The Dallas Cowboys tried something this offseason that not many have attempted in the past; rebuild the entire secondary in one offseason. Dallas let go four of their top six defensive backs, allowing Barry Church, J.J. Wilcox, Morris Claiborne and Brandon Carr all to hit free agency.
In order to replenish their secondary’s depth, Dallas selected four defensive backs in the 2017 draft, including Jourdan Lewis and Xavier Woods. Both players missed much of the preseason with hamstring injuries, but both are working their way into more snaps. Together, they’ve given the Cowboys one of the youngest, most exciting secondaries in the NFL.
In today’s film room, we are going to take a look at the two players’ performances over the past two weeks and why they are even better than advertised.
Let’s first take a look at Jourdan Lewis. Coming out of Michigan, there were never any concerns about his ball skills or his instincts. The biggest question about him was his (lack of) size and his tackling ability. In Dallas’ zone-heavy defense, they put a lot of responsibility on their cornerbacks to tackle.
Lewis is never going to be an intimidating tackler or a violent one, but he’s been surprisingly good in his first few games in the NFL. Through four games, Lewis has the sixth-highest run stop grade, according to Pro Football Focus. He has yet to miss a tackle so far this season per PFF.
Against the Arizona Cardinals, he made this tough tackle below on one of the stronger receivers in the league in Larry Fitzgerald in open space. An impressive tackle by a rookie playing in just his second game:
In the Los Angeles Rams game, Lewis’ confidence as a tackler grew. Multiple times, he stuck his nose into run support and saved the Cowboys’ bacon on a few occasions. There’s no better example of this than the play below in which Todd Gurley bounced an inside run to the outside and forced the former Michigan cornerback to make a play in space. Not surprisingly, Lewis was able to make the tackle to hold the Rams to a field goal:
While Jourdan Lewis has impressed with his tackling skills, safety Xavier Woods hasn’t been too bad himself, either. But unlike Lewis, Woods has the power to intimidate defenders in the middle of the field.
On multiple occasions on Sunday, Woods forced receivers to drop passes on crossing routes as he was ready to drill his opponent.
One great example is on a pass to rookie receiver Cooper Kupp on third down. The pass was thrown slightly behind Kupp and Woods made the receiver pay by jarring the ball loose with a big hit:
Not only is Woods a “big-hitter”, but he’s also a reliable one. And there is certainly a difference. Woods does a really good job of understanding angles and knowing where to aim to hit defenders. Because of his lack of size, he’s always more likely to go for the lower body rather than into the head/neck area, saving him from 50/50 calls for unnecessary roughness.
On the play below, Woods does a fantastic job of getting to the spot where Gurley is going to make the catch rather than where he currently was. Once he lines up the target, he makes sure that he chops down the lower body of Gurley, preventing him from gaining any yards after the catch or after contact. His beautiful tackle here gets the Cowboys’ off the field on third down:
Not only has Woods thrived as a tackler, but he’s also been impressive in his versatility. According to Pro Football Focus, he’s been one of the best rookie cornerbacks this season on a per snap basis. And that’s why Cowboys’ fans are so excited. His ability to play in the box as a safety and intimidate receivers and then split out into the slot to cover some of the best receivers in the league with no troubles is what makes him such an intriguing player going forward.
While Dallas’ defense has struggled some to start the season, the play of their young defensive backs, particularly Jourdan Lewis and Xavier Woods give the team hopes that by the end of the season they will be a big improvement over their defensive backs from a year ago. Lewis and Woods have each played well enough to earn starting roles on this defense and if and when Chidobe Awuzie gets healthy, he is just another piece the Cowboys will need to find a way to use.
It’s discouraging how well teams are moving the ball on the Cowboys’ defense right now and it could get worse on Sunday with Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers coming to town, but long term, their young defensive backs will give the Cowboys a chance to be one of the better secondaries in the league.
As long as the Cowboys can keep Lewis and Woods healthy and playing in their secondary, expect rapid improvement from their defensive backs nearly every week. They are a fun tandem to watch and should only grow as they get more experience.