Following the 2011 NFL regular season, cries were abound for significant change concerning the personnel in the Dallas Cowboys’ defensive backfield.
If it wasn’t the inability of starting cornerback Mike Jenkins to stay healthy, it was the rapidly fading speed and tenacity of counterpart Terence Newman, released during the offseason and now playing with the Bengals in Cincinnati.
Well, you know the rest of the story concerning all the new faces lined up at cornerback for 2012. Yet despite all the money and resources spent on free-agent corner Brandon Carr, from Kansas City, and Morris Claiborne, first-round pick out of LSU, Dallas is below .500 almost half-way through the regular season.
Let me be clear on this: The Dallas secondary has not been the weakest link of this football team. I don’t even think the defensive side of the ball has been anywhere close to being as liable for the disappointing start as the Dallas offensive and special teams units.
If not for the play of the defense, there is no question that the Cowboys would have the same record as their next opponent on the schedule, or worse yet, winless this season.
Make no mistake, Sunday’s game against the Panthers (1-4) is a big game and perhaps a bigger opportunity to get a win as will be seen again until November 18. This is the next time Dallas will play a team that presently has only one win on the season. Basically, all other games remaining on the schedule are either quite difficult and / or division games.
In other words, you better win the “gimmes” while you can because they won’t be around very often.
Dallas must not leave Charlotte, North Carolina without a win, and a huge step towards making that happen would involve somebody—anybody—in this made-over secondary making a big play.
You realize that Dallas has a mere one interception this season?
All I’m saying is that while this unit, collectively, has been pretty solid, it really hasn’t done enough to change football games or even swing momentum.
Did I mention that the one interception came thanks to a linebacker named Sean Lee?
It would be a good week to see a breakout performance from a playmaker in the secondary because this is still a road game against a team that does have some weapons and is certainly capable of beating Dallas.
In their last game, Carolina almost pulled off an upset against Seattle in Charlotte. Losing 16-12, they sure played the Seahawks closer than the Cowboys did in Week 2 in Seattle.
A week prior, quarterback Cam Newton almost notched his biggest victory as a pro by nearly upsetting presently undefeated Atlanta on the road. And yes, for future discussion, Dallas will gets its look at the Falcons in just a couple of weeks.
But on the other hand, the Panthers couldn’t handle the likes of Tampa Bay or the New York Giants, two teams already having lost to Dallas thus far.
So, yes, all arrows point toward Dallas finding a way to beat a lesser opponent in their own back yard. I just think that the secondary will have to play a pivotal role in this matchup.
When it rains, it pours. And it’s time for the interception drought to end.
I expect for defensive coordinator Rob Ryan to keep a close eye on Newton, especially on obvious passing downs. But the threat of Newton running into massive lanes will be enough to force either / or linebackers Bruce Carter and Sean Lee into some double-duty spying Newton.
This inevitably will mean more man-coverage on passing targets like wide receiver Steve Smith and tight end Greg Olsen. Ryan will take a few gambles on locking up coverage just long enough to get Dallas pass rushers into Newton’s lap. I expect this will work a few times and just might mean fumbles as opposed to pics – fine.
The secondary has to make an impact though.
I think it’s possible Carr can handle Smith one on one most of the day. Carr is bigger and stronger than Smith and about as quick, and I like having that added strength and height over a veteran Pro Bowl wideout. Smith may catch some balls but I don’t see him surpassing 100 yards receiving or getting double-digit receptions against either Carr or Claiborne.
And we can’t forget the presence of cornerbacks Mike Jenkins and Orlando Scandrick, two other corners who are capable of manning the slot. Either of these two might be in the best position to make a play on Sunday.
But it’s time, and the writing is on the wall.
Carolina can be run on and last week the Cowboys showed some major signs of improvement where its offensive ground attack is concerned. If Dallas can continue this improvement against the Panthers, then there’s a good chance the Dallas defense gets to play a little more downhill in this game, especially in the second half.
No, there’s sure no guarantee of this happening but, even if the Cowboys miss wide receiver Dez Bryant, I think they still have more talent than the Panthers. I also think the Cowboys have a lot more to lose than Carolina does.
But the secondary needs to come up big in this one.
And it’s not like this revamped secondary will have many opportunities to capitalize on Newton mistakes committed while putting the ball up. Newton averages under 30 pass attempts per contest and this is a very modest number, especially given the hype surrounding Newton coming out of Auburn.
Yes, Newton can really fire the football, and he’s got great height and speed to go with that big arm. But you don’t get the feeling that Panthers head coach Ron Rivera will make it a point to test this dangerous Dallas secondary any more often than necessary. If you told Rivera, in advance of Sunday’s game, that Newton would complete 15 passes against Dallas, I think he would take it and run.
So the opportunities are likely to be fewer than plentiful and, of course, the Cowboys offense has much to say about that.
But whatever the number of Newton’s attempts, it’s time for the secondary to make a big play.