What happened to Dallas’ defense on Kendrick Bourne’s 75-yard touchdown?

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Dallas Cowboys cornerback Trevon Diggs had just picked off New England Patriots quarterback Mac Jones and returned the interception 42 yards for a touchdown. The Cowboys led the Patriots 26-21 as a result of that play, and given Jones’ iffy history with deep passes in his rookie season (in the Patriots’ first five games, Jones had completed four of 19 passes of 20 or more air yards for 97 yards, no touchdowns, two interceptions, and a quarterback rating of 8.8, making him the NFL’s least-efficient deep passer by a mile), it looked as if that would be all it took for the Cowboys to leave Gillette Stadium with their fifth win of the season.

But as they say, not so fast. On New England’s very next offensive play, Jones hit receiver Kendrick Bourne for a 75-yard touchdown pass in which Diggs was at the epicenter. Diggs, who became the second player since 1970 with seven interceptions in his team’s first six games of the season (Rod Woodson, 1993), and the second player in the Super Bowl era to record one interception in his team’s first six games (Brian Russell, 2003), looked more like a second-year cornerback involved in a bust on Bourne’s double move.

But was he? Or, was free safety Damontae Kazee the problem?

The Cowboys were in Cover-1 on the play. No surprise there, as coming into this game, per Sports Info Solutions, Dallas’ defense had been at its best with a single-high safety and man across the board. The Cowboys had aligned in Cover-1 on 59 opponent attempts, fourth-most in the league. They had allowed 29 catches on those 59 attempts for 508 yards, no touchdowns, four interceptions, and a QBR allowed of 50.7. Only the Bills (37.3) had allowed a lower QBR in Cover-1, and the Bills have the NFL’s best defense. So, that part of the equation worked.

At the snap, Bourne turned Diggs around in leverage on the out-and-up, which meant that Diggs now had outside leverage. Here’s what I think happened. The Cowboys did not expect that route to go as deep as it did, and Kazee responded on his own to Bourne’s move, thinking that he had to scream down from the deep third to save the play.

The Cowboys had safety Jayron Kearse as the hole defender in the middle of the call, so this wasn’t some kind of “Robber” or “Jump” situation where Kazee was responsible for that. Robber would have Kazee staying up top while somebody else “robbed” underneath, and Jump would have Diggs replacing Kazee as the deep defender. If we are to take Diggs at his word in the postgame press conference. perhaps it was some sort of call where Diggs was supposed to replace Kazee up top. But this could have just as easily been Diggs trying to take responsibility for something that wasn’t all his fault.

“They came right back,” Diggs said. “[Bourne] hit a double move, and I kinda let up. It was my fault. I should have been on top of it, and I take full accountability for that. It was my fault, and I’m going to be better on that.”

So, this looks more like a situation in which Kazee responded to Bourne beating Diggs’ initial alignment with the out-and-up, and trying to prevent what he thought would be a shorter pass.

“A little bit of both,” Diggs said with a smile when asked if either Kazee was going for the ball and taking him out of the play, or if he thought he and Kazee might collide. “At the end of the day, it’s still my man, so I can’t rely on the safety to be right there. I take full responsibility for that.”

The Cowboys eventually won the game 35-29 in overtime, and Diggs continued a fabulous season in which he’s been the NFL’s best eraser most of the time. But as this shows, the right play design and a couple of errant steps can create a big play. Even for a quarterback who had been abysmal on deep passes, and even against a defense in its ideal coverage.