Coming into the season cornerback Orlando Scandrick was generally considered one of the top two defensive backs on the roster and perhaps even the best defensive player on the team after Sean Lee. Scandrick has missed the last four games with injuries to both hamstrings, but with the emergence of rookie Anthony Brown the secondary has seen no drop off whatsoever. In the mean time Morris Claiborne has emerged as the best defensive back on the roster over the first five games going into Sunday’s contest with Green Bay. Yet late in the first half Claiborne was knocked out of the game by some friendly fire on an inadvertent collision with Sean Lee. So there the Cowboys were, up by four late in the first half, matched up with Aaron Rodgers at Lambeau Field without two of their top three cornerbacks, one of which has played at nearly an All-Pro level so far in 2016, and another who has been thought of as one of the Cowboys very top defensive players over the last couple seasons. Only two cornerbacks remained; Brandon Carr, a player who was nearly released in the offseason before re-structuring his contract, and sixth-round rookie Anthony Brown.
Let’s take a look at how the secondary responded.
This is the first play after the Claiborne injury, a critical 4th and 5 with just over two minutes left in the half from the Cowboys 38:
The Cowboys secondary is in man coverage across the board here with a single-high safety in J.J. Wilcox, a role he has been asked to play for a good amount of the season so far. Anthony Brown and Brandon Carr are lined up on the outside against Jordy Nelson and Davante Adams, Byron Jones is lined up on Randall Cobb (top of the screen, the tightest of the three receivers to the line), with Jeff Heath across from Ty Montgomery and Barry Church lined up on Jared Abbrederis. Sean Lee and Justin Durant drop into a zone, with three rushing. This is a common alignment that the Cowboys ran in nickel and dime situations once Claiborne left the game, with Brown and Carr playing the outside, Jones covering the Packers most dangerous slot weapon in Cobb, Wilcox deep and the remaining safety dropped down either in man or zone near the slot. Jones shows here that he isn’t just a force covering tight ends 1-on-1, but also dangerous slot receivers as he makes a fantastic play to carry Cobb down field, gets his head turned and easily deflects the pass.
Something similar happens here on a 3rd and 5 on the very next drive with the Packers again in Cowboys territory:
Exact same alignment here with Brown and Carr outside, Jones in the slot on Cobb (top of the screen), Heath in the slot on Montgomery, Church in the slot, this time against Jeff Janis, and Wilcox deep. Again, it’s man coverage across the board with three rushing and two linebackers dropping into zones. Cobb runs almost the exact same route, and despite the announcer proclaiming that he was wide open and “it should’ve been six”, Jones is right on his hip and has very good coverage. The route has Cobb running towards the sideline and it would have taken a pinpoint perfect pass nearly 50 yards downfield without much space between the receiver and the sideline for it to be complete. Instead Rodgers leads him upfield and away from the sideline, but if the pass is too far inside Wilcox is there to break it up or even intercept it. The Cowboys get a big third down stop, get the ball back with a minute left in the half and we all know what happens on the next Cowboys drive.
Here is the Church interception to start the second half, this time with only five defensive backs on the field instead of six:
Again, Carr and Brown lined up outside, Jones in the slot on Cobb, with Wilcox and Church giving a Cover-2 look. It’s not actually two-deep though as Church would later say that he was in man coverage on the tight end that is lined up next to the left tackle but when he stayed in to block Church was free to roam. Rodgers probably assumed it was Cover-2 and was expecting Church to drop deep, and that may be why he said he never saw Church. It’s hard to tell whether Brown and Carr are in man or are in a Cover-3 zone with Wilcox, my guess is it is Cover-3 based on how Wilcox drops, but Jones is most certainly in man coverage against Cobb. The tight end stays in to block, Church drops down, reads the quarterback’s eyes and steps right in front of Cobb’s crossing route for the interception. Even if Church hadn’t been there Jones had terrific coverage on Cobb, as did the rest of the secondary giving Rodgers nowhere to go with the ball.
Here is another critical third down, this time to start the fourth quarter right after Dak Prescott’s interception. Down 20-6 and facing a 3rd and 10, the Packers were attempting to cut the lead to one score from the Cowboys 16:
Very similar alignment as mentioned previously with three rushing, two linebackers in a zone, Carr and Brown outside, Jones and Heath lined up in the slot, and Wilcox deep. They’re in man coverage again here and while David Irving does a great job to bat down the pass to stop the play before it even gets started, you can see that the coverage is fantastic and Rodgers has nowhere to go with the ball. Even if the pass was complete to Montgomery you have Justin Durant and Church right there to make the tackle four yards short of the first down. Heck, Durant actually broke so hard on the pass and was in such perfect position that he may have even intercepted it if Irving hadn’t batted it down. The Packers would settle for a field goal and on the next drive the Cowboys offense pushed the lead up to 27-9.
Two months ago if I would’ve told you that the Cowboys would have to play a half of football against Aaron Rodgers without Orlando Scandrick and Morris Claiborne, with only Brandon Carr and Anthony Brown at corner, J.J. Wilcox playing single-high safety and Jeff Heath matched up in man coverage on various Packers receivers, you may have written the game off as a loss, I know I would have. Instead the secondary did what they have done most of the season; play terrific assignment-sound football and not give up big plays. Sure, Rodgers wasn’t his usual future Hall of Fame self, but he is still a very good quarterback, this isn’t Blaine Gabbert we’re talking about here.
Big time credit has to go to first-year secondary coach Joe Baker and safeties coach Greg Jackson. Claiborne and Church are having career years, Wilcox has quietly been very good playing the single-high in nickel and dime, Jones has improved, Brown has been a slam dunk of a sixth-round pick, Carr looks improved, and Heath acquitted himself well when forced into playing time on Sunday.
Keep in mind that Claiborne, Church, and Wilcox are all unrestricted free agents after this year, and Carr could be as well. The Cowboys will surely re-sign at least one or two of them, likely Claiborne and Church, but looking forward I think the bigger need this offseason may actually be a “third” safety instead of another cornerback, assuming Wilcox walks. Jones is a safety in the base defense but in nickel and dime he is basically a cornerback as Wilcox has been the one to come in and play the deep safety when Jones drops down to cover tight ends and slot receivers in man coverage. Assuming Carr and Wilcox are gone next season, and assuming the Cowboys want to continue using Jones in this manner, the bigger need will be finding a safety with range who can play single high as Wilcox is doing right now. Between Claiborne, Scandrick, and Brown I wouldn’t worry too much about cornerback going into 2017, especially with Jones effectively functioning as your fourth corner.
In the mean time let’s just enjoy a secondary that is playing excellent right now, and which should only improve as Orlando Scandrick and Morris Claiborne will likely return against the Eagles.