October 26, 2011

Cowboys' secondary rises from 2010 ruins

The pass defenders have both confidence and depth.

IRVING -- How's this for a curious aside to the Dallas Cowboys' 34-7 blowout of the St. Louis Rams on Sunday:

The Cowboys felt so good and comfortable about their secondary that they rotated their cornerbacks in the second quarter.

Starters Terence Newman and Mike Jenkins watched from the sideline while Orlando Scandrick, Alan Ball and Frank Walker worked with the regular defense and in nickel situations.

The Cowboys said it was an opportunity to give the starters a breather.

It was an example of the team's depth at the position, at which Scandrick, the nickel cornerback, is the highest paid and the best performer.

It also speaks to the confidence the whole unit is playing with in 2011 -- just a year after fielding arguably the worst secondary in team history.

Last season, the Cowboys gave up big plays like Happy Meals -- namely 57 pass plays of 20 yards or more -- en route to allowing the second-most passing yards (3,894 net) and the most passing touchdowns (33) in team history.

Well, the Cowboys are a competitive 14th in the league in pass defense in 2011, including a robust second in pass yards per play, giving up just 6.7.

They have limited the big play, allowing just 18 plays so far of 20 yards or more and just nine passing touchdowns.

Of course, showing some swagger against the Rams is one thing; getting it done Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles, who are the epitome of a big-play attack, will be the true test for the Cowboys.

"Big plays are a part of the game and one of the big things you have to do on defense is prevent big plays," coach Jason Garrett said. "Our defense has done an outstanding job of that, both defending the run and also defending the pass. The challenge this week is a big one because when you talk about the Eagles they have a ton of playmakers, starting with the quarterback, the receivers, the runners. It's really important we play good, sound, fundamental defense throughout the game, and then we don't have those handful of plays that sometimes can get you beat."

Eagles quarterback Michael Vick and his array of speedy receivers, including DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin, live and die off the big play. The Eagles have had 24 pass plays of 20 yards or more this season and that doesn't include Vick's scrambles.

It was the Eagles' passing in Dallas last year that exemplified the Cowboys' struggles.

Jackson caught four passes for 210 yards, including a 91-yard catch-and-run that finished with a showboating, backward plunge into the end zone.

"Of course we remember it," Scandrick said. "He made a play. This is one of those teams if you don't play your technique and execute the game plan, you will lose and they will make you look bad."

Said Jenkins: "We are going to try to keep everything in front of us. You just don't want to give up the big one that we all know they are good at. [With Jackson], you want to stop him before he gets going. He is going to have his plays. You want to take away the big one."

The Cowboys credit new coordinator Rob Ryan for their success, not just his schemes and an improved pass rush but also the confidence he gives them.

It has manifested itself in a number of ways, including the improved play at cornerback.

Not only is Scandrick playing at an extremely high level, but Newman and Jenkins, Pro Bowl performers in 2009, have their confidence back after a down year in 2010.

Ball is back at his more natural spot after being out of position and underwhelming at safety last season. Walker is a savvy veteran role player who has made it all fit by doing whatever is asked.

Arguably the biggest addition outside of Ryan has been Abe Elam at strong safety. He is a veteran leader who was adept in the new defense Ryan installed because of their experience together the past two years in Cleveland.

He is a true safety who doesn't give up the big play while making everyone around him better. Gerald Sensabaugh moved to his more natural free safety position after playing strong safety the past two years and is enjoying his best season in Dallas.

The Cowboys had Elam in 2006 before cutting him the following season. He went on to start the past four years with the New York Jets and Browns before the Cowboys discovered he was what they needed all along.

"It's very important being in the right place, because you have to prevent some of those things from happening," Elam said. "You're the eraser back there. Guys can make a mistake up front and it won't cost points, but if you make mistakes on the back end it's six points."

Clarence E. Hill Jr.


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