The Four Corners Of The Cowboys Pass Defense

Matthew Emmons-US PRESSWIRE

Ever wonder which Cowboys corners opposing teams are throwing the ball at and how successful they are?

If you're an offensive coordinator facing the Dallas Cowboys and you want to throw the ball, which defender do you target?

You could try and target the linebackers all day long and hope to dink and dunk your way down the field. You could make like Rex Grossman and chuck it downfield against the safeties. But at some point you'll have to target one of the Cowboys' corners.

Do you target the rookie or the $50 million free agent? Perhaps you'll go after the slot corner. Maybe even test the guy with the gimpy shoulder. You might even decide to throw against all of them.

We may never know what the opposing offensive coordinators think about the Cowboys corners, but we do know how often they target them and how successful they are doing it. So in today's post we'll look at the Cowboys corners, see if any of them have a Bull's Eye painted on their chest, see how often they get burned and how they compare to other cornerbacks in the NFL.

Quick note on the stats used below:

Target rate: denotes how often a corner is the primary man in coverage relative to the amount of snaps he spends in coverage (as opposed to his total snaps, which also include snaps against the run). The league average target rate is 16.4%, meaning corners are targeted on about every sixth snap they play in pass coverage.

Burn rate: number of catches a cornerback allows versus the number of balls thrown at the receiver he is covering. 60% is the league average and also the dividing line for starting corners. A burn rate below 60% denotes quality; a rate below 50% can be considered elite.

Yards per completion: receiving yards given up relative to the number of total completions allowed. League average is 12.6 yards per completion so far this season. This stat can be a little misleading as it is susceptible to a handful of long receptions given up.

All metrics are calculated using ProFootballFocus.com data.

Morris Claiborne: The Cowboys' rookie corner was targeted 29 times by opposing quarterbacks on 203 coverage snaps for a target rate of 14.3%. He allowed 20 of those throws to be caught for 215 yards and a fairly high burn rate of 69%. But that burn rate is offset by a very solid 10.8 yards allowed per reception. Here's how those figures compare to his peers:

Morris Claiborne

Snaps Coverage
snaps
Targets Receptions Yards Target
Rate
Burn
Rate
Y/C
Stats (rank*)
394 203 29 20 215 14.3% (27th)
69.0% (72nd)
10.8 (22nd)
* among 93 NFL CBs with at least 200 total snaps so far in 2012.

Brandon Carr: The Cowboys' $50 million man has wowed with his physicality at the line of scrimmage and his ability to play safety when called upon, but outside of that, he hasn't been spectacular. He's being targeted more often than Claiborne and he's giving up significantly more yards per completion than the rookie. His saving grace is that his burn rate is lower than Claiborne's.

Brandon Carr

Snaps Coverage
snaps
Targets Receptions Yards Target
Rate
Burn
Rate
Y/C
Stats (rank*)
415 212 34 20 305 16.0% (46th)
58.8% (39th)
15.3 (79th)

Carr's metrics are a little disappointing given the size of the contact he signed this offseason. His target- and burn rates are average and his yards allowed per completion rank towards the bottom of the league.

What's oddly surprising is that opposing QBs are not shying away from Carr's side of the field; he's being targeted at almost exactly the league average rate. Part of the reason for that is that the Cowboys are shading the safety help to Claiborne's side more often than to Carr's side, resulting in more on-on-one matchups on Carr's side - which ultimately is also a reason for the relatively high yards per completion number.

Orlando Scandrick: Scandrick has been quietly having a stellar season so far. The slot corner corner was targeted 20 times on 131 coverage snaps and allowed only 9 completions for an outstanding bun rate of 45%, the sixth best value in the league through Week 8:

Orlando Scandrick

Snaps Coverage
snaps
Targets Receptions Yards Target
Rate
Burn
Rate
Y/C
Stats (rank*)
207 131 20 9 124 15.3% (35th)
45.0% (6th)
13.8 (66th)

The five corners ahead of Scandrick are Chris Culliver (SF - 38.9%), Antonio Cromartie (NYJ - 41.9%), Alfonzo Dennard (NE - 42.9%), Brandon Flowers (KC - 43.3%) and Casey Hayward (GB - 44.7%). Together with Green Bay's Hayward, that burn rate makes Scandrick the best slot corner in the league at the moment.

That burn rate is all the more remarkable for slot corners as they don't have the sideline to play against as the regular corners do. However, Scandrick's numbers are also highly susceptible to sample size issues, as are most of the numbers put together for this post: If Scandrick had allowed one more completion, his burn rate would have been 50%, two more completions would have moved it up to 55%. But Scandrick didn't allow them, so it is what it is.

Mike Jenkins: Sample size issues really hit home for Mike Jenkins, who has only played on 92 snaps so far this season. The Cowboys' one-time Pro Bowler only saw action on 46 coverage snaps, was thrown at six times and gave up two completions. Both of those completions came against the Giants in Week 8, a 56-yard completion to Reuben Randle and a 5-yarder to Hakeem Nicks. As a result of that long reception, Jenkins' yards allowed per completion don't look so good.

Jenkins' snapcount doesn't qualify him for the leaderboard (min 200 snaps) so his table doesn't include his NFL rank.

Mike Jenkins

Snaps Coverage
snaps
Targets Receptions Yards Target
Rate
Burn
Rate
Y/C
Stats
92 46 6 2 61 13.0%
33.3%
30.5

After reviewing all four corners, the thing that stands out is that all four corners are being targeted at a roughly similar rate. It appears that opposing teams are not singling out one particular player as the 'weak link' in the secondary. The NFL is all about creating favorable matchups or mismatches and exploiting them. Judging by the target rates of the Cowboys' corners, there are no favorable matchups to be had against the Carr & Co, and that's good news.

What's a little more disturbing is that as we can see in the four tables above, the Cowboys corners as a group are around average in burn rate and and yards per completion. And this fits into a bigger picture about the Cowboys pass defense: while the Cowboys are ranked 3rd in the league in passing yards allowed per game (187.7), they don't look so hot in other metrics that measure the efficiency of a pass defense. Here's an overview of some key pass defense metrics and where the Cowboys rank in each of them:

Metric Value Rank
Defensive Passer Rating 87.7 18th
Net Yards/Attempt 6.3 19th
Yards per completion 12.0 23rd
INT/ATT 1.5% 25th

If you were to consider these four metrics as the four corners of the Cowboys pass defense, you'd quickly realize that the Cowboys pass defense is far from being the dominant unit that it's often portrayed to be. Yes, we all know by now that the defense is not generating enough turnovers, but getting more turnovers will only address part of the issue: The Cowboys are simply giving up too many yards per attempt and per completion in the passing game.

So far, they've been a little lucky in that opposing teams have not thrown a lot against the Cowboys defense which makes their total yards allowed look good. Over the first seven games, the Cowboys have seen an average of only 28 pass attempts against them, the second lowest value in the league.

Overall, the Cowboys are tied with the Steelers for the fewest defensive plays from scrimmage with 393 and a lot of that has to do with the offense. The offense's propensity for turning over the ball has led to many short fields a short drives for opposing teams. At the same time, the Cowboys offense, ironically, are ball-hogs who've managed the fourth-highest time-of-possession in the league despite their turnover woes.

Against the Falcons on Sunday, the Cowboys secondary needs to step up its game. The Falcons may not pick on a specific corner, but they will try to burn every single one. And if the Cowboys want to win, the secondary will have to rein in the Falcons' passing game.

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