Rare Air: How Well Are The Cowboys DBs Defending The Pass?

The Dallas Cowboys' defensive backs have been maligned at times the last few years. But right now they're off to one of their hottest starts in years when it comes to defending passes

No one would dispute how well the Dallas Cowboys secondary is playing right now. But you might be surprised to see how the Cowboys rank in two key statistical categories right now when it comes to pass defense.

First, with three interceptions, the Cowboys are ranked in the middle of the pack in the NFL. Second, with 20 passes defended they’re also ranked in the middle of the pack in the NFL.

Now, not all of those PD’s (and that’s what we’ll call them moving forward) are by the secondary this season. That number is actually 17. But it got me thinking — where does this Cowboys secondary stack up against secondaries of the past six seasons, seasons in which the unit was, for the most part, dismissed as, at best, average. As we mined this data we removed PD’s or interceptions from any Cowboy that was not a cornerback or safety.

Let’s take a look.

With 17 PD’s by the secondary, this unit is averaging 3.4 PD’s a game in 2016. When you look at the numbers over the past six seasons, that average — however early in the season it might be — is their best PD per-game average since 2013 and the best in the sample size (2010-present).

With three interceptions, the Cowboys are averaging .60 interceptions per game. While they have a better average in the sample (1.0, back in 2010), the .60 is nearly as good as their secondaries in 2011, 2013 and 2015.

After learning that, I wanted to see if there was any correlation between the interceptions, the PD’s and winning. So, below, I break down each season, beginning with 2010.

2010: The Cowboys went in the tank and head coach Wade Phillips was fired. The secondary had a total of 43 PD’s (2.7 per game) and 16 interceptions (the only season in the sample that saw the Cowboys average an interception per game). The only current Cowboy left from this team is Orlando Scandrick, who was tied for second on the team in PD’s with 9 (along with Terence Newman and Mike Jenkins). Gerald Sensabaugh actually led the secondary in PD’s with 10, while Newman and Sensabaugh tied or the team lead in interceptions with five each. This season was, by far, the Cowboys’ best season for interceptions in the sample, despite the 6-10 record.

2011: The first of three straight 8-8 seasons under Jason Garrett. The secondary, meanwhile, endured its worst season in the sample — 33 PD’s. Not a single Cowboys defensive back cracked double digits, though Newman and Jenkins came closest with eight each. Newman led the Cowboys with four interceptions and the secondary had 10.

2012: Brandon Carr joins the team and immediately took the team lead with 11 PD’s. The unit had 34 overall, with Morris Claiborne pitching in eight. It was a lean season for interceptions, as Carr had three and the secondary ended up with six. The Cowboys went 8-8 again.

2013: The final 8-8 season saw the Cowboys put up their best PD’s in the sample for a full season — 48 (3.0 per game). This also represented the only season where two Cowboys defensive backs had double-digit PD’s —Carr and Scandrick. Barry Church was next with six. Carr led seven different defensive backs with three interceptions. In the end, the high PD and interception totals didn’t lead to a playoff berth.

2014: The Cowboys return to the playoffs and the secondary had its second-best PD total in the sample — 44. The leader was Sterling Moore, who had the highest individual total of any player in the six-year sample — 13. Orlando Scandrick had nine PD’s and Brandon Carr had 8. The Cowboys were probably hoping for more interceptions, but the unit managed only nine, with J.J. Wilcox leading the team with three.

2015: A horrid season by every measure, the Cowboys went 4-12 and posted their worst interception total of the sample. The secondary had just four interceptions, led by Jeff Heath’s 2. In fact, only one cornerback — Terrence Mitchell — had an interception. Rookie Byron Jones led the team with 8 PD’s, while Morris Claiborne added seven and Brandon Carr added six.

And in 2016?

Claiborne and Carr lead the secondary in PD’s with four each. Jones has three and newcomer Anthony Brown, along with Church and Wilcox, has two each. Claiborne, Carr and Church all have an interception (apparently so far this season you can’t have an interception unless your last name starts with a C).

So are there trends to help illuminate this Cowboys’ 4-1 start from the standpoint of the secondary? It doesn’t look that way. The Cowboys’ one playoff season in the sample saw them post their second-highest PBU total, but only their fourth-highest interception total. Meanwhile, their best season for interceptions came in 2010, when it averaged an interception a game but finished 6-10. Higher PD’s don’t necessarily lead to a winning season, either. The Cowboys’ highest PD total came in 2013, when it finished 8-8.

But there are some individual trends worth nothing:

Claiborne is on what would be a career-high pace for PD’s. With four through five games, Claiborne would end up with 13 PD’s. That would blow away his career high of eight PD’s in 2012. But Claiborne has been trending up since last year. In his past 20 games — dating to the start of last year — Claiborne has 11 PD’s. Only Jones has as many during that period.

Carr’s 41 PD’s since joining the team in 2012 is by far the team lead in that category.

Jones and Claiborne had the exact same number of PD’s as rookies — eight.

The Cowboys’ secondary is on pace to obliterate its best season in the sample. If they were to keep up this pace the Cowboys would have 54 PD’s in 2016.

So while there is no direct evidence linking a high PD or interception total to a winning or playoff season, it’s nice, for a change, to see the Cowboys’ secondary playing the way most believe it should.

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