Two months ago, the Dallas Cowboys had one weakness that was more glaring than any other: the cornerback position.
Terence Newman was getting hurdled by running backs while they converted on third down, and Mike Jenkins' shoulder injury made him look like he was trying to cover receivers while his arm was asleep.
Then Dallas mitigated that weakness by releasing Newman and using free agency to grab the best cornerback available in Brandon Carr.
Adding Carr helped ensure the cornerbacks were no longer going to cost the Cowboys wins. Then while Dallas fans across the country were debating the merits of a strong safety or defensive line player, Dallas traded its first- and second-round picks to the St. Louis Rams to draft Morris Claiborne at No. 6 overall.
By all accounts, Claiborne was the best defensive player in the draft and the highest-rated defensive back since Deion Sanders, GM Jerry Jones told ESPN.
He covers amazingly well in man schemes and, as a former wide receiver, has unique ball skills. By adding him to the trio of cornerbacks the team already had, the biggest weakness on the team has become the centerpiece of the defense in less than three months.
Dallas can now lean on these corners to shut down receivers in this passing-intensive NFL, and they give the Cowboys the flexibility to use each player's specific strengths to attack a new matchup each week. Such a drastic increase in talent at one position means the 2012 schedule needs to be re-examined.
Immediately after his selection I was tempted to use Claiborne to make the case for a 19-0 season, but time has brought a more realistic perspective. There are three games that can be switched from a loss to a win on the big board based on how the defense depth chart now looks.
The Ravens' passing attack is nothing to keep anyone up at night, it's Ray Rice who causes nightmares. Without Claiborne, the secondary would need a little help—Carr would not be able to cover both Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith.
Now, the Cowboys' cornerback that is covering Baltimore's third receiver was a former starter. No one is sure who the third receiver for the Ravens will be, but only one possible player has an NFL reception (a grand total of one reception). By not needing to help in coverage, Rob Ryan will be able to play more man-free with the strong safety in the box, and maybe even mix in a few casino blitzes at Joe Flacco as well.
With all the attention paid to the running game, it will be difficult to gain significant yards, and daring Flacco to beat this secondary is a bet almost anyone would take. Dallas leaves M&T Bank Stadium with a win.
Michael Vick is difficult to cover, even this late in the year when he will be in his annual slide. Regardless of a team's method to try to contain him, it requires manpower—which is at least one player that would not be available to help cover the Eagles' receivers.
The Cowboys' new cornerback unit can again be freed up to limit DeSean Jackson's and Jeremy Maclin's effectiveness. Both receivers are extremely fast and have killed the Cowboys in the past, but they now have to contend with corners better suited to shut them down. Carr can use his size to keep Jackson from getting a free release and being comfortable in his route, while Claiborne blankets Maclin like few defensive backs can.
When the receivers are covered, everyone knows that Vick will use his legs to make a play. With extra players around the line of scrimmage, it should be much easier for Dallas to keep him off the highlight reel on its way to an important division win.
The Bengals do play very well at home, but Andy Dalton will have less success this season than the last one. A.J. Green will be a test for either starting cornerback, but not an impossible one. Without having another big-time receiver, the defense will be able to focus on confusing the second-year player from Texas Christian and stopping Cedric Benson.
A win over Cincinnati caps off a nine-game winning streak.
With depth at corner, the defense can even absorb an injury and still be difficult for teams to score against. If the defense stays healthy, it can be in the top five in the league—adding wins to the ledger that wouldn't already be there. By adding these three wins, the Cowboys now finish at a league-best 13-3 and have home-field advantage through the playoffs on their way to New Orleans in February.
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