Dallas Cowboys 2012 Free Agency: The Impact Of Brandon Carr

If you can plant a running back, you can jam a receiver.

The free agency front has quieted down some (amazing, considering that Peyton Manning is still available), and many Dallas fans have been focusing on Nate Livings' moderately-sized contract. How quickly we can abandon the joy that was Brandon Carr's signing... But fear not! We will once again rejoice, for Brandon Carr has come to Dallas, and with him he brings promises of better days to come, perhaps in future Januaries.

So, why was Terence Newman in need of replacing? Why was Brandon Carr the right kind of guy to replace him?

  • Terence Newman was expensive...but Brandon Carr is more expensive.
  • Terence Newman has lost a step...but Brandon Carr isn't known for speed.
  • Terence Newman was terrible last December...but he started last season at a Pro Bowl level.

Why should we be happy that we ditched Newman (incurring a cap penalty in the process) and signed Carr (for an average annual salary higher than Newman's)? Follow the jump to find out.

When comparing Rex and Rob Ryan's defenses, many point to the fundamental difference in personnel - Rob has excellent linebackers and pass-rushers (specifically DeMarcus Ware) and Rex has an excellent secondary (specifically Darrelle Revis). Rex's defense has been more successful historically than Rob's was this past year, and you'd be correct to blame the secondary.

Which of these corners does not belong?

Look at the Jets' top two corners:

Darrelle Revis is 5'11", 198 lbs, and received this evaluation from FFToolbox.com prior to being drafted:

Revis is physical in coverage and not afraid to demonstrate his hard-hitting style against the run. He plays with a nasty, aggressive streak on the field to match his physical stature.

At 6'2", 210 lbs, Antonio Cromartie was given this evaluation from Sports Illustrated prior to the draft:

Natural cover corner who shuts down opponents. Physical, sized well and jams opponents at the line, slowing their release off the snap. Mirrors opponents down the field and offers blanket coverage.

Now compare those two to Terence Newman and Mike Jenkins:

Standing 5'10", 192 lbs, Terence Newman earned this evaluation from ESPN's Draft Tracker:

He is not a hitter. Ducks his head on impact. Can be outmuscled and gets overpowered too often. Doesn't get a strong jam and cannot stuff receivers off the line.

Mike Jenkins, at a stouter 5'10", 202 lbs, garnered this evaluation from NFL.com's combine profile (which for some reason lists him at 6' tall):

Regarded as one of the nation's premier shutdown pass defenders...His best asset is his press coverage skill, as he has had good success in impeding the receiver's route progression.

Add in Brandon Carr for good measure:

At 6', 207 lbs, Carr received this evaluation from CBS Sports before being drafted by the Chiefs:

Best when playing in off coverage, as he makes quick reads, rarely bites on pump fakes or play action and shows the soft, natural hands to pluck the ball away from his frame

Oh, no! That can't be good...However, more recently, Herm Edwards (his former coach in Kansas City) commented on his signing with the Cowboys, offering this:

Fits the bill when you talk about a Ryan defense. They like to put a lot of pressure on the quarterback and leave their corners out in man-to-man coverage. He's able to do that. He's a big, physical kid.

Rex Ryan's defense has been predicated on its pressure package. Without two physical press-cover corners, Rob Ryan cannot confidently call similar schemes.

The Need for a Press Corner:

Contrary to popular misconception, when Rob Ryan brought his defense to Dallas, he did not also bring a new skill set for our corners. Carr gives us the second shut-down corner we've needed for the past five years (Wade Phillips' pressure scheme also requires press cover corners, although not as exclusively). Let's consider Wade Phillips' scheme, and how it uses corners (in order to understand why Mike Jenkins was drafted), and then analyze Rob Ryan's defense, to see why Carr was such a priority signing.

