We continue the Four Quarter series after a successful stop past a budding superhero's lair, as . There's no doubt how important Smith is to the future of this franchise's offense; the has become the DFW's Protector of the BlindCowboys have clearly banked on him becoming a staple of the line for the next 10-plus years.
Frankly though, Dallas' protection problems weren't relegated to Doug Free's regression in 2011, as the interior of the offensive line allowed untimely pressure on the quarterback. In some instances quarterback Tony Romo (as I prepare to lose 10% of my audience automatically for saying anything negative about our fearless leader) was at fault for some of the sacks he took. No one will ever question the amount of magic Romo produced amidst collapsing pocket after collapsing pocket. However, there were some occasions where he took a sack; sometimes correctly instead of throwing the ball into coverage but sometimes incorrectly. It happens; happens to all quarterbacks and only the most ardent Romo supporters think that TR is immune while no other quarterback is.
Regardless, there is plenty of work to be done for Dallas to maximize the talent on offense and in Jason Garrett's playbook. Yes, I know, Garrett might need to show more confidence in some of the less-used tabs on the ol' iPad. However, that's the reason Tyron protecting the blind ranked as a first quarter hope.
The hope for the second quarter of 2012 improvement is that Dallas' front office and staff targeted the secondary for major upgrading.
2nd Quarter: The Secondary became the team's Primary Objective
During OTA's, one specific after-practice press conference with Jason Garrett touched on a myriad of subjects. To me, the most compelling topic was the one I think will make a major impact on both sides of the ball; and I have to admit I was pretty happy to hear Garrett phrase it in such terms. When speaking about the impact of free agent cornerback Brandon Carr, here's Garrett's take:
"It's probably similar to what you see on tape. He's a big, long guy. He's got very long arms, he's a good athlete that can run, and he's not afraid to be physical. I think you see that in the games, and we've seen that in practices over the course of the offseason. And it's great work for him to be up their pressing alot, but it's great work for our receivers cause every time you come off the line of scrimmage you have to deal with that guy. It's great practice for him, because that's how he'll play and that's how he's played for most of his career, but it's also making us better on the offensive side."
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First and foremost, Dallas showed they were making the secondary a top priority by relieving position coach Dave Campo of his duties. If I had a dollar for every comment complaint about Campo being retained for 2011, I'd be a rich dude.
Campo was a dedicated Dallas man, but his coaching techniques left much to be desired in recent years. In comes Jerome Henderson, who has worked with defensive coordinator Rob Ryan at previous stops. A former corner, Henderson outlined an approach during his introductory news conference that gave the Cowboys fanbase hope for this and future seasons.
Here are a few of my notes I included in my Cowboys Crunchtime Podcast from that week:
Discipline, focus, technique, study. That's how Jerome Henderson started his first Cowboys presser. He wants players that understand what's happening around them. I guess he hasn't had the opportunity to watch much tape. I kid, I kid... not really though.
Henderson is in the process of breaking down tape into clips for individual players, in preparation for seeing the players again in April with a full understanding of their skills and limitations.
An interesting quote Henderson gave was, don't scream at me and yell at me and that's it. Scream at me and yell at me and give me answers. I really liked hearing that, not as a contrast to what was done before, because how the hell do I know what happened in those closed practices. I just like the attitude. Don't coddle, but don't be a dictator- that's my take on being an effective teacher.
If that doesn't get you excited about what the secondary players are doing, than what does?
Now, I won't pretend to be a subject-matter expert on defensive alignments and schemes, or statistics, either. However, I do have a grasp of each of the concepts to apply them to my overall understanding of what works and doesn't work on a football field.
Here's what I know; a defensive scheme that wants to bring pressure from surprise angles cannot have both outside cornerbacks playing 10-12 yards off the line of scrimmage on a regular basis. That's what Dallas was forced into several times over the 2011 season. Due to injury and simply overall bad roster management, Dallas found itself lining up Alan Ball and Frank Walker on multiple occasions, as Terence Newman, Mike Jenkins and Orlando Scandrick all suffered injuries throughout the year. Honestly, none of the five turned in performances to be proud of.
Make no mistake about it, Rob Ryan was not impressed with Terence Newman being his number one cornerback when he arrived in Big D. Remember, the Cowboys thought they had Nnamdi Asomugha in the bag last offseason. Despite what they said to the contrary when he dissed them for Philly, Dallas would have released Newman the second that contract was inked.
Injuries brought Ball into the lineup and Walker on to the team; and unfortunately brought both into the target zone of opposing quarterbacks. The Cowboys were simply ill-equipped to play the style of defense that Rob wanted to. That shouldn't be the case in 2012.
