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3 & Out

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3 & Out: Interceptions In Bunches; 4th & So What?


FRISCO, Texas – Back with three quick topics leading into Cowboys-Chiefs, the most fun quarterback matchup on the Cowboys' schedule since Dak-Brady in Week 1, and after that, perhaps since Romo-Peyton in 2013:

  • Pick Party
  • Going For It
  • Kelvin Joseph

I Know…
the defense's rise in interceptions this year has been astonishing.

Trevon Diggs, Anthony Brown and Jourdan Lewis got three picks in Sunday's blowout win, the franchise's highest-single game total in 11 years. (Defensive coordinator Dan Quinn can't recall coaching a game where three different corners got interceptions.) That brings the defense's total to 14, tied with New England for second-most in the NFL behind Buffalo's 15.

With eight games left, it's already the largest interception total by a Cowboys defense since 2014 (18) and a remarkable turnaround from recent years. In the past 10 seasons, the defense produced single-digit picks five times. Last year, only 10.

What's behind the surge?

Diggs, for starters.

He leads the league with eight, the most by any Cowboys player in a season since Everson Walls' nine in 1985. Diggs has given up some big plays, and some penalties, and opponents have tried to counter his aggressive style with double moves. But his instincts and ball skills are outstanding -- not just for a second-year player, but any pro. He's been the most impactful Cowboys corner since Deion. (Not a direct player comparison – just a fact based on production.)

Explaining interceptions isn't a linear process. Sometimes it's just a terrific play, like Anthony Brown juggling the ball to himself after blanket coverage on Falcons receiver Olamide Zaccheaus. Sometimes it's right-place, right-time, like Diggs' first pick of the season in Tampa, when Brady's screen pass bounced off Leonard Fournette's hands. Clearly, Quinn's scheme has given guys confidence. Pressure up front always helps, too. "Without them, I wouldn't be getting interceptions," Diggs said last month.

There's also the complementary nature of football. All three interceptions Sunday came in the second half with the Falcons trailing by at least 33 points and clearly in pass-first mode.

But the Cowboys' offense has been so dynamic, averaging a league-high 31.6 points per game, that opposing offenses -- even good ones -- likely feel pressure to make something happen early and often. That puts strain on the Dallas secondary, which has given up 35 explosive pass plays this season (tied for eighth).

But it also can lead to some big opportunities. They've been cashing in -- more than any Cowboys season in years.

I Think…
these aggressive fourth-down decisions are only considered smart if they work.

If we're going to credit the Cowboys for their perfect percentage on fourth down (3-for-3) against Atlanta, then we probably shouldn't freak out when they don't convert, like the Denver game (0-for-4) the week prior.

You can argue that it's too aggressive at times. Hell, the Broncos thought the Cowboys' fourth-down attempts on the first two drives were disrespectful -- even though they're right behind Dallas among the top-five in total attempts this season (17 to 15).

But as offensive coordinator Kellen Moore said Monday, that's just part of their offensive philosophy.

"Dak's able to play that way as a quarterback, knowing, 'Hey, you don't need to get all of it right now. Third-and-7, take whatever they give you. We'll play it out on fourth down if we need to,'" Moore said. "I think they do a really good job of that."

The Cowboys aren't alone, by the way. This is a growing league-wide trend.

Ten years ago, according to my calculator, the league's 32 teams had a combined 430 fourth-down attempts. Last year, that total jumped to 658.

Through 10 weeks this year, the total's already at 423 -- on pace for 761 over the now-18-week season.

Whether it's analytics or more wide-open offense or a combination of both, teams are going for it more than ever. It's still a measured approach based on field position, yards to go, personnel, etc.

Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't. But the Cowboys are as talented as any offense in the league. Hard to blame them for having confidence in converting.

I Have No Idea…

if cornerback Kelvin Joseph's playing time will continue to rise, but the second-round draft pick is making progress after missing the first six games with a groin injury.

Joseph only had two defensive snaps in his NFL debut against Minnesota and none against Denver. Special teams is his primary role right now, and coordinator John Fassel has been impressed with how he's accepted that responsibility when he probably didn't expect to do much of it as a high draft pick.

As mentioned above, the Cowboys' top three corners are playing at a high level right now. But Joseph did play 11 snaps in the second half against Atlanta and broke up a pass in the fourth quarter.

"You guys probably saw his speed and felt it when he was outside on punt return, and that kind of carries over," Quinn said. "We played some man to man with him, we played some zone with him. And for him to now gain that experience, that is definitely needed and he's growing. After the injury it took a while for him to get back. He worked hard on the rehab process. But now I think you're seeing his full ability and potential start to come together."

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