It may surprise some fans but in 2019 the Dallas Cowboys secondary finished top-10 in most major metrics and may be worth keeping around in ’20.
We have a tendency to blame everyone when things go poorly. And defensively, things went pretty poorly for the Dallas Cowboys in 2019. But as the saying, “don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater” advises, some elements are worth keeping around.
At face value, the Dallas Cowboys secondary was a massive disappointment. Once again the personnel seemed allergic to turnovers, finishing dead last in interceptions with just 12. But a deeper look at their performance shows it wasn’t all that bad. And the pieces everyone’s so quick to give up on may be on the cusp of something great.
So how did the Dallas Cowboys secondary perform? As the aptly named subheading stated, they finished in the top-10. In opponents’ yards per game, Dallas improved on their 231.5 passing yards allowed per game in 2018 to 223.5 (9th in the NFL) in ’19. In yards allowed per pass attempt, they improved again from last year, going from 7.0 yards/attempt to 6.3 yards/attempt (9th in the NFL).
But those are just raw stats without context. How did the players execute? How did they look when the broadcast camera wasn’t showing them on TV? Keep in mind, the regular broadcast only shows a small fraction of what’s really happening. It missed the big picture and only focuses on a couple key, but often misleading, plays.
Pro Football Focus scouts every snap. They watch every player’s plays and grades them accordingly. Even if the ball isn’t going to them. On top of that, they track advanced stats and can paint a more accurate picture of what’s really going on.
Pro Football Focus just rated the Dallas Cowboys’ secondary as the NFL’s No. 6 secondary. Despite being last in the NFL in interceptions, the Dallas secondary finished third in forced incompletion rate at 12.2 percent. In addition, they had the second fewest missed tackles in the NFL.
That’s why casual observations of a secondary’s performance can be so dangerous. Right now, virtually every fan base is complaining about their secondary. That’s because unless we’re breaking down the All-22, we’re only seeing the highlights (or lowlights).
Individually, players did better than Cowboys Nation gives them credit for as well. Byron Jones, often treated as a replaceable part, finished as the PFF’s No. 14 cornerback. He was strong in both coverage and run defense. And despite zero interceptions, Jones did a great job of limiting opportunities on his side of the field.
Jourdan Lewis, the Dallas Cowboys nickel cornerback, was a little up and down in his most heavily used season. As the defensive back with the best nose for the ball, Lewis is a fan favorite of Cowboys Nation. He ended the season ranked No. 38 in the NFL.
The player who grades out as the most surprising is Chidobe Awuzie. Chido had a few awful stretches of play that seem to overshadow the good he did. Like Jones, Chido displayed no nose for the ball, but he was fairly solid in coverage most of the season. AND he was excellent against the run (something that has made me plead for him to move to safety since the day he was drafted). Well, Chido graded out better than Anthony Brown and Lewis. He finished ranked 22nd in the NFL.
Don’t throw out the baby
Last season’s coverage scheme and the lack of interceptions leave something to be desired. But this secondary wasn’t nearly as bad as many make it out to be. Looking at the pure numbers and grading individual play, this was a top-10 unit.
Free agent decisions await but if Dallas can re-sign Jones and upgrade their strong safety Jeff Heath, they could be a bona fide strength of this team in 2020.