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How Can The Defense Limit Explosive Passing?


FRISCO, Texas – As Mike McCarthy says himself, the bye week is the perfect time to take a breath and reflect.

In his two seasons in charge of the operation, the Cowboys' head coach has talked about using the week off as a chance to self-scout. McCarthy has talked before about "across the hall" meetings, in which he has his coaches meet and evaluate different aspects of the ball.

Here's an educated guess that one of the topics covered in those meetings will be one of the Cowboys' biggest problems to this point in the season: explosive pass plays.

It's been papered over so far by a staggering 14 takeaways and an impressive +7 turnover margin, but there's no denying the Cowboys are giving up chunk plays on a consistent basis.

NFL parameters for explosive plays can vary from team to team and outlet to outlet, but for the purposes of this story, we'll define an explosive as a gain of 20+ yards. Going off that definition, the Dallas defense has allowed a whopping 27 explosive plays through six games.

"If we can take those explosives out of our game, we go from being a secondary right now, in my opinion, that is average-to-good to the next level," said secondary coach Joe Whitt Jr.

Whitt spoke at length about the issue on Tuesday, when the Cowboys' assistant coaches met with the media.

The Cowboys have allowed at least three explosives in every game this season. Despite the thrilling win, Sunday might have brought the most egregious example, as Patriots receiver Kendrick Bourne dipped between seemingly good coverage between Trevon Diggs and Damontae Kazee and came down with a ball that led to a 75-yard touchdown.

"It was just an example of one thought he was going to make it, the other thought he was going to make it, one thought it was overthrown the other undercut it," said defensive coordinator Dan Quinn on Monday. "I don't know if we could do it again if we tried."

There have been a lot of questions about miscommunicating, which is understandable. Last season, with Mike Nolan calling the defense, Cowboys defenders seemed to be out of position on a routine basis, which led to similar types of touchdowns.

Whitt was asked about it, as well, and he was adamant that – although that was a problem in the season opener – that hasn't really been the case in the month since.

"They really haven't been communication errors," he said. "Three of them from the Tampa game were. We came in as a staff and adjusted the gap from there."

The 47-yard backbreaker from Antonio Brown in Week 1 definitely comes to mind when talking about miscommunication. But to hear it from Whitt, a bigger issue has simply been rallying to make tackles on receivers.

"Mental errors and missed assignments have been very, very low," he said. "We just have to do a better job of making sure when the ball is caught in front of us, we tackle it and we get it down."

If you chart the snaps, Whitt's words ring true. Of those 27 explosive plays, 13 of them come with some type of yards after catch element. That means roughly half the time, the Cowboys have helped to create that play with poor tackling or poor pursuit angles.

Making the matter even more confusing is the speed with which the Cowboys are playing right now. Being in position might not be the issue so much as finishing the play.

"If you look at the Next Gen stats, our defense is playing at a high, high speed," Whitt said. "So for them to have the ability to have catch/run elements, that's something we have to do a better job of."

The most egregious example is probably the Week 4 win against Carolina. Sam Darnold finished that game with 301 passing yards, and more than one third of it came on broken catch-and-run opportunities.

The culprit was a trio of passes – two to D.J. Moore and one Brandon Zylstra. Those three passes traveled 10 yards, six yards and 16 yards, but they led to YAC nets of 19, 33 and 39.

You can find similar issues in other games. Dallas Goedert and Zach Ertz combined for 55 yards after the catch on explosive plays in Week 3 against Philadelphia. Two of Kadarius Toney's four explosive plays for the New York Giants produced 40 yards after the catch.

On one hand, it's at least encouraging that these are easy enough issues to correct. It seems easier to coach a player how to make a tackle or finish a play, as opposed to there being problems with communication or understanding the scheme.

Still, it figures to be a point of emphasis. The Cowboys seem to be well aware that they can't necessarily count on takeaways every week.

"You can't be considered a great -- I don't care how many interceptions you have -- if you're allowing that many yards," Whitt said. "You can't put yourself in the range of talking about being one of the top secondaries until you get those numbers down and you get the passing touchdown numbers down, as well."

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