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Chidobe Awuzie will be Cowboys X-factor down stretch

Sep 17, 2017; Denver, CO, USA; Dallas Cowboys cornerback Chidobe Awuzie (33) before the game against the Denver Broncos at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports
Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The Dallas Cowboys made a conscious decision in the 2017 offseason to go a different direction with the personnel in their secondary. Veteran contributors Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne, Barry Church, and J.J. Wilcox were all allowed to leave in free agency, and Dallas began the process of rebuilding the group.  The organization spent free-agent dollars on veteran Nolan Carroll, and spent four picks in April’s NFL Draft to acquire players that better suited their ideal construct of how defensive backs should play.

The most valuable asset they used in this effort was second-round pick (60) Chidobe Awuzie. They deployed Ring of Honor wide receiver Drew Pearson onto the stage in Philadelphia to make the greatest draft pick announcement speech ever, which included the cornerback from Colorado.

As a Buffalo in Boulder, Awuzie was a versatile defensive back who played outside and in the slot as well as some spot duty at safety. When he arrived in Dallas, it appeared the plan for his use would be similar. He played both inside and outside at corner, and some at safety, and acquitted himself well.

Unfortunately, the rookie suffered a hamstring injury early in the preseason and missed most of training camp. Despite his best efforts, he couldn’t shake the injury to stay on the field. He left the Cowboys’ Week 2 game early, and missed Weeks 3 and 4 before returning for the Cowboys’ Week 5 contest with the Green Bay Packers, only to aggravate the injury again. This time the team decided to take time with his return, working him back slowly and holding him out for over a month while allowing the hamstring to fully heal before putting him back in the fold.

Even when he did return in Week 11 against Philadelphia, he played only 15 special teams snaps and none on defense. The next week against the Los Angeles Chargers, Awuzie played five defensive snaps, nine on special teams.

But in Week 13 against Washington, Awuzie’s role increased significantly. He started at left corner and played 53 of the team’s 60 defensive snaps; his impact was significant.

On this snap early in the game, the Cowboys are playing Cover-3, their base coverage when they choose to play zone. In this coverage, it’s Awuzie’s job to stay over the top of the wide receiver, making sure he doesn’t get beaten deep, while maintaining the proper spacing between himself, the sideline, and free safety in the middle of the field.

Even as a rookie in his first extended action outside, Awuzie plays the coverage perfectly. He starts with outside leverage in his bail technique, but when the receiver widens toward the sideline, Chidobe adjusts on the fly and works back inside, putting himself between the receiver and the ball, compressing the area available for the receiver to run his route down the sideline. When the ball is in the air, he is able to throttle down and — even as his momentum carries him away from the play — he is able to go up and contest the catch, knocking the ball away and preventing the big completion.

That wasn’t the only impressive play of the night for Awuzie.

Here, Awuzie starts with outside leverage, but the wide receiver breaks inside, and Awuzie has to drive downhill on the ball. He isn’t able to break in time to jump the route, but he is there as the ball arrives, and he is able to secure the tackle with his right arm while swiping at the ball with his left, knocking it out of the receiver’s hands.

These plays are the ones we have failed to see Dallas corners make for too long, and if he is able to continue to make them on a regular basis, Awuzie will be the X-factor for the Cowboys for the remainder of the season.

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