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Cornerbacks Will Play Pivotal Role In Cowboys' Playoff Hopes

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Cornerback Morris Claiborne has enormous potential and a talented partner in Brandon Carr. But while their position set is entrenched, much of the Cowboys' defense remains clouded. Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images.
Cornerback Morris Claiborne has enormous potential and a talented partner in Brandon Carr. But while their position set is entrenched, much of the Cowboys' defense remains clouded. Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images.

How Monte Kiffin’s schematic requirements will fit his players’ skills has been a persistent storyline this offseason, and for every intelligent, positive take, there’s been ample room for an astute, negative rebuttal. You simply can’t work through the depth chart without doing some flip-flopping. For example, moving DeMarcus Ware to defensive end, reducing his responsibilities against the lateral rush and unleashing his full pass rush threat sounds good in theory. But, in turn, how will Jason Hatcher react in his first stint as a defensive tackle as he moves inside? Given the absence of a proven strongside linebacker, who’s going to duplicate the force of Ware’s pass rush when he gets double-teamed?

Remember, this year’s team is built to score points, not stop them. From that perspective, breaking down the defense becomes less a matter of how well guys fit the 4-3 — a surface term that reflects alignment, not post-snap action — and more an issue of how they impose the principles of it. These defensive players are expected to maintain leads, rhythm and momentum — not generate them. But they can still dictate their opponents’ tempo by sticking to the basic guns of the system: controlling gaps at the line, having range at middle linebacker and getting physical in man-to-man coverage from their cornerbacks.

The latter is where the Cowboys can really do some damage. Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne are both studs-in-the-making. Both are outstanding athletes who can run with receivers on sideline routes, get airborne and get reliable hands on the ball and tackle in the open field. Obviously their safety help is disconcerting, but that applies to longer routes, and should improve over time.

Though average in size for cornerbacks, Carr and Claiborne are young players who can use this offseason to get stronger and more suited for press coverage — and it’ll pay heavy dividends once they master it. When it’s third down late in the game and the box is loaded and a rush is out of the question, having physical corners that can consistently disrupt a quick slant or out route is going to be huge.

Just as time of possession is a key metric for the offense because it keeps them on the field, third down success rate is a vital stat for the defense because it gets them off the field. That may sound oversimplified but, at this point, it’s a reasonable approach to getting the most out of this group of starters.

In detailing the offseason progress, Carr told The Dallas Morning News that when run correctly, Kiffin’s system easily disguises man-to-man and cover schemes, and that it will allow him to upgrade his play as a physical cornerback. Claiborne also alluded to the complexity of the scheme, saying it’s not a true Cover 2 in the sense that safeties are expected to just hang back and prevent the deep ball — which is a good thing.

The reality is that the Cowboys secondary under Kiffin’s scheme is, like the defensive line, a complete composite of astounding potential and glaring concern. The fact that this conclusion can be reached without even mentioning nickel corner Orlando Scandrick, an X-factor who will likely see both increased playing time and targeting in 2013, confirms that the Cowboys’ defense is still a couple eggs shy of a full basket.

Jerry Jones went offensive in the draft, and that’s where they’re going to have to shine. But if this group of defensive players can capitalize — and capitalize big — on what overlaps exist between player attributes and schematic mandates, there’s no reason they can’t play well enough to contribute to a postseason berth.