When Blog reader Don Swalinksi caught up to former LB Bryan Cox last month, Cox predicted Dallas might spend a high pick on a cornerback, reasoning that NFL teams needed three corners in this day of spread offenses in order to be effective.
The Cowboys did follow Cox' advice, though they used free agency to stock their secondary, signing CB Anthony Henry in March and CB Aaron Glenn one week after the draft, when Glenn was cut by the Texans. The cornerbacks solve the Cowboys most glaring defensive hole from 2004, when the team was unable to field a sound base secondary, much less one that could produce in passing situations.
That does not mean the secondary is whole. Free safety remains an enigma, with the Cowboys closely watching the waiver wire for any late veteran cuts. However, the players already on the roster give us a chance to fill out the rest of the positions.
Darren Woodson's back injury just a week before camp least season devastated this unit. The secondary thrived in '03 with a combination of Williams at SS and Woodson at FS and Newman and Mario Edwards at the corners. Woodson's skill at coverage let Williams play in the box, where his playmaking skills came to the fore. Just as important, Woodson provided cover for Edwards and Newman, who could play aggressive man coverage, allowing DC Mike Zimmer to blitz, which was a necessity given the anemic rush generated by the front four.
Woodson's injury, which ended his career, caused a domino effect that weakened the entire defense. With no dependable free safety on the roster, Zimmer moved Williams to the free. Coverage is not Williams' forte, and he struggled. Furthermore, when he had to play fifteen yards off the line of scrimmage, he could not be used as a blitzer. Tony Dixon replaced Williams in the box but could not hold the job.
With the safety positons so unsettled, Zimmer softened his coverage. Newman did not adjust to the more passive scheme and his play regressed. He was uncertain of when to attack the ball and when to back off. Teams identified his tentativeness and attacked him mercilessly. His play improved at mid-season, when Zimmer finally moved Williams back to SS and began blitzing again, but he never found consistency.
Up front, the lack of blitz support exposed how thin the Dallas rush really was; aside from LaRoi Glover and Greg Ellis, nobody else up front could bring heat on a regular basis. Henry's addition means the Cowboys should play more of the press coverage we saw in '03, rather than the half-hearted zones of '04. Williams will start at his natural strong safety postion, and his play should respond.
The 4-2-5 package has been the Cowboys base nickel set for years, though they do mix in some 3-3-5 looks from time to time. The objective up front is to put your best four pass rushers in the game, regardless of position. Keep an eye on 7th rounder Jay Ratliff, a DE with some speed. If he shows good rush skills inside, he could line up next to Glover inside. Or, he could line up wide, with Ellis moving to tackle, as he has in the past.
In the secondary, the question is which corner will line up in the slot. Since many offenses place their best receiver in the slot in three WR sets, defenses now put their best cover corner at that position. Tampa Bay, for example has used Ronde Barber there for years. If the corner is a good rusher, and if his team has a FS who can cover, he can also be used effectively as a corner blitzer. Glenn played LC at Houston, so do not be surprised if Newman gets the call inside. However, my guess is that Henry will get this task and that Glenn will line up on the right side. Henry has experience as a nickel corner and racked up ten interceptions as a rookie playing inside.