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Special teams coverage woes hindering Dallas Cowboys

Nagging injuries to the depth of the Dallas Cowboys has caused key special teams contributors to miss time which has led to headaches on kick coverage.
Credit: AP
New Orleans Saints wide receiver Deonte Harris (11) eludes Dallas Cowboys free safety Kavon Frazier (35) on a kickoff return in the first half of an NFL football game in New Orleans, Sunday, Sept. 29, 2019. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

The Dallas Cowboys’ special teams unit has been gashed for huge returns in both punt and kickoff coverage while not providing many yards of their own. 

I know, I know. This isn’t exactly breaking news around here where the special teams return units have become something of an annual disappointment. 

Indeed, the special teams in Dallas hasn’t been getting the job done of late. When your long snapper is probably your special teams’ MVP, something has likely gone awry but that’s almost certainly the case for L.P. Ladouceur who remains spotless in his duties. 

Special teams coordinator Keith O’Quinn has watched his group allow 547 yards on kick returns (seventh-worst in the NFL) while giving up 120 yards on punt returns (17th-worst in the NFL). 

The issue is, Dallas hasn’t been able to pin teams deep in their own territory consistently enough and they can’t seem to flip the field on their returns, either, causing a hidden yardage deficit that is putting the Cowboys on their backfoot throughout contests.

Dallas is worst in the NFL in kickoff return yards with just 157, while also eighth-worst in punt return yardage with 95 yards. And while return yards for the offense would be a bonus, Dak Prescott and gang haven’t exactly needed them to put points up on the board. 

Instead, let’s focus on the coverage units. The men on special teams tasked with helping to avoid giving the defense short fields to defend have been anything but special.

One reason that Dallas has looked deficient in return coverage could be that they are missing one of their special teams aces in Kavon Frazier. The four-year safety has been out since the game against the New Orleans Saints in Week 4 when he was put on the injured reserve list with a torn pectoral muscle. 

No one at the time could have foreseen just how poor the coverage team would be, but, given what has transpired over the last few weeks, Frazier is missed now more than ever. 

Frazier was part of the increasingly legendary 2016 NFL Draft class that provided the Cowboys with key players up and down the roster. Now they just wish they had him making tackles on returns.

During the 2017 NFL season, the Cowboys allowed big plays on special teams (returns of 20 or more yards) on 15.1% of opportunities. The huge chunks of yardage plays were much higher than anyone would want to see but, in 2018, the improvements were vast. 

RELATED: 2020 draft class loaded with options at safety to help Cowboys

The Cowboys limited big returns to just 1.5% of opportunities giving hope that the special teams could become an asset in Dallas. After all, head coach Jason Garrett preaches about winning the football game in all three phases. Special teams is one of those phases and, to be quite honest, the unit has been lackluster for over a decade.

This year, through the Saints game with Frazier available, the Cowboys surrendered big returns on four of 43 opportunities (9.3%). That total wasn’t as bad as 2017 but wasn’t quite as stellar as last season. The injury to Frazier seems to have opened the floodgates for potential returns, however. 

Since that Saints game, Dallas has given up big returns on 15 of 51 opportunities (29.4%). That number only got worse when the Cowboys lost Jeff Heath to injury early on in the game against the Minnesota Vikings in Week 10. 

Without either safety, both critical tacklers in special teams, Dallas gave up six returns of 20 or more yards, a blistering 35.3% rate. 

The Cowboys desperately needed both of their safeties to stop the bleeding in the return game. Luckily, Heath should make his way back as early as this Sunday against the Patriots. Frazier, however, will still be out for the remainder of the season leaving Dallas to continue searching for answers to their return game troubles. 

Given how the coverage unit has performed with and without him, it would come as no surprise if Frazier – in the final year of his rookie contract – is brought back in 2020 while the team evaluates how to fix their special teams blunders moving forward. Unfortunately for Dallas, it may be too late to fix things in 2019.

Do you think the Cowboys have enough options on special teams to help turn around their recent lackluster coverage? Share your thoughts with Patrick Conn on Twitter @DraftCowboys.

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