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Preseason expectations have evolved into regular season resentment in regard to Dallas Cowboys cornerback Chidobe Awuzie.
Entering his third season, there was a lot of belief that this was the year that Awuzie would ascend into a lockdown corner. Unfortunately, that hasn’t been the case.
From purely a production standpoint, Awuzie has struggled mightily this season, giving up 41 catches on 73 total targets for 634 yards (fourth-most among all DBs), 15.4 per reception, and three touchdowns in 13 games while accumulating seven pass break-ups and an interception, per SIS Data Hub.
For comparison’s sake, in 2018, Awuzie gave up 49 catches on 83 targets for 653 yards, 13.3 yards per reception, and four touchdowns in 15 games while registering 10 pass break-ups and an interception.
This means he’s allowing a slightly lower completion percentage this year, but seeing increases in total yards and yards per reception allowed while allowing a similar number of touchdowns and accumulating a similar amount of pass break-ups – not exactly what the Cowboys wanted from a DB with No. 1 CB expectations.
It gets worse when tackling and yards after catch (YAC) are added into the equation. Thus far this season, 12 of Awuzie’s attempted tackles have missed or been broken by opposing ball carriers, which means, given that he has been credited with 63 tackles so far, his tackles are missed or broken by the ball carrier 16% of the time – a huge increase from the 10.5% of last season, per SIS Data Hub. Moreover, Awuzie has allowed 205 total YAC this season – 20th most among all CBs, per Pro Football Focus, which is 55 more YAC than he allowed all of last season (150).
The evidence gets even more damning when advanced statistics are brought into the fold. Football Outsiders has developed a metric (which is used in the SIS Data Hub) called Points Saved, which uses Expected Points Added (EPA) to distribute the value gained or lost on a play to the different players involved based on their impact on the play using the wealth of SIS charting data available. In 2018, Baltimore’s Marlon Humphrey led all defensive backs in total points saved among DBs (51) while Buffalo’s Tre’Davious White leads all DBs this year (40) in the same metric.
Awuzie has been credited with 0 total points saved this season, which is not only the epitome of average and the definition of a replacement-level player, it’s also less than multiple other Cowboys DBs, including Byron Jones (10), Xavier Woods (7), Jeff Heath (6) and Jourdan Lewis (6).
Bottom line from a production standpoint, Awuze is playing like a replacement-level cornerback rather than the potential No. 1 CB the Cowboys were hoping for.
Awuzie’s struggles statistically are confirmed on film; however, before getting into his individual struggles, it’s important to acknowledge that Dallas’ scheme and defensive play-calling play a part in it, too.
Take this reception on 2nd-and-1 versus the Giants in Week 9 as an example:
On this play, the Cowboys are playing their typical Cover 3 defense where Awuzie plays off coverage and is responsible for the deep third zone on his side of the field. While the casual fan may be upset about Awuzie allowing an easy first down reception in a short-yardage situation, the reality is that the coaching staff deserves far more blame than anyone for this easy first down (which is a theme of Dallas’ season so far).
In Cover 3, the box defenders (linebackers plus strong safety) are responsible for all the short-to-intermediate zones while the cornerbacks and free safety are responsible for the deep zones. Moreover, the box defenders have dual run-pass responsibilities, meaning they have to play forward and fit their gap against the run but also retreat to their zone versus the pass.
The positives are that it gets eight defenders in the box to defend the probable run in a short-yardage situation; however, it also makes them susceptible to quick play-action passes from shotgun, which is exactly what happens here.
The box defenders’ dual run-pass responsibilities, especially in a short-yardage situation, cause them to immediately react forward versus any run action in an attempt to clog the gaps and stuff the potential run. This creates huge voids in the short-to-intermediate zones, which are exacerbated by the fact the Dallas blitzed the strong safety (Jeff Heath) off the edge, thus taking away one short-to-intermediate zone defender.
Therefore, no one is in the flats to defend the speed out, creating an easy pitch-and-catch for the first down. While it is true that Awuzie should have triggered forward quicker, the scheme prevented him from having any chance to contest this quick throw more so than his execution.
These types of poor situational defensive play calls are littered through Dallas’ tape this season, especially in short-yardage situations. Nevertheless, Awuzie has done himself no favors outside of that, as intermittent technical lapses have led to most of Awuzie’s struggles this year.
“Lapses” being the key term there because Awuzie provides good coverage a majority of the time, which is why he maintains a relatively low completion percentage when targeted (56.2%) despite his struggles this season. However, much like with offensive linemen, a few lapses or bad snaps per game is enough to override the dozens of other snaps where he executed his job effectively, which signifies the little room for error that NFL CBs have on a game-by-game basis.
Those lapses are especially frustrating because there’s not one thing to hang your hat on in regard to Awuzie’s overall struggles. It’s a bunch of different little things that pop up intermittently. They aren’t always due to the same reasons, but they all have a similar effect in deteriorating Awuzie’s coverage ability on a given snap.
Here’s an example:
On this Week 4 play in New Orleans, Awuzie is aligned in press-man, or bump-and-run, coverage against Saints receiver Michael Thomas. When lining up against one of the top receivers in the NFL, which Thomas certainly is, even the smallest mistakes can create a big enough opening for the receiver to take advantage, which is exactly what happens here.
