If you ask his position coach where Cowboys cornerback DaRon Bland got his instinctual knack for finding the ball, the easy answer is: maybe he’s born with it.
“You’ve probably got to ask God, his mom, dad…”
Dallas cornerbacks coach Al Harris laughed as he said it but then circled back and gave a serious amount of credit to all the hard work the second-year man has put in to a still-blossoming NFL career that sits at just 25 game appearances.
“He does a really good job of reading his keys,” Harris told reporters last week, “and making the decision to go get the ball.”
Bland has been a starter for less than a calendar year, with just 12 regular-season starts dating back to last November, but he’s already cemented himself as a key piece of the ballhawking Dallas secondary. The 24-year-old tops the team in interceptions and is tied for second place for the league lead, trailing only someone who has played an entire extra game in 2023.
Not bad at all for a guy who was slated to be the team’s CB3 when the season started and was pressed into a larger role only when Pro Bowler Trevon Diggs was lost for the season to an ACL tear. He did the same last year when Jourdan Lewis went down.
“He’s done a great job,” Harris said of Bland. “We expected him to do a great job. He’s met all the challenges that we’ve asked of him.”
One-third of the way through 2023, he is already perched on the cusp of history. With two of his three interceptions returned for touchdowns, Bland is one pick-six away from the franchise record for the most in one season.
The scary thing is, Bland’s lofty numbers could be even higher right now, having gotten his mitts on at least two passes that he probably should have come down with, including a monster 4th-down PBU in the end zone during the second half of last week’s Monday night win over the Chargers.
Cowboys get the stop on 4th down inside the 10!
— NFL (@NFL) October 17, 2023
Even a game-changing highlight like that provides a chance to improve, said Harris.
“It’s a good play,” he conceded, “but we look at it as a dropped interception, an opportunity that we had that we missed. So he looks at it as hey, should have had that. I look at it as, ‘Hey, we should have gotten that ball. Next time we get that opportunity, go get the ball.'”
That’s a lesson Bland is getting not only from his coach- himself a 14-year veteran DB who’s in the Packers Hall of Fame- but from seasoned teammate Stephon Gilmore.
Harris acknowledges the role the five-time Pro Bowler is having on Bland and all of Dallas’s younger defensive backs, both on the field and in the locker room.
“He’s been a joy to coach, just his preparation,” Harris said of Gilmore. “And I love to hear him talking to the young guys because I remember myself back in those days, the advice that he gives them. It’s big, and being that Tre is down, I think it’s huge for Bland just to see an older guy that he’s seen over the years do it day in and day out.”
Bland and Gilmore account for five of the team’s eight interceptions this season, a total that has the team tied for third leaguewide, just two behind the first-place 49ers and one behind the Jaguars, who have yet to sit out on a bye week.
If it seems like the pace of picks has fallen off since Diggs left the lineup, think again. The Cowboys had only five interceptions after the first six games in 2022, when the starting corners (Diggs, Lewis, Anthony Brown) were all active and healthy.
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Bland has been the difference. No one in the league, in fact, has more interceptions since Bland’s first game… than Bland.
Few could have seen that coming from a fifth-round selection out of Fresno State. Except maybe Harris, who lobbied hard for the team to draft Bland after spotting something in his college film.
“I always look at how fast guys match out-breaking routes,” Harris said. “You’re watching his college tape, you see him matching those out-breaking routes quick, quick. In the NFL, out-breaking routes are interception opportunities. So when you see that in a guy- just look at his lateral movement- that jumps out at me automatically.”
DaRon Bland gets his 2nd INT of the game ‼️
— NFL (@NFL) October 1, 2023
But Bland’s divinely-gifted quickness and his smart ball skills come with an understated and businesslike demeanor, one that stands in stark contrast to the stereotypical image of a loud, trash-talking DB who’s more concerned with having a signature celebration dance or a cool nickname than he is with simply eliminating passing lanes.
It’s a mentality Harris believes the youngster shares with Gilmore, a potential Hall of Famer almost ten years his senior.
“I think those guys are totally about, ‘Hey, let’s do what we’ve got to do, each day, every down, every rep. Let’s do what we have to do, no showboating or whatever like that,'” Harris explained.
“Honestly, I think our whole unit is like that. Guys aren’t really worried about what the media or anybody else sees them as; what we’re doing on the field is really what counts.”
So far, what Bland and the Dallas corners are doing on the field is counting plenty and a big reason why the 4-2 Cowboys are nearing the midway point of 2023 as one of the contenders in the NFC playoff race.