Reeling on a three-game losing streak and on the heels of a 434-yard passing performance by the LA Chargers’ Philip Rivers, the Dallas Cowboys were forced to adjust their secondary.
They benched Anthony Brown in favor of second-round pick Chidobe Awuzie. They rotated safety play by getting Kavon Frazier and Xavier Woods more into the mix with Byron Jones and Jeff Heath.
First impression suggests those changes paid off Thursday when the Cowboys rolled to a 38-14 victory over the Washington Redskins. The secondary produced multiple interceptions for the first time this season, and had guys such as Frazier step up in slowing down the running game.
Coach Jason Garrett had nothing but good things to say about how the secondary fared with the adjustments made. The Chargers had 11 explosive plays (16-plus yards passing, 12-plus yards running) on Thanksgiving compared to just six by the Redskins.
“We just felt like we needed to play better on the back end, felt like we had some guys who were deserving of an opportunity based on what they’d done in practice and with the limited opportunity they had in games,” Garrett said on Monday. “We felt like that was important for our team.
“I felt like everybody responded the right way — the guys getting the opportunity and the guys who had some of their reps reduced. They responded the right way and we played the right way on defense throughout the ballgame — not perfect by any means, but we played a better game.”
Yes, the secondary showed positives throughout. Despite being benched, Brown came through with his second interception of the season late in the game after cornerback Orlando Scandrick exited with a back injury.
Jones played well, too, and continues to excel defending tight ends. But the 2015 first-round pick appears to still be searching for a long-term home.
The Cowboys liked his versatility coming out of college, and have used him in a variety of roles as a cornerback and safety. He’s played safety all of this season, although his number of snaps has diminished.
Jones played a season-low 45 of 60 defensive snaps on Thursday. That’s 75 percent of the snaps when he’s usually close to 100 percent.
“Versatility is a big part of what his role is,” Garrett said of Jones. “He’s someone who can play on the back end, he can play down, he can cover. He’s played corner for us, he’s played inside as a nickel or dime guy for us. I think that’s one of his strengths.
“I thought he responded well to the limited work that he got and he played a better football game. That’s really all we’re asking of our players — be prepared for the opportunities that you get for your work every day leading up to the ballgame, and go take advantage of it. If you play six snaps or 66 snaps, make sure you’re playing your optimum level.”
It appears that happened for the players who were given more opportunities. Awuzie had three pass breakups in the first half, tied for the most by a defensive back in a game with Jourdan Lewis’ three vs. Green Bay.
Frazier brought a physical presence and was credited with the second-most tackles (six) despite playing just 21 of 60 defensive snaps.
“Kavon really took advantage of the opportunity that he got,” Garrett said. “He is a physical tackler. His presence is felt out there. He didn’t play a perfect game by any means, but certainly played with confidence and played the right way. He will learn from some of the things that weren’t up to standard.
“He is a physical guy who loves to play. Oftentimes that can be contagious throughout your defense. He certainly made his presence felt out there with some of the big hits that he made.”
Making a positive impact is what the Cowboys needed from their secondary and will continue to need if they’re going to hang around as a fringe playoff contender.
They know that, too.
“We still have the same mission, the same goals from the beginning – that’s going all the way,” said Awuzie, who was among a handful of Cowboys spreading holiday cheer at Cook Children’s Medical Center in Fort Worth on Monday morning.
“We’re going to try to win out and see how we do.”
Cowboys at Giants
Noon Sunday, KDFW/4