ADVERTISEMENT

Continue Reading

Reader Survey

Want to help make Inside The Star better?

We’re collecting feedback from our readers about the site. It only takes <2 minutes to complete, and can be done from any device.

> Take the survey now

Don’t worry, your information will not be shared with anyone but me (Bryson T.).

Advertisement
Advertisement
Enjoy 40% commissions on officially licensed products as a FanPrint affiliate. You can even make your own, fully licensed Cowboys and player designs! Get started here

Trending