One could argue that the two best defensive backs over the first half of the season have been cornerback Morris Claiborne and safety Barry Church. In fact, most would agree that Claiborne has been the best overall defensive back, while Church has been no worse than third best, behind only Byron Jones and of course Claiborne. The team only has four interceptions on the year, two of those are from Church and one from Claiborne, and Church is also second on the team in tackles behind who else, Sean Lee. So the fact that Claiborne and Church are both likely to miss the entire month of November and maybe some of December would normally be a huge cause for concern.
Half of your starting secondary out for at least a month? And two of your top three at that?
At any point over the last ten years this would have likely been enough to put the fan base into full-on panic mode, but that hasn’t happened thanks to the resiliency of the remaining defensive backs and the ability of the coaching staff to get them ready to play. This was embodied in the Packers game where the team was down to just two cornerbacks for the entire second half after Claiborne went down with a concussion, while Orlando Scandrick was already out with a hamstring injury. All that remained were Brandon Carr, rookie Anthony Brown, Byron Jones, Barry Church, J.J. Wilcox, and Jeff Heath, and yet they still managed to keep Aaron Rodgers at bay.
So how will the staff respond to the recent injuries that will keep two players who barely missed a snap over the first seven games out until December?
Before getting into the Cleveland game, it’s important to go back and take a look at how Rod Marinelli has used his secondary throughout the year so far.
First, in base defense it will be simple. Brandon Carr will stay at his customary spot on the right side, Orlando Scandrick will replace Claiborne on the left side, and Wilcox will replace Church and generally give a two-deep look with Jones.
The really interesting stuff starts to happen when the team goes into nickel and dime with five or six defensive backs on the field at any given time. As outlined previously here at BTB, the Cowboys have been quite fond of what our own Joey Ickes has dubbed the “Big Ruby” package with three cornerbacks and three safeties, although in practice it is more four cornerbacks and two safeties as Byron Jones basically functions as a cornerback in man coverage against tight ends and slot receivers.
You can see an example of it here on the game-clinching fourth down against the 49ers:
Wilcox is playing the single-high safety while Jones is down in man coverage at the bottom of the screen, with Claiborne, Carr, and Brown lined up across from the 49ers bunch formation at the top of the screen. Church is lined up in a short zone near Jones at the bottom of the screen.
You can see a similar formation here against the Packers on a third down in the red zone late in the game, although with Jeff Heath replacing Claiborne due to injury:
Wilcox is again in single-high coverage with Church in a shorter zone towards the bottom of the screen, Brown (bottom of the screen) and Carr (top of the screen) are lined up outside with Jones and Heath covering the slot. The primary adjustment to the Claiborne injury here is Brown switching outside with Heath in the slot, had Claiborne been healthy I’m sure you’d see him lined up outside where Brown is, with Brown in the slot instead of Heath.
So let’s take a look at how the team responded to not having Claiborne and Church against the Browns.
Here is a 3rd and 5 in the second quarter where on the surface it looks like Wilcox is in single-high with Heath in a shallow zone, Jones seems to be lined up in man over the tight end at the top of the screen, while Carr, Brown, and Scandrick are lined up across from the 3-WR bunch formation at the bottom of the screen:
Instead of Jones taking tight end Gary Barnidge in man coverage, he blitzes, something that is very rare to see out of Marinelli. Heath rotates down and is actually the one who has Barnidge in man, with Wilcox in his familiar single-high, and the three corners at the bottom of the screen all in man coverage. Jones doesn’t get home on the blitz, although Heath does a fantastic job of working through traffic across the field to make a sure tackle on Barnidge short of the first down.
Here is one of the most important plays of the game, a 3rd and 2 to start the second quarter where the pass to Pryor down the sideline falls incomplete. On the next play the Browns would miss the field goal attempt and were unable to cut into the slight 7-3 Cowboys lead:
There are only five defensive backs on the field here in an alignment that should be very familiar to Cowboys fans. Carr is at the bottom of the screen (right side), Brown at the top of the screen (left side), Scandrick is in the slot, Jones is lined up in man over the tight end who has his hand down in a three-point stance next to the left tackle, while Wilcox is again the single-high safety.
Here is another stop on 3rd down from the third quarter that resulted in a Justin Durant sack:
Here Heath and Wilcox give a two-deep look and stay in it, Carr and Brown are at their normal spots, Scandrick is in the slot at the top of the screen and Jones is lined up across from the tight end. When the tight end stays in to protect Jones drops into a middle zone, although it’s hard to tell if that would’ve been his assignment had the tight end released into a route since it looks like all three cornerbacks are in man coverage. My guess is that he would’ve taken the tight end in man as the alignment looks like a classic man coverage with two-deep safeties behind it.
And just for good measure, one more stop, this time on 3rd and 12:
Wilcox and Heath are again playing two-deep, while the three corners and Jones all look to be in man coverage at their normal spots, although Marinelli throws a little wrinkle, bluffing a blitz from the two linebackers, Lee and Damien Wilson, but instead they drop into zones and Scandrick comes on a blitz out of the slot. Wilson, Lee, Jones, and both cornerbacks all drop into zones, with the two-deep safeties behind them. Scandrick doesn’t get home, but Kessler does feel pressure, is flushed out of the pocket and ends up well short of the first down.
The main takeaway for me here is that the staff does not intend to change what they’ve been doing with Claiborne and Church out of the lineup. Claiborne is simply replaced by Scandrick on the left side in base formations, and Brown in nickel and dime formations with Scandrick playing the slot. Wilcox replaces Church in the base, and also maintains the same role that he played prior to the injuries, as a single-high safety in nickel and dime. Jones is playing the exact same role that he played prior to the injuries as well. It’s worth noting that the staff has faith in Heath at safety and that they haven’t been scared out of basically using Jones as a cornerback in nickel and dime situations. In a lot of ways Heath is the man to watch while Church is out as Wilcox is more or less playing the exact same role in nickel and dime formations that he has played all season, the only difference for Wilcox is that he now plays in base formations.
You have to give an unbelievable amount of credit here to Brown as well; when Scandrick was out he played exclusively in the slot, now that Scandrick is back and Claiborne is out it looks like he will play exclusively on the outside. That type of versatility out of a rookie is rare, and while he did give up the one touchdown to Pryor at the end of the first half, his play has been more good than bad on the year by a huge margin.
Also keep in mind that the Browns have a very respectable group of pass-catching talent, despite their rookie quarterback. Terrelle Pryor is a top-20 receiver at this point, Corey Coleman is an explosive first-round rookie who had over 100 yards and two touchdowns in his last healthy game before playing the Cowboys, and Gary Barnidge is a very credible threat at tight end who put up over 1,000 yards last season. At least 10-15 teams in the league would take those three over their top two receivers and tight end.
And yet, despite missing two starters, the Cowboys secondary kept that group under wraps all day aside from the final drive of the first half and a trick play to start the game. You never know what the future holds in the NFL, especially with Antonio Brown on the horizon, but you have to be impressed with the depth and resiliency of the secondary, as well as the job being done by the coaching staff.