Looking for reasons why the Dallas Cowboys are only 2-2 despite an abundance of talent? You might have to start with Morris Claiborne and Bruce Carter, both of whom have started the 2013 regular season so poorly that they've been benched and/or demoted.
The Cowboys simply need to get better results out of early-round draft picks like the 23-year-old Claiborne, who was selected sixth overall in 2012, and the 25-year-old Carter, who was a second-round selection in 2011.
Both youngsters have been terrorized in coverage this season, and both were exposed in particularly excruciating fashion Sunday against the San Diego Chargers.
Claiborne has given up 16 completions on 24 targets, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), and still has just one interception in 19 career games. Carter has surrendered 24 catches on 34 targets, per PFF, which is more than any other outside linebacker in football. He's also missed four tackles.
PFF grades have them rated as the two worst starters on the Dallas roster, offense or defense.
Against San Diego, there was no room for doubt, which is why they were both removed from the lineup. They were pylons. Carter was victimized on two touchdowns, while Claiborne was beaten seven separate times on eight attempts, according to PFF.
Claiborne admits his confidence level isn't where it should be, and he pins a lot of the blame on the transition to zone coverage.
From 103.3 FM in Dallas, courtesy of Tim MacMahon of ESPN.com:
I feel like it's high, but it's not where it needs to be to be able to play corner. We're not the type of team that we were last year. We're not assigned [receivers] and you go wherever he goes, you follow him wherever he goes, and that's your man. We're not in that. We don't do that anymore.
Now we're basically a zone team. You have to play within that zone. Everything is new to everybody. When guys come in and hit those big dig routes in between the zones, then of course the corner's there, so they're going to say, "Oh, yeah, that's the corner."
It's still a transition. When we were in press, just faced up man to man, they only hit one ball on me. But overall, I think all my big plays come within the zone.
But this is a guy who Dallas sacrificed its top two 2012 draft picks for. Owner Jerry Jones said last summer that he was the top cornerback prospect the team's scouts had graded since Deion Sanders.
Claiborne missed the entire preseason due to a knee injury is now playing with a harness to protect the shoulder he dislocated in the season opener. And yes, it takes time to become fully familiar with the increased responsibilities associated with Monte Kiffin's zone schemes.
But regardless of scheme and circumstances, he was expected to be better by now. A lot better. We're talking about a guy who PFF has ranked 99th among 101 cornerbacks who have played at least 25 percent of their team's snaps.
"I think it's time for the injury thing to leave the scene," said Cowboys executive VP Stephen Jones this week on 105.3 FM in Dallas, per Calvin Watkins of ESPN.com, squashing one of Claiborne's two possible excuses. "He needs to step up and make plays."
As far as the other excuse goes, it's not as though he's been good one-on-one. Here against San Diego, he has perfect coverage on Keenan Allen:
But Allen is faster at adjusting to a slightly underthrown pass:
And later, he gives Allen way too much space on a slant:
The first play is bad technique, the second might have been a confidence thing. Both resulted in first downs for the Chargers.
And we see it again in the third quarter. Look at how tight the coverage is elsewhere. Claiborne is playing too far off of Vincent Brown, especially with a single high safety present:
That would result in another easy first down.
Veterans Orlando Scandrick and Brandon Carr have proven to be much more reliable, which is why Claiborne is now relegated to a nickel role.
Head coach Jason Garrett has said he'll keep him ahead of rookie B.W. Webb on the depth chart, which means he'll still have a chance to redeem himself in nickel situations (which are aplenty). Still, Garrett suggested that confidence and technique have cost Claiborne.
Technically, you go back at each of the completions against him and you say, "Hey, you should do this. You should do that." But I also think confidence, playing that position, is critical. And usually those two things work hand in hand. When you're playing technically sound and you have ability, you tend to have more and more confidence because you're in the right place.
If he can't turn it around soon, the pressure will only increase, which could further destroy Claiborne's confidence. The Cowboys could have a hardcore bust on their hands. Considering the price they paid for the All-American less than 18 months ago, that would be demoralizing for the entire organization.
The 'Boys were forced to give backup Ernie Sims 28 snaps against San Diego, most of which came in relief of Carter. There's some confusion regarding why the third-year linebacker sat out 18 consecutive second-half plays, because he apparently has a foot injury, but he did come back into the game late.
Oh, and that "benching" came right after a third-quarter touchdown drive for the Chargers, on which Carter was embarrassed twice in a three-play span. No idea what he was thinking when he let Antonio Gates prance through here, but he was clearly lost:
And on this 13-yard Danny Woodhead score, it's just bad technique:
Yes, I know it ain't easy going up against Gates. But Carter gave up five catches and two touchdowns to Woodhead, and his other completion against Gates was just as weak as the 26-yarder we looked at earlier.
“I could have done a lot better on some of my coverages, staying on top,” Carter admitted after the game, according to Brandon George of the Dallas Morning News. “There are no excuses. It’s my fault. I take all that, and I’ve just got to play better.”
Claiborne has never really experienced a proper offseason, and Carter is basically in his second year because of the injuries he dealt with as a rookie. Both may need extra time to adjust, but that isn't a luxury the Cowboys have right now. Considering the issues this team has had with consistency, the margin for error is tiny.
While Sims and Scandrick are decent enough replacements, not being able to rely on two cogs like that is difficult, especially when players start to get banged up and depth is tested in the later months of the year.
Can the Cowboys survive without getting positive contributions from Claiborne and Carter? I'm not so sure.