Coming into the season, the Dallas Cowboys defense was supposed to keep the team from being playoff contenders. Over and over, pundits described the Cowboys defense as bad, woeful, potentially historically bad. Turns out, they were wrong. The Dallas defense has proven to be a worthy bend-don’t-break complement to a powerful offense. They haven’t allowed over 23 points in any game this season, and are currently the seventh-ranked defense in points allowed at 18.6 per game. Quite a contrast to what many predicted.
They still have issues, though. They don’t have a consistent pass rush, and that puts a lot of pressure on their secondary in coverage. Fortunately, that unit has been up to the task. Now, they will have to compensate for the loss of two starters, cornerback Morris Claiborne and safety Barry Church.
Claiborne has been a huge reclamation project this season, posting his best numbers ever. Pro Football Focus has him rated as a Top-10 cornerback in the league this year with a score of 84.3 on the season ( he rated as the Cowboys best defensive back against the Eagles with a 83.2 score). Not only has he been playing great pass defense, but has shown a willingness to be physical in run defense.
Claiborne has allowed only 26 catches for 214 yards and a score (on 48 targets) with an opponent's passer rating of only 64.1 in 2016. That's the 12th-best figure among the 112 cornerbacks that have been on the field for at least 100 passing snaps this season.
In his absence the Cowboys will go with a combination of Anthony Brown and Orlando Scandrick. Just how they will line up is still a bit of a mystery. Scandrick can play both outside and slot, and Brown has done a bit of both, although when Scandrick was out he manned the slot. He performed so well at the position that it was hardly noticed that Scandrick was out for a month. Brown has also shown a willingness to get into the mix as a run defender.
When asked about the two at today’s press conference, Jason Garrett didn’t tip his hand about how they would be deployed, only noting that Scandrick has the versatility to play outside or in the slot, and that Brown has really shown more than just speed, but physical play and has been growing as a player. Brandon George of the DMN suggests they will deploy like this:
Let me correct myself: Plan is for Orlando Scandrick to start at outside CB for MO but move inside on nickel w/ rookie Anthony Brown outside— Brandon George (@DMN_George) November 2, 2016
Coach also was vague about Claiborne’s injury and timetable for a return. He didn’t classify it as a sports hernia, just a groin injury, but said they are still evaluating.
As for Barry Church, he’s been playing most of his time as the in-the-box safety. The Cowboys have been using Byron Jones as kind of a jack-of-all-trades guy in coverage, sometimes lining up in two deep with J.J. Wilcox, sometimes lining him as a corner in coverage, and sometimes as a safety covering a tight end. This has left J.J. Wilcox playing a lot of single-high safety. The Cowboys have been using a rotation of Church, Jones and Wilcox at safety, sometimes playing all three in “heavy” formations. The question is will this continue?
The Cowboys could roll J.J. Wilcox up into the Church role, and let Jeff Heath play a lot of the single-high coverages they’ve been using. Or they might decide to stay with a rotation of Jones and Wilcox, and play more conventional nickel and dimes.
Whatever they do, depth is going to be an issue. They have two corners on the practice squad in Leon McFadden and Sammy Seamster, but how much they could rely on those guys is debatable. The likely rotation will consist of Carr, Scandrick and Brown at corner, with Byron Jones filling in as a fourth corner in some defenses. When that happens, the Cowboys will likely bring in Jeff Heath to play safety with J.J. Wilcox. Rookie Kavon Frazier is also a possibility in the rotation.
Can they keep that going for a month or more? That’s a question they face while evaluating just how long both players will be on the shelf. They will have to determine if they need one of their roster spots at some point.
“The timetable for their injury is big,” [Garrett] said. “If we feel like they’re going to be back in a relatively short period of time, they’re certainly worth the roster spot, because both of those guys have a big impact on our team. Now we’ve got to work through this week and see if we get enough guys up there in the secondary who are eligible to play and can help us.”
By the way, if you haven’t read Joey Ickes excellent primer on the Cowboys coverage schemes this season, I suggest you do that now. If you read it earlier it may help to do a refresher. This is going to be a tricky month or more for the Cowboys with both Scandrick and Church out. It’s definitely the number one issue for Dallas at the moment.