The Cowboys secondary has been a pleasant surprise so far this season, from the improvement of players formerly thought to be busts in Morris Claiborne and J.J. Wilcox, to the impressive play of sixth-round rookie Anthony Brown, to the collective ability of the unit to overcome several key injuries. That changed last Thursday against the Redskins as there is only so much a unit can overcome.
You saw it against the Steelers when Orlando Scandrick went down. Throughout most of that game the secondary did a pretty good job of keeping Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown contained, although when Scandrick went out and was replaced by Leon McFadden, Roethlisberger and Brown marched up and down the field. The Steelers scored two touchdowns in the last 12 minutes of that game after scoring only two over the first three quarters. You saw something similar against the Redskins after J.J. Wilcox went down. Wilcox left the game with about five minutes remaining in the third quarter and did not return. The Redskins had six points at that point, although they scored a touchdown on each of their remaining three drives for a total of 20 points in just 20 or so minutes of game time.
Now, the Redskins were certainly moving the ball before Wilcox left the game, and I certainly don’t want to make him out to be some incredibly critical piece to the secondary, but the fact remains that the Redskins scored six points in roughly the first 40 minutes of game time and 20 in the final 20. However, instead of it being about losing one particular player, it’s more about the cumulative effect of having so many players missing in one unit.
In an ideal world you’d see Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne, Orlando Scandrick, Barry Church, Byron Jones, and J.J. Wilcox on the field in dime situations. Jones effectively functions as a fourth cornerback while Wilcox has usually been the preferred single-high safety in passing situations so far this year. With Claiborne and Church out, you’re down to four out of your ideal six, although with the emergence of Anthony Brown, that’s ok, you can fill in. Jeff Heath has starting experience, he isn’t amazing by any stretch, but he’s competent enough to fill in, too. But what happens when you suffer another injury to one of your remaining key defensive backs as they did against the Steelers and Redskins?
Well that’s when you see fringe players like Leon McFadden and Kavon Frazier on the field, players who are borderline practice squad guys who rarely get on the field outside of special teams and would likely be the first on the chopping block if the team needed to free up a roster spot. There are only so many contingency plans to employ before the dam bursts.
On the biggest defensive mistake of the game, DeSean Jackson’s 67-yard touchdown, you can see the effect of playing guys out of their normal position, Byron Jones in this case:
Here you’ll see Jones lined up as the single-high safety with the Cowboys lined up in nickel with five defensive backs on the field. This is not something Jones has done a lot of this year. It’s third and 2 in the fourth quarter right after the Cowboys offense had pushed the lead back to double digits. This was the Redskins’ first set of downs on the drive, so clearly it was a big play. Carr and Brown are lined up outside, Scandrick is in the slot, while Heath is down in the box lined up to the right of Sean Lee and Anthony Hitchens. You’ll see that Scandrick, Hitchens, Lee, and Heath all seem to drop into intermediate zones, while it looks like Carr, Brown and Jones are in a deep Cover-3. They seem willing to concede the first down on a short gain as Rob Kelley is wide open at the sticks in the middle of the field.
The fault of the play primarily falls on Brown who sits down on Jackson’s route, seemingly anticipating that Jackson would run a stop or an in-breaking route, however if you watch Jones you can see that he is caught flat-footed in the middle of the field and isn’t really getting any depth on his drop. Jordan Reed is working in behind the four underneath defenders playing zone, but the nature of Reed’s route has him breaking across the field, not deep down the field into Jones’ zone, making for a very difficult throw. Despite that, Jones remains flat-footed and it seems he’s not even aware of Jackson getting behind Brown until the ball is in the air. In a Cover-3 the sidelines are not Jones’ responsibility, but a more instinctive safety would’ve read the routes, felt what was happening, and could’ve been in better position to break on the ball. Instead Jones broke late and was nowhere to be found.
With that said, it wasn’t all just guys playing out of position due to injuries. Here is a third and 4 on the previous Redskins drive, their first touchdown drive of the day:
This was another huge play as the Redskins were down 11 late in the third quarter on the fringe of field goal range. Of course they had already gone for it on fourth down and likely would have again if they hadn’t converted here, but this was still one of the biggest plays of the game. Here, Jones is lined up out wide on Reed in man coverage at the bottom of the screen, which is a very familiar assignment for him. Jones generally has tight coverage on Reed but Kirk Cousins decides to throw it up and give his receiver a chance. Reed makes the play, and if he hadn’t, it would’ve been a pass interference penalty on Jones. This is just a play where you have to give Cousins credit for making a great throw and Reed credit for making a great catch, Jones was right there in coverage but just wasn’t able to make a play on the ball. Reed is an elite tight end and those types of players make plays. It’s interesting to note here that Kavon Frazier and Jeff Heath are the safeties on this play, they’re in a Cover-2 look but at the snap Heath rotates down into what looks like a short zone, while Frazier rotates back as basically the single-high safety.
It wasn’t just Byron Jones having a rough day though, some of the more reliable Cowboys defensive backs were inconsistent with their tackling, which was critical on a day where Cousins often looked to check down for short gains. This is a third and 10 at the end of the first half:
This is a completely inexcusable play. The Cowboys only rush three and drop eight into zones, Cousins has nowhere to go so he checks it down to Vernon Davis who catches the ball about four yards short of the first down. When you only rush three and drop eight, you aren’t really expecting to get a whole lot of pressure, but what you are expecting is for the quarterback to either force the ball into a tight window or check it down, ideally. Cousins does just that here, yet Scandrick completely whiffs on the tackle, allowing Davis to get the first. Just a few plays later the Redskins had a first and goal; they only ended up with a field goal on the drive, meaning this missed tackle was basically a three-point play, but it could’ve easily been seven.
Here is a fourth and 1 from the final Redskins drive of the game:
It looks like man across the board, and it’s interesting to note here that on a potential game-ending play Jones is lined up on Reed, Heath again rotates down into a shorter zone, while the rookie Frazier is the single-high safety, lined up at the 15 yard line. The Redskins run a little pick play at the bottom of the screen that gets their third down back open towards the sideline for the conversion. They make heavy use of pick plays in situations like this where zone coverage near the line of scrimmage would be more effective. They attempted something similar to this on a fourth and short in the first match-up of the year that was snuffed out by Justin Durant, so maybe just a little note to keep in mind if we see them again down the line.
So what can you take from this?
Well, there is only so much duct tape and wire that can hold a unit together in the face of so many injuries, especially against a talented opponent. However, this was a sloppy day for the secondary, injuries or no injuries. Keep in mind though, in the second half the Redskins were down by double digits each time they got the ball. Their first touchdown drive was 14 plays, while their last touchdown drive was 15. On those two drives Cousins was 20/23 for 161 yards (only about 7 YPA), just four of those 20 completions were for 10+ yard gains, while 11 of the 20 only went for five yards or less. Further, the Redskins had to convert a fourth down on each of those drives.
The DeSean Jackson busted coverage was a huge mistake and completely changed the game, although I believe for the most part the defense did what they were asked to do on the other two touchdown drives; basically force the Redskins to be patient, slowly drive the field, make them execute perfectly over 10+ plays, and eat up the clock. You have to give the Redskins credit, they did just that and converted their opportunities into touchdowns. That’s an area where the defense must improve going forward, although there is only so much that can be asked out of a banged-up secondary facing an opponent with a multitude of weapons in the passing game.