You’ve maligned them. You’ve chastised them. You’ve sworn at them. You’ve thrown (hopefully soft) things at the television about them. You’ve thrown up your hands and said, “Screw it, I’m a Jaguars fan now.” OK, you haven’t done that. But you get the idea.
I’m not talking about the pass rush. Feel free to continue to throw things at the TV when it comes to getting to the quarterback. The Crawford boys — Jack and Tyrone — had a sack each. But there is still no consistent pressure on the quarterback.
No, I’m talking about the secondary. Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne, Barry Church, Orlando Scandrick and Byron Jones. You know those guys? They’ve played pretty darned well the past two games.
Yep, I tweeted that. And, secretly, you kind of agree.
This secondary has played steady football the past two weeks. Yes, they’ve given up a big play here or there. But certainly not at the pace it gave up big plays last year, which is surprising considering we all knew how challenged the pass rush would be for at least the first quarter of the season.
And each of them had a hand in this win against Washington.
Church, of course, had the biggest play of the five. With Washington driving deep into Cowboys territory and staked to a three-point lead the Redskins faced 3rd-and-6. These are the situations in which this Cowboys defense has struggled in recent history. Facing a chance to get the offense off the field and at least make a team settle for a field goal, Dallas seems to, more often than not, wilt.
Not this time. Church read Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins perfectly, stepped in front of a pass intended for Pierre Garcon and picked it off to stop the drive and save a score. The Cowboys’ offense put the cherry on top of the turnover by turning it into a game-winning touchdown drive.
But there was more on that drive that led to Cousins’ interception. Church nearly never had the chance to make that play. On the first play of the drive Cousins found Jamison Crowder up the left sideline and Crowder made a break for it. He slipped away from his coverage and looked, for a moment, like he could have scored. But Byron Jones hustled all the way down the field to push Crowder out at the Cowboys 22. Without his tackle the Redskins would have ended up with a 10-point lead.
Scandrick had one of those too. That came on the game’s final drive. The Redskins were desperately trying to get the chains moved on third down deep in their own territory when Cousins found Chris Thompson in the flat. The Cowboys had a coverage breakdown and Jones actually slipped as he tried to make a tackle. That gave Thompson room to run. And that he did, going 38 yards before Scandrick pulled him down.
If you’re thinking that we’re just going to focus on tackling, think again. Defensive backs are paid to break up passes, after all, and the Cowboys defended six as a group. Heck, J.J. Wilcox got into the act. But Carr had a pass break-up in the end zone in the second half. And it was a critical break-up, too, as he batted down a Cousins pass intended for Josh Doctson in the end zone. The Redskins failed to score again a play later and kicked a field goal to take the lead. But again, the break-up proved critical.
I saved Claiborne for last because he deserves it. I’ve been hard on him. A lot of people have been hard on him. And the NFL turns on a dime, so maybe it doesn’t last. But for the past two weeks I’ve been impressed with how Claiborne has covered, tackled and defended in most situations. The stat guys didn’t credit Claiborne with a pass-break up on Sunday, but he was around receivers all afternoon and his air-tight coverage surely influenced how Cousins threw the ball.
And, like the rest of the defensive backs, he had a big tackle, too. You remember the one.
That was the drive before Carr’s pass breakup. Claiborne had a mismatch out in the flat with Washington’s Vernon Davis. Claiborne gave up plenty of weight there, but Claiborne’s perfect tackle actually put Davis down for a 1-yard loss. That drive the Redskins had to settle for a field goal to tie the game.
Cousins ended up with 364 yards passing on Sunday. But this was one of those games where statistics don’t tell you exactly what happened. He threw it 46 times because Washington couldn’t get its run game moving. And, yes, Cousins and company had some big plays.
But when it truly mattered this Cowboys secondary came up big, whether it was knocking down passes or making game-saving tackles. That’s all their defensive coordinator, Rod Marinelli, really asks for. Just do it when it matters.
This secondary did it when it mattered on Sunday.
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