There has been one constant when it has come to the Dallas Cowboys secondary in recent memory. They are not great at one particular thing. To be clear, there are a lot of areas where cornerbacks and safeties need to be good. Much goes in to roaming an NFL secondary and therefore a lot of qualities are necessary. One that people tend to focus on is where Cowboys defenders have fallen short in recent memory - generating turnovers.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of ways that you can paint the Cowboys secondary players in a not-so-glamorous light. Our own DannyPhantom recently noted that new safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix has more interceptions since entering the NFL, by himself, than the entire Cowboys secondary group does throughout their respective careers combined.
Was the technique the Cowboys coached the problem recently?
If the constant here is the Dallas Cowboys... then the constant is the Dallas Cowboys. When the Cowboys hired Kris Richard, he was being heralded as one of the best coaches on the team, and while this isn’t intended as placing the responsibility squarely on his shoulders, it seems like the scheme that the Cowboys were coaching for their secondary might have been part of the issue.
Clay Mack is a renowned trainer for defensive backs in the NFL. He appeared on the latest episode of The ‘Boys and Girl Podcast with NFL Network’s Jane Slater and Bobby Belt, and he revealed something that Cowboys cornerback Chidobe Awuzie said to him that does indicate that the team’s scheme may have been the issue. You can hear the clip below.
DB trainer Clay Mack is one of the most respected trainers among NFL players.— Bobby Belt (@BobbyBeltTX) April 29, 2020
This is a really fascinating 2m20s clip from tomorrow's episode of The 'Boys and Girl Podcast in which Clay talks about why he thinks scheme, not personnel, has been the problem for Dallas' corners: pic.twitter.com/ffweN1qoRw
Clay Mack: You’ve got to let guys kind of do what they can do. I trained Chido, I trained Byron, I trained Kavon Frazier and some of the other guys as well. But the thing about it what I noticed that in the offseason... even like we was going over certain techniques and things of that sort, what not. They were only allowed to do one technique. Nationally, other people watch film as well.
It’s like one day we came into a training session and even Chido was like ‘hey look, I need to know how to kind of counter some of the releases that Amari Cooper is giving me’ like in practice and I said ‘okay what kind of press techniques are you guys using?’. And he showed me. I said ‘okay well I would do this’ he said ‘well we can’t necessarily do that’ so I said ‘well you’re at a disadvantage.’ Because as soon as somebody see that from a film, scouting perspective that this is only what you’re doing... they’re going to figure you out and this is going to be a problem.
Bobby Belt notes right after Mack’s quote here that the technique in question is a kick-step (sometimes referred to as step-kick) that derives from Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll, obviously Kris Richard joined the Cowboys after coaching Seattle’s famed Legion of Boom secondary.
The idea of Richard translating the Seahawks’ success to Dallas excited many people, and while he was seemingly beloved by the Cowboys secondary group, it seems as if that technique didn’t work for them. More on the kick-step:
The technique refers to cornerbacks who are pressing at the line of scrimmage. It focuses on taking away the deep ball and also the short stuff. In basketball terms, make opposing offenses take a bunch of mid-range jumpers. If they complete those balls, players focus on tackling, limiting yards after catch and moving on to the next play.
“You’re not going to gamble in this defense and not be held accountable,” said cornerback Richard Sherman, who is considered to have a master’s degree in the step-kick. “You’re not just going to keep giving up big plays and stay on the field. If you give up a certain amount of big plays, you give up a certain amount of touchdowns, they’ll find somebody who won’t.”
Added Carroll: “In our defensive scheme, we are extraordinarily tied to that principle. If you give up long touchdown plays, you’re not a very good defense. It doesn’t matter what you do or how hard you hit or whatever. So it all begins there. That’s the first aspect of playing defense. You can’t give up easy plays. So it just begins there.”
This type of philosophy might sound good in theory but it is not something that worked for the Cowboys secondary in terms of generating turnovers. Obviously, they weren’t operating with the exact same talent that the Seahawks secondary had, but it’s not like the Cowboys secondary was awful from an overall perspective. Dallas was among the top 10 teams in passing yards, average yards per attempt, and touchdowns allowed last season; different schemes have different pros and cons.
It seems clear that the Cowboys were married to this scheme for the majority of the careers for the secondary players drafted in 2017 (Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis, and Xavier Woods). It has been most of what they have known during their time in the NFL.
With new secondary coaches Maurice Linguist and Al Harris, they are emphasizing attacking the ball.
“Obviously the ball is going to be of great emphasis as we build our entire package, our entire scheme. In order for us to do what we came here to do, a big piece of that is our ability to be disruptive at the point of attack and getting the ball back. So it’s something we’re not only make an emphasis, but you’re going to have to drill, it has to consume you, you have to be obsessed with it. So that’s going to be a big piece on how we build our unit on the back end.”
There will also likely be more blitzing and varied coverages in Mike Nolan’s scheme, including some exotic combination coverages. This could lead to more turnovers.
Hopefully the Cowboys defensive backs are going to be given a green light to attack where they see fit. Again, it is important to consider that this could perhaps lead to giving up more big plays, but perhaps the trade off of potentially turning the ball over more frequently will be worth it.