Did the 2011 Cowboys secondary have too many turkeys?

It has been interesting listening to representatives of the Cowboys reveal the team’s off season needs. Stephen declared that the Cowboys needed to address the interior of the offensive line and the secondary. Rob Ryan echoed Stephen’s sentiments regarding the secondary.

Most Cowboys fans witnessed the debacle that cost Dave Campo his job as a long-time Dallas assistant coach. Quarterbacks such as Grossman, Moore, and Kolb carved the secondary to accumulate ratings of 95.2, 99.5, and 109.9 respectively over a three game span.

What was truly amazing was how an above average unit to begin the season completely fell apart around the 10th week of the season. According to Pro Football Focus, the Cowboys secondary had a combined rating of approximately +5.4 through the first nine games of the 2011 season.

Newman Scandrick Jenkins Sensabaugh Elam Ball Church McCray Walker
Games 1-9 5.0 -3.4 1.7 3.9 -1.1 -3.4 2.1 1.5 -0.9

Following the game versus Buffalo, Terence Newman boasted the highest grade in the secondary according to Pro Football Focus. Gerald Sensabaugh looked like a solid safety, while young Barry Church was making the most of the limited opportunities presented to him, outplaying the starter, Abram Elam.

Note that Scandrick and Ball already had a negative cumulative score through the first nine weeks of the season. The fact that the last seven games led to a drop of -2.2, and -2.1 respectively, is not surprising. That Dallas resigned Scandrick may speak more to the dire situation at cornerback, than the quality of Orlando as a cornerback.

Abram Elam’s drop of -4.2 over the final seven games of the season is alarming, but nothing when compared to what happened with Terence Newman. Newman dropped from +5 to -9.1: a loss of 14.1 points over the final seven games of the season.

Newman Scandrick Elam Ball Walker
Games 10-16 -9.1 -5.6 -5.3 -5.5 -5.1

The defensive backfield began the season banged-up, and it showed against the Jets. But after the opener in the New Meadowlands, the defensive secondary began to steadily improve week by week, playing well against New England (5th game) and receiving their highest score the following week against the Rams (dude…). The game at Philadelphia reversed that trend, and the Cowboys’ secondary strung together average performances against teams like Seattle, Buffalo, and Washington.


Considering that Grossman posted a 95.2 passer rating the week before, the game at Washington was truly a preview of things to come. The bottom obviously fell out on Thanksgiving against Miami and Matt Moore. The secondary only had one more good game (against a Tampa Bay team that had packed it in for the season). The defensive backfield was a detriment to the Cowboys against Arizona, New York (twice), and Philadelphia.

The play of the secondary may be the biggest reason that Dallas finished 1-4 down the stretch of the season.

When compared to other positions on the team, it is apparent that the Dallas defensive backs were the weakest unit. It is no surprise that Rob Ryan voiced that he is only looking at defensive backs during this offseason. Regardless of the defensive pressure Ryan dialed up, the play of the defensive backs would render any rush futile.

Examining the other units on defense, only starters Marcus Spears (-3.6) and the combination of Bradie James (-4.1) and Keith Brooking (-7.9) had negative season grades. As would be expected, DeMarcus Ware had the highest score among the linebackers (and the entire team), while Jay Ratliff led the defensive line. Sean Lee finished with a strong season score, with Anthony Spencer finishing just behind him. Sean Lissemore also had an impressive grade on limited snaps.


(1: Ware, 2: Lee, 3: Spencer, 4: James, 5: Brooking)

That five defensive players on the front seven finished with good cumulative season scores lends credence to Jerry Jones’ statement that the front seven is a relative strength on this Cowboys’ team. There is a significant drop-off, however, to the mediocrity of the rest of the defenders with regular playing time on the defensive line and at linebacker. As noted, several players were liabilities this past season (Brooking, James, and Spears).


(1: Ratliff, 2: Lissemore, 3: Hatcher, 4: Coleman, 5: Brent, 6: Spears)

Compare that with the drop off from the two top players in the secondary and the problems become augmented. Only starters Gerald Sensabaugh and Mike Jenkins finished the year with a cumulative positive season score. Neither defensive back graded as highly as the leaders on the defensive line and at linebacker. Coupled with the fact that every other starter and player that received extended playing time in the defensive backfield had a negative cumulative season score, the need for obtaining an upgrade in the secondary is obvious.


(1: Jenkins, 2: Sensabaugh, 3: Elam, 4: Scandrick, 5: Ball, 6: Newman)

Notice the extreme difference in performance between the top two defensive backs (Jenkins and Sensabaugh) and the rest of the secondary. It is a miracle that Rob Ryan kept the unit protected through the first 10 weeks of the season. While upgrades along the defensive line and at the linebacker position would undoubtedly improve the Cowboys defense, the Dallas defensive backfield is in dire need of an infusion of talent.

Drafting an average cornerback to take the place of Newman would actually be a significant upgrade over Terence’s level of performance over the final seven games of the season. From Elam’s grades, it is also easy to surmise that a new safety will be starting in 2012. While Barry Church would be the favorite at this point, a rookie with greater upside, like George Iloka (6’ 3", 216 lbs., SS Boise State), may be a better way to proceed.

Unfortunately, one of the few constants in the play of a rookie, is their relative inconsistency. Perhaps signing a mid-level cornerback through free agency would lead to better overall play from the defensive backfield. A solid, albeit average cornerback, could add a dimension of consistency that was sorely lacking from the secondary in 2011.

Regardless, the defensive secondary will likely be a problem until the Cowboys improve the talent at almost every position. Judging from the grades Pro Football Focus produced for the Cowboys secondary in 2011, once Thanksgiving day came around, the Dallas defensive backfield had two capable players that could no longer overcome the poor performance of the other five.

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