No, this isn’t about Jaylon Smith. If you’re looking for some Smith hype, you can revisit this article from last month.
The Cowboys defense was top five in points allowed last season, giving up only 19.1 points per game. Hurrah, That’s great! They also yielded the fewest rushing yards allowed all season with 83.5 yards per game. Both these stats paint a nice picture of the improved defense from a year ago. Then there are people who counter with a pass defense that finished 26th against the pass. That raises a huge red flag about the team’s pass rush and secondary. It’s one that is easy to believe too, because defending the pass has been a problem for the Cowboys since 2009.
You could make a case that the Cowboys' offense had a little to do with these doctored statistics. When they play well, teams are forced to pass against the Cowboys and rack up the passing yards, as well as keeping the rushing yards low. So how can we accurately measure the pass defense if the volume of snaps isn’t fairly distributed?
According to Team Rankings, the Cowboys have finished in the bottom 10 in yards allowed per passing attempt for six straight seasons, from 2010-2015. That’s something that wouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. But then suddenly, last year the defense improved to 14th overall in this category. This stat doesn’t take into account how much a team has to throw on the Cowboys, but rather how well they do each time they try. This tells us that the Cowboys' pass defense improved substantially last year from the previous six years.
This begs the question, why the improvement? The players involved have been relatively stable over the years. Brandon Carr, Orlando Scandrick, Morris Claiborne, and Barry Church have all been on the roster since 2012 with some of them missing time at various points due to injury. Did a switch get flipped last year and suddenly they played better?
Well, sort of. It’s not so much a switch as it was the people doing the flipping - the coaches. The Cowboys made two big coaching changes last year in their secondary. From 2012-2015, Jerome Henderson had been the team’s secondary coach. He left last year to become the Atlanta Falcons defensive passing game coordinator. You might remember the Falcons as the team that collapsed defensively as they allowed Tom Brady to throw for 466 yards on route to a historic Super Bowl comeback.
Henderson is gone now and in his place is Joe Baker, who was promoted from the safeties coach to overseeing the entire secondary. And taking over Baker’s old job is Greg Jackson, who was the secondary coach in Michigan prior to coming to Dallas . But his experience in the secondary isn’t limited to college ball, as he’s enjoyed some nice success in the NFL. According to his bio from the Mothership...
Before accompanying Jim Harbaugh to Michigan, Jackson served on Harbaugh’s staff with the San Francisco 49ers (2011-14) as the assistant secondary coach. Over that span, the 49ers were second in points-per-game allowed (17.4), tied for second in interceptions (78) and third in total defense (310.2 yards-per-game) and pass breakups (350). In that same four-year span, members of Jackson’s secondary earned two All-Pro honors and five Pro Bowl selections, while Eric Reid became the first 49ers rookie safety to make the Pro Bowl when he was selected in 2013.
This is very promising for the Cowboys. A proven secondary coach is now part of the mix in Dallas. We can all talk up a specific player about how well they developed, but when you have multiple players like J.J. Wilcox and Jeff Heath all of sudden playing at career-high levels, it makes you wonder if something has changed within their style of play.
The loss of Carr, Claiborne, Church, and even Wilcox may seem a little concerning considering how well they all performed last year, but that’s too much of a coincidence to just give all these players full credit. The coaches had something to do with it as well. If it’s true that the Baker/Jackson combo is now the winning ticket in Dallas, then you have to love their chances with so many young players with potential.
Were the Cowboys really just that lucky with sixth-round pick Anthony Brown or is it possible that he was coached up to play at the level he played? Too many things went right for the Cowboys secondary to call it a fluke or chalk it up to chance that so many mediocre players elevated their game to a level we hadn’t seen before.
The prime-time players are plentiful this year. Besides Scandrick and Brown, you've got new players like Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis (who Jackson coached at Michigan), Nolan Carroll, Marquez White, and Xavier Woods. And Byron Jones and Jeff Heath will return with more experience at the safety position. That is a lot to work with and it’s now starting to make sense that several of these defensive backs made our list of risers and fallers from minicamp.
The Cowboys' pass defense, as measured by yards per attempt, jumped up to 14th last year, but just think of how good they can they be with younger, more talented players in the mix. With an offense that should continue to run wild over the league, the thought of an improved secondary could propel this team to a new level.