Dallas Cowboys secondary: The Best in the NFL?
The football analytical website Pro Football Focus ranked the Dallas Cowboys secondary the best in the NFL in 2016. Really?
For several years now, the Dallas Cowboys defense has been viewed as the weakest of the team’s three phases of football. Those phases being offense, defense and special teams. But the Cowboys defensive resurgence in 2016 was equally responsible for Dallas’ magical 13-3 regular season record this year.
But just how good was this Cowboys defense this season? According to the stats, Dallas finished the year 1st in rushing defense, 26th in passing defense and 14th in total defense. The Cowboys once again struggled to get to opposing passers in 2016, ranking 24th in the NFL with a total of 28.0 sacks. Dallas’ defense also ranked a lowly 30th in interceptions with only six. They were also tied for 28th in pass deflections with 48.
So these stats say the Cowboys secondary was among one of the worst in the NFL. But according to the football analytical website Pro Football Focus, Dallas’ secondary was actually the best in the league in 2016. So what’s the disconnect?
"“One of the biggest reasons for the Cowboys’ success this season has been the turnaround of the secondary,” wrote Matt Claassan on the PFF site recently. “After having just one defensive back with an above-average coverage grade last season, all eight players with at least 100 snaps in 2016 earned average or above-average overall and coverage grades. Although they lack an elite-caliber player, this group has played consistently well as a unit.”"
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Claassan also prefaced that these rankings are not solely based in their coverage abilities, as a team’s secondary also has a major role in run defense. And that the Cowboys overall performance grade in pass defense also included their front-seven in coverage.
As the Cowboys defense was tops in the league against the run in 2016, it’s easy to forget the role of the team’s secondary in that ranking. And the excellent play by Dallas’ linebacker corps in coverage situations also elevated their status.
But as a longtime Cowboys fan, it’s difficult to think that what we’ve seen out of the team’s secondary the past couple seasons would be consider the best in the league. Although they certainly lived up to their bend-but-don’t break label, their lack of turnovers is still shocking.
The combination of cornerbacks Morris Claiborne, Brandon Carr, Anthony Brown and Orlando Scandrick yielded just four total interceptions this season.
Claiborne played just seven games this year as injuries continue to be his biggest issue. Carr was likely the most consistent of the Cowboys corners, but has never lived up to his lofty contract. Scandrick came on late in the season after dealing with his own injuries, but he is certainly not the player he was a couple years ago. And Brown’s play was excellent, considering he was a sixth round draft choice. But he still had his rookie moments.
But it was likely this unit’s play at safety that may be most responsible for this high ranking. Former first round selection Byron Jones continues to develop as a versatile weapon in the secondary. Although the now permanent free safety is not the playmaker we all hoped he’d be. Starting strong safety Barry Church was his old, consistent self. Although Church did miss four games due to a forearm injury.
Former starting safety J.J. Wilcox had a big rebound year after being a strong roster bubble candidate during final cuts last offseason. And finally, Jeff Heath is likely the team’s best special teams player.
Next: Dallas Cowboys All-Time Best Defensive Players By Position
Although Pro Football Focus views the Dallas Cowboys secondary as the best in the NFL, this unit has to improve in the turnover department. A shift of personnel could be the shakeup the Cowboys need to improve in 2017. With Claiborne, Carr, Church and Wilcox all free agents this offseason, the Dallas secondary could look very different next season.