Cowboys’ Diggs and Bland critique is overblown but not without merit

Cowboys' Diggs And Bland Critique Is Overblown But Not Without Merit

Cowboys’ Diggs and Bland critique is overblown but not without merit

Criticism of Cowboys’ Diggs and Bland may be exaggerated, but not entirely unfounded

By reidhanson on 2024-07-09 06:30:35

Cowboys' Diggs And Bland Critique Is Overblown But Not Without Merit

The Cowboys have two of the most thrilling and dynamic cornerbacks in the NFL. Trevon Diggs, who in 2021 posted the first 11-interception season since Everson Walls in 1981, and DaRon Bland, last season's interception leader (9) and all-time NFL record holder of the most interceptions returned for touchdown in a single season, are possibly the best ballhawks in the game.

Both players have the ability to shift the balance of a contest in a single play and both play with the versatility and confidence required to match up against the best receivers, week after week. In an era where the passing game dictates winners and losers more than any other facet of the game, it's a tremendously valuable for Dallas to have. However the Cowboys' dynamic duo isn't without their warts.

A primary reason the two players have thrived in the turnover is because they've been targeted so freely. And they've been targeted because they often allow separation in coverage, leading to a fair number of wide-open catches and big plays for the opposing offense.

When asked to rank the NFL's secondaries heading into 2024, Pro Football Focus slotted the Cowboys in the middle of the league at No. 13. The reason cited was their boom-or-bust style of play CB because they “give up a ton of separation and big plays for the payoff of the interception.”

As many may recall, Diggs infamously broke the grading scale in 2021 when he posted his All-Pro season. From a film study perspective, the separation he allowed was impossible to ignore, even if he limited opponents to decisively negative EPA/play when targeted. His film graded 80th in a pool of 116 CBs that season shedding on everything that was wrong with traditional grading such as PFF's and other scouting agencies'.

PFF recently hailed Darius Slay as the separation stopping king of 2023. At a tight coverage rate of 35.0% Slay finished No. 1 in the NFL in reducing separation. Yet in an act that almost seems contradictory to the Diggs-Bland critique, PFF only gave this their separation stopping king a 65.4 coverage grade and a No. 55 overall ranking on the CB score chart. Apparently, the tightest coverage in the league wasn't enough for Slay to score a good film grade.

As if that wasn't confusing enough, DaRon Bland, who was disparaged for the separation he supposedly allows, graded No. 2 overall in CB grade. It seems as if the narrative didn't fit the reality because Bland quietly made PFF's top-10 list in tight coverage rate as well, tying for seventh overall in 2023 at 30.0%.

Unlike Slay, he turned that tight coverage into a positive grade, proving there is much more to the CB position than simply providing tight coverage. It appears the “separation allowed” argument isn't quite so valid or quite so consequential as it's made to believe.

That doesn't mean it isn't important. And that doesn't mean Mike Zimmer isn't going to focus on consistent tight coverage in 2024. In offseason discussions, Zimmer has already prepped Cowboys Nation for a reduction in interception numbers.

The reason Diggs and Bland seemed so boom-or-bust is partially because of the Cowboys system. Dan Quinn employed more of a high-risk, high-reward secondary than Zimmer traditionally plays with. Quinn was willing to give up more plays because he knew his guys would return the favor and take big plays of their own. Zimmer is less inclined to do that.

The system itself is designed to limit big plays. Zimmer plays far more 2-deep coverage than Quinn because he likes to keep plays in front of him. It's reasonable to assume he's going to ask his dynamic duo to play a little less loose and a little more disciplined in 2024. Whether that's best for the Cowboys defense or not remains to be seen, but separation is a big deal in his system because separation is directly related to big plays.

But as the numbers show, separation isn't everything and finding the right balance in coverage is the key to .

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