Tuesday, May 28, 2024

How Cowboys’ DaRon Bland’s breakout helps mitigate loss of Trevon Diggs in Dallas secondary

The Dallas Cowboys losing one of the key components that comprised their top-ranked scoring defense in Pro Bowl cornerback Trevon Diggs, whose 18 interceptions since he entered the NFL in 2020 are the most in the league, cut their defense deeply. Given that Diggs’ season-ending ACL injury occurred just three days before their 28-16 defensive collapse at the Arizona Cardinals in Week 3, they were not up to the task, allowing 222 rushing yards, including 180 in the first half. 

“We’re all humans, and we get affected by things, some people more than others … it’s just tough. The energy was off,” Dallas Cowboys All-Pro linebacker Micah Parsons said. “We didn’t play like we did the first two weeks, so it’s something that we’re looking forward to getting back to for sure. … It’s super frustrating, especially when you look at the tape. When you strive for perfection and you’re striving and striving and you’re pushing forward and you say you want to be this and have this identity … anyone can say it, but you have to go out there and do it. So when you don’t do it, and you don’t play up to the standard, it’s not like who you want to be. You got to look yourself in the mirror and say, ‘I got to be better in this phase. I got to do this in this phase.’ And you got to go out there and change. If we don’t change then we’re never going to grow. 

“But if you look at the face of reality and say, ‘Hey, this is who I am right now, this is who I want to be,’ and I go out there and fix it, then you become a better person, player and man. So that’s what we got to be. … The positives of failure is you always learn. You never want to take a double-L. You never want to lose and not learn. You always want to lose and learn and fix your mistakes.”

The Cowboys defense learned and bounced back in a big way in Week 4 with three takeaways, two of which went for touchdowns, in their 38-3 victory over the New England Patriots. Two of those three takeaways were interceptions courtesy of second-year cornerback DaRon Bland, the fifth-round pick out of Fresno State in the 2022 NFL Draft tasked to help fill the void left by Diggs’ absence. 

“I always try and stay on top of my technique and this time knowing I had to step up again, I had already done that before,” Bland said postgame Sunday “I can be another playmaker. We lost one playmaker, but it could easily be any one of our days.”  

“Just an extremely disciplined young man,” Dallas Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy said postgame on Sunday. “He was given his first opportunity. His ability to play inside, outside. Excellent ball skills, which the whole back end [has] as a group, I don’t know if I’ve seen so many guys that can hawk the ball. It’s just great to see your young players have that success, especially when you know how much they put into it. I thought he played phenomenal today [Sunday].”

As Bland said, this isn’t the young Cowboy’s first rodeo filling in for an established veteran in the Dallas secondary. He came off the bench last season to play nickel cornerback after Jourdan Lewis suffered a season-ending foot injury. All Bland has done during that time is ball out as his eight career eight interceptions since the start of the 2022 are the most in the NFL. His 21.3 passer rating allowed in coverage was his lowest of the season, and his 16.7 passer rating allowed in coverage this season ranks as the sixth-best in the NFL among players with at least 10 passes thrown their way. Bland’s three interceptions in 2023 co-lead the NFL alongside New York Jets safety Jordan Whitehead and Atlanta Falcons safety Jessie Bates III. If he can keep this type of play up going forward, Bland will find himself on the NFC Pro Bowl team, at the very least. 

“He plays two positions for us, he can go outside or he can go inside,” Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said on Monday. “I think the ball attributes — Will [McClay], Jerry [Jones], Stephen [Jones] and the guys look for that. That’s such a big piece of that because you’ve got a better chance of being a person whose got ball production if you’ve got some of that in your background where you can see it and demonstrated. He certainly has it.”  

McCarthy claims he knew Bland had it before he even became a Cowboy, citing his experience with Bland during his pre-draft visit to Dallas as a prescient moment. They ended up selecting Bland because of his anticipation, ball skills and football IQ. 

“I go back to Daron when he came in here on his 30 visit,” McCarthy said on Monday “We just had a great visit. We got see him in person and look at his video, and we were saying ‘why is this guy not ranked higher?’ I was talking to [vice president of player personnel] Will McClay about this and saying ‘why is he not ranked higher?’ There was a lot there to get him where we got him. Obviously thrilled. As far as his expectation, I’ll say I’m not surprised. I’m not surprised because he is extremely consistent with everything he does. He has very high instincts, awareness, the ball skills and so forth. He has played both inside and outside. He is off to a hell of a start.”

To answer McCarthy’s question, one has to rewind all the back before his Fresno State days. Bland first began his college football career at the FCS level with Sacramento State, and he then transferred to Fresno State after his senior season in 2020 was cancelled because of the COVID-19 pandemic. His senior season as a Bulldog was decent: he racked up two interceptions, knocked down five passes, recorded 45 tackles and forced one fumble. That helped his draft stock, but it wasn’t enough to shoot him up the board. Here’s a look at his collegiate scouting report, according to CBS Sports NFL Draft analyst Ryan Wilson.

