The Dallas Cowboys spent a lot of money this off-season to improve their secondary, including $50.1 million on new cornerback Brandon Carr. So far, it’s been a good investment as Carr has been outstanding in training camp, Dallas dumped safety Brodney Pool and first-round draft pick Morris Claiborne hasn’t been a bust so far. However, it’s still only the preseason and the Oakland Raiders didn’t provide much of an aerial test in the Cowboys’ first exhibition, but that should change on Saturday when Dallas takes on the San Diego Chargers.
Dallas’ defense held three Raiders quarterbacks to just 181 total passing yards in Week 1 of the preseason, but you can’t take a lot out of that. The only halfway meaningful stat that can be pulled from this exhibition is Oakland starter Carson Palmer‘s 33 yards on 3-6 passing, including an interception by Cowboys safety Gerald Sensabaugh. One of those completions was an 18-yard screen to Raiders running back Darren McFadden, so Dallas’ defense is still a head-scratcher after one week of meaningless play.
The Chargers boasted the NFL‘s sixth-best passing offense in 2011, averaging 276.6 yards per game, and that was without stud tight end Antonio Gates and San Diego’s then-No. 1 receiver, Vincent Jackson. Now that quarterback Philip Rivers has several new weapons at his disposal, he’s primed for the biggest year of his career.
That’s perfect for the Cowboys, who need to figure out just what this revamped secondary can do. Sensabaugh is the only returning starter back there for Dallas, while Carr, Claiborne and fourth-year pro Barry Church man the other three spots. Orlando Scandrick is back and he “starts” at nickel corner, if that counts.
Carr and Claiborne have gotten lots of solid practice against Cowboys stellar receivers Dez Bryant and Miles Austin this off-season, but Church and Sensabaugh haven’t been tested deep as a unit. Sure, Sensabaugh had the interception against Palmer, but it was gift-wrapped like a Christmas present. Rivers, Gates and Chargers receivers Malcom Floyd, Robert Meachem and Vincent Brown present one of the best preseason tests Dallas could want.
Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan is specifically looking forward to seeing Church in action against all the vertical routes that Chargers head coach Norv Turner likes to run, specifically with Gates.
“I know Norv will be licking his chops when he’s in his slot formation,” Ryan said. “We’ll be looking forward to that test, and they’ve got a guy named Gates who is pretty good. He’s good when you’ve got two guys covering him, so we’ll see how we do this week.”
Church has been solid thus far in training camp and the early preseason, playing downhill very well and laying the wood to receivers in front of him, but he hasn’t been tested against the speed opposing receivers like the Chargers’ use in the vertical passing game. The preseason is the perfect time to get some solid practice at that and the Cowboys will actually practice twice with the Chargers in addition to playing their exhibition.
Dallas is also anxiously anticipating the preseason debut of Claiborne, who has missed significant time this off-season with various injuries. He’s played fairly well in the preseason against Bryant and Austin, but live action against a solid passing offense like San Diego’s will be a tough first test in the NFL for the No. 6 overall pick.
Ryan’s comments about Turner “licking his chops” apply to Claiborne as well, who will undoubtedly be attacked early by Rivers and either Floyd or Meachem. The former is a huge target that can go up and snag balls out of the air while the latter is a huge deep threat that had a history of hauling in bombs during his days with the New Orleans Saints.
Keep an eye on Claiborne, Church and Dallas’ secondary as a whole on Saturday in San Diego because the entire Cowboys’ organization will be.