A lot has been made over the last few weeks about the performance of the Cowboys defense, and rightfully so. It has been Jekyll and Hyde, ravaged by injuries and inconsistencies; and without its most dominant player in Sean Lee, has exposed a flaw that is greater than any other on that side of the ball.
Most coaches will tell you one of the most important aspects of a defense is its strength up the middle. From the line, to the linebackers, to the safeties. The latter two is where the Cowboys have had their most pressing problems and inconstancies.
Before we dive into the details of the aforementioned issues up the middle, we have to start with the scapegoat of the defense – the secondary. A lot has been made this year about the Cowboys secondary, which has had its struggles without question. Free agent Nolan Carroll has had trouble getting on the field, and has struggled when he does make there. Chidobe Awuzie the prized 2nd round pick has left three games early due to aggravating his hamstring, those three games are the only ones he has played in. Jeff Heath has looked every bit of a backup safety, but is in the starting lineup. Kavon Frazier hasn’t done enough to garner more playing time, and has been surpassed by rookie Xavier Woods.
There is a bright spot in the secondary however, and that is Jourdan Lewis. He has been outstanding the first five games of the year despite giving up the game winning TD. To date he has 22 total tackles, 1 int, 5 pass breakups and is the most sure tackling defender outside of Sean Lee.
He continually makes plays like the one below.
Jourdan Lewis is going to need his own island y'all. pic.twitter.com/rNXOeKAIRb
— JustWinBaby (@Future_NFL_GM) October 8, 2017
Coming out of the Packers game the Cowboys secondary seems to have taken the most abuse. After Rodgers tossed three red zone TD passes and drove down for the game winning score, from a distance it seems fair. Take into account the Denver game where Trevor Siemien tossed 4 TDs against the defense which featured 2 CBs due to injury and what was in totality an all around awful game. Finally you have the Rams game that saw Goff throw 2 TDs with no ints. However each one of those games has a common theme that seems to be going unnoticed of sorts – it starts with the middle of the defense.
In the Cowboys three losses they have surrendered 178, 168 and 160 rushing yards. Not only that but they have been a liability in pass coverage against running backs and tight ends. Against the Packers and Rams they surrendered 149 yards and 102 yards receiving to those groups and when playing in Denver gave up 2 touchdowns to the running back C.J. Anderson and tight end Green.
When you study each of those games you notice teams are targeting the linebackers, especially without Sean Lee and rightfully so. Those statistics are dreadful and no matter who you have will be extremely hard to overcome game after game.
With Jaylon Smith having to be thrusted into more snaps than anticipated, it has turned him into a liability. He is likely most effective as a reserve player at this point while getting back into the swing of things after missing over 500 days of football. Justin Durant was thinking of retirement for a reason, he doesn’t have that giddy up anymore. With these two getting most of the snaps lately, it is not hard to see why the outcomes have been so catastrophic.
Think about this for a second, in the Packers game the running backs and tight ends accounted for 220+ total yards, in the Rams game 270+ total yards, yikes!
On the flip side the secondary’s most obvious struggles have come in the redzone, specifically Anthony Brown. A lot has been made about his play this year, but between the 20s he has been his solid self, the redzone has been a problem for him since his rookie year. The Cowboys have given up an alarming number of redzone TD passes, 4 in the last 2 games alone. But as previously stated, seem to do a decent job of covering between the 20s.
Against the Rams, WRs Woods, Austin and Watkins combined for less than 40 receiving yards and Kupp got its biggest play manned against Jaylon Smith, with his TD coming off a 3 and out punt that Switzer muffed putting the ball inside the Dallas 20.
The woeful Giants passing game in general was stifled totaling 220 yards 0 TDs 1 int.
Arizona Cardinals almost completely relied on Larry Fitzgerald, who had a big game in a double digit home loss after a number of highlight reel catches. With their in ability to run Dallas harassed Palmer to the tune of 6 sacks on 54 passing attempts.
When the Packers came to Dallas you would think Rodgers would of tossed for 500 yards. Instead going into the last drive of the game Rodgers had a total of 181 passing yards, Nelson, Cobb and Adams total of 94 yards. In fact the possession prior to that that resulted in a 3 and out punt went like this:
4th Quarter 11:45 remaining DAL 24-GB 22
1st down Jones run 4 yards
2nd down Rodgers pass incomplete, Orlando Scandrick near int at line of scrimmage
3rd down Rodgers pass incomplete, pass breakup by Jourdan Lewis.
With a little under 11 minutes Dallas had the ball up 2 on the move against a Packers defense that couldn’t stop the Cowboys all day. Then Terrance Williams drops an easy ball that resulted in a pick 6, 28-24 just like that.
When your defense is containing a QB like Aaron Rodgers and the WRs to those numbers deep in the 4th quarter, and you lose, there is another aspect to the game that has been a problem. Look no further than the run defense. Just look at the Nelson TD.
After being dominated on the ground all game up to that point the play action completely sucks the entire defense up, leaving Nelson wide open for a TD. On the game winning drive the Packers picked up over 30 yards rushing – that cant happen. The big 3rd down scramble was a coverage scramble where one of Hitchens or Durant was responsible for Rodgers and abandoned their zone, leaving him with nothing but green to run.
What I am getting at here is that while the secondary has had its issues and absolutely needs to step up as well, the bigger issue has been the inability to stop the run without Lee, and suspect play from the SS position.
In the 2 wins this season Dallas didn’t surrender 50 yards rushing. Only 1 game this year has a QB thrown for over 300 yards, and that was entirely due to the Cardinals inability to run the ball (43 yards from 3 RBs) forcing Arizona to throw it 55 times. With the young parts expected to play a major role most figured it would take some time, and we would see better returns later in the year. However when you examine the issues with the defense it isnt the young parts at the forefront.
The thought is with Lee returning to pair up with Hitchens, Dallas can come closer to the #1 rush defense it boasted in 2016, and closer to the rush defense it has shown in their wins. The pass rush is making noise ranking 6th in the league in sacks, and with the sack leader Demarcus Lawrence (8.5 sacks), there is the ability to cover on the outside; but a lot will continue to be said about the defense if the middle doesn’t get squared away.
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