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The Cowboys vs. Bengals game showed the Dallas secondary has major questions

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The Bengals game exposed some serious vulnerabilites

Cincinnati Bengals v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

The Dallas Cowboys’ secondary seems to be a tale of two stories: on the one hand, the outside corner backs have looked better than anything the team has fielded in a long time. Byron Jones has adapted quickly to playing corner exclusively and has been flashing the talent that made him a 2015 first-round draft pick. He picked up a fumble caused by Taco Charlton, the fifth turnover caused by the Cowboys’ defense in two games. Jones did get dinged up but showed good competitive spirit by not wanting to come out of the game. He returned in time to recover the fumble. His overall camp has been encouraging.

On the other side of the field, Chidobie Awuzie continues his impressive play from the second half of last season. Saturday he made one of the most outsatnding, athletic plays you’ll ever see:

Cowboys’ fans haven’t seen such play making from a cornerback in years.

The outside corner starters seem in good hands. Jeff Heath also looks set at the strong safety position. He had another solid game against the Bengals. Early he made a nice force play on a wide run, aggressively attacking the line of scrimmage to make the tackle. Later he made a solid coverage tackle after a bootleg seemed to create an opportunity for a big pass play. Overall Heath has looked like a legit starter.

Beyond Heath, Awuzie and Jones, however, the rest of the secondary has struggled (which is putting it nicely). Both candidates for the starting slot corner position had bad nights Saturday.

Anthony Brown followed up his poor play last week with more poor play this week. Early he showed nice coverage skills and made a good play on a short slant, but was unable to corral what could have been an interception (made worse when the receiver managed to corral Brown’s drop).

Later, the Cowboys’ appeared to have forced a Bengals’ punt with a third down stop but Brown was called for defensive holding. The Bengals took advantage of the mistake to march for a touchdown. Brown has been called for three penalties in two weeks. He’s made no real plays of note and has exhibited the same issues that plagued his 2017 when he was eventually benched late in the year.

Unfortunately, his competition at the slot position, Jourdan Lewis, had an even worse game. First Lewis was cleanly beaten on the Bengals second possession for what should have been a long third-down conversion butAndy Dalton overthrew the wide open receiver.

He was again beaten on a long crossing pattern later on a play where Jaylon Smith ended up trying to clean up his mess. He then seemed in perfect position to blow up a bubble screen for a loss but fell down, allowing the receiver to turn the play into a positive gain.

Lewis later added a blatant pass interference on a deep play down the right sideline where he was beaten yet again. Finally, he seemed to lose lane discipline on a Bengals kick return, allowing the Bengals a big return that set them up near midfield.

There was a time last season when Lewis seemed to be the Cowboys’ best cover player. That player hasn’t been seen in 2018.

The Cowboys’ slot corner troubles, however, weren’t the end of the team’s secondary problems. Virtually every player on the team struggled:

  • Xavier Woods didn’t show up much but did miss a tackle on a play where no one seemed to cover the Bengals’ tight end. He later suffered an injury on a play where he laid out attempting an interception. The injury doesn’t look serious. However, the utter lack of depth at the secondary position has been a constant source of discussion since the draft and the front office’s choice to basically ignore the situation looks highly questionable at this point.
  • Donovan Olumba whiffed badly trying to contain a wide run that eventually resulted in a 44-yard gain for the Bengals. He followed that up by getting beat badly on a third-and-fifteen play, allowing the receiver to get behind him for the catch (although it was ruled out of bounds).
  • Jameill Showers might have seen his last game with the Cowboys. Unlike most of the injuries suffered by other Cowboys, Showers’ injury looked very serious from the moment it happened. His knee buckled badly and we can only hope it’s isn’t as bad as it looked. Still, prior to the injury Showers hadn’t played particularly well. He and Duke Thomas combined for a Three Stooges performance where they ran into each other, allowing a long gain. Prior to that he was beaten on a slant for a nice gain, though he had pretty good coverage. Finally, he was late to react on a Bengals’ touchdown pass where he needed to fill the lane.
  • Speaking of Duke Thomas, in addition to colliding with Showers he was previously beaten badly on a deep pass. He did contribute a nice kick-off return.
  • Marquez White didn’t show up often but was beaten on the touchdown pass; he had decent coverage but couldn’t make the play.

We wrote recently that we shouldn’t pay much attention to training camp practices or preseason games. So, following such advice we shouldn’t get overly concerned about what happened Saturday night. But it’s hard to look at the secondary situation and not be alarmed. The players outside of Jones, Awuzie and Heath are neither high pedigree nor proven players. The Cowboys brain trust has largely chosen to put their faith in late-round draft picks and rookie free agents and thus far they’re looking like, well, late-round draft picks and free agents.

The Dallas front seven looks more talented and disruptive than we’ve seen in years. But all that may not mean much if the team can’t figure out how to put players on the field who can cover and tackle.