Phillips' Attacking Defense:

Wade Phillips' once-effective defense in Dallas was predominately based on blitzing. On typical plays, Phillips would send DeMarcus Ware, and up to 2 other linebackers, at the quarterback, leaving man coverage and Cover 1, 2, or 0 behind. The fact that safety help was not always provided meant the corners were required to stick with their men. Once beaten, there was little chance for recovery. In a way, Phillips gambled in coverage while pursuing the sacks he prized so highly.

Terence Newman was a very effective man-cover corner throughout much of his career. He has never been anything other than a man-cover corner. The reason for Newman's early success was his blazing speed. He was able to allow a receiver a clean release and still stay with him, step-for-step, throughout his routes. As time wore on, Newman endured numerous soft-tissue injuries to his lower body, some with lingering effects. Eventually, fans began to notice the cushion he gave receivers steadily grow. At his worst, a few short months ago, Newman would need in excess of 10 yards' cushion in order to stay with quicker receivers downfield, and, in exchange, he stood no chance on short-middle routes such as slants, posts, crossing routes and square-ins. Some have suggested that a mid-season injury led to Newman's drastic reduction in speed late last year (which means, for him to play, his replacement would have fared worse--a scary thought), and there is no reason to question that argument.

Jenkins and Scandrick, both drafted by Phillips' regime (and I use that term lightly), were sought out for their man coverage skills and uncanny speed. Neither had a skill set more valued than the other, evidenced by Scandrick earning a starting position before Jenkins early in their careers. As they're both still young, both should have several more years' viability for the Cowboys. Considering that no one from the Cowboys ever interviewed Jenkins prior to selecting him in the draft, his current value as a press-cover corner can be considered one of few blessings from the Phillips era.

Rob Ryan's Pressure Defense:

If Phillips' defense was "attacking," Ryan's is "confusing." While Ryan does frequently employ a pass-rush, he prefers to generate pressure with fewer rushers, using the element of surprise to increase their effectiveness. In every play, he wishes to maintain fundamentally sound defense (gaps covered, receivers contained). This is a stark contrast to Phillips' defense, which consistently sent pressure from the same positions, leaving a bare minimum of players in coverage (and sometimes fewer); when he needed more pressure, he simply sent more blitzers.

Now that we employ a more versatile scheme, we require a different set of personnel. While man coverage is still vital to the success of the scheme, the additional requirement of press coverage is introduced. But why does Rob need it if Phillips didn't?

If Phillips were to employ press defense, and the corner were to be beaten, there would likely be no one behind the receiver to prevent the touchdown. In Rob's defense, there is (almost) always help behind the corner. The press is frequently more important than the following coverage. Like Dick LeBeau in Pittsburgh, Ryan employs a number of exotic zone blitzes. Additionally, Ryan believes that his players should be allowed to line up wherever they want pre-snap, so long as they execute their responsibilities post-snap.

On one particular play that stuck in my memory, Gerald Sensabaugh was assigned the deep left zone. He chose to fake a blitz from the weak slide and was moving toward the line of scrimmage at the snap. Post-snap, Sensabaugh immediately began retreating to his zone. The corner (I believe it was Ball, filling in for the injured Jenkins) was beaten without executing a proper jam, and the receiver was able to escape downfield before Sensabaugh could get to his zone and prevent the play. If Jenkins or Carr were playing on that snap, they likely would have successfully executed the jam, and Sensabaugh would have been in position to make a play on the ball.

What to Expect in 2012:

A primary component of Rob Ryan's defense is allowing players to choose their pre-snap positions. While their responsibilities remain static, they aren't determined by their positions, and therefore the quarterback has more difficulty executing his pre-snap reads. Disguising the safeties' responsibilities is the most difficult, and the most harmful to the quarterback. In order to effectively (and safely) utilize this key philosophy, the corners must be able to play press coverage. In Jenkins and Carr, the Cowboys now have a pair of capable press corners. With a full offseason to implement his schemes, Rob Ryan should be able to unleash all that he'd advertised when he came to Valley Ranch in a jacket and tie just one year ago.

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