The casual fan may critique Awuzie for not turning his head around to look for the ball when Thomas did, but that ignores the differences in how a CB is supposed to play when in/out of phase with a receiver.
When a CB is in-phase, meaning he can reach out and touch the receiver, then yes, he is supposed to lean into the receiver and turn his head to find the ball.
However, when a CB is out of phase, meaning he can’t touch the receiver, as Awuzie is above, he is taught to not turn his head and look for the ball because if he guesses wrong then it inevitably creates more separation for the receiver while eliminating the CB’s ability to limit YAC once the catch is made. Instead, he is taught to stay locked in on the receiver while playing through the receiver’s hands at the catch point.
Awuzie’s patience and footwork are good but watch his hands as he tries to press Thomas (above clip).
Awuzie’s hands are much too wide and lack assertiveness. This enables Thomas to control the inside position, which prevents Awuzie from landing with his hands and allows Thomas to create initial separation off his release and put Awuzie out-of-phase.
With Awuzie out of phase and playing catch-up, he has no ability to dictate the pace of the route, which prevents him from ‘feeling’ the break point and causes him to overrun Thomas’ stop run. The result is a first-down reception for Thomas.
Had Awuzie been tighter with his hands at the line of scrimmage, he would have been in-phase with Thomas after the release, which would have put him in position to feel the break and blanket Thomas’ stop route.
Even more frustrating is when Awuzie’s tight coverage gets ruined by poor technique contesting the catch point:
On this Week 12 play at New England, Awuzie does a nice job maintaining tight coverage against Patriots receiver Jakobi Meyers on a 10-yard out route, which was thwarted by Awuzie swiping at the ball instead of sticking his hand through Meyer’s at the catch point.
The problem with swiping at the ball is that it is a low percentage and inefficient technique, as the defender has only one chance to deflect the ball. If he mistimes his swipe even by the slimmest of margins, the pass is completed, as was the case in the above clip.
Instead, it’s better for a defender to aim to stick his hand(s) through the receiver’s at the catch point, since that where the ball is going to end up if the pass is completed. Attacking the receiver’s hands is much more effective and efficient than attacking the ball in this kind of situation.
Another example of Awuzie’s intermittent technical lapses has to do with his eye discipline from off coverage:
When in off coverage, cornerbacks are taught to read the QB’s initial drop first before keying on the receiver, as the QB’s drop can help the CB ascertain the type of route he’s going to see.
For example, if a QB takes a three-step drop from under center or a one-step drop from shotgun, then the cornerback knows he doesn’t need to worry about deep throws and instead needs to be ready to drive short-breaking routes.
Nonetheless, Awuzie does the opposite in the above clip, as he begins with his eyes on the receiver but then turns his eyes toward the No. 2 receiver, which makes him late to react and drive on the out route, resulting in a nine-yard completion that put Green Bay on the goal line (they scored on the next play).
Given that Dallas was in its typical Cover 3 zone defense, Awuzie was likely getting his eyes on the No. 2 receiver to make sure he wasn’t running a corner route into his deep zone; however, if he had read the QB’s quick drop, he would have known the ball was going to get out quick, giving him a better opportunity to drive and contest the catch point.
Bad eyes made Awuzie late to trigger forward to defend the out route, which cost Dallas valuable yards in the red zone.
Awuzie’s struggles this year are important to understand, as his inability to meet his preseason expectations to become a No. 1-caliber corner this season has a domino effect on the roster construction as a whole.
Entering training camp, the Cowboys had six players with legitimate cases for contract extensions: Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, Amari Cooper, Byron Jones, Jaylon Smith and La’el Collins.
Jones’ case, in particular, received little attention and seemingly little priority from the Cowboys’ front office, which was partly due to Awuzie’s preseason expectations. Why pay big money to your No. 1 CB if you expect your No. 2 to develop into a legitimate No. 1 within the next season, especially when the team doesn’t have as much depth at the positions of the other players deserving extensions?
This paved the way for Dallas to extend Elliott, Collins and Smith prior to their season opener, leaving Jones at the bottom of the priority list among the three remaining players (along with Prescott and Cooper) worthy of contract extensions.
Now, it is important to also state that there were other factors in Jones not receiving an extension, the biggest of which is the fact that he was coming off a serious hip injury that required surgery and forced him to miss training camp and the preseason. It’s understandable why the front office would be hesitant to give a player coming off major surgery a big-money extension.
But Awuzie’s struggles have left the Cowboys’ front office between a rock and a hard place.
If the Cowboys knew Awuzie was going to struggle, they may have been more diligent in trying to extend Jones’ contract before the season when the Cowboys had a ton of available money. Instead, the Cowboys will be forced to either re-sign Jones or find a replacement with significantly less money available thanks to the Elliott, Collins and Smith extensions along with the money earmarked for Prescott and Cooper’s huge extensions.
In other words, Awuzie’s failure to live up to his preseason expectations has not only hurt the Cowboys on the football field, but it’s also hurt their ability to retain their best defensive back (Jones) in the offseason.