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Cowboys Cornerbacks: What To Do With Wes Welker?

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Orlando Scandrick returns from his high ankle sprain to face off against Wes Welker, one of the deadliest catch and run receivers in the game.
Orlando Scandrick returns from his high ankle sprain to face off against Wes Welker, one of the deadliest catch and run receivers in the game.

For the first time all season, the Cowboys will have a full contingent of cornerbacks suited up and playing in the same game. Orlando Scandrick returned to practice today, after being out since a Week One ankle injury against the New York Jets. Terence Newman has been playing for the last two games, and Mike Jenkins has continued to play through injuries that have plagued since training camp began.

The Cowboys will need all three, plus solid performances by safety valves Gerald Sensabaugh and Abe Elam to try and corral the explosive herd of New England Patriot passing game threats.

Through five games, Wes Welker leads the NFL in receiving yards. In fact, his 740 yards is the most accrued through five NFL games ever. Yeah, that ever.

Welker has come a long way since New England traded a second and seventh round pick to the Dolphins in 2007 for the speedy and shifty receiver. You think Miami wants a do-over, or are they content with Samson Satele and Abraham Wright? Yikes.

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Before tearing both his ACL and MCL towards the end of the 2009 season, Welker was one of the most dependable and dynamic threats the league had seen in a while. From 2007-2009, he averaged 115 receptions and over 1,200 receiving yards a season. Working through the injury, he was still able to accrue 86 catches and seven scores in 2010, despite the disappearance of Randy Moss from the Patriots offense; the deep threat that supposedly stretched the field for Welker.

In 2011, his numbers have been off the charts. Averaging over 16 yards a reception, Welker already has five touchdowns including a 99-yarder. Containing Welker has to be priority number one for Rob Ryan and the Cowboys defense this week.

How, exactly, do the Cowboys plan to contain this threat? Head coach Jason Garrett isn't tipping his hand just yet.

"As we go forward we'll evaluate that situation," Jason Garrett said after Monday's practice. "We feel good about the number of corners that we have, starting type players and also guys who haven't been starting but been playing a lot."

Last week, it appeared that Mike Jenkins was doing a pretty good job containing the physically imposing Calvin Johnson, another of the NFL's top tier of receivers. This is a different animal than Johnson's combination of size and speed, with the size being replaced by a slippery-nature the Cowboys have yet to face this season. The Patriots compliment Welker with two tight ends that threaten the defense vertically. Against the Lions, the Cowboys decided to employ cornerback defense on Brandon Pettigrew, and both Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez pose similar problems.

Looking at a breakdown of Welker's 2011 catches, Dallas will have to focus on stopping the underneath and across the middle routes.  These are Tom Brady throws made in an effort to get Welker in space where his shiftiness can spring him for big gains.

According to Pro Football Focus' reception breakdown, here is where Welker does his damage, and where the Cowboys will need to focus their defensive efforts.

  Left of Hash Middle of Field Right of Hash
20+ yards downfield Targets 1 4 1
  Catches 1 1 0
  Yards 21 24 0
  QB Rating 118.8 50 39.6
  TD's 0 0 0
         
10-19 yards Targets 0 7 5
  Catches 0 5 4
  Yards 0 177 101
  QB Rating 0 146.4 118.8
  TD's 0 1 0
         
0-9 yards Targets 8 21 3
  Catches 8 16 2
  Yards 103 163 14
  QB Rating 121.9 98.9 77.1
  TD's 3 1 0
         
behind LOS Targets 0 5 0
  Catches 0 3 0
  Yards 0 13 0
  QB Rating 0 64.6 0
  TD's 0 0 0

As the table above shows, Welker does some serious damage in the short and intermediate middle, which brings the support of the middle linebackers in question. The Patriots will most likely try to occupy Sean Lee, Keith Brooking and Bradie James with their two-tight ends, leaving Orlando Scandrick and possibly the safeties to try and stop the underneath traffic. Pressure on Tom Brady will be key, but Welker in the left split end position, probably on slants and short-ins, will be a quick read the defense has to prepare for.

It will be an interesting test for this rejuvenated defense.