Here's how Carr's pressure play impacts the rest of the team. Our rookie first-round pick has been in ‘watch and learn' mode since joining the team due to a wrist injury. With Michael Jenkins pouting, Carr is the elder statesman of the corners and is setting the example for the explosive Clay-Mor. For all the hubbub about Pick Six's Wonderlic score, ask anyone in the Cowboys organization about the kid's grasp of football concepts and they'll tell you it's uncanny the way he soaks it all in. A ballhawking receiver at his core has spent the past couple months learning how jamming a receiver and interrupting their routes gives an added advantage downfield.
The receivers getting jammed? They probably won't have as difficult a time in getting off the line during games as they do in practice when they are lined up with the physical Carr.
Other than Calvin Johnson and maybe Andre Johnson in Houston, is there a more physically imposing receiver than Dez Bryant? Heck, do either of those players show the sheer power that Bryant does during a play?
But matched up against Carr on a day-in, day-out basis; the benefits could be numerous. If the reports are more than just offseason frost-overs and Dez has truly matured into a team leader that has fine-tuned his route-running; having to fight through Carr's jams will be paramount for his in-game concentration.
After all, a player can run precise routes in seven-on-seven drills all they want. When you are truly getting popped in the mouth at the snap and then have to maintain the timing with your quarterback is when that precision truly matters.
The carryover effect goes beyond the front line receivers. Unless Dallas signs a veteran receiver once camp opens (a move I heartily support) they seem intent on going into the season with a depth chart full of unaccomplished players. This means that they will have to be coached up rather quickly. To this point, they've been lining up against Carr, Scandrick and Mario Butler. I think it's safe to say that working against Carr is far and away the toughest test Andre Holmes, Cole Beasley, Danny Coale and Raymond Radway have received to this point.
What about the opposite side though; that Claiborne kid? Dallas' approach to how they integrate Claiborne into their lineup will, in part, determine his first-year fate. Dallas made a brilliant move trading up in the draft to select on of the few blue-chippers available; especially at a position of need. But how will they play him?
Unfortunately, it will all depend on disgruntled Mike Jenkins; and I feel this may be the one area that the Cowboys front office mis-stepped in their handling of the secondary. Dallas tried to trade Jenkins during the draft after they selected Claiborne. While we may never know whether or not Jenkins would have wanted out had it not been for the draft weekend rumors; from a pop psychologist point of view I can't see how it helped.
Did Dallas' front office not suspect that word would get out? Did they think they were truly going to get a first- or second-round pick during the days when the potential draft picks present were coveted more than any other time of the year? Did they not go into a think tank for how they would construct the position if they were able to land Claiborne?
Spilled milk now, but Jenkins is the key to Claiborne at the moment. Should he remain with the team into the season, than Dallas will be able to mirror the inclusion of LSU's Claiborne into their system much the same way the Cleveland Browns did with then-rookie Joe Haden out of the SEC's University of Florida. Haden wasn't thrust into a Top Two corner spot, rather he started as the third corner. He didn't start until midway through the season when he had a solid set of game experience with him and all the jitters were gone.
If a "I want a big contract" Jenkins is still with the team; this is reasonably possible with Claiborne.
That leaves us with the safety position; an area that has long been neglected by Dallas. A snap evaluation would still say that the front office hasn't fully committed to giving this area the resources needed and when it does it misappropriates them.Many question the deal given to Gerald Sensabaugh; it might have been earned by how much he was missed while he sat out the second half of the Detroit game as opposed to his actual on-field production.
Dallas brought in Brodney Pool during the offseason; a former Ryan player who mans both safety positions but performs best as a centerfield type player as opposed to being in the box. He is being challenged by Barry Church; a third-year player trying to put it all together.
Dallas is hoping they've struck some gold in fourth-round selection Matt Johnson from Eastern Washington. He missed almost the entire offseason due to school commitments but was getting some first-team run during the last days of mini-camp. He's a strong hitter who appears to have a beat on the ball in the air and the ball carrier. His measurables indicate a high probability of NFL success, as you can see here, and the Cowboys are probably hoping they've found Ryan and Henderson a fourth-round version of TJ Ward.
Ward teamed with Haden to form a rarely seen, successful secondary rookie duo in 2010. With Ryan's interchangeable safety slots, could we actually see a 2012 lineup when the two biggest ticket items, Sensabaugh and Pool become backups or are left off the roster?
Don't get me wrong, I'm nowhere near claiming that safety isn't one of the team's most up-in-the-air positions; but it sure will be interesting in 28 days.
So overall, while it's not a perfect scenario, no one can deny that Dallas has committed to the secondary in 2012. From the coaching change, to the personnel additions, they've definitely adhered to coordinator Rob Ryan's edict that all he wanted to see in the offseason were DB's. The question is, was the hole so deep that even these improvements won't be enough?