Somehow, some way, without the help of Orlando Scandrick, the Dallas Cowboys secondary walked out of 2015 with the fifth-highest rated passing defense. Despite being 25th in the league in sacks, despite only having eight interceptions, despite having none of those picks come from a starting defensive back, they were a top-ranked passing defense. How did this happen? Did they have some amazing pass rush? The sack numbers would suggest not. However, sack numbers don't necessarily mean everything.
Yet, this isn't another post about the pass rush, let's look right at the secondary. We know that the chicken or egg theory is the type of discussion we're getting into. A good pass rush can help a suspect secondary. Can a good secondary help a suspect pass rush? We don't know for sure that the Cowboys' secondary is good, but we can't really call them a bad unit either.
What we first have to consider is the fact that the Cowboys played a lot of very close games, or games where they were behind for large parts of the game. Opposing offenses didn't really feel the need to take a lot of risks. They also had some serious issues stopping the run allowing 120 yards per game on the ground, 23rd in the NFL. They had the seventh-most rushing attempts against them and they gave up the fifth-most rushing TDs in the league. Teams didn't pass near as much on the Cowboys because of the fact they didn't need to. When you can have success running the ball, you don't have to take chances all that much. So, in essence, this saved the passing defense from having to do too much. Still, there are some things the Cowboys did in the secondary that gives you hope for 2016. They have a real shot at being pretty good this season, but let's look at what they were successful at last season first.
What they did more than anything else was limit passing touchdowns, giving up 19 for the whole season. That stat was good enough to rank them third in the league in passing touchdowns and was perhaps their biggest accomplishment. They were also very successful at limiting opposing offenses ability to pass for first downs with 172 all season (3rd in NFL). Where they left room to grow was on plays of 20+ yards where they were ranked 13th in the league giving up 54. They also gave up 10 passing plays of 40+ yards, which ranked them just outside the Top-10 at 11th.
When it comes to defenses, turnovers are certainly important because it's what allows teams to change the momentum of games. That's the one area that the Cowboys absolutely must improve on in 2016 and they hope to do so by scoring points and putting pressure on defenses. The Cowboys don't have a secondary that is as good as say the Seattle Seahawks, but the Legion of Boom did give up only five touchdowns less than the Cowboys. So in essence, the Cowboys gave up 1.187 touchdowns a game to Seattle's 0.875 per game. Both stat lines show to be pretty good for a league that is controlled by the passing game. So what's next for this secondary and why do I think they can help a young pass rush along?
Morris Claiborne's Newfound Swagger
So he's never going to have a lot of fans around here but Claiborne once again is showing improvement in the offseason. It all comes down to confidence and availability with Mo. This offseason has been his first year where he isn't rehabbing an injury. A lot of pressure comes with being the sixth-overall pick but when you play in only 40 games in four seasons, that can do a lot to stunt your potential growth.
He's got his weight up about 15 pounds after playing at about 180 last season. Being able to come in and get right into the action with his teammates has been a very positive sight for him and his coaches. Admittedly, Claiborne isn't focused on what his career has been to this point, he just wants to get better each day.
"I'm ready to change it," Claiborne said. "When you all come talk to me, I want you to say, 'Oh, that was a nice [interception]' or you made this play. 'How does it feel to be going to the Pro Bowl? How does it feel to be going to a Super Bowl?' Those are the questions I want.
Confidence may be the most important aspect that was lacking for Claiborne in his early years. Now, that he seems to be gaining that confidence that is imperative for a cornerback maybe it will carry over into solid production.
Orlando Scandrick's Return
The prospects of this defense with him in the fold greatly improve. There are not too many cornerbacks in the league that is as versatile as Scandrick. He's been a vital key to this defense due to his ability to run with receivers like Odell Beckham, DeSean Jackson, and Victor Cruz. He's been progressing well after tearing his knee up on the final day of training camp last season.
Perhaps his best quality may be the attitude in which he plays in. He's a fighter and will go toe-to-toe with any receiver and do well. He is perhaps the best slot cornerback in the league but has earned the right to compete outside. In a league where you practically stay in the nickel defense, having Scandrick back is only going to spell positive things for the defense in 2016.
Brandon Carr's Unfinished Business
"He hasn't recorded an interception in two years." "He's not worth the $50 million deal he was signed to back in 2012." We've heard all the negativity thrown at Brandon Carr after he's been posterized by some of the league's better receivers. However, you know this guy has played every game since entering the NFL and he hasn't exactly been terrible. The Cowboys have moved him back to right corner for most of the offseason, a place where he admits to being more comfortable:
"Me personally, I think it’s a different game on the right and the left side," he said. "The right side, the boundary is more of the ‘X’ receivers and things of that nature. The left side, you get combinations with the slots and multiple formations on that side. "It’s a challenge on both sides. I just prefer it. I like the right side."
Brandon Carr's best years have come out of playing the right cornerback spot according to Bryan Broaddus, though he had a pretty good year playing both in his first with the Cowboys. At 29, there is an argument that maybe he's on the decline, but Carr wants to prove others wrong this season. Is he the best cornerback in the league, of course not, but the dude plays in every game and continues to compete without complaints.
Byron Jones' Natural Position
The Cowboys have searched long and hard for a decent safety and they hope to have one in the athletic freak of nature, Byron Jones. He's built in that hybrid defensive back style in the NFL. He's got size and length to match up against tight ends. He's got the fluid hips and agility to turn and run with receivers. His best trait by far is what he has between the ears. This is a smart football player and the Cowboys are excited to see what they potentially have. They think not only can he cover but he can be a tremendous defensive weapon back there. The great La'Dainian Tomlinson picked Jones as his breakout star in 2016:
On the brink last year, Cowboys' safety has what it takes to be dominant in Year 2
Byron Jones showed a lot of promise in his rookie season. He has the athletic talent to match up with receivers and even tight ends at times because of his body type. The free safety can jump out of the gym and made some big plays a year ago for the Cowboys. On top of that, the guy is tough. He dislocated his knee and casually popped it back in right there on the field. I believe he's on the verge of being a Pro Bowl and All-Pro player.
Just by adding a player at Jones' talent level to the starting lineup can do a world of difference in the secondary as a whole. It will be Jones who captains this secondary along with Scandrick. That's some pretty sweet company.
All in all, this is a secondary that looks pretty solid on paper and we haven't even mentioned the prospects of young players like Anthony Brown, Terrance Mitchell, or Dejo Olatoye. Mitchell has been catching the eye of the coaching staff as well as the Mothership's beat writers. In just 130 snaps last season, Mitchell was graded by PFF at 80.4, including positive grades in both passing and running downs.
The trajectory arrow is pointing up for this secondary and though a good pass rush can give secondaries extra seconds to make plays, what if this secondary can cover for an extra second or two? People tend to see unknown commodities and think that nothing good will come. Every good defensive unit in football had to start somewhere, maybe this one may surprise a few.