DaRon Bland pre-draft scouting report

  • Primary position: Outside, predominantly zone; some slot/rare single high deep safety  
  • Notes: No combine invite, turns 23 in July 2022; ran 4.46 40-yard dash, recorded 35.5″ vertical jump and 7.26 three-cone drill time at Fresno State’s Pro Day; had a 30 visit with the Packers, Cowboys, Broncos, Dolphins, Jets and 49ers
  • Strengths: Compact build, can flip hips at LOS, can play man and off coverage, comfortable in Cover 3/quarters, can be physical at line of scrimmage/redirect WR and get him out of rhythm, hood stop/start ability to stay in phase on stutter-goes, gets out of breaks quickly on comebacks/hitches and physical throughout crossers/slants and in position for PBU
  • Weaknesses: Not a thumper but will make an open-field tackle, can flip hips but will struggle when WR gets up to top speed and runs corner or post; can lose step without being able to recover

“He has such a remarkable story doesn’t he?” Quinn said Monday. “Sacramento State and then Fresno State. I remember [defensive backs coach] Al [Harris] going out there for his workout and he said ‘I think we got one here.’ We ended up bringing him in and drafting him. He was playing outside, but then we started working him inside at nickel in training camp [in 2022]. He was one who was always ready to be challenged and go to the front of the line. There wasn’t anything that seemed too big for him. 

“He may have had a smaller school background but he didn’t come across that way, He came across ready to compete and go and push it, really took to the coaching. “I think he’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing, this is a real competitor. The anticipation and the ball skills to with it is something we really count on.”

Bland made an immediate impression on Cowboys face-of-the-franchise quarterback Dak Prescott back in his first training camp in 2022, even intercepting him despite a seven-year gap in NFL experience. 

“When you look at defensive backs, practice against defensive backs, or play against them, it’s the confidence,” Prescott said postgame on Sunday. “The guys that take chances, especially when they are younger, and they’re taking chances. They’re trusting what they see. They trusting their eyes, trusting what they’re coached and they’re jumping routes. He was doing that early in practice. He was doing that early as a rookie. He got me a couple of times. There was no hesitation in it. That’s where you say that’s a guy whose eyes are in the right spot, believing what he is being coached and playing off of instinct. Hate to call someone a natural because it sounds like they don’t put in the work, but he is doing everything the right way, and he is only going to get better.” 

Those instincts flashed in a major way prior to his 54-yard interception return touchdown, the first of his two picks on Sunday against Patriots quarterback Mac Jones. The New England passer got away with a cross-body throw on a drive early in the second quarter as Bland was only able to knock the football down to the turf. However, Jones wouldn’t be so lucky on his second toss back to the left sideline. He tried again in an attempt to connect with receiver Kendrick Bourne, but Bland was waiting for it and seconds later he was jogging into the end zone for a pick six.   

“He got an early one across the field,” Bland said. “I couldn’t let him do that again. I saw the open field when I saw the ball. Nobody’s catching me from here.”

“He has the football smarts to remember a formation, remember a situation, to go do that,” Quinn said. “I think that came through yesterday. … He wasn’t sitting back, waiting; he was going to go attack it. That’s his nature.”  

While Bland humbly said there is “not too much” of a difference going from playing nickel cornerback on the inside to outside cornerback, one of his defensive backfieldmates laid out the clear differences and how the jump Bland is making is the opposite of easy.

“Bland has just been a football player,” Cowboys safety Jayron Kearse said prior to Week 4 against the Patriots.
“He’s been a guy that does the right thing, hustles to the ball and plays the game the right way. … We have seen him intercept the ball inside and intercept the ball on the outside. It’s just a bit different. On the outside you’re on a whole other island by yourself. On the inside, you are covering a lot more routes and combinations on the inside, but you have a lot more bodies on the inside that give you some help. He is on the outside now, and he has the guys to learn from with [Stephon] Gilmore and still talking to Tre[von] Diggs] to understand the things he needs to see, the things he needs to look at. Coach Al Harris [played 14 NFL seasons] and current Cowboys defensive backs coach] is going to help him understand the small nuances of being out there at outside corner. I believe we have the right guy [Bland] to get it done.”

The 24-year-old already has Gilmore’s stamp of approval just four games into playing opposite Dallas’ new five-time Pro Bowler. Now, he has to continue to earn it across the rest of the 2023 season as teams will begin to gather more tape on his tendencies. 

“He is a great player,” Gilmore said. “He is only in his second year. One thing about him is he is focused. He comes in every day and works. He is still young. I am trying to teach him as much as I can. He is going to have a good career. He just has to keep it going.”

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